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

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day (or… The Creative Process)

The creative process is a fickle phenomenon.

As artists, I firmly believe we are compelled to create.  It’s more than just a passing interest—it’s a consuming need to express our world, its beauty, its hardships, its messed-up-murky-monkey business… all in an attempt to make sense of it…

or tell a memorable story…

or inspire change…

or wrestle with the dark questions.

I believe our ability to create—following the example of our great Creator—is an amazing gift.  It’s also incredibly hard and humbling.

A friend (and fellow performer) once shared this description of the creative process.

This is awesome.
This is hard.
This is awful.
I’m awful.
This might be okay.
This is awesome!

That so perfectly sums it up.

We are often terribly excited to begin a project… and then we quickly realize how ambitious it is.  How intimidating.  Too much to do and to get right.  Questions and doubts begin, asking whether or not the work will ever come together.  At points, we may even loathe the process, fearing that it will never reap the beauty we hope for.

Then we start blaming ourselves.  Maybe we’re the reason it’s not coming together.  Maybe we’re the reason everything is terrible.  Personally, I’ve been a part of near 100 productions in my lifetime, and the pattern has never changed.  We never seem to remember, in the throes of a creative process, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Rome.  Lovely. "Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commonshttp://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Na_Koloseum_i_K_Franciszki_Rzymianki.JPG#/media/File:Na_Koloseum_i_K_Franciszki_Rzymianki.JPG

Rome. Lovely.
“Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, we push through… and it gets a little better.  A little sharper.  A little stronger.  We start to see glimmers of the huge potential this project has.  And we sprint towards that goal.

Personally, I never want to tackle a production that is too easy.  I’m constantly looking for a play or musical that will challenge the students, our limited facilities, and our budget constraints.  I don’t think we grow as artists if we stick to the same old routine.  I don’t think we educate our audiences either if we just give them some rehashed product they’ve come to expect.

Part of the love/hate relationship with mounting a production is the thrill of tackling something new compounded with the effort and energy it takes to make it a realization.  Uncharted territory is exciting.  However, if fear takes over and we settle for status quo, then our art suffers terribly.  I have known several directors who routinely return to the same production they did a few years ago.  Their repertoire seems to be limited to about 15 plays total.  I will never understand why they do that, especially when there are so many incredible works which have been available to produce since the dawn of time, the written word, and Aeschylus.

I exaggerate a little, but you understand my point.

We must overcome our fear of the difficult, of the unknown, and of our limits as created beings.  Let me be clear.  I’m not advocating some unwise regimen of extremist behavior here.  Our art cannot be our idol.  I’m talking about removing the chains of the “what ifs” and exchanging them for the satisfaction that says, “Look what we did!”

To create is to be brave.  To step out in faith and exercise the gifts we have been given by the Father.

There are so many subsets of the creative process contained within a production… so many ways to be brave.

  1. The playwright’s work to create the world of the play
  2. The director’s approach to realize that world
  3. The designers’ renderings, presentations, and models
  4. The technical director’s oversight of the build
  5. The actors’ wrestling with the characters and motivations
  6. The choreographer’s interpretation
  7. The scenic charge artist’s detail and nuance
  8. The stitcher’s embellishment
  9. The composer’s/sound designer’s aural story

And on and on and on.  Everybody creates!  Everybody works to contribute their special skill or gift to this GINORMOUS—or, honestly, it could be “simple”—product that will invite hundreds of others (spectators!) to judge their work.

Whoa.

WHY DO WE DO THAT?

Why on earth do we exert so much effort, engage in vulnerability, and invite criticism?

Because we cannot keep our work to ourselves.

Theatre is communal.  It loses its value without an audience.

This is where I think television and film fall short.  Though an audience may engage with the material presented on the screen, there is no give and take that is reciprocal.  The film doesn’t change based upon how you react to it.  But the theatre…

Every performance is different.  Connection.  Inflection.  Chemistry.  Comedy.  Rhythm.  It’s so wonderfully dynamic.  You know exactly where you stand with an audience for each performance, and it is always some place new and unchartered.  You know when you connect and when the crickets are chirping.  It’s an unbelievable exchange of emotion and thought that goes both ways.  You share space.  Air.  Energy.

And, at the end, polite applause.  Sometimes ridicule.  Silence.  Judgment.  Questions.  Strong opinions.

Or…

Praise.  Like-minded excitement.  Dialogue.  Thoughtful consideration.  Enthusiastic exchange of ideas.

Communion.

TEL

Providence and my Fancy Watch

At an early age I was taught about the providence of God. One of the first verses my mother had me memorize was Romans 8:28—“And we know that in all things God works for good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). Knowing that God has good plan for our lives is one of the simple aspects of faith we begin to teach our children.

So, when did I forget the simple, yet oh-so-important, concept of providence?

whole world in his handsAt what point during my “grown-up” time on planet earth did I stop believing that God has a good plan for my life, that he cares about all the little day-to-day things that concern my attention?

I am not sure, but I did forget.

I became aware of this fact this past August when my wife and I moved to Marshall.

It all began the day I lost my watch.

Now, the watch in question is not your ordinary Timex from Target. It is special. It is valuable because of it price—at least 15 times more than I have ever spent on a watch—and because of its origin—it was a gift from my wife’s parents on the day I completed my PhD.

It is the kind of watch that I have always wanted, but would never buy for myself. It is the kind of watch that says that I am a real grown-up, serious about telling time. It is the kind of watch I imagine passing down to my son (which one, I haven’t decided).

So, sometime during the dark hours of our first night in our new home, my watch was quietly removed from the console of my unlocked car in our driveway. It was devastating. I knew that it would be a long time before I could afford another watch like that. I knew that I could also never replace its significance as a gift. I was disappointed, to say the least.

We did all the things you are supposed to do—called the police, asked the neighbors if they saw anything, visited pawn shops, reported the theft to the insurance company—and there seemed to be no hope of ever finding the watch.

After word got around to the neighbors, my colleagues at work, and my family members I remember repeatedly hearing the same phrase from several people, “Oh, I will pray that you find it.”

That phrase, even though I am a God-fearing, Jesus-following, Providence-believing Christian, seemed ridiculous to me.

My educated, grown-up mind told me that it was gone, either sold for easy cash or it had become a permanent part of the wardrobe of the thief that took it. How would prayer miraculously bring the watch back to me? The possibility that God would convince the thief to bring it back or somehow keep it safe in the pawn shop until I arrived to get ti was not just unlikely; it seemed an impossibility to me.

It also seemed absurd to think that God, who must concern himself with all the troubles in the world—starvation in North Korea, wars in the Middle East, poverty in the city where I live, or the plight of small children suffering under unimaginable oppression and abuse—would be concerned in the least bit with a stolen watch.

I told my wife after hearing the “I will pray you will find it” phrase from one individual that I did not want God to give one thought to my watch. It seemed downright selfish to even imagine that God should care about one silly watch, just because it meant a lot to me and I asked him for it. I told her that I would not even pray for God to give my watch back.

But, I prayed it nonetheless. The watch means a great deal to me, and I wanted it back.

The ironic thing is the timing of the missing watch. You see, my wife and I had spent the better part of two years trying to find God’s plan for us. As I neared the completion of my degree we sought out God’s will for us on a daily basis, constantly fretting about where I would get a permanent job, where we would settle.

At the very moment in which we finally found a home, I lost the watch and was not just convinced that I would not find it; I was also convinced that it was too small a thing for God to be concerned with.

The lost watch represented my own questions about the nature of God’s plan for my life. Does God really care about the plan for my life? Does he even care about the little things, like a lost watch?

This lost watch was a synecdoche for my lost soul. That’s a fancy word we English professors use when a small part of something stands in for or represents the whole.

If I really believe that God did not care about my watch, then how could I believe that God did care about the direction of my life?

Eventually, I was calmly resigned to the fact that the watch was lost forever. I was not mad at God. I was just certain that sometimes bad things happen; we move on. It wasn’t God’s fault because it really shouldn’t be any of his concern.

fancy watchWell, as you can see from the picture, that is not the end of the story. One evening, several months later a neighbor came to our house and brought the watch to me. She had found it inside the bushes in front of her house less than a block away from our home. It seems that the thief had a change of heart for whatever reason and tossed the watch away. It lay there gathering dust for months, not a scratch on it.

I have spent a lot of time trying to answer the questions that come to mind when I think about the loss and miraculous return of my fancy watch. Why was it taken? Why did the thief not keep it? Why did several months pass before I found it?

I can’t help but imagine all the tiny little events that happened to ensure that the watch was returned to me. If the thief had understood its true value or completed his/her malevolent plans, it would never have been left behind. If it had fallen outside the bush, it could have been gobbled up by a lawn implement or found by someone else. If my neighbor had not been one of those people who said, “I will pray you get your watch back,” she might not have remembered that it belonged to me.

But, none of those things happened. What did happen is that God saw fit to return the watch to me. And I am grateful.

The best thing about the watch, though, is not how well it tells time. The best thing is that when I look at the time, I am reminded that God does indeed care about my life, even the little things.

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

Is there a Happily Ever After, Daddy?

One night while putting my kids to bed I opted to tell them a story, rather than read them a story. The difference is subtle. When I read them a story, I read the words on the page and show them the pictures illustrating the narration.

When I tell them a story, I put into my own words a given story, usually a fairy tale or bible story, from my own memory. No pictures illustrate the narration, but for some reason they love it. Maybe it is the sound effects I add or the fact that every time I tell a given story it is a little different from the last.

Whatever the case, they now prefer stories I tell more than stories out of a book. Just between you and me, I am beginning to run out of stories.

three bears

One of our favorites is “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”  I admit, my version probably does not remain entirely faithful to the classic tale—Goldilocks eats pancakes or oatmeal, not porridge (What is porridge anyway?).

Yet, just like the original, in the end the Bear family discovers Goldilocks asleep in their home.

I honestly don’t know what is supposed to come after that, but to contemporize the story I used to say that the Bears call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Perhaps that is not the best ending for small children, so now I narrate that the Bears unite Goldilocks with her parents who have been desperately looking for their daughter lost in the woods.

In order to capture the meaning of a story about a lost girl who finds safety and aid under the hospitality of strangers, I end the story with something like, “And Goldilocks returned home safely to her family who had a party because she was safe and well.”

Last week after concluding the story, my daughter asks me, “Did they not live happily ever after, Daddy?”

Now, anyone who lives with small children in the 21st century understands how my five-year-old daughter has been so indoctrinated with Disney fairy tales that she just assumes that every story is supposed to end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”

But, how should I answer that question?

Not wanting to verbalize all the thoughts that went through my head without thinking about the best answer, I answered her with a quick, “That’s not how this story ends, but she and her family were happy to be together again. Good night, I love you.”

Lame, right?

Ever since she asked, I can’t get that question out of my head. I sense I may have missed one of those important moments, a moment where I have an opportunity to teach my child something about the way the world works. Or, about the true meaning of happiness. Or, about anything of value instead of just trying to get her to go to sleep as quickly as possible.

But now that I have had a few days to think about it, I have a couple of responses.

My first response to her question comes from my framework as a literature professor. I read and teach stories for a living, and anyone who has ever sat in my class knows none of the stories I teach end with “happily ever after.” In fact, most stories in any recognized academic canon of literature do not end happily at all. So, my first answer could have been, “No, a lot of stories don’t end with happily ever after. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

My next thought was much like my first. As a “grown-up” pushing 40 I am well aware of the way life goes. I considered answering with, “Nope. Life doesn’t work that way.”

Thankfully, I had the wherewithal not to verbalize either of those responses. I sense that a father should not pass on to his child such a cynical view of life at the ripe age of five.

The side of me that prevented me from giving my first two answers, though, is not simply ruled by common sense. It is that part of me most influenced by my faith.

While nowhere in the Bible does the phrase “happily ever after” appear, there are some important aspects of the Biblical narrative that embody the values of the fairytale ending. The fairytale ending is not merely about happiness; it reflects the simple hope that we can experience all of the best things life has to offer—love, well-being, health, personal success, and the full realization of our individual role in our community.

Therefore, what is the Garden of Eden if not the original plan for happily ever after? And what is heaven if not the ultimate realization of happily ever after? And, we can’t ignore the 28th verse of the 8th chapter of Romans, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

If we can say anything about the Biblical perspective on “happily ever after” it is this: God’s original intent and ultimate hope for mankind is to experience all of the perfection that he created for us. In understanding Romans 8:28 and knowing what our Father has in store for his followers in afterlife, we can say that God intends a “happily ever after” for all of us.

fairytale

Furthermore, if I am completely honest with myself, I still believe in fairy tales.

Certainly, I am a cynical grown-up and a critical thinking academic. But, when I think of the joy and fulfillment I find in my marriage, in raising my children, in going to work everyday, and in the pursuit of my faith, I am convinced that if there is a “happily ever after,” then I am living it.  And, I most definitely hope that what I model in my roles as father and husband demonstrates “happily ever after” to my children.

Yes, life does not work out how we plan. Yes, there is a lot of everyday-stuff-of-life that makes us unhappy. Yes, we all experience loss and regret. Yet, those things don’t prevent me from believing in God’s great plan for all of us, that he wants “happily ever after” for all of us.

So, next time my daughter asks me whether they lived “happily ever after” my answer will just be, “Yes, they did.”

DS

 

Where’s My Death Scene? (or… The Value of Theatre)

When I was a little girl, I often found myself digging through my mother’s closet and drawers to create what I termed “old-timey” clothes.  My mother’s fashion sense was not in any way “old timey”—but her nightgowns could be layered and belted on my frame to resemble the great robes of eighteenth-century royalty.  It fascinated me that people from long ago did not attire themselves as we did in the early 1980s, and I wanted to explore that with my own “designs” and imagination.

I was also a pretty voracious reader.  After reading Little Women (the abridged version) as a third grader, I would spend hours in my room reenacting scenes from Meg’s life.  Not long after, I was orchestrating talent shows and made-up plays from the living room with neighborhood children.  Yes, I was *that* kid.

After one particular living-room performance, which idealistically I believed EVERYONE would want to be a part of, I found myself near tears because one of my friends had categorically refused to participate.  I now understand that she had stage fright, but that didn’t (and still doesn’t) exist in my genetic make-up.  To heap insult upon injury, my mother pulled me aside for a scolding.  My offense?  I had invited the neighborhood into our home without warning and the house was a mess.  Oops.

So it was time to redirect my energies.  My mother happened upon an ad in the paper for a local children’s theatre.  Their production for the summer?  Little Women.  Did I want to audition?  (She had to explain to me what an audition was first.)  Ummm, YES!  And while disappointed to learn I was too young to play Meg, I did receive the part of Beth.  The rest is history.

Beth in Little Women

“Beth” in Little Women

There are two interesting segues to this story.  The first is that the adaptation of Little Women we performed was “cleaned up.”  Spoiler alert.  In this version, nobody died.  Imagine my ten-year-old brain trying to conceive why anybody would want to change a word of Louisa May Alcott’s literary masterpiece.  Where is my death scene?!?!  Everybody should grieve Beth’s sacrifice, illness, and loss!  It was unconscionable.  Eventually, however, I adjusted to the new approach, but it rang false.  I couldn’t articulate it then, but I know today that theatre was/is a way to wrestle with the difficulties of life.  That it was and is necessary to explore grief, love, doubt, inequality, and suffering through art.

The other branch to this story is providential.  Just a few months prior to my audition for Little Women, I heard the gospel presented in church—for what was probably the thousandth time—in a way that finally hit me.

My Sunday-School teacher was a rather rotund, middle-aged man named Buddy.  Buddy was unassuming, humble, and full of kindness.  And I liked him because he didn’t condescend to us.  There was no baby-talk.  There were no silly voices or exaggerated tales.  We were fourth and fifth graders together.  We were the highest echelon of elementary students.  Top dogs.  Almost adults.  And he spoke to us with the gravest sincerity, and his words sunk in deep.

I find it no coincidence that, after meeting Jesus, I should be introduced to the world of theatre.  I wouldn’t understand the connection between the two for years, even as I hungrily gobbled up every theatre opportunity that presented itself, but that fact was that God was preparing me, shaping me, using me as He designed me to be: an artist who is compelled to create in the image of her Creator—obliged to create in an effort to explore, to connect, to relate, to entertain, and to educate.

This brings me to the crux of this post.  An acquaintance of mine queried last year, “What really is the purpose of theatre at a small, liberal arts school?”  Or, we might ask, “What is the value of theatre anywhere?”  What does it do?  What should it do?  The debate is as old as theatre itself.  And there are (generally) two camps that the arguments fall into: theatre as entertainment and theatre as instruction.  Theatre should delight!  Theatre should inform!  Well, yes.  And yes.

There are those who want escapist entertainment that doesn’t require much thought.  They want to be awed by the spectacle and roll with the laughter.  Theatre should be equal parts romance, poetic justice, and action.  It should allow them to set aside their own concerns for a few hours, and delight in the trials and triumphs of some other life.

Then there are those who want to be challenged by something new, who want their perspective challenged, who want to examine the tough subjects through the intimate setting of theatre.  They carry the story with them beyond the curtain call and into the days and weeks ahead, turning it over in their mind and wrestling with it in their conversations.

The best theatre, in my opinion, does both.  It explores relevant topics or stories in a way that captures the audience’s imagination and heart.  It inspires discussion at the very least.  It never bores.  It demands examination and change.  It emboldens and encourages.  It lifts and it humbles.  It heals and it hurts.  Therein lies its purpose and its value.  And I know of no other way to bring so many diverse topics and so many different people together in one collaborative, cathartic event than the theatre.  And to me… that has great worth.

TEL

Why the library?

Library CardTo this day I have in my possession (and still in good working order, I might add) the first barcoded library card that was issued to me by Ms. Wendell Ogidi at the Palestine Public Library. Based on my foggy memory and my early rendition of a cursive signature, I’d guess I was entering fifth or sixth grade. Before that I can remember visiting public libraries as a younger child with my parents in Garland, Texas. I still have memories from the Abbett Elementary library where I was taught about the Dewey Decimal System via an overhead projector and transparency sheets. Last semester Will Walker mentioned that ETBU Library Director, Cynthia Peterson, talked about playing “library” as a child. She’s not the only one. I think my sister might still owe me a fine…

I was a proud member of the Bluebonnet Club both at Story Elementary and at Washington Sixth Grade Center (thank you, Ms. Rozman) where we read and discussed the books nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet Award. I can remember researching Y2K (warning: for some this will make me seem terribly young and for others you might need a definition of Y2K) on dial-up internet connection (perhaps even a CD database) from my public library computer on an orange and black screen. And between libraries and Baptist life, I have developed an affectionate appreciation for the usefulness of a golf pencil…

Me and libraries? We go way back.

So in Spring 2011, when Dr. Dub Oliver asked me during my interview why I chose to be a librarian, I should have been able to produce an answer. Right? Well, sort of.

Before coming to ETBU, I had recently completed my Masters of Library Science degree from the University of North Texas. I also was leaving the first library job I had ever had with the library that grew me in my hometown. Prior to that I had spent time trying to help middle school students learn to love reading as a public school teacher in two great districts.

And so why did I choose the library?

At the time I would have told you that I had always sort of kept librarianship in the back of my mind as a career path. [Note to readers: I’ve lost count the number of people who tell me that they always thought about being a librarian if (fill in the blank with first career choice) hadn’t worked out.] A series of life circumstances and situations made it possible for me to step out of my classroom role and work full-time in Adult Services at my hometown library while I worked on my MLS. At the time I could give you the standard “Why are you a librarian?” answer – I loved reading and being around people who loved reading. Even more than that, I loved learning and now I was surrounded by information. Every day I had the chance to feel like I was sharing something with my community and the work that I was doing made it easier for people to get to the information that they needed to make their lives better. Also, I got to help select the books for the collection – who wouldn’t love that? It sounded like a good enough reason to pick a career to me.

Back to Dr. Dub’s interview question. My initial response was something quippy about there not ever having been a librarian track at church camp. Beyond that, I think I did manage to say something about believing that people should have access to information and that being able to use that information to take charge of your own learning can make all of the difference in a person’s life. That statement remains to be one of the true reasons why I love being a librarian.

Since then, though, I’ve thought more and more about where my Christian faith intersects with my career of librarianship and what it means to be a Christian librarian. In hearing the teaching faculty talk about faith and learning in their disciplines, I’ve begun to ask myself where librarians and the role of the library fits into the larger picture.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who asks these kinds of questions. For me, questions about my calling to the library go something like this:

  • Where does the library and its mission fit into what I believe about my faith?
  • How does what I do on a daily basis serve God or those around me?
  • Why should a Christian, or anyone for that matter, care about information and its use?
  • Just what exactly am I supposed to be doing here, anyway?…

These are some of the very questions I hope to address in this semester’s blog. I hope you’ll join me as we look together at how the world of information intersects with our faith, how reading impacts empathy, why I believe Christians are called to be information literate… and many more reflections from a librarian’s point of view.

Why the library? I think the answer to that question is something I get to continue discovering. As the library and my role within it continues to evolve, I am constantly finding a new reason to enjoy this calling to educate, steward, and serve. I hope you are able to do the same in whatever work that God has called you to join him in doing.

Curious about something? I know the feeling. It’s a job hazard for me. Leave a comment below and I’ll try to get to it in a future post. Happy reading and thanks for following.

EDP

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

If you’ll be my sunny day, I’ll be your shade tree

Photo Credit: DaveLawler via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DaveLawler via Compfight cc

Maybe it was moving to Texas. Maybe it was watching The Voice. Maybe it was a Pizza Hut commercial. But lately, I’ve really been enjoying Blake Shelton’s music.

Judge me if you must, but I’ve always thought he seems like a genuine guy, and I’m always impressed with celebrity couples who can stay married for longer than a few days. Blake is married to Miranda Lambert (a country star in her own right), if you were wondering :)

Why am I talking about Blake Shelton today? Well, to be honest, I heard his Honey Bee song this morning, and it has been stuck in my head all day!

It is a catchy, sweet song! You can click here for the YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZjosn2u1gA, or read the lyrics below

“Honey Bee”

Girl, I been thinkin’ ’bout us
And you know I ain’t good at this stuff
These feelings pilin’ up won’t give me no rest
This might come out a little crazy
A little sideways, yeah maybe
I don’t know how long it’ll take me but I’ll do my best

You’ll be my soft and sweet
I’ll be your strong and steady
You’ll be my glass of wine
I’ll be your shot of whiskey
You’ll be my sunny day
I’ll be your shade tree
You’ll be my honeysuckle
I’ll be your honey bee

Yeah, that came out a little country
But every word was right on the money
And I got you smilin’ honey right back at me
Now hold on ’cause I ain’t done
There’s more where that came from
Well you know I’m just havin’ fun, but seriously

If you’ll be my Louisiana
I’ll be your Mississippi
You’ll be my Little Loretta
I’ll be your Conway Twitty
You’ll be my sugar, baby
I’ll be your sweet iced tea
You’ll be my honeysuckle
I’ll be your honey bee

Your kiss just said it all
I’m glad we had this talk
Nothing left to do but fall in each others arms
I coulda said “I love you”
Coulda wrote you a line or two
Baby, all I know to do is speak right from the heart

If you’ll be my soft and sweet
I’ll be your strong and steady
You’ll be my glass of wine
I’ll be your shot of whiskey
You’ll be my sunny day
I’ll be your shade tree
You’ll be my honeysuckle
I’ll be your honey bee

You’ll be my Louisiana
I’ll be your Mississippi
You’ll be my Little Loretta
I’ll be your Conway Twitty
You’ll be my sugar baby
I’ll be your sweet iced tea
You’ll be my honeysuckle
And I’ll be your honey bee

I’ll be your honey bee 

Photo Credit: R.H.Sumon™ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: R.H.Sumon™ via Compfight cc

Am I crazy, or does this describe God’s plan for marriage? 

Ok, I am a little crazy, but given what I’ve heard Blake Shelton say about God and marriage, I don’t think I’m completely wrong!

I think we’re all pretty familiar with the Genesis story…

Genesis 2:18, 21-23
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper that is right for him. … 21 So the Lord God put the man to sleep as if he were dead. And while he was sleeping, He took one of the bones from his side and closed up the place with flesh. 22 The Lord God made woman from the bone which He had taken from the man. And He brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother, and will be joined to his wife. And they will become one flesh.

One of the many things that can be taken from this passage is that men and women aren’t meant to be alone. God made women for men, to complete them, to help them.

And this is the main message of Honey Bee, I think.

It doesn’t work for all the lyrics, but you certainly can’t have sweet tea without sugar. And you wouldn’t need a tree for shade if it wasn’t sunny outside.

Whether you phrase it in terms of Southern charm and a catchy tune, or not, the fact remains that men and women need each other. And I always love when God’s message comes out in pop culture!

Not to burst your bubble, but in the interest of ethical blogging, it must be noted that Blake Shelton did not write this song. In fact, Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip did.

But I’d like to think that Blake really believes in what he’s singing – otherwise, it wouldn’t be so popular, right?

In a recent interview in Redbook magazine, Blake described how important his wife is to him, and gave his advice on being a good husband.

Photo Credit: Daniel CJ Lee via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Daniel CJ Lee via Compfight cc

 “I think you’ve got to be confident and a little bit of a pushover. Obviously, you’ve got to be a loyal person. I’m never going to listen to someone trash my wife. I think you have to be willing to take a bullet for somebody if you’re going to stand up there, take your vows, and be married to them for the rest of your life.”

Sage marriage advice from the expert!

Ok, obviously, God is the real expert. He knew Adam could not do it without Eve, just like He knows how much I need my husband, and how much every marriage depends on the partners relying on each other.

A beautiful plan, don’t you think?
AML