I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, a place and a time known for events of greater significance than my birth. I was raised in a religious context, southern fundamentalist Baptist life, characterized by a focus on personal salvation from hell and at best, indifference to matters of racial justice.
When I was nine, I had something of a “conversion” experience, though I don’t think I converted “from” anything wicked. Given the language of getting saved, I figured I needed to get saved and sincerely asked God to “save me.” I felt something I do not know how to describe but it was real and genuine and I think I am correct to attribute that feeling of peace and being secure in God’s hands to God’s presence.
As I grew older, I started to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. I read the Bible during church services because, as an early adolescent, I found church services uninteresting and my parents did not allow me bring a comic book or sports magazine to church. The Bible was the only respectable book I could read while in church. I assimilated the theological vision of my church and my parents and the “interesting’ eschatology of the premillennial dispensationalism of the Scofield Reference Bible. Yet, lurking in the corners of my mind were questions the Christianity of my youth either could not answer or did not even try to answer. If the really important part of Christian faith was the conversion experience that ensures a happy eschatological landing after death, what is the meaning and purpose of life here and now? Is there a place for struggle to bring life and hope in the here and now? And listening to rock music and learning about the struggles against the Vietnam War and for racial justice in the 1960’s, which I perceived as ancient history from my standpoint as a teenager in the late 1970’s, I longed for a cause, longed to be part of a struggle to make a difference in the world.
Longing for something worth devoting my life to, I changed my major to Religion as a freshman in January 1982 and aspired to become a professor. Though I was confident, sometimes bordering on arrogance, that I understood the Bible quite well, I was (perhaps by divine grace?) quite open to learning and revising previous understandings and I quickly appropriated insights from biblical scholarship. This led to slow revisions of my inherited faith, yet the cumulative impact was quite dramatic and alienated me from the religious faith of my upbringing.
But it was three formative influences while in seminary that shaped my sense of vocation as theologian and teacher. The first was my Ethics class at Southern Seminary taught by Dr. Glen Stassen. In this class, I learned about global poverty and hunger, read the Roman Catholic Bishops’ pastoral on the nuclear arms race (The Challenge of Peace), and, for the first time, studied the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Stassen unpacked his “just peacemaking” theory, based on a reading of the Sermon on the Mount I had never encountered (transforming initiatives). I was also the union steward for my shift at UPS and came to see just wages and economic justice as a concern for persons of Christian faith. But it was my own (not required for a class) reading of Edward Schillebeeckx’ Jesus that opened up for me the significance of Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Schillebeeckx’ phrase, “humanity’s cause is God’s cause” has resonated with me ever since. Jesus reveals that God wills human flourishing. Jesus is the one who inaugurates the messianic age, the eschatological new creation now. While a future eschatological hope remains central to me, the mission is to be drawn into this new reality now as a conduit of God’s grace, God’s healing, God’s transformation of all things, and God’s resistance to the powers that rule this world, whether governments, corporations, or pervasive but destructive values and aspirations, or all the toxic “-isms.”
I once thought I would write a book that would change the world. Maybe I will yet. But I have come to a spirituality that tells me I must be faithful to God in the details. And as a teacher, I know my scholarly aspirations take a back seat during the academic year to what I believe to be my call to care for my students. Once upon a time, as narrated in the synoptic gospels, someone contributed 5 loaves and two fish, Jesus took them, blessed them, multiplied them, and fed the multitudes. My job is to be faithful every time I walk into the classroom. My job is to teach with passion, to be the potential conduit of God to open eyes to see anew the power and beauty of the story of Jesus, the meaning of this faith, the faithfulness and goodness and beauty of God. I never know what impact, by the power of the Spirit and grace of God, I might have. I never know whose heart and imagination I might influence who might be an agent of God to transform the world. I take the time to talk and listen and share meals with students to be a conduit of care and perhaps, occasionally, a little wisdom. And above all, my passion is to help students see connections that we have so often obscured in our practice of the faith. To see that Jesus’ ministry was to the excluded and outcast and impoverished, desperate and on the edge of ruin economically. So last year, we read stories of Jesus’ care for the dehumanized alongside stories of migrant farm workers. I sought to help my students see Jesus’ concern for and resistance to the systems that indebted Judean and Galilean peasants and the system of mass incarceration that have destroyed so many lives, especially in African-American communities (read parts of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow).
This spirituality animates me. Jesus came to inaugurate nothing less than the transformation of all things, the healing of all things, the putting all things to rights. I have little control, if by control we mean the ability to micromanage the world. But what I have been created and called to be and do is a conduit of divine love and grace and mercy and goodness and hopefully, given my vocation as teacher and theologian, a little wisdom too. In all I do, I hope to be faithful because I believe in a God who wills humans to flourish, to have joy, and to relate justly to one another. I believe that my faithfulness will impact others, whether I see it or not. I believe that because I believe in a God who is always working with us and through us and in us to make all things new!
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