Belief Matters, Part 2: Al-Qur’an and Belief

Ten years ago, after the terrible tsunami struck the Northern tip of Sumatra, I found myself serving as head of a small group of volunteers attempting to improve the water quality in neighborhoods of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I will never forget the day I met my most devout Muslim friend, Imam, as I was cleaning out debris and salt water from the ground-water well outside his home.Now, it is important to note that I had come to Indonesia originally as an English teacher. In fact, I had just finished my Master’s degree and was about to begin my doctoral degree when I was given the opportunity to serve the victims of that terrible disaster that claimed approximately 200,000 lives. It was because of my past experience teaching English in Indonesia that I had been chosen to lead the volunteers there. I was familiar with the culture and, as you will soon understand, I knew enough of the language to get around and get myself in trouble.

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

I will never forget the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Imam because that is the day I learned how little Indonesian I really knew. The submersible pump  I was using to rid the well of salinized, dirty water had become stuck on some debris.  When Imam came out of his house to help me he asked me if the pump was stuck (machet). I became a little concerned when I thought he said there was a corpse (mayet) in the well.  Of course, things got even more confused when I replied, “No, there is just a human head (kapala).” I meant to say, “There is a coconut (kalapa).” So, because of my poor language skills, we were both convinced that the other person saw a dead body in the bottom of the well. In point of fact, it was some palm branches, a pair of shorts, and a couple of coconuts.

Looking back at it today, it seems humorous. But, at the moment it was anything but funny.

We must remember how devastating it would have been for Imam and his family to deal with a body in the bottom of their well. For them, it is so much more than an issue of sanitation. Imam and his family are devout Muslims, and a dead body is a ceremonially unclean thing. Its presence would have had a significant negative religious impact on them.

It was this moment that Imam and I first became friends. And, we would get together a few times over the course of the next couple of weeks and have conversations, largely about religion. In those conversations, it became clear to me that there was a great distinction between Imam’s faith and my own. One of the most powerful differences was that Imam’s faith gave him no assurance for where he would spend eternity. And, as we sat on his tsunami-damage porch surrounded by neighborhoods destroyed by the earthquake and its aftermath and talked about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, several of whom were close to Imam, there was absolutely no comfort for him and his fellow Muslims that those souls would be in Paradise. “If God wills,” was the only possibility of hope.

This fact struck me as particularly tragic. For, had the tsunami hit my hometown, grief-stricken though I would be, I would have some measure of comfort that my family and friends who had passed would be in a better place. Isn’t that one of the simple and profound aspects of our faith that comforts us all, all of us who have lost some dear?

quranI tell this story to illustrate one of the characteristics of the Muslim faith that we discuss in my World Literature class. The first Sura of the Al-Qur’an says this:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,

The Compassionate, the Merciful,

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!

You alone we worship, and to you alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.

We can learn a lot about Muslim theology from this first Sura, a passage that is quoted daily by Muslims around the globe.

What does this text teach its readers about humanity?

The people on earth are divided into two groups: 1) the favored and 2) those who have incurred God’s wrath. Those who are favored are those who have followed the straight path. Those who incur God’s wrath are those that have gone astray.

What does this text teach its readers about who ‘God” is?

God is the Lord of Judgment, judging people to either be deserving of his favor or deserving of his wrath. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe. The god of the Qur’an is not a god who acts on our behalf. He sits and judges.

What does this text teach its readers about right or wrong or how to appease God with our actions?

As humans we must attain God’s favor by following the straight path, lest we incur his wrath instead. For Muslims, this verse, recited during prayer five times a day, is a constant reminder that the only way to win God’s favor is to stay on the straight path. Their ticket to Paradise is not dependent on God’s mercy or Grace, but on their own righteous works.

How does this faith contrast with our own faith?

Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that we have all gone astray. In the biblical view, all are deserving of God’s wrath. But, the verse also reminds us that Jesus has shouldered all the iniquities for us all. This is the great assurance that the gospel gives its followers. It is that we know that we are deserving of God’s wrath, but through his grace we have been spared that wrath.

In the 21st century, as we witness the atrocities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, my students have a lot of questions about Islam. And, although I am unable to answer all of those questions in one class period, I hope my students understand this one thing: one primary belief that motivates a segment of the Muslim population to do such horrible things is the simple understanding that they must win their way to Paradise. They must prove their devotion and righteousness to their Allah. Muslims are literally scared to death that their good deeds will not outweigh their evil deeds and they will spend eternity in hell. At its heart, the problem of militant Islam is a spiritual problem.

Once again, as we observed in our reading of the Hindu Gita,  we are made aware that what we believe informs what we do. Faith matters.

DS

Belief Matters, Part 1: The Bhagavad-Gita and Belief

In my World Literature course my students spend some time reading excerpts from texts that represent the top three religions on planet earth: Augustine’s Confessions (Christianity), The Bhagavad-Gita (Hinduism), and Al-Quran (Islam). I would like to spend two blog posts discussing what we talk about in our literature class pertaining to those texts.

Today, I would like to share just a little about some of what we discuss when we read the Hindu text of The Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad_Gita_LgThe Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) is a Sanskrit poem from the first century B.C. in which a warrior is instructed in how to fulfill his sacred duty (to shed blood in war) and still continue on his spiritual path to enlightenment.  The Gita is a well-known Hindu text that has influenced poets such and Henry David Thoreau and important Indian leaders like Ghandi.  As a work of poetry, it certainly possesses a distinct sense of aesthetic beauty, and as a piece of literature it utilizes some important rhetorical devices.

We examine the text from both of those aspects. Yet, as part of my student’s exposure to important sacred texts of the world’s largest religions, we also spend a good deal of time on the theological aspects of the poem.

Here are a few of the questions we consider:

What does the text teach its readers about humanity?

Just as the embodied self

enters childhood, youth, and old age,

so does it enter another body;

this does not confound a steadfast man (2.13).

This stanza verbalizes the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Hindus believe that the soul or “embodied self” is reincarnated by changing bodies like we change clothes. Furthermore, when the warrior expresses grief over killing his blood  relatives  he is reminded that, because the self is eternal, “He who thinks this self a killer fail to understand; it does not kill, nor is it killed.”  In other words, those who kill the body are not killers because one cannot kill the soul.

The warrior is also reminded that his purpose in life is to fulfill the sacred duty of the caste to which he belongs. As a warrior his sacred duty includes waging war when necessary to protect his people and defend the faith.

What does the text claim about who god is and what god is like?

In the Gita Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu the supreme god, appears to the warrior in order to instruct him and encourage him to fulfill his sacred duty. At the end of the conversation, Vishnu reveals the “true majesty of his form” to the warrior.

It was a multiform, wondrous vision,

with countless mouths and eyes

and celestial ornaments,

brandishing many divine weapons (11.10).

Arjuna (the warrior) saw all the universe

in its many ways and parts,

standing as one in the body

of the god of gods (11.13).

The supreme Hindu god is a henotheistic divinity. Unlike monotheism, which claims that there is only one true God, and polytheism, which claims that there are a host of gods, henotheistic religions believe there are many gods who are all parts and incarnations of the one, supreme god. Additionally, in the teachings of the Gita the reader understands that all of the universe is part of the god of gods. Creation, including all the eternal souls of men, are inseparable from the body of the supreme god.

What does the text communicate about good/evil, right/wrong?

The sins of men who violate

the family create disorder in society

that undermines the constant laws

of caste and family duty.

The standard of right and wrong is based on the laws that govern the caste system. Doing good means fulfilling the sacred duty of your caste system.

Additionally, when a man gives up desires and is content with only fulfilling his sacred duty, then his insight is sure, or he is on the path to enlightenment, which will eventually end his cycle of rebirth.

How do these theological claims compare or contrast to your own beliefs?Slumdog-Millionaire

It is important for my students to consider the aspects of Hindu belief that contradict teachings of the Bible. While in Hindu teaching humans are eternal, disembodied selves, the Bible teaches that humans are created at a specific time and, while our souls will live on after our bodies die, our bodies and souls are uniquely bound to each other. No reincarnation in Christianity.

Furthermore, the God of the Bible  is the only God and he is holy, separate from his creation. He has always existed, but the universe was created in a particular space and time apart from Him. All the elements of creation, including us, are not God, or even part of God. Only God is holy and perfect.

Finally, there is a moral standard of perfection that is expected of all humanity. That standard is the same for everyone, regardless of race, socio-economic class, language group, geographical location, or gender. And, we have all fallen short of that standard.

We illustrate the reading of the text with a viewing of the film Slumdog Millionaire. The primary reason I show that film is to give students an exposure to the sights and sounds of modern India. For students who have never left U.S. soil, it is impossible to imagine the abject poverty of India and the regular daily occurrence of socio-economic injustice that characterizes life for the vast majority of Indians.

I want my students to understand two simple things. First, despite what our pluralistic society teaches us, all paths to “God” are not the same. There are important, significant, and contradictory differences between the world’s major religions. Second, what you believe really does matter to real people. I know that what I am saying is not politically correct, but I believe it with my whole being. Life experience and scripture both confirm to me that your religious belief and practice makes a real and significant impact on the everyday lives of normal people.

When my students see the children swimming in a dirty river full of garbage or being sold into slavery as professional beggars, I want them to know that those things really happen and that the foundational belief system of Hinduism allows and even encourages those injustices to happen.

There is no doubt that people of religious faiths may stand up and object to human rights’ abuses, and that human rights’ abuses happen on every continent regardless of the prevailing religion. However, India is the way India is in large part to its prevailing religious belief. What you believe makes a real difference in the lives of real people.

DS

You Should Do Shakespeare! (or… How We Choose Our Season)

Once, after a performance of a contemporary play, a patron told me, “You should do Shakespeare.”

Sometimes it’s hard to find the grace to respond with kindness when I’d rather be banging my head against a wall.  Repeatedly.  Then I remind myself… they don’t know the whole story.

ScriptsChoosing a production season for any theatre, whether professional or educational, is a painstaking process.  We can agonize over it for months before we commit to next year’s work, essentially because there are several criteria that guide our selection of a play.

I’d like to share those with you.

1. Is the cast size consistent with the talent in the department?

It is folly to choose a show we have no hopes of casting.  Though our productions are open to the entire student body, we have found that only those who have a deep love for the theatre are willing to commit to the demanding schedule required of any show.  This limits the size of the cast and, as a result, the type of shows we can do.

2. Does the production have academic and thematic merit?

We are a university committed to the intellectual growth of our students.  If we say we want them to think critically, then the material must demand intellectual inquiry through skillful storytelling and ask the participants thought-provoking questions regarding the content.  Wrestling with great literature helps our students think and problem solve beyond everyday expectations.

3. Has the play been recognized for excellence?

This is closely tied to #2.  Usually those plays that have been popularized through strong word-of-mouth reviews, legitimate awards, or favorable critiques provide the richest academic and artistic challenges.

4. Will the demands of the show exceed our budget or workforce?

Selecting the wrong show can sabotage an entire department in one of two ways: we can break the bank by committing to a play that demands too much of our budget or we can break our backs by selecting an overly ambitious show that will drain our workforce.  With a season of at least four shows, we must find a healthy and economically sound balance.

5. Will the experience stretch, challenge, and grow our students (both on stage and behind the scenes) in a way that prepares them for professional or graduate-level academic work?

Students should experience a wide range of genres, forms, and styles from across history to better understand the discipline.  We must also prepare our students for the real world by engaging them with the work out there now.  They are challenged to make bold choices, take risks, engage their faith, and set their boundaries.  It’s not all black and white, and our students must know how to dialogue about their limits in a profession that won’t necessarily sympathize with them.

6. Does the play reflect the faith and values of the institution?

This question is best answered by our Theatre Arts and Christian Worldview statement found on our website and in our programs.  In short, we absolutely want to maintain the integrity and mission of our university.  We love to discuss the redemptive, cautionary, or unresolved conflicts found in the work we do.  As a result, we often schedule talkback sessions after particular performances to help answer the difficult questions.  Our goal is to balance the needs of our students with the expectations of our patrons.

7. Is it something we personally want to work on for 6-9 months?

That’s about how long we spend on any one show, often overlapping the various needs as the schedule demands.  While one show is in performance, another is being designed, while another is being researched and conceptualized.  If we aren’t passionate about the work we have chosen, the end product will suffer.

2014-15 Production Season

2014-15 Production Season

I love Shakespeare’s work and would welcome the opportunity to produce any one of his histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances if we can do the play justice.  However, large cast sizes, multiple male roles, few female opportunities, lengthy run times, multiple sets, iambic pentameter (with numerous variations), difficult thematic content, and some of the most beloved stories ever told make his work a significant challenge for a department of our size.

So we work to grow.  We try hard to recruit top-tier students.  We train them in voice and movement, acting and design, analysis and history.  We build our stock of period clothing, weapons, and props.  We dream big and problem solve within the limitations of our facilities.  We press on in the hopes that one day we will do Shakespeare.

But until that time comes, we strive to meet the immediate needs of the department in a way that gives students opportunities that are just as rich and rewarding.  Maybe it will be Miller, Ruhl, Brecht, Molière, or Sondheim, but it will be just as worthy.

TEL

Ride the Storm

About this time every year, I start seeing more and more students with a perpetual scowl on their faces. Never mind that Thanksgiving Break is just around the corner – these students are STRESSED!

Photo Credit: Amy McTigue via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Amy McTigue via Compfight cc

Maybe you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of homework and projects, or you just can barely see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Regardless, most students (and professors!) experience some tension about this time of the semester.

But if we are followers of Christ, and truly trust God, what is there to be worried about?

I’m talking to myself just as much as anyone right now… it is so easy to try and control everything and worry that it won’t work out.

Did I study hard enough for this test? Did I work hard enough on this report? Will they like it? Will people be disappointed in me? What should I do now? How am I going to fix this problem?….

Thankfully, God hasn’t left us alone to flounder under the pressure.

Check out Psalm 55:22-23 (MSG)

Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders—
    he’ll carry your load, he’ll help you out.
He’ll never let good people
    topple into ruin.
But you, God, will throw the others
    into a muddy bog,
Cut the lifespan of assassins
    and traitors in half.

And I trust in you.

Pretty cool, right?

I can’t say that I personally know many assassins, but it is comforting to know that God has a plan to cut their lifespans short!

There are lots of “Christian-ese” phrases that point to the fact that we already know we’re not supposed to worry, and that instead we should trust God:

  • Put your trust in the Lord
  • Let go, and let God
  • When God closes a door, He opens a window
  • God never gives us more than we can handle

You can probably think of some more yourself.

But when was the last time you said that to yourself in the middle of a freak-out? And even if you did, did it stop you from worrying?

This church sign points out that every Christian already knows we are supposed to trust God, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Photo Credit: Joshua Daniel O. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Joshua Daniel O. via Compfight cc

So, I hope you can take some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone when you feel pressure.

Also, you’re not alone when you struggle to stop worrying and trust God.

You may feel alone if you’re fighting to do well in classes, but you don’t have to! Every ETBU professor would love to help a student in trouble. All you have to do is ask!

I read something online today that told the story of a one-fingered king. The king cursed God, blaming Him for the loss of a finger. What the king didn’t know what that God planned to save his life all along – He just used the lack of a finger to do it!

Photo Credit: tim caynes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tim caynes via Compfight cc

The point of that story, and my post, is that it’s important for us to remember that we don’t know God’s plan for our lives.

When it seems like stuff is going wrong and there’s no way out, it may be exactly there God wants you!

The best thing all of us can do is try and ride the storm, and keep trusting that God will work everything out like He wants it!

AL

WWJT: What Would Jesus Tweet?

Last week,  Dr. Holloway asked me to join in a discussion about Christianity and social media. There are so many questions to consider on this topic!

  • How can we, as Christians, most effectively make use of this new technology?
  • Why should we devote time to this stuff?
  • What are Christians supposed to say on Twitter… or Facebook… or Vine… or LinkedIn… or Google+… or YouTube… ?
  • How can I authentically share Christ online without seeming phony?
  • What if I’m not talking to the person I think I’m talking to?

This is just a very brief list of some of the things I considered talking about. And when we met, I realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface!

Drs. Holloway, Bashaw, Brown, and I met with a group of 7-10 students to discuss last Thursday.

As a communication studies scholar, I was planning to talk about the Internet’s power to reach an infinite number of people whom we would otherwise not have access to, and dispel some of the nasty rumors about talk online.

So that’s what I did.

I pointed out that online, you can find someone who shares your interest no matter how weird or random. You can even sometimes meet up with them to do your hobby together!

Photo Credit: dfarrell07 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: dfarrell07 via Compfight cc

I also mentioned that even though we have a stereotype of people sitting in their parents’ basement, in the dark, with no hope of a future, chatting online, it’s hardly ever like that.

Yes, there are scary people online, and sometimes they will stalk and/or hurt you, but not usually.

A darker side-effect of our online communication was something that Dr. Bashaw brought up: Our tenancy to be the meanest, least compromising parts of ourselves online.

Photo Credit: SpeakingJargon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: SpeakingJargon via Compfight cc

This is truly scary, and certainly not a Christian way of going about things, but we all fall into the trap now and again.

Mainly, it’s because you are anonymous online. In Communication Studies, we call this depersonalization – a fancy way to say that you don’t feel like the people you are talking to online are actually people with feelings, and you don’t think you will ever be confronted about saying something mean.

Obviously, in the time that Jesus was walking the Earth, they did not have to worry about tweets, or Facebook posts, or online comments. But I can’t help but think of the Pharisees here…

People who rarely got called out for their hypocrisy, and didn’t really care if they did? People who thought they were ALWAYS right, and didn’t worry about offending others?

…I’m sensing a parallel…

In Matthew 12, we learn of God’s teachings in regards to being careful about what you say.

How can you say good things when you are sinful? The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man will speak good things because of the good in him. A bad man will speak bad things because of the sin in him. 36 I say to you, on the day men stand before God, they will have to give an answer for every word they have spoken that was not important. 37 For it is by your words that you will not be guilty and it is by your words that you will be guilty.”

Can’t we think of online words like this too? Just because you can’t see a person on the other side of your screen does not mean that they aren’t there, or that they aren’t comparing all of your comments to that one time you mentioned that you are a Christian!

Sometimes it is hard to remember if you come from a Christian family and attend a Christian school, but there are people out there just waiting to catch a “self-proclaimed Christian” in a moment of weakness, frustration, hypocrisy, sin, etc.

Photo Credit: yewenyi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: yewenyi via Compfight cc

It only takes one time, and the Internet is forever – put something online today, and it can come back to haunt you in 10 days or 10 years!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Internet is an awesome power that can be used for good or evil.

Monitor your posts of all kinds, and just maybe one or one million people will learn about Jesus through what you put online.

You don’t want to be thought of like this guy!

AL

Life Hacks for … Life?

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

Do you have a big project that you’re trying to finish before the end of the semester, the year, or the decade?

Maybe it’s a big paper at the end of the semester, or to graduate from college. Maybe you signed up for the Bible in a Year program and, like me, have fallen off the wagon a bit. Maybe you have big plans for your career or grad school or writing a book. Maybe you’re working up to sharing Christ with a friend.

I recently read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about working on a writing project: Scholarly Writing Hacks

The idea is that you have to set aside a time every day to write, and that you need encouragement from other writers to keep you going. Then you will achieve success and come out with at least a solid draft of your paper/book.

About a year and a half ago I finished my biggest writing undertaking: the Dissertation. Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuun.

Photo Credit: chnrdu via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: chnrdu via Compfight cc

I can’t say that I purposefully did any of these tricks, but looking back on it I can see that I did try to write a little most days and I did have others to talk to about it with. So maybe it does work. Maybe I’ll try it out on my next paper!

The point that really struck me about this though is that these tricks would work for anything – not just writing.

If you’re trying to read the Bible in a year, setting aside time to read every day is important. Otherwise, you’ll never make it. And if you’re trying to finish a big paper, putting if off until the last days WILL NOT WORK!

In either of these situations, you need people around you to encourage you, keep you going, and give you guidance.

It works for scholarly writing, and it works for being a Christian.

You can easily see in the Bible that there are many references to the need for community and accountability partners. Like in Hebrews 10:24-25 -

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have days that I would like to just relax and be lazy… not calling that friend to check on her, or not keeping up with my Bible reading.

by Jimmie @ Flickr commons

by Jimmie @ Flickr commons

I also have times when I struggle to make the right decision, or need some help deciding what to do. And that is where community comes in!

I hope that everyone here at ETBU has found a sense of community and that we can lean on each other in times of need. But it’s hard to be vulnerable!

Sometimes all we can do is open up to that one special person, make sure we listen for God’s guidance, and surround ourselves with community. If we work on it every day and talk with others walking the walk we just may have a chance at finishing the biggest project of all - following God’s plan for our lives. 

AL

Walk the Walk… in secret?

After my last post about Small Group Communication class working with Mission Marshall, I got some questions about what communication has to do with a service project, and why we would count that as a class requirement.

So that got me thinking… an easy answer would be that the point of Small Group Communication class is to learn how to effectively work in groups, be a leader, and make your group stronger. Therefore you need a group project, and what’s better than applying your skills in a real life situation?

Photo Credit: sparklefish via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sparklefish via Compfight cc

But that doesn’t speak to why I felt I could write about this project and class in a blog focused on integrating faith an learning in the classroom.

I’ll admit, I’m very new to the idea of talking about faith at school. You might know that I got my PhD, and a lot of my teaching experience, at the University of Kansas. Great school, but public. There was absolutely no room for religious views of any kind at school.

But, we did have Small Group Communication class, and my adviser developed this idea of connecting the class with an outside organization so that we could also make it a service project.

You did not have to teach the class that way. A board game creation project would also fit the bill.

But thinking back now, those of us who adopted the service project model all had something in common… I think we were all Christians!

We just did not talk about it. Ever.

For me, the connection between doing a service project and integrating faith and learning is clear. Didn’t God teach us that every helping hand we extend is the same as helping Him?

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’” Matthew 25:34-36

Photo Credit: the tartanpodcast via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: the tartanpodcast via Compfight cc

At ETBU, we talk a lot about faith in the classroom. Professors are encouraged to share their own faith stories, pray with students, and involve Bible verses as they are relevant.

We do a great job of talking the talk in the classroom.

I think all of us are also walking the walk with God, but maybe in a more private manner. How often are classes involved in feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked?

How often do we help students walk the walk in public?

When I was at KU, I was involved with a great church and felt that I was doing my best to serve others… on Sunday. Then I would return to work, where I was forbidden to share my religion in class, and leave it all behind. A good idea? Of course not, but I caved to the pressure.

The one place where I could broadcast my Christian values clearly and reach out to help others with my students was through the service project in Small Group Communication. And I think we were all doing that, we just didn’t talk about it in those terms.

Moral of the story? I think it’s threefold:

  • I am so happy to have the freedom at ETBU to talk about our Christian walks openly with students!
  • Serving others IS serving God.
  • Doing more than talking about faith may be a better measure of the integration of faith and learning.

AL

Refugee. Flight. Displacement.

Photo Credit: Zoriah via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Zoriah via Compfight cc

Refugee.  Flight.  Displacement.

In The Idea of a Christian College Arthur Holmes reminds us that a Christian college, and by implication those vocationally pursuing the study and application of Christian studies, must rigorously pursue the intersection of their faith within the wholeness of the human experience because “we live in a secular society that compartmentalizes religion and treats it as peripheral or even irrelevant to large areas of life and thought” (Holmes, 9).  The biblical worldview however clearly and consistently admonishes believers to positively contribute to a vision of human flourishing.

People of Christian faith are to live out what the New Testament describes as “good news” in the midst of contexts that are all too often divided, conflicted, and trapped in poverty.  As one example, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2014 the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people for the first time since World War II.  As the UNHCR rightly notes, “1 family torn apart by war is too many.”  The following facts from the United Nations are indeed sobering:

  • 43.3 million people worldwide forcible displaced due to conflict and persecution
  • 46% of these individuals are children
  • 15 million of these individuals are uprooted from their home country
  • 27 million remain within their country but are internally displaced due to conflict
  • Many lack the essentials of life such as clean water, food and protection from violence and abuse.

These are real people with real needs. (Click to Tweet)

Moreover, the call to stand alongside displaced individuals is central to the biblical narrative.  In fact, there is an entire book within the Old Testament addressing this subject.  The book of Ruth is in part dedicated to establishing an ethic that asks people of faith to contribute to human flourishing by standing alongside those living in the midst of difficult cross-cultural situations.

Ruth is the story of a young woman who found herself in Israel, a country that differed in culture, religion and background from the one in which she was raised.  And what is more, there was a long history of suspicion, hostility and violent armed conflict between the peoples of Moab and Judah.  Imagine yourself as a young, single woman with the responsibility of providing for an older relative, with only limited access to finances, separated from family and friends, and suspiciously viewed with ethnic hostility in all of your daily interactions.

Ruth was forced to glean the leftover grain that was first missed by harvesters and servants, and it is in this context of difficulty and poverty that that the Biblical story introduces Boaz.  Having compassion, Boaz extended an open hand to Ruth and helped her with financial and material goods.  Over the course of the grain and barley harvests this initial relationship grew.

Ruth is usually told as a story of love and marriage or as a foreshadowed celebration of King David or of Christ himself.  These interpretations may be true.  But what is often lost in these themes is the reality that this is also a story about crossing boundaries, of an immigrant who came from a country that was deemed “suspicious,” and about overcoming prejudices by showing compassion and financial generosity specifically to the displaced within our communities.

The book of Ruth is a reminder that people of faith are called to stand in prayer, friendship and practical support with all those within our community who have been displaced, especially those who have experienced the traumas of violence, war and forced flight.  This is where faith, friendship and vocational discipline intersect. (Click to Tweet)

For many in the United States this reality has taken on new meaning as 50,000 unaccompanied minors have sought asylum over the last twelve months.  As the Baptist World Alliance recently noted, many of these individuals are “victimized by separation from their families, economic exploitation, lack of medical care and education [and] discrimination.”  It is our responsibility to “respond to the need for spiritual support and pastoral services for these children” and to “create welcoming communities.”

Behind the overwhelming numerical statistics are individuals who can be influenced by individuals.  This is the power of one connecting with one.  In a way, after all, the believer in Christ is to see themselves in the words of Hebrews 11:13, “[as] foreigners and strangers on earth.”

People of faith let us be among the first who recognize fellow sojourners and to follow the call of the biblical narrative by welcoming the refugees and displaced within our communities.  This week would you commit to doing one of the following:

  • Praying every day for seven days for the refugees and displaced around the world
  • Seeking greater awareness about the reality of the 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have sought asylum along the southern border of the United States
  • Reaching out and befriending an immigrant or refugee in your context and to help build a community of welcome

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Faith outside of Church

It’s not a simple question.  Where does my faith intersect with my discipline?  I mean, I grew up as a preacher’s kid going to Sunday school and church and camp and Bible drill and more church… even Wednesday night business meetings. I checked all the right boxes on my envelope and turned it into the offering plate. I memorized Scriptures to win a bicycle, sang in the youth choir, and went to vacation Bible school and mission trips. Born and raised Southern Baptist, but is that my faith?

I loved math and science.  I studied the earth, the sky, the outdoors, animals and the wonders of nature.  I wanted to be an astronaut or scientist.  And through high school struggled with how my faith fit with science.

I tried to merge the two areas of my life by going to a small Christian college, East Texas Baptist College (ETBC…I was here before U.) and majoring in biology.  As with most liberal arts colleges, ETBU was not known for its science education. You know, the science professors here probably couldn’t get a job at a real university so they settled for teaching at a liberal arts college.  Still I enjoyed my classes, and although the coursework was more challenging than high school, I made A’s and had plenty of time for extracurricular activities such as Christian ministries as well as pranks other social activities.

It was during these years that I discovered my so called faith was really more religion than relationship.  I spent the first two years of college as a bed-side Baptist playing the religion game. Then at one of the chapels I didn’t sleep in, or a BSU revival week, or a Bible study in the dorm, or somewhere it clicked that the relationship was more important than the religion. Even Jesus said that eternal life was getting to know God and His Son (John 17:3). The Bible became a fountain of knowledge about Jesus and God (even the Old Testament). My faith was flourishing. Obviously I needed to become a minister right? I added a minor in religion. That would take care of that faith and discipline problem.

Still had a love of science… Can a scientist be a minister?

I received my degree in biology and scored high enough to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University.  When I entered Texas A&M, I was directed to the large animal surgical ward in a neuroscience lab.  I found the professor in the middle of surgery in which he was inserting a probe into a cow’s brain.  As he operated, he described the various regions of the brain as the probe passed through them.  As he talked, I found myself totally ignorant of any of the anatomy he described.  I was embarrassed with my lack of knowledge and, in my mind, blamed the poor instruction I received in my undergraduate anatomy class.  I figured that the instructor had skipped those portions of the textbook because he did not know the material.  Of course, what should you expect from a small college where the science professors were probably second-rate or last-chance employees?

Sometime later, I was moving boxes of my old textbooks when a lab manual fell on the ground.  It was my human anatomy lab manual from ETBU. Remembering my embarrassment in the surgical ward, I took this opportunity to revisit my disgust of the former anatomy professor. I turned to the nervous system section and found a picture of the brain.  Instead of being skipped over, I found every blank filled in with proper terminology.  On top of that, it was in my own handwriting!

Not only had the professor gone over this material, he had covered it completely.  Apparently, my learning was not learning after all, but it was short-term memorizing.  I had crammed for the tests and made the grade, but did not learn the material.  My graduate work at Texas A&M took longer to finish than it should have.  I had to spend some of that time relearning the things I had not truly learned during my undergraduate years.

Intersection of faith and discipline? How about working for the Lord and not for men (Colossians 3:23)? Doing my best in all endeavors, including studying. Is that faith?

Faith intersects my Life… Not just at church. Now I look for those intersections in everyday life.  I hope to let you in on the larger intersections I find…

Ironically, I became a biology professor at ETBU, (insert God’s laughter here), where I try to encourage my students to learn it right the first time. And this job was not my last choice…It was my calling and my ministry!

The Fear Factor

I went to an academic conference over the summer.  Several of the speakers zeroed in on an area of research that is finally getting some traction.  The question they addressed concerned student success in college.  One survey, taken at the Community College of Baltimore, discovered two primary reasons students drop out of school—They are overwhelmed by life problems.  Or they are overwhelmed by affective issues, mostly centered around “fear, anxiety, and a suspicion that they are just not college material.”

In other words, ability is usually not the problem.  Life is. The fear factor is.

So, how do we help these students?  The suggestions given are common-sense ones—“Create a safe atmosphere” in the classroom.  Find a balance between “flexibility” and “tough love”—between “compassion” and “firmness” (a lot harder than it might sound).  Implement “confidence-building experiences” early on in the semester.

And be aware of mindsets—because students will have “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that a fixed mindset is “the belief that intelligence is fixed [which] dampens students’ motivation to learn, makes them afraid of effort, and makes them want to quit after a setback.”

So when classes get hard, students give up.  Because when they struggle, Dweck says, they “feel dumb.”

Do I have students who have this mindset?  Of course.  But my confession is this: Sometimes I have the same mindset.

I fear failure.  And in my profession, where performance is evaluated and measured each semester, I often feel like I’m not measuring up.  And when I struggle, I feel dumb.  This doesn’t motivate me to be better.  It discourages me and makes me want to give up.

I guess the question is this: How do we establish growth mindsets?  How do we establish the belief that just because something is challenging and causes us to struggle, this is not a reflection of our intelligence or ability?

I’m pretty sure that most of the speakers at the conference did not embrace a Christian world view.  If there is such a thing as grace, I learned, it is merely a human grace we extend to each other.  And as teachers, we know the expectations of gracious teaching.  Help students to realize their potential and to be true to themselves.   Encourage.  Uplift.  Reinforce.  Reaffirm.  We do this because we care about them.  But we do this too because we care about retention, and we must always be looking for ways to keep students from dropping out.

But is this all there is to teaching?  Just getting students to finish college and get jobs so we not only identify them as successful but ourselves, as well?

I worry a lot about leaving God out of this equation.

Do I care for my students? Yes.  Do I want them to graduate?  Yes.  Do I want them to get good jobs?  Yes.  But. . . .

If this is all we are about as educators, we only address part of the need.  Because each one of us has a soul.  And souls don’t have expiration dates, like milk.  We will all live forever.

I take education seriously.  But I take eternity much more seriously.

I admit to my students that college is a big thing.  But it is not the whole thing.  God has opened this door of opportunity for you, I tell them, so seize it.  Work hard and be successful, not to bring honor to yourself, but to bring glory to God.

And when they get scared.  When they start to struggle.  When the challenges seem insurmountable.  I remind them that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength.  Trust Him, I say.  Lean on Him.  Because He is real and He is relevant.

I work hard in the classroom.  I take the material seriously.  But I am also serious about modeling a life that glorifies God, the author of grace.  If they don’t see that life in me, I have failed.  Measure me all you want.  Evaluate me all you want.  But I have a greater judge.  And when I stand before Him, I hope I hear these words—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I want that for me. I want that for you.  I want that for my students.  Because that is true success.  

SC