Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Sunday

I have shared many times how Advent saved Christmas for me (just recently in fact). This Sunday of Advent, I am trying catch my breath more than I am trying to reflect on the hope that comes with the incarnation. This past week is busier than most. My professional meeting always meets the weekend before Thanksgiving (this year it was in Atlanta). The family thanksgiving, a family trip to the Museum of Science and Industry, driving my mom back to her home, and driving back this has been a busy week. And I have to get a stack of grading done, and I have a number of extra, professor responsibilities this week, and . . . and . . . It isn't really a good week for reflection.

At my meeting in Atlanta, I went to the "Blogging & Online Publication" session. As I listened to the interesting papers and how "information exchange can happen instantly," I thought of the good ol' days when information exchange took a little longer. Articles were written. Articles were read. If you had comments to make, you had to write them up and submit them (you couldn't just write them under the article on the website). If you had an opposing view, you had to put together a well thought out, well-reasoned response so that the journal would publish it. Time passed. Thinking could take place. Reflection could lead to new insights. I wonder if these days we have enough time to really process all that we receive. I wonder if we have given up on "wisdom" in favor of the accumulation of more and more "knowledge."

Of course, as the great philosopher Billy Joel reminds us: the good ol' days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

This hasn't been a good week for reflection, but maybe that is why it is a good week to reflect. Advent reminds us that in the busiest time, the word became flesh. When there were a million of other things to do, the word became flesh. When the world didn't want to take time to notice, the word became flesh. It is time to experience the most important event in history. But the urgent begins to push out the important, and the urgent can even mask itself to seem more important. Black Friday is apparently a big deal, and if I don't participate in it, I am missing part of what it takes to celebrate the holiday. "Be Thankful for Clearance Sales"and "Be Thankful for Savings" are just two examples of how the hte urgent tries to mask itself as important.

Maybe after some reflection, I can say that my life will be just as rich without a cheap DVD player. Maybe the "Buy Nothing Friday" social justice movement is on to something. Or as the Grinch said, "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?"

Of course, that would take stopping and reflecting.

Powered by Qumana

Monday, November 15, 2010

Christmas Fast

I didn't grow up in a liturgical church. We had a church calendar but it was never expressed formally. Where many churches have a liturgical calendar that celebrates Advent (the coming of the Christ), Epiphany (the visit of the Magi), Pentecost (the coming of the Spirit), and other events around the life of Jesus and the early church, my church's liturgical calendar looked more like this: Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, etc. If you don't believe those were formal events in the year of church, watch what happens to the Baptist pastor who doesn't celebrate Mother's Day in worship.

After I got married, Cindy and I joined a church that celebrated Advent, and it honestly saved Christmas for me. Christmas might be good for the economy, but it was really bad for my faith. Taking a moment each week to remember the coming Christ was like water to a soul made barren by the commercial, capitalistic pursuits of the world. The liturgical calendar really opened up a whole new world for me--a world organized by the life of Jesus.

I was particularly fascinated by Lent and the power of the fast. Naturally, "fasting" was not something that I understood coming from my faith tradition either. Fasting can serve a number of purposes in the life of a person. As an Old Testament professor, however, I think the one function of fasting that means the most to me is the power it has to reveal idolatry.

Over the years, we have tried to celebrate Lent as a family. When we talk about what to give up, I find that some things are not on the table. Cindy: "What about TV?" Me: "Um, no, March Madness. Can't miss March Madness." Cindy: "What about meat?" Me: "Um, no, can't give up meat. I would go hungry, I think." Me: "How about sweets? Something challenging, but not too challenging."

Pretty effective indictment of my faith, and it's a pretty clear indication of where some of my idols lie. What has power over me? What controls me? Could I really give up March Madness, take up my cross, and follow? Maybe (not yet, but maybe).

In the Eastern Church, November 15 traditionally began a Christmas fast. Like most fasts, it focused on diet. In our culture, as the Christmas marketing ramps up into full swing, maybe we should recover (and discover) the practice of the Christmas fast. Maybe we could give up those things that so easily hinder us and our faith.

What is it that I can't give up this time of year? What is it you can't imagine your life without? Football? Fudge? Wassail? I can't speak for everyone, but I imagine a Christmas fast would do my faith a world of good.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Generations on the Job Market

A generation in the Hebrew Bible is forty years. A generation for iPods is about a year. A generation for someone with a PhD is about 4 years.

I come up with that number because that is about the how long it takes before the current grad students don’t know the incoming grad students because they aren’t in courses with them anymore. For some, that is how long it takes to get done with your dissertation. Once you get that first job that is exactly how long it takes to move your young freshman from orientation to graduation.

I have spent about 3 generations on the job market. In Fall of 1998, I started teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. It was about that time I began combing the internet for any institution, anywhere that might have a full time position who might hire someone who was All But Dissertation (never mind that I wasn’t ABD at that point—but hey you had to dream).

Back then, I was pretty convinced I could do anything. “Gen Ed Interdisciplinary Core with an Area of Competency in Asian Religions?” Sure, I had a course in Asian Religions, I can do that! “Hebrew Bible with an Area of Competency in Rabbinic Judaism?” Sure, I can do that . . . maybe. “Women and under represented groups encouraged to apply” Well, maybe I can’t do EVERYTHING.

Of course, over time I got more realistic with my application packets, more accepting of my ding letters and absolutely ritualistic checking the openings websites. For years, the “Openings” website would update the first of every month. I stayed up till midnight at the end of many months waiting for the openings to click over, only to see one (maybe two) Hebrew Bible postings in the United States (and one in Germany). Of course, I received many, many, MANY ding letters:

“We thank you for your interest in the servile, low-paying position at Hole in the Wall Community College, Fairbanks, Alaska. We had many qualified candidates and have narrowed the list and you aren’t among the finalists.”

When I finally got the job at Shorter, I knew the time was coming when I wouldn’t be welcome there. Many of us assumed it would be a one year posting. We were afraid the Georgia Baptists would come in with guns blazing and clean house in the Religion department. Thankfully, they took their time. It was 5 years before I was told my presence would no longer be welcome in the classroom.

Everyday for five years, I came into work. I turned on my computer. I opened the “Openings” web pages: Chronicle of Higher Education, Society of Biblical Literature, Inside Higher Ed, etc. Every now and then an opening would be interesting. Every now and then I would get an interview. Every now and then it would come down to me and one other candidate . . . and the school would go with the other candidate.

Every day. Every morning. It was more than habit—it was liturgy—it was an act of prayer. It was how I maintained some measure of hope. I tried to be present in my present, but in my heart I was looking for a place where I felt there could be a future.

Next week, I am going to the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. For twelve years, I have gone to this meeting looking for a job. This year I am not. It has been a weird experience. This is what it is like to be content? This is what it is like to not be looking every day for an opening?

I walked across the Judson University campus on this absolutely beautiful fall day, and a smile came across my face. Yes, it is a different world than I have known, but I think I can get used to this.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Advent (thanks to Wal-Mart, a little early)

The day before Halloween I was walking through Wal-Mart buying a few extra bags of candy. We are still in our “firsts’ here in this new place (“first summer,” “first Halloween,” “first Christmas”). I was reflecting on how excited we are to live in a place with lots and lots (and lots) of trick-or-treaters, and my drifted over into the “Home and Garden” section, and I noticed the first Christmas trees peeking over the aisles.

I know that a lot of people are discouraged by that, and I understand that emotion. It is true that Christmas is when all the retail establishments make a profit, so the earlier they can make Christmas, the better off they are. But I decided years ago, that if anyone can have joy about the approach of Christmas, it is a Christian. So I decide to use those (possibly exploitive and commercial) symbols of the season to move me to joy.

On that day, those Wal-Mart trees were an advent wreath. I felt such joy and hope seeing them, my eyes even welled up.

It almost exactly a year ago that I sent of my application packet to Judson University. The job opening posted exactly one day after I received the news that the trustees no longer wanted me in the classroom because of my Baylor Ph.D. [For my details see the discussion tab in the facebook group, “The Truth Behind Teachers' Removal”]

I am a teacher. In my heart of hearts I know that. I had decided (with Cindy) that this would be my last year on the job market. I would find something else to do. I was tired of ding letters. I was tired of coming so close so many times only to lose out. On the plus side, I had gotten very good at laments: Kate Campbell’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” Allen Levi’s “Bartimaeus,” Michael Card’s, “The Silence of God,” and others. I am afraid I was also getting very good at teaching the laments in the Psalter.

For some reason one song moved me more than others. Chris Rice’s song “Belong” became an almost liturgical practice for me. It was the first song I played every morning when I sat down at my desk. It was top of my iTunes “Top 25 Most Played” for some time, and more than once, I found myself in tears as I tried to sing those early verses.

I cower ‘neath the monster trees
And try to stand on tired feet
But gravity knocks me to the ground
Where I give up, and tears roll down
I claw the dust and beg the end
Curse the day that I began
to hope there’d be a place where I belong

It is a year later, and God has changed my mourning into dancing. We survived the move (I will be more confident when the boys and Cindy survive the winter!). Now, I am settling in as the new Old Testament professor here at Judson. The students are responding to me, and I can see where this place can benefit from my gifts. I am connecting with my colleagues, and I see where I can benefit from the gifts of this place. Though I have expressed the joy I have in my facebook statuses quite frequently, I truly could post joyfully every day.

This year when I light that first Advent candle and say, “Jesus brings Hope!” I will confess that this year, I will say that a little differently. Last year, I said it with longing. This year, I say it in declaration.

How did I miss this wondrous song?
The forest sang it all along
"River rinses all your shame
Father offers you His name
Father Love prepares a home
Brother Jesus leads you on
Follow to the place where you belong!"