“Dum-Dums” and the Apostle James

Last Sunday our dynamic and creative children’s coordinator, who is also organizing the upcoming Fall Festival, took a moment after the children’s sermon to make a plea to the congregation. Here’s what I heard come out of her mouth: “I need dumb-dumbs!” In the millisecond before my mouth let loose a shocked gasp at her audacity, my brain engaged and made sense of what she had actually said: “I need Dum-Dums!” Ah, those little lollipops! She wasn’t insulting our intelligence, she was asking for donations of candy for a festival game.

Dum Dums multi color

That little incident provided fodder for giggles, but it also set me to pondering the deep wisdom of the Apostle James when he addresses the power of active, intentional listening as our communicative priority. James says it this way: “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (1:19, CEB). The decision to be “quick to listen” is perhaps the most important thing we can bring to the table when it comes to the complexities of human interaction. Listening—active listening that seeks understanding—is the number one defense against making quick, erroneous judgments and assumptions about the meaning and intent of the other person’s message. Listening with patience that allows the other person the time and space to fully express his message; listening with humility that allows the other person to be “the expert” on her aims, feelings, objectives, and meaning; listening with a firm commitment to responding rather than reacting—this is the kind of listening that keeps us from snap judgments, from assigning sinister motives where none exist, and from quick, unwarranted anger. It is the kind of listening that not only allows us to correctly translate messages like “dumb dumbs” (what I heard) into “Dum-Dums” (what was meant); it also makes us more likely to translate correctly much bigger, weightier messages like “that was an insult or a threat” (what we hear) into “that person is really fearful or hurting, and I just happen to be the closest target” (the reality behind the message). Not being “quick to listen” means we will likely reactto what we hear—probably in anger—rather than respondingto the deeper issue that has prompted the message. And James is really clear: “An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness” (1:20).

I’m looking forward to our Fall Festival and discovering what a “Dum-Dum Tree” is and how the game works. I plan to take a picture of it to keep near my desk, as a reminder to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”

 

A ‘Real’ Job?

 

This is not the post I intended to write today. But it is the one asking to be written, so here goes!

My name is Rachel. I’m an adjunct college and seminary professor. (And yes, there are support groups for people like me.) A young house guest recently asked me, “Do you have a real job?” I could tell that he expected me to say no, and it struck me that he had probably given voice to the question that some adults in my circle were thinking but didn’t have the filter-less honesty of a child to ask. If you know people involved in academia, it’s almost certain that you know at least one adjunct instructor or professor. So let me tell you a little bit about what it means to be someone in that category. Or more accurately, let me tell you what it means to be me in the world of adjunct teaching, since each person’s experience will be a little different. This is what it means to be “Dr. C,” adjunct college and seminary professor.

Being an adjunct instructor means confronting the perception that what you do isn’t a “real” job and that you are fundamentally “less than” those who have landed the full-time, tenure-track positions.After all, the definitions of “adjunct” are (1) “something added to another thing but not essential to it,” (2) “a person associated with lesser status, rank, authority, etc., in some duty or service,” and (3) “assistant.” Not exactly an esteem-building set of assumptions to have built right into the language that describes your professional identity! And those assumptions are often the elephant in the room, whether your conversation partners are administrators, full-time colleagues, students, or even the voices in your own head. The reality is, however, that “adjunct” frequently has far more to say about the budgeting and staffing choices of educational institutions than it does about the qualifications, skills, experience, and passion of the people who fill the adjunct category.

adjunct Scarlet-Letter

Being an adjunct instructor means that you are a juggler. The world of the adjunct revolves around balancing a multiplicity of factors. Adjunct instructors typically work for more than one institution of higher learning; in my case, I am currently writing courses and teaching for four programs in three schools. What does that mean for the daily juggle? It means navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple learning management systems (the delivery platforms for online courses), multiple course calendars (my courses run anywhere from five weeks to a full semester), multiple languages and cultural contexts (I teach in both English and Spanish), multiple levels (my courses cover the gamut of programs—non-degree certificates, associate, bachelor and Master’s degrees), multiple e-mail addresses to check, and multiple sets of institutional expectations regarding grades, attendance, and reporting.

Being an adjunct instructor means low pay and zero benefits. Even if you are working full-time hours and carrying what in any single institution would be a full-time teaching load, because those hours and that teaching load are spread across multiple schools, health insurance and retirement benefits are not part of your income. Budgeting requires creativity, since pay rates and schedules vary from school to school and there is no guarantee that you will be offered another course when your current one finishes.

adjunct_orientation

Being an adjunct instructor (usually) means adapting to the virtual classroom.  Online learning is the realm where most schools are experiencing student population growth and it is the realm most populated by adjunct instructors. If your prior teaching experience was always in the face-to-face classroom or if you’ve never been a student in an online or hybrid course, making the transition to the virtual classroom can be excruciatingly difficult. However, I’ve discovered great joy and incredible opportunities for making a difference in students’ lives through my work as an online instructor. Most virtual classrooms are structured in such a way that every single student must be an active participant in the weekly conversations, giving me the chance for one-on-one interaction with 100% of my students and giving a voice to even the most timid or introverted participants, the ones who might sit in the back row and never open their mouths all semester in the traditional classroom. I am continually amazed at the richness and mutuality of the conversations that happen in my online classes.

So, do you have a real job, my young guest wanted to know? Absolutely, kiddo! And I can say without equivocation that when students enter a classroom with “Dr. C.,” they will find an instructor who is fiercely committed to professional excellence and to their academic, personal, and spiritual growth. Is this what I envisioned my professional journey would look like at this point in my life? Nope! But I’m having a great time with this very real job that has set me on a multi-layered, complex, rewarding, and faith-building journey.

 

 

 

God of “la yapa”

 

One of my favorite books written by an Ecuadorian author about life in Ecuador is Jenny Estrada’s Del tiempo de la yapa. “La yapa” is that “little something extra” that sellers used to give to buyers—a piece of candy or a banana to a child in the corner store, or an extra tomato or green pepper to the housewife making her daily purchase in the market. Being back in Ecuador again this week, I’ve heard the term a time or two, even though the practice has almost disappeared in the hyper-commercialized 21st-century context. But even before returning to Ecuador, “la yapa” was on my mind.

Sunset at Playas

There are seasons of life when lament is the only prayer form that makes any sense—so it’s a good thing that a third of the Book of Psalms is lament! These are the raw, anguished cries of a faithful people to a faithful God in the midst of circumstances that seem to contradict the life of faith. On my morning prayer walk a few days before this trip, I was deep in lament over various persons and situations. As I headed east on my way home, the post-dawn sky was filled with towering thunderclouds—a roiling, pulsating darkness, heavily pregnant with storm, filled with an ominous beauty. It seemed as if nature itself was lamenting with me, and I sensed the powerful presence of the Spirit who prays with us in groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26). Suddenly, an unexpected flash of brilliant white sunlight burst out from behind the clouds, as if to outline darkness in hope. I received that moment of piercing beauty as “la yapa”—the “little something extra” that assured me that lament, however appropriate a prayer form on this side of eternity, will one day be replaced completely with resounding praise for hope fully realized.

Perhaps our God is always the God of “la yapa”—I’m on the lookout now for that “little something extra” in the day-to-day journey with Jesus.

“It is either Valjean or Javert!”

Sometimes the various threads of one’s life interweave in timely and significant intersections that open up new patterns of thought and reflection. The most recent such warp-and-woof pattern in my life comes from two activities that are very distinct at first glance, but which are both places where the Spirit speaks into my mind and imagination. Together, these seemingly disparate aspects of life have woven an intriguing pattern, in which a mix of subtle hues and brilliant colors continues to confront my thinking about grace.

The warp in this pattern comes from a Broadway musical—my preferred listening for any car trip over 30 minutes long. Recently, I’ve been listening over and over again to the marvelous soundtrack from the 2012 film version of Les Misérables. There are many points in that musical that move me straight to worship, but lately I’ve been haunted by Inspector Javert’s suicide song. Stunned by the life-saving grace offered to him by Jean Valjean, the very man he has spent his life hunting down, Javert realizes that human existence is characterized by a radical dichotomy of mutually exclusive choices: “There is nothing on earth that we share,” he sings. “It is either Valjean or Javert!” It is either costly grace or unflinching law, either unmerited forgiveness or merciless vengeance. There is no middle ground. Javert faces a choice—will he abandon the cherished worldview that has sustained his self-worth over an entire lifetime? Will he exchange it for the possibilities of a life shaped by grace? Unable to make the moral and spiritual leap across the chasm between those two options, Javert jumps to his death with this cry on his lips: “I am reaching, but I fall / And the stars are black and cold / As I stare into the void / Of a world that cannot hold / I’ll escape now from that world / From the world of Jean Valjean. / There is nowhere I can turn / There is no way to go on!” His fierce grasp of old ways of thinking and being was literally a death grip, a fatal rejection of “the world of Jean Valjean,” the world in which grace wins.

The woof in this emerging tapestry of grace comes from time spent in Scripture, in preparation for a recent sermon. Having been invited to preach the launch sermon for a series of messages on grace, the central question of the message was definitional: “What is grace?” Rather than approaching the topic from the perspective of systematic theology or using Paul’s many declarations about grace as the starting point, I was drawn to a narrative exploration of the topic. What could be discovered about grace through the conversion stories of two “lost boys” who have radical encounters with Jesus? (I won’t repeat the whole sermon here; you can access the sermon transcript at http://www.bumcdayton.org/?subpages/sermons%20transcripts%20and%20audio.shtmlor watch the archived “Facebook Live” video, Aug. 5, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/Belmont-United-Methodist-Church-Dayton-325753280812358/

abstract art close up dark
Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

beginning at 35:00.) What struck me forcibly about these two “lost boys of the New Testament,” Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) and Saul-Paul (Acts 26:4–18), is that they were both really, truly, profoundly lost. The difference was that Zacchaeus, like Valjean, was deeply aware of his lost-ness, while Saul the Pharisee, like Javert, was blithely, supremely confident that he was on the right track, a path surely approved by God. Zacchaeus was so desperate for the seeking and saving grace of Jesus, that he cast reputation to the wind and scrambled up a tree; Saul didn’t even know he needed saving and it would take a voice from heaven to awaken him to his true condition. Despite their very different starting points, however, both these “lost boys” discovered the same thing: grace is being found by Jesus when you are lost. Grace is invitation—into newness of life, into transformation of character, into a radical reordering of one’s worldview. Grace turned a grasping swindler into a man of generous hospitality and compassion for the vulnerable; that same grace turned an arrogant zealot into a self-designated “slave of Christ” who relinquished rights, pedigree, and status for the sake of Jesus and his church.

Les Mis has reminded me that there really are only two mutually exclusive options in life—the path of Javert and the path of Valjean. Grace is offered; the choice is ours to risk living a life shaped by the messiness of grace, or to reject grace—grace received and grace given—in favor of cold, safe rules and regulations. Zacchaeus and Saul have taught me that, no matter how much guilt and shame we think we bear or how many merits we think we’ve accumulated, we are all “lost boys and girls” until we are found and transformed by Jesus. These two pairs of men—the fictional Javert and Valjean, the New Testament figures Zacchaeus and Saul—have become the warp and woof in an emerging tapestry of grace that challenges me to think more deeply, love more intentionally, and live more grace-fully in response.

 

“Suddenly Comes the Poet (or at least the poetry)”

shattered

Suddenly Comes the Poet

 

Walter Brueggemann’s work has been influential in my life and thought in recent years, and his little book, Finally Comes the Poet(1989), is no exception. Brueggemann describes his purpose for the book: “I want to consider preaching as a poetic construal of an alternative world. The purpose of such preaching is to cherish the truth, to open the truth from its pervasive reductionism in our society, to break the fearful rationality that keeps the news from being new.”

That has resonated deeply with me in recent months, not just in regards to proclamation, but also in terms of the life of prayer and of the experience of faith itself. How much might we be missing by staying so firmly anchored in the cognitive aspect of knowing? What might God be able to teach us through a holy cultivation of the imagination, the realm where prophets and poets speak into our souls? Where might prose limit and poetry hold the potential to expand horizons?

I had been considering the need to deepen my engagement with poets and poetry, but hadn’t gotten much further than the familiar, thundering voices of Isaiah and Micah and a renewal of my limited acquaintance with T. S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I know people who know poets and poetry—some who arepoets—but I just hadn’t pursued the conversations that would solicit their recommendations. I was thinking about poetry, but mainly as a “spectator sport.” So I was totally unprepared for the weird moment last week when God kicked me off the sidelines and yelled, “Get in the game!”

To paraphrase Brueggemann, “Suddenly comes the poet (or at least the poetry).” Sitting on my front porch, in the middle of a full-fledged, can’t-breathe panic attack, calling out to the Father for rescue and embrace, I was suddenly flooded with a strange deluge of imagery and thoughts-beyond-words that dropped like pellets of hail into my storm-tossed being. At first sharp, then morphing into something not quite soft yet warm with intimate presence, these weird whatever-they-were impressions began to arrange themselves into what was, astonishingly, a poem. Didn’t see that coming!

I share that poem here (risky!), not because it’s great poetry, but simply to encourage you to explore the horizons of the imagination as a place of intimate encounter with the God who imagined and spoke the universe into being.

Shattered

Shattered

Sharp

Tiny fragments surround me

 

Back away.

Don’t touch, don’t bleed.

 

Shattered

Shining

Painful reflectors of light that are

Teardrops, not diamonds

 

Don’t step there.

Don’t touch, don’t bleed.

 

Shattered

My monochrome heart

 

Stay back, shut them out.

Don’t feel, don’t bleed.

 

Shattered

Tiny fragments

Opaque and lifeless in the shadows

 

Sweep them up, toss them out.

Don’t bleed.

 

Shattered

There they lie, among shards

Of vermillion, cyan, emerald

Remnants of other breakings,

Of others’ breakings.

 

Shattered

Mosaic

Shaped by a nail-pierced hand

New patterns, fragile beauty

 

Shattered

Not mended, remade

 

Come close, touch, see, feel.

Hope stirs.

 

 

Weapons of Mass Deception

Words and the stories they tell do not spring randomly from the nada; they flow, logically and predictably, out of the underlying stream of convictions, beliefs, and attitudes that shape one’s life. As Dr. Luke puts it, “What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45, NLT). As I listen to our national “conversations” (shouting matches?) on a multitude of issues, and more particularly to the Christian voices in those conversations, I am deeply unsettled by what the words and narratives reveal about the underlying state of the heart. It seems that the great enemy of our souls has very successfully employed two WMDs (weapons of mass deception) within the North American church: fear and the relentless clamor for individual rights. Both run contrary to the grand narrative of hope and redemption that is to shape our convictions, beliefs, and attitudes as followers of Jesus; both can be found shaping the rhetoric of Christians on either side of pretty much any hotly-debated issue of our day.

Fear is an insidious weapon, spreading silently among us like some virulent and corrupting bacterial strain, a kind of spiritual pathogen manipulated by a skilled adversary. Fear of the other, fear of scarcity and loss, fear of change, fear of insecurity, fear of the unknown—it takes many forms, but has infected too many hearts with its distortions and lies. Underneath the strident quality in so many conversations these days lies a deep well of fear and anxiety. Brothers and sisters, no matter what story the general cultural narrative is telling, as followers of Jesus we stand firmly planted in the story of resurrection, of hope, of victory, of abundant grace, of shalom and of a history that is moving toward new creation. Fear is never a worthy life-shaper for those whose existence is grounded in hope. Fear pushes us from behind and below, agitating and disturbing us, while Jesus goes before us as a Good Shepherd, inviting us into fearless trust and anxiety-free abundance. He assures us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27, NRSV). We must choose which force will shape our lives and the words that flow out of them: trust or fear.

Alongside fear, there is another weapon of mass deception in the arsenal, one which has been deeply effective and whose insidious nature has been difficult for American Christians to acknowledge, given our particular socio-political context and the prevailing version of our national narrative. That WMD is the relentless pursuit and defense of individual rights as the supreme and inviolate value of life. Whether or not our current obsession with “my rights” is what the Bill of Rights originally anticipated is a question for another day. And whatever the answer for Americans in general, we as followers of Jesus must come to this first as Christians, whose first loyalty is to a Lord who demonstrated a very different kind of life. What kind of “rights” attitudes and convictions shaped that life? Paul puts it this way: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:6–7, NLT). He willingly relinquished rights and privileges, because he loved us. As the apostle says, this is our model: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (v. 5). That imperative ran sharply counter to the prevailing cultural mindset in first-century Rome and it stands in equally stark contrast to the dominant American narrative; with followers of Jesus in all times and all places, we must choose which force will shape our lives and the words we speak: an obsessive clinging to personal rights, or a willing relinquishment of those rights for the well-being of others.

Fear and the relentless pursuit of individual rights are weapons of mass deception that have been skillfully wielded by the enemy to distort, distract, and derail the followers of Jesus. They have infected our attitudes and unspoken convictions as well as the words that flow out of them. They have blocked us from Jesus-shaped living and kept us chained in anxiety. What if we flung off those chains and invited the Holy Spirit to purge us of the insidious infection of these WMDs? What might change in our lives and in the words that flow from our transformed hearts? How might our participation in the weighty conversations of our day be radically different and more effective?

Things not to ask your friend who just earned aPhD. . .

nana-and-gabe.jpgFirst blog! Thanks for joining me! I’ve been waiting till my doctoral studies were over to take this chance and start writing on a regular basis in a public forum. So it’s only fitting that “Dr. Nana’s” first musings are a look back across the PhD journey.

It doesn’t take very long (hours, maybe?) after enrolling in a PhD program for the “impostor syndrome” to kick in. The little voice in your head begins whispering, “What in the world have you done? Who are you kidding—there’s no way you can keep up with these people—they’re really smart and dynamic and talented and ambitious. When are the rest of them going to figure out that you’re an impostor, here under false pretenses?” The intensity of that little voice increases as the journey progresses; each milestone (first-year review, end of coursework, written exams, oral exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation research and writing, dissertation defense) looms as the moment when you expect the powers-that-be to discover your woeful inadequacy and show you the exit door. And then, suddenly, you’re on the other side, with the letters behind your name and a beautifully bound copy of your work now gracing your bookshelf.

It’s at that point that the insistent questions begin to come, not from the little voice in your head, but from the people around you. In my case, it’s only been a week since graduation, but I’ve heard a variation of the same three questions dozens of times already—enough that I’ve considered getting a t-shirt printed with the quick-version of the answers! Reflecting on these questions has been a good exercise for me in synthesizing the doctoral journey and taking time to engage in intentional gratitude for each step of the process.

First question: Why did it take you so long? (This is a variation of the oft-repeated “you’ve been at this a long time” comment that punctuated the process.) It took me five and a half years from start to finish, of the seven allotted for the process. Whenever I hear this question, it makes me smile, because I remember what my dissertation supervisor once said when asked how long it takes to write a dissertation. Without missing a beat, his answer was: “It takes as long as it takes.” Or, as Yoda might put it, “Time it takes. Linger you will.” JA dissertation is not an extra-long “research paper”—it is the fruit of extended intellectual, emotional, mental, and even spiritual engagement with a question that fires your passion and piques your curiosity and with the already-existing scholarly conversation around that question. Along the way you meet conversation partners who challenge your thinking and offer insights that sharpen your perspective on your research topic—and some of those people become life-long friends who will enrich your journey long after the diploma comes in the mail. As I look back on my five-and-a-half-year trek toward graduation, it is with deep gratitude for the richness of the journey.

Because I’m old in comparison with most other newly-minted PhDs (turned 56 last month), there is a second, related question that keeps cropping up: Why did you wait so long to do this? The unspoken assumption seems to be: “Isn’t this something most people do in their twenties or thirties? Shouldn’t you be thinking of retirement? And playing with grandbabies?” Well, thank goodness that being a PhD and being a grandma are not mutually exclusive realities! I’m quite happy to be Dr. Nana! I’ll be honest, I don’t pretend to know why, in God’s economy, this was the kairos moment in my pilgrimage and not a decade earlier, when my timetable thought it ought to happen. The story is too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that when the door opened for me to enter the doctoral program, I had already given up on ever having such an opportunity. But, wonder of wonders, God didn’t just nudge the door open a crack; he flung it wide. And so from day one, my commitment was to walk through the door for as long as it remained open. Not going to lie, there were a couple of those milestones along the way that I thought would surely slam the door shut in my face, but God had other plans. One thing has been made abundantly clear to me—God’s timing is impeccable and his plans are good, even when they don’t make sense to the pragmatist! For that lesson alone, I am deeply grateful.

Those first two questions are relatively easy to answer with a smile and a shrug. It’s the third interrogative that pokes at the sore spot for PhD graduates, especially those of us with degrees in the humanities. The question is: Now that you’ve graduated, what are you going to do? Most often, the second half of that question is really asking, “Now what great new job are you going to get?” The underlying assumption seems to be that a PhD is a magic key that automatically unlocks many new and exciting employment opportunities. The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially for those of us who are teachers. No one is going to be knocking on the door with a full-time professorship in hand! The truth is that, in terms of employment, it’s not likely that much will change for me. I’ll still be an adjunct professor for multiple institutions, teaching students in a variety of programs, and designing online courses. I’ll continue to serve as a Theological Education consultant for One Mission Society in Latin America. It’s really tempting, then, to give in to the insidious whisper that suggests that maybe the whole PhD thing was a colossal waste of time. That’s when I have to put my metaphorical foot down and cling fiercely to the perspective that a friend and I were discussing recently: The value of this degree is not primarily about salary or academic advancement or enhanced status; it is about the priceless growth of a human being through risk-taking obedience to God’s crazy call and through the rigors of intellectual engagement. For that privilege I am deeply and eternally grateful.

If you’ve asked me one of these questions—no worries! I am profoundly grateful for the support and encouragement that kept me going along the PhD path, so I’m happy to answer any questions my team of supporters and cheerleaders might have!

Thanks for reading!