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 Next Seven Years

Last spring break I read a book that changed my perspective about students, and myself. It is called “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcom Gladwell.

outliers1

We are all an element of our circumstances. Our lives are shaped by the advantages and disadvantages we encounter.

It seems as if we can look back on our past and point out the bad decisions or all the things that maybe didn’t go to our advantage. I see students making bad decisions weekly and sometimes daily. These decisions lead to sometimes lifelong heartache and struggle.

I want to encourage you today to make the sacrifices needed today so that you can have the opportunities tomorrow.

I want to share a little bit of my journey as a ETBU student to a current ETBU Assistant Professor.

When I reflect on my life story, I can’t help but notice how many situations allowed me to have an advantage. For example, I was 1 of only 8 people that were allowed to take dual credit college courses at my high school. We were the first group in the history of the high school to have access to this opportunity. When I came to college, I had 12 college credit hours completed. This allowed me to graduate early. Since I knew I could graduate early, I realized I could take courses over the summer and graduate even earlier. I graduated from ETBU in 5 semesters or 2.5 years.  I then got a Graduate Teaching assistant position and moved into an apartment across from UNT. A year into my Master’s, I got the opportunity to be a House Director at one of the Sorority houses. I was then able to stay somewhere rent free, get paid to live/work, and still keep my job teaching at UNT. I was able to pay for most of my Masters  & PhD degree out of pocket. During my PhD program at Texas Woman’s University, I had 2-3 other part-time adjunct teaching jobs at other universities (in addition to being a Graduate Teaching Assistant at TWU).  I successfully defended my dissertation in Aug. 2012.

So I went from… freshman year at ETBU as a student in Aug. 2004… to Assistant Professor (ABD) at ETBU in Aug. 2011. I was motivated. God gave me the desire to work hard and to take advantage of every opportunity.

I do not apologize for being young. I have worked hard to get here. I still have a lot of work to do.. God is still shaping me.

When reading the book “Outliers,” I noticed how our good and bad decisions take a toll on the direction of our life. It is easy for me to write the paragraph above and leave out all the failures I encountered along that 7 year journey. But the important thing is… I got where I wanted to go. I didn’t stop or give up when I encountered those difficulties.

So when you encounter your next “failure” or “difficulty”… remember that this is a journey… not a sprint… not a race won by only one path…

I don’t know exactly where I will be or what I will be doing in the next 7 years. But I hope I look back on this time in my life and can see how God was shaping me for what is ahead.

LM

The Story of My Life

As I pulled into the campus parking lot the other morning, a colleague was just getting out of her car.  As she hurried past me, I tossed out a quick, “Hi, How’s it going?”  And without slowing down, she replied, “If I wasn’t late, I’d be doing fine!!  I’m always running late,” she said, her voice fading into the distance—“It’s the story of my life. . . .”

Her words stayed with me.  And as I climbed the stairs to my office, I began thinking—

What’s the story of my life?

We all have a story to tell.  Each one of our lives, in fact, is a story.  And people are reading us every day.

Earlier this semester, I invited my students to write about the stories of their lives, and I received some thought-provoking responses.

One student wrote about traveling to a war-torn part of Africa.  As she was talking with a fifteen-year-old boy who had seen more violence in his life than most of us ever will, she asked him—“So what do you do when things get dangerous?”  He looked at her bewildered, and without hesitating, answered, “We just pray.”  This simple expression of faith and dependency on God changed her life.

One of my students wrote about hiding in her closet when her parents fought—“the yelling as loud as thunder.”  She remembers a dad addicted to drugs.  She remembers the divorce.  She remembers living with her grandparents and her struggle to reconcile God’s goodness with all of the badness surrounding her.  “My earthly father isn’t perfect,” she writes, but my Heavenly Father makes up for what he lacks.”

Another student traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip.  She wasn’t prepared for what she encountered.  “Barbed wire filled the one foot spacing between the walls and the roof of my new home, piercing the only ventilation it had.  Dirt from outside coated the concrete and clay floors . . . . Looking out the front door, the busy streets were filled with dirt, trash, and animal feces creating an unforgettable smell that stained our clothes and skin—still lingering after harsh scrubbing in the bucket powered shower.”  And yet, in these surroundings, this student discovers an unexpected treasure.  The believers she meets are content and joyful.  “If these people could still be happy as bees in a field of dandelions,” she writes, “why should I ever complain?”

Some of my students are writing really good stories. . . which made me think of the prophet Jonah.

I’m haunted by this tiny book in the Old Testament—because Jonah doesn’t write a very good story.  When he confronts Nineveh (an impossible situation in his eyes), he runs—in the opposite direction.

And it’s interesting—as Jonah’s story concludes, it ends with a question mark.

God asks Jonah, “Shouldn’t I feel compassion for such a great city?”

And Jonah doesn’t answer.

We just have that question mark—lingering there on the page. 

I hope I’m writing a good story—with my life.  I keep thinking there’s a better story inside of me, waiting to get out—a story that God is still wanting to write.  That’s the one I want.  I don’t want to end my story with a question mark.

I want to end my story with an exclamation point.

I want to trust—not run

I want to be better—not bitter

I want to forgive—not hang on to the hurt and the pain of the past.

I want to wrap my arms around more and more of Jesus every day that I’m alive

so that I may know him more fully

trust him more completely

follow him more closely and

love him more deeply.

I pray the story of my life is a good one.

A Woman Called to Ministry

As a child, I sat in the pew of a typical Southern Baptist church, hearing strong male voices reading the Scripture, leading the hymns, preaching the Word.  As a teenager, I began to notice that those male voices were never broken by lighter female intonations, that the godly women who taught me in Sunday School never prayed, much less preached, in the vast holiness of the sanctuary.  I began to look around me and realize that everyone looked alike; the black children with whom I went to school never darkened the doors of our church.  I did not understand then why my church seemed so segregated, so exclusionary.  After going to seminary and hearing similar testimonies of the Southern Baptist students around me helped me realize that my church was not the only institution holding desperately to the patriarchy of the past, living out the perfect fifties sitcom within its hallowed walls.  Yet I still could not figure out why, when the world around them had changed and grown, progressing ahead of much of the oppression of the past, so many churches had remained frozen in a time when white men ruled society, government, and especially church.

Having been reared in a loving, Christian home, I came to know Christ at an early age, earlier even than seems possible to me now.  I heard about Jesus from my kindergarten Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Foster. She talked about Jesus’ love and about the sin of humanity and though I probably did not understand everything she told me, I remember feeling both gratitude for God’s love and remorse at being a sinner. I have a clear memory of kneeling by my bed one night—I could not have been more than five years old—and crying, asking Jesus to forgive me. It is actually the first clear memory I have from my childhood. As I look back on it now I understand how remarkable it was that God reached out and showed me love as a small child and that I embraced that love even before I could read the Bible. I consider it an immeasurable blessing that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Since I grew up in an army family, we moved several times before settling in Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world. It was there that I made my faith in God public, during Vacation Bible School at Memorial Baptist Church of Killeen, TX, and I was baptized at that church in 1987 at the age of ten. Church was always a part of my life, so much so that I often tell people that the church raised me. I have always loved hearing and reading Bible stories, even as a teenager, and the Baptist churches that I attended in adolescence helped plant in me a love for the teachings of the Bible and a desire to know more and understand more about God.  I think I always felt a persistent tug toward ministry in the church. When I led Bible study groups and went on Mission trips during high school I sensed that God had gifted me in the areas of teaching and ministry. However, because the Southern Baptist tradition does not embrace the equal gifting of men and women, I never knew exactly where I would fit in ministry. The options that were open to me—children’s ministry or missions work—never clicked as the calling God had for me.

In college, I began to feel that God was leading me to study the Bible in a more formal way; I thought that God was calling me to go to seminary. Some of my fellow students at our Christian college heard that I was considering going to seminary, and they decided it was their duty to remind me that seminary was a place to train pastors, and since women could not be pastors, there was no reason for me to go. It is difficult to point to the most significant spiritual event in my life, because my life has been a continuous series of spiritual events through which God has slowly and adeptly molded me, but I think that the moment I was told that God did not want me to be a minister was a huge moment for me. I heard the words and I understood how the men who spoke them could read the Bible that way, but I sensed something was wrong with their interpretation of the Scriptures. I was sure that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me and called me into the ministry and was prodding me to go to seminary and even though that calling did not seem to be compatible with what Scripture said, I was going to follow the Spirit and work out what the Bible said about that along the way.

In seminary, I began to read the Bible for the overarching story that it told about God and humanity. I learned that the way I had been taught to read the Bible—merely picking out verses here and there and piecing them together into an unorganized system of belief—did a great disservice to the message of the Bible. There was a bigger idea behind the stories and principles of the Bible that was greater than the sum of their varied parts. God loves us. We live in rebellion. God sent Jesus to bring us into a close, communicative relationship with the Triune God. God has gifted people for many different works of love and service. The Holy Spirit helps us learn about those gifts. And finally, God calls the most unlikely people. Regardless of whether Paul said women should not have authority over men or should keep silent, the bigger message of the Bible was that in Christ, there is no male or female, and God used women to do all kinds of ministry during Jesus’ life on earth and in the earliest years of the Christian church.  I knew that God wanted to use me to do whatever it was that the Holy Spirit led me to do. And though I was scared because I knew it would not be easy, I was ready to go where the Spirit led and do what God would call me to do.

God revealed the call on my life slowly but purposefully. The people who had the most influence on my spiritual journey were my religion professors.  Though I learned much from the ministers under whom I grew up, the Christians who truly modeled a servant lifestyle and the sacrifice and love of Christ were my professors.  They gave tirelessly of themselves in order to teach others how to interpret and appreciate the Bible then, in their spare time, they prayed, comforted, and encouraged their students in all of their life challenges. It is their influence that awakened in me the desire to teach and preach.  My worldview was shaped because of how they taught me to read the Bible.  I have come to understand through their instruction that the Christianity that Jesus initiated is a lifestyle of love and sacrifice, not a list of rules that exclude people who do not follow them from the kingdom. Now I believe God wants me to do for others as my professors did for me…teach people how to read and interpret the Bible so that they can carry out the purposes of God in this world faithfully and completely.

The Miracle of My Life

I never intended to be a teacher.  A doctor maybe.  Or an archeologist.  But never a teacher.

A funny thing happened though in third grade.  I met Mrs. Martinez.  She loved her students.   We loved her back.  And my favorite memory?  On rainy days when we had to stay inside during recess, she’d open her Edgar Allen Poe anthology and read aloud to us.  “The Raven.”  “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Sometimes thunder would rumble at just the right moment, and we’d jump in our seats.  I was enthralled.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Mrs. Martinez was teaching me the magic of story—the power of words.  And she was teaching me how to read—to an audience, to a classroom of students.

Still—in high school, I hung onto my other life plans—practicing medicine in a foreign country or discovering Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat.

But in college, at a place much like etbu, I met professors who would change the direction of my life.  As I sat in their classrooms, I observed men and women who loved God, loved their students, and who lived out their faith in a powerful and meaningful way.  Teaching, for them, was an act of love—an act of worship.  Once again, I was enthralled.  Memories of Mrs. Martinez floated back from the past.

So—plans changed.  I graduated.  I married.  I enrolled in seminary.  I would be a youth minister. I would teach the Bible.  I would change lives.  But in the midst of all this rock-solid certainty, the unexpected crept in.  The marriage began to crumble.  And my dreams slipped through my fingers like sand.  Ashamed, embarrassed and bitter, I dropped out—out of seminary and out of church.   And I stopped believing—in God, in dreams, in love.

But here is a strange thing.

Even though I ran so far from God and lived a life soaked in rebellion— all this time, I was haunted by the memories of the teachers I had in college . . . teachers I admired—teachers who were scholars and brilliant thinkers—teachers who loved Jesus and who exhibited an abundant life that I certainly didn’t have.

And I kept thinking, “You know—Maybe I’m missing something here.  Maybe I should give my faith a second look.  Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.”

Make no mistake about this.  God used the memory of my teachers to bring me back to Him.  I doubt they remember me, but I still remember them:  Curtis Mitchell – Robert Morosco – Johnny Sailhamer – Clyde Cook – Ed Curtis – Nancy Bundy – Dave Black.

I recall one of my teachers telling us on the first day of class—“You’ll forget most of what I say in this classroom.  But there’s one thing you won’t forget—and that’s my attitude.  My attitude about my discipline—my attitude about you—and my attitude about God.”

And he was right. I still remember Dr. Hunter’s concern for students, his passion for the Bible, and his deep love for the Lord.

I have never forgotten that.

This is the miracle of my life—Even though I gave up on God, God never gave up on me.  And as I grew close to God again—over time—I realized the impact that Christian higher education had on my life.  College didn’t just give me a diploma—it introduced me to a new way of thinking about faith and hope and love through men and women who loved Jesus deeply.

I wanted to be part of that.  So, in 1987, I went back to school.  And I became a teacher.

This is what I tell my students—You never know what God may call you to do—or how He’ll call you to do it.  You have dreams and that’s good.  But be prepared for God to surprise you.  This is what happened to me, I tell them.  I’m not practicing medicine in an exotic land, but, in a way, I’m a physician, of sorts—touching hearts and minds and changing lives. I’m not an archaeologist, but each day I uncover something new and make discoveries that I hope will make the lives of my students richer.

I guarantee you—when I was sitting in Mrs. Martinez’s third grade class—I never thought I’d be standing in front of a classroom one day.  But today, I teach English.  And each class, for me, is recess time on a rainy day. I open a book, and I read to my students.  And I hope that they will experience the magic of story and the power of words.