Category Archives: faith

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In the Presence of a Prophet

The third Sunday of Advent is always John the Baptist Sunday. In his homily yesterday, the new priest at our little Episcopal church said “When you’re in the presence of a prophet, you’ll know it.” Odd, quirky, direct, hearing a different drummer. Tell me about it. I spent the first seventeen  years of my life in the house of a prophet and have spent much of my adult life trying to deal with the ramifications.

Igrand tetons national park 2[1]n a beautiful, crystal clear June afternoon I sat in an alpine meadow at the foot of the spectacularly majestic Grand Tetons in northwestern Wyoming. A handful of family was gathered to pay final respects to and spread the ashes of my father,17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] who had died a few months earlier. On the porch of my brother’s house that morning, I had considered what scripture text might be appropriate to read as we honored a man who had memorized massive amounts of scripture in his lifetime, a man whose life and teaching had been a catalyst of liberation in the lives of many for whom the traditional church no longer gave life, and with whom I had maintained a tenuously “okay” relationship for most of my life. My brother was always closest to my Dad, but it fell to me, the academic one, to find the suitable text. Sitting on a rock in that meadow next to my son Justin, who could barely keep his emotions in check, I read the following verses from Isaiah that were yesterday’s Old Testament reading, verses that had jumped off the page through my tears that morning:

0070-Isaiah-61[1]The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,

Because the Lord has anointed Me

To preach good tidings to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . .

To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion,

To give them beauty for ashes,Beauty for Ashes[1]

The oil of joy for mourning,

The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;

That they may be called trees of righteousness,

The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

Scholars will tell us that these verses are prophetic of the Messiah to come, but my father would have embraced this text as descriptive of his own calling, particularly to “proclaim liberty to the captives” whose lives had been stagnated or ruined by organized religiomad.eagle_.image_[1]n. As I choked my way through the reading on that summer afternoon—tears filled my eyes today, ten years later, as I typed the words into my computer–I knew that “Mad Eagle,” as we sometimes called  him when he wasn’t around, would have approved.

One of my favorite Biblical texts is from the Gospel of Luke and involves the passage from Isaiah that I read at my father’s memorial service. Jesus is fresh off his forty days and nights of temptation in the desert and returns to Nazareth, his home town. What better place to kick off his ministry? The scene is powerfully portrayed in the 1977 Franco Zeffirelli television mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.” It is the Sabbath, and Jesus is in the synagogue with wall-to-wall men and boys, while the women of the town observe from behind a screen. Although it is apparently not his turn to read, Jesus steps to the front and takes the scroll. After a pregnant pause, he begins to read. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor . . .” Exactly the same verses from Isaiah that I read in that alpine meadow a decade ago. When he is finished,66461_570623672965898_345802370_n[1] Jesus rolls up the scroll, makes eye contact with the congregation, and says “Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled.”

As the camera slowly pans the faces of those at the synagogue, their expressions pass from piety, to confusion, to outrage and anger. For every man and woman present knows that this scripture can only be fulfilled by the Messiah. And they know who this man is. He is Mary and Joseph’s son. He is a carpenter—a bit odd at times, but just like they are. Nazareth is an insignificant town in an insignificant backwater of the eastern Roman Empire. “I remember when I chased you out of my bakery for stealing a cookie,” one thinks. “I remember when I had to break up a squabble between you and my son when you were teenagers,” thinks another. And he has just declared himself to be the son of God. No wonder they tried to kill him.

Christians believe that, despite the appropriate incredulity of his fellow worshippers on that Sabbath, Jesus was indeed the Messiah, God in flesh. Remarkable and astounding. But even more remarkable is that these twenty-five hundred year old words from Isaiah were not only fulfilled by Jesusandretti-01G[1]—they continue to be fulfilled by God in human form. Isaiah’s prophecy foretells a time when healing, justice and liberation will be brought to the sick, oppressed and prisoners. That time is now, and we are the vehicles of that healing, justice and liberation. Our world is full of the poor, the bound, those who mourn, those who are in captivity both physically and mentally. We live in a world crying out for liberation, peace, and consolation at every level. So often we wonder where God is, where the divine solution to the never-ending problems and tragedies of our world is to be found.

But we miss the clear answer to our questions. Joan Chittisterdf66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] writes that “having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.” We are to be the oil of joy for those who mourn, to be the beauty in the midst of ashes, and to wrap the heavy of heart in the garment of praise. As the closing prayer in each Eucharistic celebration in the Episcopal liturgy asks, “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Amen.freedom[1]

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Being Uncomfortable

Final exams begin next week, so I’m getting ready for the next round of reading surprising things that my students have learned. One of the things I learned shortly after becoming a college professor twenty years ago was that there is a certain sort of black humor that teachers find particularly entertaining. Contributions used to be anonymously tacked onto bulletin boards in faculty break rooms; now, they tend to spread like a virus on Facebook and other social media outlets. images[2]For lack of a more genteel title, this sort of humor can be called “Stupid Things My Students Say (and write).” Especially during finals week, teachers love sharing the outrageously awful and pitifully humorous mistakes that students make as they meld various items from lectures and readings over the semester into unique and bizarre new facts. Sometimes such mistakes involve just one wrong word or name, such as when one of my students told me on the midterm exam that a central event in the images[3]Epic of Gilgamesh is when

Gilgamesh and Enkidu went on a quest to kill the great monster Hammurabi.

One of the most reliable sources of such humor is when a student innocently creates a wonderful anachronism, such as when one of my colleague’s students suggested thatThe_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994[1]

Agamemnon expected his wife Clytemnestra to act like a good Christian wife, but she didn’t.

And then there are the times that a student, scrambling to fill in the lines of a blue book with words when he or she doesn’t have a clue about what to write, just makes shit up, as in these responses reported  by a colleague to a prompt on the final exam to summarize what imagesLZZD9UTDAristotle has to say about happiness:

People attain happiness through being happy – overall, it is not the wealth or pleasure or power, it is the state at which they are happy to achieve happiness.

or

Aristotle believed that in order for humans to achieve happiness, he or she must practice happiness in order to achieve happiness.

As a Facebook commenter exclaimed, imagesE102E0KD“Holy tautology, Batman!” But as a matter of fact, after many years of introducing students to Aristotle’s ethics, that last one isn’t bad . . .

Then there is a related game that professors play called “Things My Students Say Trying to Get Their Grade Changed.” This one isn’t so much funny as just disheartening—teachers share these stories and chuckle about them because if we didn’t we would bang our heads on our desks in frustration. The latest came yesterday on a Facebook post from a colleague reporting that she just received an email from a student who says that she “is uncomfortable with the idea of receiving a C.” I must admit that I have received very few emails or communications of this sort over the years from my students. M3[1]That’s probably because I often include the following story from my favorite professor during my Master’s program. Dr. H said that when he was a young and clueless undergraduate, he once received a “C” on a paper. Armed with all of his best arguments as to why this grade was a gross injustice, he marched to the offending professor’s office to make his case for a higher grade. Before Dr. H even opened his mouth, his professor snatched the paper out of his hand, crossed out the “C” with a red magic marker, replaced it with a “D”, and as he handed the paper back asked “Would you care to try for an ‘F’?” Perhaps it is when my students realize that I think this story is sort of cool that they decide not to challenge a grade in this class.

When my colleague reported that her student was uncomfortable with the grade she had earned, I was reminded of a text I had not thought of for a long time. In her powerful and moving memoir Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover[1]Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain gets to the heart and truth of the learning process more directly than any author I am aware of:

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

This insight, along with Simone Weil’s observation that

5395352874_4919fa8d03_z[1]The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade

has been the basis of my “teaching philosophy” for many years. I often tell my students early in the semester that I consider each new class to be like a rubber band. My job is to see how far I can stretch the rubber band before it snaps.elastic-rubber-band-stretch-top-chef-masters-science-png[1]

Around this time last year I held eleven one-hour oral final exams with the juniors and seniors who were part of my honors colloquium entitled “Beauty and Violence” this last semester. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, and I cannot recall a class in which the students worked harder, struggled more mightily with new and challenging ideas, and embraced being uncomfortable more than in this one. The issues at hand were of the highest stakes imaginable—it is possible to have an honest faith in the middle of world that challenges just about every one of the traditional ideas we have inherited about God?—and students expressed frequently in class, in writing and on-line just how paradigm-shattering yet strangely attractive the semester’s work was. During her oral exam, one of my students simply said “This class really messed me up—in a good way!” I told Jeanne that evening that this phrase would be a part of all of my course syllabi from now on. Each syllabus used to say “My job is not to tell you what to think. My job is to get you to think.” Now it will simply say “My job is to mess you up—in a good way.”  Did I ever mention that I have the greatest job in the world?BeUncomfortable[1]

Loving Your Life

breadofangels[1]I recently finished re-reading Stephanie Saldana’s 2010 book The Bread of Angels, a book that has made the rounds in my house over the past two or three years. Jeanne and I have both read it twice; in between our first and second readings, a theology department colleague of mine had it on loan from Jeanne for over a year. Although I often describe myself as someone who reads for a living, I seldom read a book that I am not teaching out of more than once. But after returning from a week-long silent retreat, Jeanne told me “you have to read The Bread of Angels again.” So as a dutiful husband, that’s what I did.

74862_saldana_stephanieThe very appropriate subtitle of The Bread of Angels is “A Journey to Love and Faith,” described on the flyleaf as “the unforgettable memoir of one woman’s search for faith, love, and the meaning of her life in the place she least expects to find it.” In the Fall of 2004, after several years as a journalist and finishing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies at Harvard, Stephanie Saldana travelled to Syria on a year-long Fulbright scholarship to study Arabic. She is a restless wanderer, seeking God, relationship and professional happiness, while at the same time running from a dark family history and her latest failed relationship. IMG_7338%20(2)[1]Her story is both poignant and inspirational—I won’t spoil much of it for you. Of particular interest for today’s essay is her visit to Deir Mar Musa, a monastery of the Syriac Catholic rite in west-central Syria. Stephanie had visited this ancient monastery, literally carved out of rocky cliffs in the desert, during a previous trip to the Middle East; during Advent of 2004 she travelled to Mar Musa from Damascus for an intense, several week-long retreat shaped by the rigorous 1363206338_st-ignatius[1]“Spiritual Exercises” of Ignatius of Loyola, the training manual for the Jesuits.

At the end of her retreat, Stephanie was convinced that she was called to become a nun at this monastery upon her return from visiting her family in Texas for the Christmas holidays. But her trip to the US confused her, shook her resolve, and upon returning to Syria and the monastery in the New Year she informs the abbot that she is no longer certain of her decision to enter holy orders. During a conversation with Frederic, a young novice monk from France, Stephanie shares her uncertainty. In response, Frederic says “Stephanie, you know, I never really thought that you should become a nun.” Hurt, Stephanie wants to know why? 4836182549_cb689b8790_z[1]“Because you don’t believe in the resurrection,” Frederic replies. “You don’t love your life.”

I am much more of a marker of my books than Jeanne, but in the margin next to “You don’t believe in the resurrection . . . you don’t love your life,” Jeanne wrote “WOW” in big capital letters. Putting loving one’s life and resurrection into the same sentence, let alone implying that they are roughly the same thing, is unusual to say the least. In a recent Sunday gospel, Jesus tells various people who want to follow him that unless they are willing to leave their lives entirely behind, they cannot be his true disciple, and in John’s gospel Jesus says that “he who loves his life will lose it, but he hates his life will find it.”

And then there’s the story of a landowner whose fields are so fruitful that he has to tear down his barns and build larger ones in order to create room for “all my grain and my goods.” image14[1]A first century success story, in other words. Nothing wrong with  being successful, I suppose, but then the guy says to himself “You have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” To which God replies, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Well we certainly saw that one coming. If there’s anything that is clear from  Jesus’s stories and teaching, it is that God does not like complacency, smugness, or self-satisfaction. With God, one is never “all set” (as Rhode Islanders like to say). The rich landowner had built a life that, by most human standards, was one to be envied and admired. He probably “loved his life.” And look what happened to him. He is a perfect illustration of what Jesus tells his disciples on another occasion—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Which makes Frederic’s equating believing in the resurrection with loving one’s life all the more difficult to understand. Stephanie is a bit offended, more than a little confused, and takes his cryptic challenge with her from the monastic mountain into her real life in Damascus. 11917594[1]Strangely, the project of learning Arabic—the supposed reason for Stephanie’s presence in Syria—begins to take on an entirely new form. The vocabulary she has learned from her studies thus far—“disciples,” “Lamb of God,” “salvation,” and the like—are of little use in the marketplace. Upon her return from the monastery, she decides to walk the streets instead of going to class, learning the words for “drinking straw,” “knife,” “afternoon,” “carrot,” colloquial phrases that everyone uses but that are never in a text-book, and how to swear like an Arabic longshoreman. Stephanie, in other words, starts learning Arabic rather than learning about it. She is living the language rather than taking vocabulary quizzes—her first lesson in living her life rather than studying about it as if it were something separate from her.

And this is what Frederic had in mind when he said that only someone who loves her or his life truly believes in the resurrection. Because the whole point of the resurrection, Jesus’s conquering of death, was to make it possible for the divine to be embedded in our daily lives. Living a life of faith has little or nothing to do with learning the correct vocabulary, the canonical phrases, the accepted rituals. It rather has to do with infusing the daily with the divine that is the gift in us. The rich landowner’s mistake was not that he was successful and rich. It was not even that he was happy with his life. It was rather than he loved the wrong things about his life—his money and his apparent security. In the divine economy, success is measured by the extent to which I am willing to bring God into each corner of my life, even the dark and neglected ones, and learn to love and celebrate my life because God is an inextricably intimate part of it.582065_10100209799357518_242097842_n[1] As Frederic tells Stephanie on another occasion concerning her choice to follow Christ: “Your choice doesn’t mean anything until it becomes incarnate, until you take it back into the world.”

Siobhan

Too Soon

Thanksgiving Break last week was a bit less relaxing than usual for Jeanne and me because, even though we are the old people in our immediate family, we did the travelling this year. We met on the day before Thanksgiving twenty-seven years ago; because of court ordered travel to their mother’s house for Christmas (the wonders of blended families) Thanksgiving was the one holiday we knew we would have my sons in house, so Thanksgiving has always been “our holiday.” It still is—people come from far and wide to make sure we are in one place at the end of November—but usually our house is the place we all gather. 002Last Thanksgiving we agreed to travel to my son and daughter-in-law’s in Florida the next time, last week was the next time, so for only the second time in recent or not-so-recent memory we were not home for Thanksgiving. We had a great time as always, although Jeanne and I agreed that for the foreseeable future we are playing the age card and having everyone revisit the tradition of coming to us. It’s a long trip for just a few days, and finding canine-care for our three four-legged daughters over a holiday was not easy.

I was committed to not checking my Facebook or email accounts while away, but of course utterly failed to honor my commitment. At around 11:00 PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my phone gave its “you have a new thing to look at on Facebook” beep and I took a look. I found, to my dismay, a Providence Journal news update posted by a colleague from work reporting that Siobhán, a much-loved and respected member of our college community, had been killed in a car accident on slippery Rhode Island roads a few hours earlier that afternoon. The thread of comments from my campus colleagues—“Oh no!” “Oh my God!” ross-siobhan-headshot“This is terrible!” “I’m shocked and numb”—reflected my own immediate response. I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me with a punch in the solar plexus. I had just had a brief email exchange with Siobhán a couple of days earlier setting up a meeting time the week after Thanksgiving when she could provide me with some tech advice—and now she was gone.

If someone asked me to provide a list (which would be a very short list) of people, from among the thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus, who everyone liked, Siobhán would have been at the top of the list. She would most likely have been the only person on the list. Siobhán was the college’s Instructional Technology Development Program Coordinator, a position that put her in charge, among other things, of bringing the faculty into the twenty-first century technologically (after guiding them first through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Over the past few years I had dozens of interactions with Siobhán both in person and via email, sometimes asking for help with something that a two-year old probably would know how to do, other times asking for advice concerning what new technology might be useful and user-friendly for the faculty in the program I direct. She always had the answer, delivered both in language that I could easily understand and without a hint of condescension or impatience (even though I undoubtedly deserved both). Often Siobhán provided solutions for the next eight problems to follow that I didn’t even know about yet. Siobhan 2She was gracious, creative, generous, funny, and had a smile that lit up every space she entered. I pride myself in responding to emails quickly, but Siobhán was the fastest I have ever encountered. I once complimented her on her immediate helpfulness; she responded “That’s because I like you!” I asked “What do you do to people you don’t like?” “I make them wait a week.”

I wish I had known Siobhán outside of work; my guess is that she was a wonderful friend. I found upon returning to campus last Monday that everyone continues to be stunned, struggling with her passing. The following comments copied randomly from one of the many Facebook reminiscences that have popped up over the past few days are a testament to what a hole has been torn in the fabric of our academic community by the untimely loss of this beautiful colleague and friend:

I’m in shock at the news – what a profound loss for the PC family. We’ll always love that smile…

She was such a beautiful presence on campus. Unbelievable.

Siobhan on bikeSiobhan was someone who always knew how to help, and she really got what it meant to be a student at PC. I will miss her a lot.

I am shocked by the news–she was perhaps the most patient and generous person I knew. I’m still having trouble processing the news.

I’m just hearing this news now —just devastating- she was a wonderful woman

This is so devastating. Siobhan had such positive energy, always with a smile and always willing to think creatively about helping students learn… She will be missed immensely.

Oh no–this is heartbreaking news! Siobhan was one of the most generous people I knew. Her positive energy always lit up the room and lifted the spirits of those around her.

This really hurts. I served on many committees with her. We shared a passion for alternative approaches to learning. Even when I had no “business” with her, I often stopped into her office to talk. What a loss.

I didn’t know her well, but from the short time I knew her, I could tell how much love and energy she carried with her and shared with the world. I had really hoped to get to know her better and become friends.

There will be a memorial service today on campus for Siobhán; I know that my teaching teammate and I are not the only professors who have cancelled class in order to attend. The chapel will be full. There will be a number of beautiful things said about Siobhan’s impact and influence on everyone privileged enough to have known and worked with her—all of them true. SiobhanThere will also be many things said about life after death, about God’s plan, about comfort in knowing that we will see Siobhán again, about Jesus having said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Somebody said that the angels must have really wanted Siobhan badly to take her so soon. I do not know what Siobhán believed, whether or not she was religious, or whether she believed in God at all. But such words are more for those who remain than for those who have died—and I must confess that they really don’t help very much. I profess to believe all of those things but haven’t a clue at the moment about what they ultimately mean other than serving as comforting platitudes. The fact is Siobhán is gone, taken decades before her time, and I’m not sure that I am—that we are—ready to “feel better.”

But I do know what helped a bit. Last Tuesday afternoon a colleague on campus organized an impromptu gathering for Siobhán’s friends and colleagues since—as the VP for Mission and Ministry said—we didn’t want to wait until Friday. At least seventy-five people gathered in a space designed for half that many; after an opening prayer there were several moments of silence. In twenty-one years at the college, I have never seen a gathering such as this one. Faculty, administrators and staff from all over campus, people who might go a whole semester without seeing each other or speaking, all in one space to express their sadness and gratitude. One by one various people began to tell brief stories and vignettes. Many were funny, all were touching—there were few dry eyes in the room. One woman told of a time when Siobhan was helping her with a tech problem and said that what she loved about Siobhán was her ability to not make you feel like an idiot—even when you knew that you were an idiot. “The nugget that Siobhán left me with is to always meet people where they are at, then raise them up from there.” Thanks for the take away, Siobhán. Rest in peace.

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Wake Up!

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to observe a colleague in class, something I get to do with junior, non-tenured faculty as a program director on a regular basis. images[2]The topic of the lecture was various aspects of post-modern philosophy, a topic that promised to stun all those in attendance, me included, into soporific silence. But my colleague used PowerPoint and YouTube masterfully to provide illustrations of his basic post-modernist point—contemporary human beings have become so disconnected from their surroundings and from each other that many of the signs that uniquely mark human existence have been lost.

11170767_800[1]A clip from the 2004 British zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” that has become a cult classic illustrates the point. Shaun, an electronics store employee with girlfriend problems, no respect at work, deadbeat friends and no direction in his life, leaves his flat one morning to walk a few blocks to the local convenience store for a Coke and an ice cream cone. As he shuffles the round trip in a half-aware stupor, he fails to realize even momentarily that the convenience store is empty except for a corpse in the aisle and the streets are becoming more and more filled with staggering, half-rotted zombies.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUCqPxfpMCQ

There are literally no differences between this unaware person who is completely disengaged from his life and a zombie. And this, the post-modernists tell us, has become the human condition.

Sounds like a good time for Advent, whose call to us is the same as Paul’s call to the church at Ephesus: “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” This rising business has been an issue for me for as long as I can recall. One of my earliest memories is pretending to sleep in the back of the family car while riding the fifteen miles or so home from Sunday night church. It was a strange experience. In one way, I wanted the ride to last forever, since when I got home I’d be going to bed and as soon as I got up the next day I’d be starting a new week of school. Really, though, I remember the underlying emotion during that ride as fear. the-rapture[1]I was afraid I was going to die and go to hell. I was afraid Jesus would come back and I’d be left behind. I would miss the rapture. I’d pray and pray and pray for Jesus to save me, for me to be “born again” in the way that I was sure everyone in my family, everyone I knew, was but I was not. It was supposed to be easy—just ask Jesus to forgive your sins, trust in Him, and you were in. But somehow in my four or five-year old self I knew it wasn’t working.

So every Sunday night, as a natural follow-up to the meeting-concluding “altar call” at the end of the service (even though no “unsaved” outsider had darkened the door of the church in recent memory), I would have my own altar call curled up in the corner of the back seat. My biggest fear actually wasn’t going to hell—imagesCAIDT6GCit was that the rapture would occur and my whole family would disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving me and every other “un-born-again” person behind. This haunted me. If I came home on the bus after school and my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be in the house, my first thought was that she’d been raptured. I felt alone even when with lots of other people, because they all had something I didn’t have—they all belonged and I didn’t.

I got over my rapture-phobia at some point in my adolescence. It’s a good thing, because otherwise yesterday’s readings for theimagesCANGF52X first Sunday of Advent would have scared the shit out of me. “But about that day and hour no one knows . . . two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” I’ve often said that Advent is my favorite liturgical season; I love its call to centeredness, to watchfulness, to expectation, its hymns and its purple. But these texts, apparently intended to scare us into straightening out our crooked ways, are disturbing. Fundamentalist minister and author images[7]Tim LaHaye and others have made millions cashing in on such fear in his Left Behind book series and accompanying paraphernalia.

Assuming for a moment that Advent isn’t about scaring the shit out of us, what are we really being called to consider with such texts? Something Paul says to the church at Rome is helpful. “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep . . . the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” WAKE UP!!! in other words. The default human condition so often is to sleepwalk through our days, months and years. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard memorably captures the challenge of Advent:

pilgrim-tinker-creek-annie-dillard[1]There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

The divine word of Advent is that big change is coming. I’m about to do something totally out of the box. “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead.””Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Will we even notice?

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cup. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. NPRI also have a favorite cup in each of my offices on campus, one with a pissed-off bluebird and one that I got free from NPR for upping my monthly contribution $5 last April. This does not include my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup that sits proudly on a top shelf in my program director’s office. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over five years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces two years ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archeological dig many millennia in the future.

A bit over a week ago I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says “Hi Vance” when I have emptied the liquid (not really). I’m drinking coffee from my special cup (carefully) as I write.

I choose to consider my new monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past few years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The workshop I recently attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. Advent began yesterday, my favorite liturgical time of year because it reminds us to prepare for the greatest gift of all: Incarnation.007

Hedda and Paul

t. Williams“There is a famous anecdote about an out-of-town tryout of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Thornton Wilder was in attendance and remarked afterwards to Tennessee Williams that he thought Blanche DuBois was too complex a character for the theater. Tennessee is said to have replied, ‘People are complex, Thorn.’”

I read the above anecdote in the program notes as Jeanne and I waited at a local theater for Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to begin. hedda gablerWhat I know about the great Norwegian playwright has been gathered over the years from teaching in a team-taught course where my literature teammate has occasionally chosen one of Ibsen’s controversial and fascinating plays for the students to grapple with, ranging from An Enemy of the People to The Wild Duck and A Doll’s House. Ibsen’s penchant for ripping the veil off late nineteenth-century bourgeois Norwegian society, pushing his readers’ and audience’s face up against topics that decent people would just as soon not consider, and especially his willingness to populate his plays with female characters who explode the stereotypes of dutiful wife and devoted mother caused his plays to not only be banned in several countries during his lifetime ibsen(he was nicknamed “Ibscene”) but make them sound to a twenty-first century audience as if they were written yesterday. I probably read Hedda Gabler as an undergraduate, but this was the first time I had the chance to see it on stage and only the second Ibsen I had ever seen performed; reading in the program notes that the role of Hedda has been described as the “female Hamlet” raised my expectations even further.

Over the past few months I have been immersed in things Norwegian as I read through Jo Nesbø’s mystery series set in Oslo and environs. Nesbø is the hottest writer to come out of Scandinavia since Steig Larsson; I started his ten-volume-and-counting Harry Hole series in early summer and am currently plowing through Phantom, the ninth entry in the series. Were it not for my usual commitment to reading everything an author has written in the order written once I have discovered their work, I might not have made it this far—phantomNesbø’s incredible popularity has caused him to crank out books at a pace that outstrips consistent quality—but when he’s good, he’s very, very good. As with all of my favorite authors of mystery series, I particularly enjoy how the repeating characters become more real from book to book as I learn incrementally more about their history, their peccadilloes, their shortcomings, their successes, their relationships, their failures, their inner lives—in short, I enjoy observing them become more and more recognizably human. Because Tennessee Williams was right. People are complex.

Nesbø and Ibsen both prefer shadow to light and seldom go far before revealing something dark and sinister lying beneath the surface of even the most banal and pleasant persons and circumstances. Hedda Gabler, a newlywed just returned from her honeymoon with her husband George, a newly minted PhD (philosophy, no less!) expecting a plum appointment at the local university, finds herself situated in a large new house ready to be furnished with whatever furniture she fancies. George is clearly infatuated with his beautiful new wife, who everyone describes (to her increasing annoyance) as “glowing.” Hedda 2But appearances are deceiving; only a few minutes into the play we find that Hedda is complicated to the core. Another short essay in the program guide reports that Hedda has been described by critics as “sinister, degenerate, repellent, lunatic, a monster in the shape of a woman, with a soul too small even for human sin.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but she actually is just about all of that. But she is also charismatic, has a razor-sharp wit, crackles with energy, and as if by magic causes everyone in the room to dance to her tune.

As I watched the play unfold on the stage fifteen feet away, I realized that Hedda is not necessarily a bad person bent on the destruction of everything she touches. In this performance she was brilliantly played with the energy of trapped animal, like a tiger or lion in a zoo cage pacing back and forth restlessly, looking everywhere for a way to escape, and devouring everything unfortunate enough to fall within her reach. She finds herself in a world in which the only acceptable roles for a woman are roles that she not only would reject if given the opportunity but that she also knows she is completely unsuited for. caged tigerIn a twisted version of Socrates’ observation that some lives are not worth living, Hedda strikes out more and more desperately as she feels the walls closing in. When there is no more room to move or breathe, she makes the only choice available and dies rather than living under these circumstances.

Two sets of sixteen freshmen and I encountered another trapped human being the next day after I saw Hedda Gabler. These Monday seminars were the culmination of New Testament week, in which the students had already read Mark for a setup lecture; the assignment for seminar was Luke, Acts, and Romans. We spent the bulk of both seminars considering various passages in both Luke and Acts where the very clear requirements of following Jesus set the behavior bar so high that clearly no normal human being could reach it. Iris Murdoch once commented that it would have made sense if in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said something like Iris“Be ye therefore slightly improved,” but he didn’t. Instead he said “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” My mostly parochial school educated freshmen, many of whom had been taught from a young age that the Christian life is about trying to be a good person as often as possible, were shocked and disturbed when they encountered what the texts actually say. Even at eighteen or nineteen years old, each of them had enough life experience with themselves and other human beings to know that the gospel standard is one that is impossible for the flawed creatures that we are to meet.

No one has ever described the human predicament more effectively than Paul at the end of Romans 7—I took the students there toward the end of seminar.

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate . . . For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?machete

Hedda found herself trapped in circumstances in which she could not flourish, grow, survive, or even breathe. Paul finds himself in the same situation, but with much greater scope. Knowing what must or should be done and finding myself completely incapable of doing it. Bottom line, this is the human condition. No wonder we often strike out in frustration and anger at whatever is within reach. However we came to be in this predicament, we cannot work or will our way out of it.

Then in a masterful reversal of just a few lines, Paul provides a way out so compelling that it is hardly to be believed, a way whose energy coincides with the hope and promise that is at the heart of Advent that makes its welcome yearly appearance in a couple of weeks.

Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law could not do: by sending his own Son . . .Romans 8

For me, it is this hope and promise–fulfilled by the incarnation–that both uniquely defines the Christian faith and can keep a flawed, seriously damaged creature from descending into Paul’s despair or Hedda’s destructive rage. For every frustrated “I can’t do this!” there is an “Of course you can’t. But help is on the way.”Calvin and Hobbes

giraffe mother

My Mother, the Giraffe

I learned something interesting about giraffes from one of my colleagues the other day. He was lecturing on Roman art and architecture; when discussing the Coliseum, he mentioned that Roman audiences loved to watch novelty battles—between a woman and a dwarf, or a dog and a porcupine for instance. The voracious Roman appetite for more and more exotic beasts and contests produced a variety of combatants from all corners of the empire, including elephants, apes, the great cats, and rhinoceroses. fighting giraffeAnd giraffes.

Imagine the scene: a fighting giraffe towers above its opponent, then with one swift motion lowers its large jaws and bites the head off its human or non-human combatant. And the crowd goes wild. Except that giraffes turned out to be rather disinterested gladiators, preferring to lope lazily around the arena, look for vegetation to munch, and take naps rather than fighting to the death. Pacifists in the arena aren’t very entertaining, so giraffes in the Coliseum gave way to slightly more aggressive creatures. None of this surprised me, because although I have no direct experience with giraffes other than admiring them at the zoo, I gained intimate knowledge over the years of giraffe-like gentleness and peace, channeled through beloved human form—my mother.

Although I would have denied it vociferously as a boy or adolescent, I was a classic momma’s boy. untitledMy older brother loved my mother but was all about Dad, while my attachments were the exact opposite. My brother and I were a twentieth-century version of Esau and Jacob. My mother was a 100% Swede, with the appropriate accompanying last name (“Thorsen”—son of Thor), stature, and stoic personality. She was the stable center of my universe, while my father, an itinerant preacher and fund-raiser for his small Bible school, was on the road as often as he was home. We lived out in the country and my brother and I rode the bus a half-hour each way every school day. rapture and tribulationMy mother’s loving presence when I entered the house after a long day at work was so predictable and expected that on the rare occasions when she was not where I expected her to be I assumed the worst. I imagined that the rapture I had heard about so often in church and was so afraid of had occurred and my mother had been snatched up into heaven, leaving my brother and me, sinners that we were, to fend for ourselves during the tribulation to come. Be careful how much Baptist theology gets packed into Sunday School for the youngsters—someone will probably take it seriously.

Flashing forward several decades, shortly after we met (introduced by my parents), Jeanne mentioned to me that she had always thought of my mother as a giraffe—Jeanne knew my parents well for ten years or so before the two of us ever met. I had never imagined my mother as a giraffe, but once Jeanne said it I realized that it was a perfect comparison. giraffes can't danceMy mother had the temperament, grace, and even the long neck of a giraffe. Jeanne pulled out a children’s book the other day entitled Giraffes Can’t Dance—with my mother in mind, there should also be books called Giraffes Can’t Go To Movies and Giraffes Can’t Drink Alcoholic Beverages. Baptist giraffes, at least, did not do such things and neither did my mother.

My mother was in many ways a typical 1950s homemaker, cooking, cleaning, knitting, sewing, and generally making the place run. My father was charismatic and volatile; my mother was neither. But she provided a foundation and safety net so secure and reliable that on the few occasions that she was sick, away, or for some other reason unable to play her usual roles my inner world would temporarily descend into chaos. My father had a great sense of humor; my mother couldn’t tell a joke without either forgetting a crucial part of the setup or screwing up the punchline. Bruce and Trudy's wedding picture (2)She had no enemies and disliked no one. That’s not entirely true—I know of a couple of people over the years about whom she actually said something negative. I’ve often noted that the definition of a total asshole is someone that my mother would not have liked.

The word that most immediately comes to mind when I think about my mother—which I do frequently—is peace. She was the embodiment of parental love, setting a standard that I seldom if ever lived up to when I became a parent. But her presence and demeanor surrounded those around her in an atmosphere of calmness. Last Sunday during the All Saints liturgy, as both my mother and father were present to me even more than usual, I noticed how many times the word “peace” has a central place in the Episcopal service: “In peace we pray to you, Lord God,” “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” “The peace that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ.” The deep center of peace that I’ve discovered within over the past few years is where I believe God is—it is also where I am most deeply connected with my mother.

I am an interesting mixture of elements inherited from my parents. My sense of humor, what skills I have as a teacher, my love of books and the life of the mind, my intellectual restlessness and constant questioning of my faith, and my relatively low tolerance for being sick or for pain I get from my father. I remember many years ago a couple, B and N, who had known my parents for years before I met them were telling Jeanne and me stories about various times that my parents stayed at their house. These stories frequently featured my father being demanding, temperamental and self-centered as he often was. N said to me “in many ways, you remind me a lot of your father. But you’re a lot nicer.” Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979If so, it is only because I inherited my mother’s natural concern for things and people other than herself, her Swedish even temperament, and her ability to empathize deeply (perhaps too deeply at times) with others. Of course I could also write about my negative characteristics that I also inherited equally from my parents, but I’m running out of space in this essay.

My mother was born on Halloween and would have been eighty-six years old last Friday. I shudder to think of what a handful my father at that age might have been, but I imagine my mother at eighty-six as just an older and smaller version of the loving, peaceful giraffe-like person that she was. She died far too young of cancer only three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday; I am just one year younger now than she was when she died. I recall receiving phone calls and cards from friends of my parents whom I never had met in the weeks after she died—the gist of most of them was that while my father the preacher and teacher was the ostensible draw and star of the meetings he held across the country, giraffe mother 2my mother was the real attraction. “We came to hear Bruce, but we really wanted to spend time with Trudy.” I dedicated my first book, published six years after she died, to my mother with the following verses from Proverbs: She opens her mouth with wisdom . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Mom lived just long enough to play matchmaker and facilitate the meeting and budding romance between her little boy and the person whom she somehow knew had the potential to be the love of my life. Jeanne and I met at my parents’ condominium the day before Thanksgiving in 1987; I was accompanied by my seven- and five-year old sons, just five months after the end of a difficult eleven-year marriage. Things clicked, our relationship developed with nightly telephone conversations between Santa Fe and Laramie, and when Jeanne joined me in Laramie and we returned with the boys to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents, we stayed at the local Motel Six (no room at my parents’ small condo) where my mother had properly reserved separate rooms—with an adjoining door. Thanks, Mom.

Mom and her sisters

Mom and her sisters

What I Want, When I Want It

A Benedictine monk told me once that “sabbatical is God’s best idea.” I agree. My next sabbatical, which will begin in eight months, has been on my mind for the past several months, producing a couple of sabbatical project proposals that I have sent out over the past couple of weeks. NoahI felt like Noah might have felt when he sent the raven, then the dove out from the ark—you never know what’s going to come back (if anything). Which of these projects will be the raven and which the dove? Or are they both ravens? Or, in the best scenario, both doves? Wherever I end up and whatever I do during sabbatical, it will be a continuation of what I’ve been working on for a while (including in this blog): exploring the various ways in which the life of the mind and life of faith can mutually inform each other.

I have always claimed that a college professor’s teaching and research should feed each other and have tried to live that out, with occasional success. That teaching and research can be mutually supporting is a challenging enough idea for many academics. f and pBut supposing that the life of the mind, especially philosophy, and faith have much to say to each other is for many, from both the intellect and faith side of the claim, beyond the pale, simply because the intellect stereotypically is considered to be incompatible with faith. At best they can be separate rooms in a home, rooms between which no one ever passes. Imagine my surprise, during my last sabbatical, when I discovered over several weeks of daily prayer and reading of the Psalms with a couple of dozen monks that the wall between my faith and philosophy room is illusory—that both my mind and my faith want to inhabit the very same space. Not to argue or play a game of one upmanship, but rather to get to know each other and become equally committed to helping the guy whose house they inhabit learn to live a coherent and integrated life. I have been regularly surprised over the past five-plus years at what percolates to the surface from this collaboration of faith and intellect. schedulingBut even I did not expect to learn something about prayer from working over the past two or three weeks on the faculty schedule for the 2015-16 academic year in the program I direct.

You can learn a lot about people by observing what happens when they are given the opportunity to express preferences about something. This round of scheduling roughly eighty faculty into thirty three-person teams spread over three courses with two thousand enrolled students to take place during the upcoming academic year is my fourth round—each year it becomes a bit more complicated, and that’s my fault. ozOne of the greatest faculty complaints over the years that I have taught in this program is that the faculty had little to no say in whom we teach with or when. The process was as secretive as the wizard of Oz’s activities behind the curtain, with the faculty finding out the nature of two-thirds of their teaching load only when the schedule was made public as a fait accompli. You’ve been put with two colleagues with whom you cannot get along? Too bad. You’re lecturing at 8:30 on Monday morning with a seminar at 4:30 in the afternoon? Too bad again.

So I pulled back the curtain, just a bit, inviting faculty to suggest whom they would like to teach with and those they wouldn’t, as well as indicating their top three time slot preferences from the ten available in each semester. Promising only that I would “do my best” with their suggestions, the preferences began to roll in. Two pages of them, single spaced, the first year, increasing gradually each year to the five single-spaced pages Rubiks cubeI received this year by the deadline, after which I pulled the curtain closed and began solving the thirty-six sided Rubik’s cube I had just created. I have cursed my foolishness in pulling back the curtain several times over the past couple of weeks, but I do care (at least a little bit) about freedom of choice—this is what happens when you invite people’s preferences. They will tell you, sometimes in excruciating detail. And I’ve learned a lot about my colleagues and about myself.

Informally and unofficially I would guess that I received preferences from eighty to ninety percent of the faculty who will be teaching in the program next year. Some expressed time preferences only, indicating that they did not care with whom they teach—just when. Others were exactly the opposite, clear about whom they wanted to teach with, but less insistent about when. high maintenanceThe high-maintenance contingent (fortunately there were only three or four of them), told me not only their time preferences (“I prefer not to teach on Mondays, Fridays, or in the late afternoon.” Direct quote) but also provided me with two lists containing ten or twelve faculty colleague names each, lists entitled “I would be happy to teach with . . .” and “I do not want to teach with . . .” Clearly these colleagues trust my ability to keep confidences. These are the “I want what I want, when I want it” folks, an attitude that I once thought adults left behind in kindergarten.

Then there are the lowest of the low-maintenance colleagues (about the same number as the highest of the high) who say “I know how hard scheduling is, so put me where you need me with whomever you want.” low-maintenanceI want to hug such people. It is no surprise that most of the persons who have regularly told me this are former directors of the very program that I am now directing. They do know that the scheduling process weeks are the toughest weeks of the year. They understand from experience that sometimes individual preferences, although important and worth expressing, pale in comparison to what is best for everyone involved or simply what works. Since this is my last year doing the schedule, I started wondering about the future. On the assumption that after next year’s sabbatical I will continue teaching in the program, and on the further assumption that the director who follows me invites preferences, will I be high maintenance or low maintenance?

I might be tempted, briefly, to be high maintenance just because I think I’ve earned it. But I won’t do that, because lurking in the back of my mind will be the questionspecial “Morgan, do you really think that your specific likes and dislikes are so disproportionately important compared to the rest of the universe’s interests that the lives of eighty people and two thousand students should be organized and manipulated just to make you happy?” Apparently two or three of my colleagues do think that their preferences are exactly that important, but I couldn’t pull it off with a straight face. Except perhaps as a joke played on the next director. At the same time, am I low-maintenance to the extent that I believe my preferences are so unimportant (because I really do have people I would prefer to teach with and times I would prefer to teach at) that they are not worth even expressing? My natural tendencies lean strongly in that direction, but that far?

The dynamic of preference expression and fulfillment expectation has been on my radar ever since I can remember, because I was born into a world in which preference-expression was a highly evolved art form with the most important stakes imaginable. prayer meetingThis high-stakes art form is called prayer. Prayer was so important that it took up significant space in every Sunday church gathering. There was even a middle of the week evening meeting dedicated specifically to the fine-tuning and honing of the art form. God is the ultimate wizard behind the curtain, but the book we considered to be literally true includes many passages in which the wizard invites the reader to ask for things, to express her heart’s desire, to “call upon Me and I will answer you.” Many of the prayers I heard as a child were detailed, extended laundry lists of things the pray-er wanted to have happen, a list that put the ones I received from my high-maintenance colleagues to shame. I learned to play the prayer game, but my heart was never in it. I observed that most of the preferences expressed were never satisfied and often wondered what the point of expressing always unanswered petitions was in the first place.delight Constitutionally I couldn’t do it simply because I wasn’t convinced I was important enough for God to push my wishes to the top of the divine to-do list.

But the other day I read in my morning Psalm reading that “the Lord takes delight in His people.” Over the years that has turned out to be one of the most welcome, yet shocking, lines in the Bible for me. If God is delighted in me, then perhaps God is not looking for me to be the lowest of the low-maintenance. My preferences matter, not because I have any particular insight into what is best, but because they are mine. I left the transactional God who might give me what I want if I beg or petition often or strongly enough behind in my childhood. I have no reason to believe that any given thing I ask for will happen. But I do believe that there is something greater than me and I do believe that my input is invited by whatever that something greater is. Where I fall on the high to low maintenance spectrum with regard to prayer tells me little about God but it tells me a lot about myself. I may not be important enough to get everything (or anything) that I want, but I am important enough to say something. And perhaps be heard.

The Crucifix Train

A bit over a year after moving into our beautiful new humanities building, there is still a great deal of debate and disagreement for what belongs on the walls. With one notable exception. As I wrote about a year ago, there is one item so omnipresent on the walls in the new building that it is impossible to miss.

Moving day on a Catholic campus is a bit different than on other campuses. The large interdisciplinary program that I direct was moved a couple of  months ago into our new fabulous humanities building, an academic Shangri-La that is the envy of  my academic friends who teach at other colleges and universities. Since my program’s lectures and seminars will constitute the lion’s share of classes taught in this building, I have been referring to it as “my building” since ground breaking a bit over a year ago. The day after we moved, as I wandered the halls of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and thanked the gods of interdisciplinarity for this long-awaited gift, I came across an unusual sight. 15267-4259672-6[1]In the middle of the main floor hall, piled on top of a pushcart such as food services uses to deliver items to meetings, were at least a dozen identical two-foot crucifixes, in living and gory color. “Must be crucifix day—we certainly are keeping some crucifix factory in business,” I thought. More than twenty-five years as a non-Catholic in Catholic higher education has prepped me for sights never seen on other campuses.

089But this was a first, and I mentioned it to the next few colleagues I came across as the morning progressed. One faculty colleague told me, as she was setting up her new office, that she had come across a room on the lower level where dozens of crucifixes were laid out across the floor. “It looked like some sort of weird medieval torture chamber.” Another colleague said  “Oh yeah. You don’t want to get in front of that train. I did that once, and it wasn’t pretty.” 088Apparently this colleague found out a couple of years ago during a discussion about the placement of a crucifix in a new classroom that the crucifix always gets priority because “God is more important than white boards.” Good information to have. A couple of days later, as I was giving my son a guided tour through my new building, we came across yet another very large crucifix. “His halo looks like a dinner plate,” my son observed. “It’s a little known fact that when the Romans crucified someone they didn’t just nail the person to the cross. 100_1976They also made him balance a gold plate on his head,” I replied. You can’t get this information just anywhere.

All this reminded me of a favorite story from a friend and colleague  with whom I spent sabbatical at an ecumenical institute a few years ago. He told me about the large Catholic parish church he and his wife attend when home in Washington D.C., a church filled with expensive and gory religious art. Once at a vestry meeting my friend commented that “during mass we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Anyone visiting this church would have no trouble figuring out that Christ has died; we might want to consider having at least one thing on display that indicates that Christ has risen.”

I must admit that I don’t “get” the attraction of crucifixes; I am quite sure I had made it into my late teens or early twenties before I saw my first cross bearing a corpus. In the world in which I was raised, crosses were empty—that was the point, right? 100_1977But before my Protestant bemusement at Catholic practices gets out of control, let me assure you that Protestants are just as capable as Catholics of getting out of control with religious artifacts. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, mobs of Protestants occasionally stormed through churches destroying all symbols of “popery,” including crucifixes, statues, and often priceless works of art. Several centuries later, there is continuing evidence throughout Protestantism not only of this iconoclastic spirit, green-cross-neon-sign-6867771[1]but also of a remaining, undiluted attachment to religious symbols. Crosses are everywhere, often combining fetishism and bad taste. Neon crosses were particularly popular in the churches I visited with my preacher father as a child, most often an imagesCAP5AG7Dethereal blue, but also coming in Kermit the frog green, red, or laser bright white. And don’t get me started on artist’s renditions of Jesus. Let’s just say that whatever the connection is between religious belief and mass-produced items of religious art, it runs far deeper than the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

I have occasionally written in this blog about the difference between idols and icons, the difference between focusing one’s attention on an artifact, object, or work of art and letting that artifact, object, or work of art serve as a doorway or window to something elseFedorovskaya[1]. The difference between treating something as an idol or as an icon is the difference between “looking at” and “looking through.” To my irreverent Protestant eye, a crucifix is a prime candidate for idolatry, because it is available and oddly attractive. But if I step outside of my admittedly skewed perspective and wonder how a crucifix might be an icon, what lies on the other side of such a sacred window?

Looking through a crucifix brings suffering and pain into focus, which makes a crucifix a complex symbol of a very complex set of beliefs. At the heart of Christianity is the suffering and dying God, a God who, using Simone Weil’s words, offers a supernatural use for suffering rather than a supernatural cure for it. God’s response to the pain, suffering and devastation of our world and the human experience is to enter it with us, to share the burden. In the most horrific of circumstances God is intimately available. Although a crucifix hanging on a wall is just a mass-manufactured religious artifact,Pastrix-cover[1] it can be an iconic reminder that there is absolutely nothing that can occur in this frequently messed up world that does not include God’s presence.

In her recent memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a heavily tattooed and pierced former stand-up comic who is the Lutheran pastor and founder of the Church of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO, tells the story of the ten weeks she spent as a hospital chaplain, satisfying a clinical pastoral education requirement during her years in seminary. What is an apparent representative of God supposed to do when regularly placed in the company of people experiencing the worst pain and sorrow imaginable? Bolz-Weber knew instinctively that words were almost certainly the last thing needed.

You hear a lot of nonsense in hospitals and funeral homes. God had a plan, we just don’t know what it is. Maybe God took your daughter because He needs another angel in heaven. But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, when_god_closes_a_door_he_opens_a_window[1]the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I push him the fuck out of it.

As she would often sit silently with persons in the midst of great loss in a chapel with a crucifix overhead, Bolz-Weber trusted that the God who was there could communicate far better than words. A crucifix as an icon reminds us that God did not look down on the cross—God was hanging from the cross. This truth transcends doctrine, intellect, and even our best tortured questions. From Pastrix once again:

Emmanuel_God_With_Us[1]There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel—which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.

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