Monday, August 25, 2014

Fare Thee Well (Again)

As of today I am no longer employed by James Madison University (JMU). My Facebook feed fills up today with former colleagues and students noting the first day of classes on the beautiful JMU campus. My feelings are mixed. Saying "farewell" seems to be a continuous affair, rather than one clean break.

In April, I announced my resignation shortly after receiving tenure and a promotion to associate professor (yeah, apparently I don't understand the concept of tenure). In May, we moved five states away to be closer to family and pursue some new opportunities. However, my last day at JMU was not actually until yesterday. Even though I was gone, it was not official until now.

Summer always brought freedom from classes and the absence of friends who also teach there. The end of summer and the start of school also served as an important marker as the yearly cycle repeated. Now I have jumped off the academic calender for the first year since I started kindergarten, and this will be only the second semester since kindergarten that I have not taken or taught a class (the other being my semester of paternity leave a couple years ago). As my grandfather, who taught school for over four decades joked when he retired, "I am now a teacher without any class."

It feels weird not to be heading across campus to my office to make my usual first-day-of-class jokes (trust me, I made reviewing the syllabus fun).

If I close my eyes, I can see myself walking the hallways outside my old office, happily greeting colleagues, and catching up on our summer adventures. If I open my eyes, I just need to wander over to Facebook to see those same faces.

I remain convinced that we made the right choice in moving. But after spending six years in a city, it is hard to leave friends (even harder than it was for those friends to cram all our stuff into a truck). Hopefully this season of life will provide new opportunities that would have been missed had we not made a big leap of faith. Although I enjoyed my colleagues, some administrative changes and decisions stole much of the joy of working at JMU. By leaving, perhaps I can hold JMU in greater regard with the happy memories remaining a greater percentage of the experience. 

Just as moving to Harrisonburg was the right decision at that time, I feel leaving was as well. Yet, even as I sought out a chance to move, I find it still hard to leave friends and mentors who helped make me a better writer, teacher, and person. My thoughts remain with them today, leaving me feeling distant. My eyes well up even though I don't want to return (why can't all the good ones just move to Missouri with me?). Checking Facebook and Twitter, I say "farewell" again but will see those faces and new updates tomorrow. A part of me will never move away from the Shenandoah Valley, and I find that heartening. "Someday," I tell my friends and myself, "I will go back to visit, to relive."

John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, wrote in The Winter of Our Discontent:
Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance. Good-by is short and final, a word with teeth sharp to bite through the string that ties past to the future.
So I bid "farewell" to JMU and my friends in Harrisonburg. I do not say "goodbye" - especially thanks to social media that keeps us connected. I truly hope they fare well. Saying "farewell" may sound sweeter than "goodbye," but it's also harder. I can offer a short, sharp break as I depart from those for whom I don't care. But saying "farewell" is different. It's not easy, it's not final. Perhaps feeling the need to say "farewell" again is what keeps it from changing to a "goodbye." My future is tied to them and others with whom I have journeyed.

So today I say to all my former colleagues at JMU and friends in Harrisonburg, "fare thee well." And I'll say it again tomorrow. And the day after that...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Some Baptists in St. Louis Respond to Ferguson Crisis

Ethics Daily ran my latest article on Friday. The piece, "Some Baptists in St. Louis Respond to Ferguson Crisis," looks at how various Baptist churches in the St. Louis area are working to help build peace and reconciliation in their community in the midst of peaceful protests, violent looters, and overly-militarized police officers. Looking at various Baptists - including Southern Baptists, National Baptists, American Baptists, and Cooperative Baptists - I found that most churches in the area remained publicly silent even as the local turmoil sparked international headlines. Some churches, however, are attempting to advance the common good with cleanups, prayer gatherings, and public statements.

As the Ferguson crisis shows, the most important times for churches to minister in their communities often cannot be pre-planned. Although I focused the article on words and actions of key churches, I remain bothered by the large number of churches who missed the opportunity to speak out. Churches should not join in pre-judging the situation (we can leave that job to TV and radio pundits who - apparently lacking teargas - instead poison the air with outrageous rhetoric), but neither should churches just hope it all goes away. As I ended my piece on Friday:
As the streets of Ferguson fill with teargas, protest signs and SWAT teams, perhaps more Baptists in the area will leave the quiet sanctuaries and address the community's crisis.
Silence in the midst of the crisis in Ferguson suggests we have too few prophets today.

Thankfully, many churches in the St. Louis area are trying to shine a light into their community. In addition to the ones I wrote about, several other news stories have brought good news by highlighting the work of churches in Ferguson and other St. Louis suburbs. These stories include ones by Time magazine, the Washington Post, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ethics Daily also ran a piece by Terrell Carter, an African-American Baptist minister in St. Louis who used to be a police officer in the city. His balanced piece offers suggestions on how to respond to the tragedy. With these news accounts, churches offer a strong witness to those seeking hope and love in the midst of turmoil. 

The leadership of church leaders has not gone unnoticed by civic authorities. In comments about the crisis, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon noted the positive efforts of "faith leaders" in Ferguson. Some pundits across the country have tried to politicize the crisis by attacking Nixon, but they have demonstrated their inattention to facts. Many criticized Nixon for not coming to St. Louis sooner even though he spoke at a gathering at an African-American church on the Tuesday before the worst of the street violence even occurred. Over the next two days, some people - who may have just then tuned into the crisis - erroneously claimed Nixon had yet to come to the area (apparently the armchair pundits find it easier to tweet than research).

Some critics of Nixon have claimed he looked uncomfortable as he spoke, suggesting he must be feeling guilty for not doing more. One reporter for a large, East Coast paper even claimed Nixon seemed especially uncomfortable speaking at a African-American church as if he hadn't been to one before. Those pundits apparently have never heard him speak before, because he sounded like he always had. Nixon has not won elections based on his charisma but on his ideas and actions (as attorney general he came up with the "no-call" list that stops telemarketer calls, so he really didn't need to be charismatic to win elections after that!).

Nixon has held statewide office for more than half my life and I grew up in the state capital so I have heard him speak on many occasions. Most recently, I heard him speak in January at the founding meeting of Faith Voices for Jefferson City, which was held at an African-American church.

Although I do not agree with Nixon on all issues - in the Ferguson case or overall - I appreciate his willing to engage with the faith community on key moral issues. I am also glad he has challenged the over-militarization of police officers - an issue that will hopefully be considered nationally now as police receive weapons from the military, including teargas that is banned in international warfare as a chemical weapon (yes, that means our military can't use it in war but our police can use it on peaceful protesters and journalists). State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson, who Nixon put in charge, has helped show better ways of policing than the Ferguson approach of creating a war zone. But the treatment of Nixon and Ferguson by national press confirms that many pundits seem more interested in ratings than truth as they throw rhetorical fuel on the fire.

Christian leaders must strike a better tone and offer a more helpful path. Nixon has rightly praised church leaders in the St. Louis area who are part of the solution. Hopefully Baptists and other Christians in St. Louis will continue to set a positive example with their words and deeds.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Baptists Without Borders

My latest column ran in the Churchnet newsletter page in this week's issue of the Word&Way. The piece, titled "Baptists Without Borders," reflects on the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance last month in Izmir, Turkey.
The church I gather with on Sunday is not the Church. Rather the full body of Christ crosses national boundaries and dividing walls. 
... My faith was enriched during the BWA gathering in Turkey as I heard from Baptists from Brazil, Iraq, Israel, Moldova, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and many other nations. We are better together because we are meant to be together. 
Read the rest of the piece here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hot Balloon!

A few weeks ago a hot air balloon flew quite low right over our house. I first saw it over our deck just after it passed our house. I'm not sure how close it flew to our rooftop, but based on how close it seemed to our deck it passed over our house much closer than I expect them to fly. I rushed my son out onto the deck to see the balloon, expecting him to be impressed with his first hot air balloon sighting.

At first the balloon frightened my son - and our dog barking at it probably added to his concern. He begged me to take him inside, but I kept holding him in hopes he would understand and like it. As I talked to him about what was happening - and as it moved away - he began to enjoy it. He complained as it disappeared behind houses and trees. We had to wait quite awhile to convince him it wouldn't return.

Clearly over his initial fear, my son became obsessed with the hot air balloon. For days he kept talking about the "hot balloon" and the "guys" in the basket that I had pointed out to him. He also noted that "Pete bark at hot balloon." For some reason he calls our dog "Pete" (a horrible name for a dog) instead of our dog's actual name Paprike (a great name, of course, for a male Red Tri Australian Shepherd). This name change has lasted for months and I'm afraid we're going to have to get a new name tag for the poor dog (for awhile it was even "Peter" but we've apparently moved to the nickname level).

When my son saw his grandparents a couple of days later, he responded to their "hi" with "hot balloon!" Then he mentioned the "guys" and "Pete bark at hot balloon." I heard this piecemeal story several times each day. He never mentioned the part about how he was frightened at first, nor would anyone guess that he had been based on his excitement. The old book Tubby and the Lantern quickly became a favorite as the illustrations provoke numerous shouts of "hot balloon."

I assumed the "hot balloon" had sailed as part of the nearby county fair so I kept looking for another one all week for my son to watch. Five days later - with his story of the first encounter still going strong - we finally had another sighting. I saw the balloon first and told my son to look into the sky. His shriek and giggles confirmed the sighting.

"Hot balloon!"

This one went over a different part of our neighborhood quite high, so I put my son on his tricycle and started pushing it as I ran toward the balloon. My wife and her parents followed behind with the dog, who started barking at first because he thought he would be left behind. This prompted my son to shout with excitement.

"No, Pete, bark at hot balloon!"

He chanted the command in a loud, high pitch for almost a block (sorry, neighbors!) even after "Pete" had stopped barking and joined the race toward the "hot balloon."

We chased the "hot balloon" for several blocks before it disappeared behind a hill. We didn't get close, but it only magnified my son's obsession with hot air balloons. Already knowing what it was - and hoping for it to come back - he skipped the fear step this time.

Over the past couple of weeks, he has remained on an evangelistic mission to tell everyone he meets about the "hot balloon." I fortunately overheard a conversation at the public library between him and another boy.
Other boy: "What's your name?"
My son: "Hot balloon!"
Other boy: "What did you say?
My son: "Pete bark at hot balloon!"
Other boy: "I don't understand what you're saying."
My son: "No, Pete, bark at hot balloon!"
Other boy (to his brother): "I don't understand what he's saying."
Out of context, my son's story made no sense. Silence followed the brief encounter, though my son didn't seem to have the awkward feeling adults would have in such a social setting.

The stories of the two hot air balloons melt seamless for my son, as if one event. I wonder how long my son will continue to daily speak of a "hot balloon," how it went over his house, the "guys" in it, how "Pete" barked at it, and how he told him "no bark." The fair ended so it could be months before another "hot balloon" sighting. At this rate, he might still be talking about it by then.

His dramatic shift from fear to excitement seems to echo what John wrote in his first letter: "perfect love casts out fear." I thought I loved hot air balloons, which is part of why I refused to take my son back inside when he was scared of the first one since I wanted to watch it (it's not bad parenting since he ended up loving it). But his childlike love for a "hot balloon" far surpasses mine. How can we also find ways to move from ignorance-driven fear to loving excitement?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Jonah's Revenge

In middle school and high school I performed in my church's puppet ministry. We were good, even traveling to other churches to perform our songs. I was, of course, a star (sometimes literally playing the part of a star for Christmas). One of the many songs I count as a favorite featured Jonah and the fish.

Go Jonah. Go Jonah. Go to Nineveh. Go Jonah. Get on up, get on up, go down Jonah.

Playing the part of the fish brought the most fun in the song, especially since our fish puppet repeatedly swallowed and vomited the Jonah puppet as that old gospel quartet song cycled through the chorus a few times. Not quite biblical, but more fun!

The song only told Jonah's story through the fish part. Most kids books and songs go just a bit further into the story. Jonah preaches, the people repent, and we all say "amen."

If only the story was so simple.

Page in a children's pop-up book

News reports lately mentioned Jonah quite a bit. The ancient city of Nineveh - now known as Mosul, Iraq - lies at the heart of a new wave of violence in the war-torn region. A group known as ISIS has been killing religious minorities and even Muslims who disagree with them. Not surprisingly, Christians are among those targeted.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in changes in the country that decimated the historic Christian population, which fell from 1.5 million to less than 500,000 (and some estimates put today's number much lower). The new ISIS violence sent tens of thousands of more Christians to the grave or to the mountains to hide.

The Christian community in Mosul, which has lasted for nearly 2,000 years with a rich history, no longer exists. All Christians in ancient Nineveh have been killed or forced to flee. We have witnessed the death of a Christian community. Christians in other towns in the area are now suffering the same fate. As ISIS captured Mosul, they not only drove Christians out but sought to wipe out the city's Christian heritage. ISIS destroyed churches and removed crosses.

ISIS also destroyed the site believed by many to be the tomb of Jonah.

Screenshot of video played on CNN of the bombing.

Although I enjoyed the puppet fish version of the Jonah story, we performed the song around the time I moved from loving the Jonah story to disliking it. For kids, there's something magical about the big fish that swallows the disobedient man and throws him back up a few days later. It also offers a simple moral: obey God or else you might become fish food!

I eventually read the rest of the story.

Jonah was a horrible prophet and role model. The disobedience isn't the problem. Turns out he didn't really repent while in the fish. Sure, he hated being in there and wanted out. But he didn't actually care about the people of Nineveh. He only went to avoid more divine punishment (kind of a fishy motive for someone labeled a prophet).

Jonah was a self-centered, self-righteous, hateful, judgmental man with a god-complex (hope that doesn't sound too judgmental). He cared more about a shade plant (because it helped him) than he did about a large city full of people. He didn't flee his calling because he feared the people would turn on him but because he feared they would turn to God. He actually wanted to see the city destroyed! Like some Israelis who took to hilltops during recent strikes on Gaza, he went to gawk and enjoy the show. He got mad at God for not providing the desired fireworks of death and destruction. Perhaps Jonah also got upset at his own impotence as he was unable to call fire down on the city himself.

What a great story for kids! Perhaps that's why most children's books stop with the repentance of Nineveh. We ignore one-quarter of the book so that we don't find God challenging as we sit with the shriveled plant.

With ISIS destroying parts of the city once known as Nineveh, perhaps Jonah's finally happy. If he really was buried in that tomb, perhaps he felt joy down in his bones as the bomb blasted everything to pieces. His wish for destruction finally seems realized as a group sharing his hopes for the death of other people swept in without mercy. They even destroyed the mosque on the site of Jonah's tomb, even though they claim to be Islamic and the Qur'an joins the Bible in calling Jonah as a prophet.

Most likely the so-called tomb of Jonah in Mosul did not actually hold the remains of the hateful prophet. Many scholars believe his story is merely a parable. Other scholars believe he went back home in despair after God refused to destroy Nineveh. But the unlikely scenario that the place destroyed by ISIS was actually Jonah's tomb would be a fitting end to his tragic tale.

I can almost picture Jonah standing on the mountain overlooking Nineveh, waiting there for years in hopes that destruction finally comes. He waits there on that spot in vain until he finally joins his beloved shade plant.

After my puppet career ended (thankfully not early as I avoided elbow injuries), I eventually came to like Jonah again - not the man but the story. I've met Jonah in lots of churches - and, if I'm honest, have been him at times. Too many people wrap themselves in divine self-righteousness that they burn with a desire to see other people destroyed. Then these modern Jonahs get angry if grace comes instead. They may preach the message of mercy and redemption, but they fail to live it.

One of my professors in college lost his job in part because he argued that the book of Jonah may not be about a true person but instead was a parable. He insisted the moral of the story remained more important than its historicity. Some individuals with more literal and judgmental readings of scripture didn't like that teaching. Although they didn't prove Jonah's historicity by forcing out a brilliant scholar, they did prove he was correct that the moral of the story is still needed.

It would be easy to live like Jonah. The path of the compassionate God remains difficult. It would be easy to cheer if President Barack Obama rained hellfire down on ISIS to kill them (which he might). It would be easy to gloat that ISIS's rise again proves President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was horribly wrong (which it was). It would be easy to cheer when an individual who led the charge against my professor lost his job for launching a similar effort against someone else (which he did). But each of those responses would be to join Jonah on his mountain over Nineveh (and that especially doesn't seem like a good place to be right now). Somehow a compassionate response must be found.

But I'm tempted to just stick with the fun fish tale in my son's pop-up book.