Learning to Sit in a Broken Chair

 

Reflections on Faith, and Why You Should (Not) Be Afraid of That Liberal College Professor 

If you know me, or have knocked around this blog a bit, you know that I’m a liberal, feminist college professor. You’ll also know that I’m a person of faith, because, unlike some folks would have us believe, the two are not incompatible. Despite the claims of badly conceived Christian screenplays, the average college professor isn’t out there forcing students to recant or prove their faith in order to pass a class (that’s um, illegal and we would be disciplined or fired for it).

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Not standard academic procedure (in case you were wondering).

Well, perhaps I should say that being an intellectual, free-thinking professor and a Christian are not necessarily incompatible. Because if I’m honest, the way I originally learned to have faith and to believe doesn’t really float my theological or ideological boat these days.

The reason I’m a Christian and a person of faith is not because I’ve clung desperately to the things I was taught in my youth. I haven’t. If I had tried to hold on to that version of faith, I would have failed years ago. It obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’m still a Christian precisely because I have let go of some of those ideas and have re-envisioned others-because I have thought and wrestled and evolved. [And there’s plenty more on where I came from and where I’m at these days in my Spiritual Autobiography.]

But let’s take a step back and think about this thing that I’m calling “faith.”

When I was a teenager in a Southern Baptist youth group (which was in many ways an excellent experience with great people), one of the popular metaphors for faith had to do with sitting in a chair. I remember being told repeatedly, in various devotionals and Bible studies, that the act of having faith is like the act of sitting in a chair. When you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will support you. Back then, I suppose that I took it on faith that this metaphor actually made sense.

Back then, it seemed to, because faith seemed that simplistic. Chairs are made to support our weight. We know this. We are certain of this. Unless they are obviously defective, we expect them to do that without even thinking about it.

I also remember-as I’m sure some others do-being yelled at from the pulpit, with a fiery fist thumping into a palm with every repetition: “You got to know that you know that you know [that you are saved, washed in the blood, forgiven, going to heaven, etc.]!”

Back then, I knew that I knew that I knew. Then I left my conservative Christian bubble, went to college, and learned that my point of view reflected only one little corner of human knowledge and experience. I didn’t let go of my faith, but I learned to allow it to evolve into something more expansive and mature [more on that in another post].

Today, I freely admit that when it comes to God, and to understanding the mystery of Christ and incarnation and resurrection and a whole other heaping pile of things, I know very little. I am certain of very little. 

The thing is-that’s okay. Why?

Because faith and certainty are not the same thing. In fact, they are opposed to one another. Faith requires a leap. Expecting a perfectly good chair to hold you up when you sit in it is not faith. It’s common sense. There is no leap, no challenge in that.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not common sense. If you think it is, then you really have not been paying attention.

Well, this is your friendly liberal feminist (Christian) college professor standing at the front of the class calling “¡Atención!” (Did I mention that I teach Spanish?)

Today’s lesson: Christianity is a little freakin’ loco.

I mean, it turns the world as we know it upside down. It asks us to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us. It tells us that the least, the last, and the lost are sites of value: the least require our care, the last will be first, and the lost should be sought at the expense of everything else. It tells us that by losing our life, we gain it.

And to top it off, Christianity claims that (to borrow some language from Tripp Fuller) we can see the image of the invisible God in a homeless, first-century Jew. What??

If you grew up in church, that sounds reasonable. If you didn’t, or if you take a step backand look at it rationally, it sounds pretty absurd. It’s embarrassing. It’s offensive to the intellect, to common sense.

This isn’t a chair we can just plop down into and get all comfy in. If you take about five minutes to think about these claims rationally and (perhaps more importantly) honestly, then you must, on at least some level, doubt them.

And that’s okay too. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s what makes true faith possible.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood doubt as essential for faith. As Tripp writes, “For Kierkegaard, faith is not merely explaining the idea that Jesus is God so that it becomes reasonable or palatable; faith is facing the offense and choosing to believe rather than to be offended. . . . The act of faith is the decision of the individual alone-no professor, preacher, or Sunday School teacher can make it for you.”

broken chairFaith is not an unconscious certainty. It’s a decision that you make in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even absurdity. Faith is sitting in a chair with three legs, and against rationality, expecting it to hold you up anyway. This is not because God, the ultimate object of faith, is faulty or broken, but because our understanding of God can never be complete. It is always a chair with a few missing parts.

Faith is understanding that and taking a seat anyway.

And because of that, no matter how liberal or atheist or even hostile-to-religion they might be (because let’s face it, there are a few jerks out there in any given profession), no professor or teacher can unmake your decision of faith. You can only do that for yourself. It’s your choice.

Sure, some college professor or some other speaker or writer or friend may introduce you to an idea that will make you question everything you ever believed was true, but that’s a good thing. It’s a process that allows us to reconsider and refine who we are, what we believe, and why-usually for the better.

We have to challenge ourselves and question our own ideology in order to grow, and as most of us learn eventually, intellectual or spiritual growth, just like physical growth, can be an unsettling and painful process. That doesn’t mean that we have to let go of what is most important about what we believe. What it does mean is that we should hold it up to the light, examine it, and perhaps reshape it or whittle away at the bits that no longer seem true.

I know as well as anyone that if you open your mind to new and different ideas, it can radically alter your understanding of the world and of your place in it. In many ways, I have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other in my journey from Southern Baptist holy-rolling teenage missionary girl to who I am today.

These days I am that liberal, free-thinking college professor that I was told to be wary of many years ago (well, 19 years ago – I’m not that old). And you know what?

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I’m really not that scary.

But I do make it a habit to loosen the screws on all of my students’ chairs. 


 

 

Reference: Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome

 

The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . all over the Interwebs!

After spending a couple of years reading quite a bit of theology, but not that much of the Bible itself, I was in the mood this year to get back to the core of things. So, in spring 2015, my book group at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church explored some of the parables of Jesus using Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus.

I enjoyed reading and discussing the parables immensely (of course, it helps that I have a fabulous group of folks to do it with!), and I liked the interpretations that Levine had to offer although getting to her main points took some slogging through lots of background and citation of obscure sources. If you are academically inclined or especially interested in learning about 1st-century Judaism, I recommend her book. I also enjoyed reading up on the parables in Robert Farrar Capon’s three-volume set Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

However, if you aren’t up for heavy reading but would like a refresher course on (or an introduction to) some of the parables, here is a list of additional sources that I assembled as we worked our way through the parables in Levine’s book, plus a couple more.

There are some standard interpretations included here, and some creative ones. If you are in the mood to be puzzled and provoked by Jesus’s stories, dive right in!

Parable Readings from around the Web:

Charles Spurgeon’s 1884 sermon on the parable of the Lost Sheep (long, but I found it interesting that his take aligns in some ways more with Levine’s than with Luke’s framing of the story as about repentance. The emphasis is more on Jesus searching for lost souls than on repentance).

James Buckley, “Seeking, Saving, Finding”: A blog post on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, using the parable of the Lost Coin. 

The Good Samaritan: A blog post with two contrasting readings of the parable–one Christocentric (The Good Samaritan = Jesus himself) and the other more along the lines of Levine’s interpretation.

“Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Be a Good Samaritan” by David Henson. This is a GREAT reflection on a possible deeper meaning of this parable – the logical next step from Levine’s analysis, I think. More from Henson below.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” (Parable of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, etc.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Faith, Doubt, and Mustard Seed Necklaces.”

Alyce M. McKenzie, “Strange Scripture: Reflections on the Five Parables in Matthew 13” (Contains the Parables of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, and Pearl of Great Price)


Parable readings by Episcopal priest David R. Henson (Fair warning: David does creative readings of the sort AJ Levine dislikes. I find them intriguing, but they should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt!):

The Lost Sheep

The Prodigal Son

The Good Samaritan (This is a link to the first of three retellings of the parable; you can get to the other two by clicking the links at the top of the blog posts.)

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Parable of the Talents

The Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Sower (I really like this one!)


“The God who Throws Seeds Everywhere” – Morgan Guyton on the Parable of the Sower

Moonshine Jesus Show Lectionary Cast on the Parable of the Sower (20 minutes of audio)


Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16)

Carl Gregg (Unitarian Universalist) – Jesus’ Parable of the Job Creator, the Day Laborers, and #OccupyWallSt Gregg hits upon a few of the same points as Levine.

Jack Mahoney, SJ (Jesuit) – “The Parable of the Living Wage?” – This one is a little dense, but it has some good points. It touches on some other parables that we have read as well.

Sr. Rose Pacatte (Catholic) – “What the Parable of the Vineyard Workers Really Says” – Another  social justice-oriented interpretation.

Allen Ross (prof. at Samford’s divinity school), “The Workers in the Vineyard” – A fairly standard, more spiritualized interpretation about grace.


David Henson, Radical Reversals: Lazarus, Abraham, and the Myth of the Righteous Rich (A Homily)

All Souls’ Day: Everybody Counts, or Nobody Counts

In his post today, blogger David Henson challenges us to think about All Souls’ Day in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We know that “All Souls Matter,” he writes, but maybe the events of this year should require us to say aloud, “Black Souls Matter.”

We have probably all seen the responses to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that clamor back, “All Lives Matter” or “Police Lives Matter,” from people who think that somehow this movement seeks to make certain lives worth more than others, rather than to highlight the existence of fatal inequalities in our society and justice system.

There is a misconception that stating the value of one group of people automatically devalues other groups, when actually, it is the reverse that is true. It is devaluing one group of people that automatically devalues all of us.

This reminds me of one of my favorite popular authors, Michael Connelly, and Harry Bosch, the central character of his extensive detective series. In a few of the novels, Harry finds himself investigating crimes that others feel are low priority. Who cares who killed a prostitute? Why bother to solve the case? No one cares.

But Harry’s response is this memorable phrase:

“Everybody counts, or nobody counts.”

We are all human, and we all bear the image of God, even if sometimes our human frailty and brokenness may obscure it. Sometimes our brokenness, or our sin, if you like, is our inability to see the image of God in others; to value all life and to seek equality, justice, redemption, and reconciliation for all. When we devalue others, either on purpose or by turning a blind eye to their suffering, we tarnish our own divine image. In making others out to be lesser creatures, we become lesser creatures ourselves. 

If I want my life to matter, I must do my part to ensure that all lives, all souls, are understood to matter just as much.

This isn’t easy because we all like to feel superior to someone or to some other group of people. It’s an easy, cheap way to feel better about ourselves. I think that all of us do this in some way whether we are conscious of it or not: I’m better than that poor person, that badly dressed person, that socially awkward person, that black person, that redneck person, that non-English-speaking person, that genderqueer person, that gay person, that addicted person, that liberal person, that conservative person, that fundamentalist person, that Muslim person . . . the list can go on and on.

Some of these judgments are simply unkind. Others can be fatal.

So, on this All Soul’s Day I challenge us to be honest and to think about the souls that society and we as individuals have devalued and marginalized, and to speak their value out loud.

In doing so, we are not giving special value to these groups because the truth is that they already matter. Rather, we are recognizing their value and affirming that we should live in a society where All Lives and All Souls matter.

Everybody counts, or nobody counts. 

Let’s work toward a world where everyone does. 

Here’s my litany of souls that already matter, but that need to be spoken aloud. Who would you add to the list?

Black Souls Matter

Undocumented Immigrant Souls Matter

Refugee Souls Matter

Non-Christian Souls Matter

Non-Hetero Souls Matter

Trans Souls Matter

Mentally Ill Souls Matter

Disabled Souls Matter

HIV+ Souls Matter

Working Poor Souls Matter

Homeless Souls Matter

Trafficked Souls Matter

Sex Worker Souls Matter

Addicted Souls Matter

Convict Souls Matter

Souls on Death Row Matter

Only when we have said, believed, and most importantly acted as though all of these souls matter, can we simply be content to say

All Souls Matter.

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“The Second Cooler” Documentary Now Available for Download or Purchase on DVD!

Tomorrow, November 2nd, will mark Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. It’s a festive holiday in which families decorate cemeteries and build colorful altars that they fill with flowers, candles, food, and pictures of departed loved ones.

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(Image credit)

One of the main purposes of the holiday is to remember and honor the dead, and so it is fitting that Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson’s immigration justice documentary The Second Cooler / La segunda nevera will be released for public purchase on this day.

One of the main purposes of Jimmerson’s film is to remember the dead, specifically, the thousands of immigrants who have died in the deserts of the U.S./Mexico border in their attempt to come to the United States. The film’s title refers to the additional morgue refrigerator, or “second cooler” that the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner’s Office had to build to accommodate the remains of unidentified migrants recovered from the desert.

The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen and dotted with colorful artwork and beautiful original music, is a kind of altar to the memories of these lost and forgotten souls. The film not only seeks to bring them into our collective memory, but it also demands that we consider why so many die in a desperate attempt to come to this country. Second-Cooler-Poster

The film explains how economic and political forces, particularly the NAFTA free trade agreement, created an economic crisis that impoverished Mexican farmers and drove them off their land and into migration. It also tackles the broken immigration system, which leaves many with no legal avenue for immigration and the abuses of the guest worker program, which trap some migrant workers in situations that are not far removed from slavery and human trafficking.

This film is a must-see for anyone interested in knowing more about the dynamics that have caused the influx of immigration that has happened since the passage of NAFTA, and for how the U.S. and its policies have helped create tremendous suffering in Mexico and Central America. The film is an eye opening journey that takes the viewer through political policy, Alabama textile towns, farms that exploit guest workers, Mexican factories on the border, Arizona deserts, and the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office to reveal the human cost of the current system.

Today only (Nov. 1, 2015), you can pre-order The Second Cooler and its soundtrack for a discounted price. Beginning tomorrow, Nov. 2nd, the film will be available for download and for purchase on DVD at regular price. I highly recommend purchasing  the film’s excellent original soundtrack, because all of the songs briefly featured in the film deserve a complete listen on their own. I also recommend the film for Spanish teachers like myself because it is completely bilingual, with interviews and subtitles in both Spanish and English.

Please help support this amazing project!

Price listing for Digital Download Packages (Regular pricing applies beginning Nov. 2, 2015):

Basic Package reg. $19.99 will be $11.99
Deluxe Package reg. $24.99 will be $14.99
Boxed Set Edition reg. $44.99 will be $26.99
Soundtrack reg. $4.99 will be $2.99
Unedited interviews reg. $2.99 will be $1.79

Price listing for DVD/CD Orders:

DVD regularly $24.99 only $14.99
Soundtrack CD regularly $6.99 only $4.33

Please visit The Second Cooler website to find out more or to place an order.

One final note: I had the privilege of helping in minor ways with the production of this documentary, but I have chosen not to receive any compensation for my work. I am sharing this post because I believe in the importance of Dr. Jimmerson’s work on immigration advocacy and social justice.

If you believe in the importance of this cause, please support The Second Cooler and share this post with your friends!

The Light Still Shines

It has been quite a while since I wrote a post, between the spring end-of-semester chaos, a summer of indulging in novel-writing, and a new semester with four courses to teach and a research deadline to meet. My last post was a reading and play list for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, which I created because I wanted to slow down in those two days before the triumphal celebration of Easter morning and contemplate the darkness–the real horror of the crucifixion, and the mourning and uncertainty that would have followed for the ones who followed Jesus.

So, perhaps it is fitting that this post follows that one, because since yesterday afternoon, I have also been grappling with darkness, with mournfulness, and with uncertainty. As I began my third class of the day yesterday, a student read details of the latest school shooting to us from her phone, but right then, the news didn’t quite have time to sink in.

After class, though, came a text from a friend, accompanied by a picture of two men clipped from a news article. Did I know this student, she asked, who had been arrested on suspicion of killing another student from my university? I looked at the picture in shock. I didn’t know the young man wearing correctional-facility orange, but I did know the other man, Antonio “Tony” Moore. He was a military veteran in his late thirties who had been in a class of mine a few semesters before, and had stopped by my office to chat on various occasions, saying that he needed to “escape” from the young engineering “geeks” in his classes and talk to someone who knew how to have a conversation. This always made me laugh and say that I was just a different breed of geek.

I hadn’t seen Tony recently, and I didn’t know that he had been missing for weeks. How had this tragedy unfolded practically right under my nose–the victim someone I knew, and liked, and had traded stories about parenting with–and I hadn’t known about it until my friend’s text?

Probably because I only pay minimal attention to the news. I’m a high anxiety type, and I try to hold events that are out of my control or out of my sphere at a distance for the sake of my sanity. But when my afternoon is twice interrupted with tragic news, there’s no way to escape the fact that I work on a campus where there has already been one shooting and where Tony Moore will not be stopping by my office again.

The darkness is not at a distance. It’s right here. All around.

So with tears in my eyes I came home yesterday and engaged in what I sadly joked to friends via Facebook was “Triple B” therapy: beer, bacon, and boys. After all what could be more comforting than a rich brown ale, salty saturated fat, and long cuddly hugs from the sweetest little fellas around? Not much, right?

But once dinner was over and the boys were read to and kissed and tucked away in bed, all I really wanted to do was curl up in bed and with my laptop and something escapist on Netflix. Or, in other words, squeeze my eyes shut and bury my head in the sand so that I could, in an illusion of safety, ignore everything horrible and awful and dark in the world around me.

But that’s the irony. If you close your eyes and stick your head in the sand, there’s nothing down there but darkness.

As this occurred to me and I thought again about the victims of the most recent shooting, about Tony, and about all of the darkness in this world, a particular Bible verse came to mind, perhaps because I had seen it go by on Facebook recently, posted by another former student of mine on a hand-crafted Christmas card.

“The light shines in the darkness and the dark has not overcome it.” John 1:5

And so I write this post in part to remind myself that this is true.

No matter how much darkness there is, the light still shines among us.

And the “us” is key. 

If we withdraw, disengage, succumb to fear and stick our heads in the sand, then the light is obscured from view.

The light shines when we love each other, when we reach out to one another, empathize with one another, and serve one another.

So let’s love each other, y’all, and keep looking toward the light.  

It hasn’t gone out. 

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Narnia Christmas Card by Kelly Maust at

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