Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace

13 years ago today, I was running late.  I didn’t have time to turn on the TV in my dorm room and check the news.  I barely had time to take a shower, throw my hair up in a pony tail, and make it to my 9:00 class—Modern Middle Eastern History.  I didn’t see the towers fall live, but on replay, after class, sitting in the Student Union of Oklahoma State University—the very same Student Union that I breeze through most mornings these days to get coffee or a quick snack before heading to my office or to class.  I didn’t fully understand 13 years ago today as a sophomore in college how important the events of that day would be in the plotting the course of my life.

I had only just begun to immerse myself in the study of the Middle East, an infuriating, confusing, interesting place.  But even then, I knew that the hatred, the vile, ignorant words being hurled at all Muslims as though they were somehow all Osama bin Laden were wrong.  One day, a few weeks after 9/11, I was venting to my father about the dumb, misinformed things that come out of people’s mouths regarding Islam and Muslims.  He reminded me that as one who studies the region, as one who knows more than the talking heads and overnight “experts” on Islam, I have a responsibility to educate and inform—objectively, in a way that’s easy to understand.

I often talk to my students about “calling.”  I tell them that a calling is something you do because you simply can’t picture yourself doing anything else.  Education is my calling.  More specifically, educating people about Islam and the Middle East and ISIS and al Qaeda and all the rest is my calling.  Even so, there are challenges.  Oklahoma lawmakers who make ignorant and incendiary comments frustrate me.  Even still, I try to respond in gracious, if stern, ways.  Knowing full well that Mark Twain’s counsel is likely correct (“Never argue with an idiot.  He’ll drag you down to his level, then beat you with experience.”), I do my best to make people understand that ISIS and al Qaeda aren’t Muslim.  They are, in fact, the opposite of everything they claim to espouse.

My reasons for doing this are rooted in my faith.  At the war memorial in Cameron Park in Waco is a giant piece of granite with the prayer often erroneously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
When I needed a break from thinking about my dissertation, I would often take my bike to Cameron Park and go for a ride.  I would stop at the war memorial and read that prayer.  “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace….”  Those words often echo in my head; they inform much of my scholarly work.  How can I shine a light in the dark places?  How can I educate people on the dangers of condemning the whole for the actions of a small part?  How can I encourage others to do the same?

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace….”
Even as those who claim to follow You say things that are anything but peaceful.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace….”
Even when I don’t want to peacefully respond to ignorance.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace….”
Because I have a captive audience in the classroom and knowledge to impart.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace….”
As I forge partnerships with people across the faith spectrum to inform, educate, and advocate.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace….”
To remind others that religion isn’t bad; people are bad, and bad people sometimes do evil things in the name of religion.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

It's What We Do

I guess I’ve come to take it for granted that Oklahomans are….well, themselves.  It takes a natural disaster and national media attention and all of these people marveling over the strength of Oklahomans for me to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, we’re cut from a little different cloth around here.

I don’t know how many times over the past 24 hours, I’ve heard people marvel at the strength and the resolve of the people of Moore and the generosity of the rest of us and my response, muttered under my breath has been, “It’s what we do.”  Neighbors helping neighbors?  It’s what we do.  Picking ourselves up after tragedy and rebuilding?  It’s what we do.  Mock our weathermen during winter storm season while lauding them during tornado season?  It’s what we do.

The “Oklahoma Standard” is the real deal.  I’ve always known that.  Despite spending the better part of the last decade in states other than Oklahoma, I have never NOT considered myself an Oklahoman.  I love this state.  I love its people.  I love the down-home, salt of the earth, help your neighbor mentality of folks in these parts.  I love that people in this state can deal with tragedy with faith and good humor and concern for their neighbors, even in the face of their own personal loss.  Because. It’s. What. We. Do.

The national news media, the people on either coast, seem to be having trouble figuring out why in the world someone would want to live in a place with natural disasters like this.  I understand it.  Really, I do.  Which is why I understand that some might think I’m crazy for thinking that if I had to choose between a hurricane or a tornado, I’d take a tornado every day.  And I do have some experience with both, so I know of what I speak.
2004 was a fairly active hurricane season on the east coast.  It was also my first year of graduate school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.  All I remember from the month of September 2004 was rain.  Hurricane Frances was particularly irksome, having washed out part of I-40 near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.  But I grew up in Tornado Alley.  Hell, last April, on a visit to Stillwater, we found out just how well the Wheatley Family tornado plan worked as the tornado sirens sounded in Stillwater in the middle of the night.  Give me tornadoes any day of the week.  The uninitiated must be looking at the coverage of Moore on TV and thinking that I’m positively nuts, but let me explain.

First, one does not have to evacuate hundreds of miles away from home to escape a tornado.  A sturdy safe room or a basement nearby will do.  Not so with a hurricane.   Secondly, in hurricanes, particularly the really bad ones (think Sandy, Katrina, etc), flooding and other problems can postpone cleanup and rebuilding efforts for weeks, sometimes months.  The cleanup and rebuilding started today in Moore.  Third, hurricanes can cripple entire cities.  While it may seem like all of Moore has been destroyed, that’s not the case.  And because Oklahoma City was largely untouched, there was a very large crew of first responders available to help.

I know what the folks on the coast will probably counter with: But it happened so fast!  Well, yeah.  It’s a tornado.  But our weathermen had been warning us for almost a week that this past weekend was ripe for some really bad weather.  They all led the morning newscasts yesterday with dire warnings to watch the weather, plan our days around the potential times for bad weather (which they hit right on the money, by the way), make sure kids knew what was going on since the weather would be hitting right around the time school was letting out.  And then, when the storm formed south of Newcastle, there were storm chasers and spotters in exactly the right places to see the storm, watch it strengthen, and warn people where it was headed.  The only way people wouldn’t have known that there was a risk of tornadoes yesterday would be if they were completely disconnected from the real world.

Oklahoma’s weathermen occasionally take a beating from their viewing public.  Mike Morgan’s sparkly ties, saved for special severe weather occasions, have their own Twitter account.  Oklahoma weathermen are not known for their savant-like winter weather prediction abilities.  Many a “snowpocalypse” warning has been for naught.  But our weathermen KNOW tornadoes.  WE know tornadoes.  And I am confident that had this storm happened anywhere else, we would be talking about a death toll in the hundreds, as opposed to the 24 we see in Moore right now.

We rebuild after such monstrosities as this because this is home.  We trust that our meteorologists are the best in their field at dealing with severe weather.  We help each other in times of crisis.  It’s what we do.  It’s what we’ve always done.  And I’m proud of the fact that everyone else in the country and in the world is getting to see what we do, even in spite of the circumstances.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The New Adventures of a Curious Trekkie

I find myself getting more and more irritated by Trek's insane curiosity and desire to investigate absolutely everything.  He's a counter surfer, he loves hopping into kitchen cabinets, and if he wants to investigate something and I'm in the way, he simply jumps over me...claws in my shoulders be damned.  So, I'm going to  try clicker training with the Trekkie Monster and see if I can't rid an otherwise really fun, sweet, awesome kitten of his insane curiosity and need to investigate EVERYTHING.  The clickers will be here on Wednesday (Thanks, Amazon!), I've been reading up on this....We'll see what happens.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Embracing the Cliché: How my Rescue Cats Rescued Me

I know, I know….I used to roll my eyes when I heard people say “I didn’t rescue my animals; they rescued me.”  I didn’t understand it.  Then I started rescuing animals and suddenly it all became clear.  2011 and the first part of 2012 were very frustrating for me.  I was no longer working on campus and had to get a “real job” in Waco.  Unfortunately, finding a job for a PhD who is a short-timer to boot is not an easy task.  I was relegated to temp jobs with lousy pay that were not at all what I saw myself doing.  To make matters worse, in April of 2011, I had to put my beloved friend, Sassy, to sleep after her kidneys finally wore out.  Then kitten season happened.

Kitten season happens in the spring when rescues, humane societies, and animal shelters are positively inundated with little balls of fluff born to stray cats or cats whose owners couldn’t be bothered with spaying their pets.  Dozens, even hundreds, of kittens that are highly susceptible to all manner of illness and intestinal parasites are euthanized because they cannot stay healthy in a shelter environment or, if they are too young, are still reliant on bottle feeding and require more work that most shelters can provide.  It is usually around this time that shelters and rescues take to Facebook, practically begging anyone who might be interested to become a foster parent so that some of these kittens might have a fighting chance at life.
Laila (top), Trek (middle), and Chilli (bottom): Night One
In May, 2011, I gained custody of my first two foster kittens, named Fiyero and Elphaba.  Sadly, Elphaba was too sickly and did not make it, but Fiyero is doing simply wonderfully.   He became my first foster failure.  The true test, however, came nearly a year later.  The Humane Society of Central Texas sent out an urgent message on their Facebook page in late-March, 2012.  A family had surrendered 24 cats to the Humane Society (9 adults and the rest kittens) and the kittens desperately needed to get out of the shelter.  Most of the kittens were between 3-5 weeks old, barely old enough to survive without mama.  I contacted a nearby cat rescue run by a friend of mine and told her that I could take a few kittens, not bottle babies and no major health issues.  She picked out three kittens for me from the bunch and told the Humane Society that I would be by to pick them up.

Right off the bat, I noticed that all three kittens (two girls and a boy) were completely flea ridden.  They were also really thin but with the tell-tale sign of intestinal parasites.  And all three of them had what is scientifically termed “eye gunk.”  They were not healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but they also weren’t direly ill…yet.  After a thorough bath, all three started to exhibit their own unique personalities.  Trek was my little adventure boy; Laila was a fighter; and Chilli, well…Chilli was pretty chill.  Suddenly, despite working a low-paying job that I was WAY overqualified for, I had purpose.  I had these three little stinkers who, at only 4 weeks old, still needed a lot of help. 

Trek with Iba, Day Three....This was the day before
Trek's brush with Death
From the beginning, Trekkie chose me.  No parent, foster or otherwise, should play favorites, but Trek was my favorite.  He loved my lap.  So, I was especially sick with worry when, the first Saturday I had them, I opened my bathroom door to let the heathens out of their little tile-covered prison.  Chilli and Laila tore out of the room like it was on fire, but Trek just sat on the towel I had put on the bathroom floor.  He was alert but seemingly unable to move, like his feet were stuck in cement.  He was also incredibly dehydrated.  Of course, it was a Saturday, so only the emergency vets were open and they are outrageously expensive.  I called the rescue and was told that I should do what I could for Trek over the weekend and if he made it and still needed to go to the vet on Monday, we could set that up.  24 hours later, after force feeding him 4ccs of unflavored Pedialyte every 2 hours, Trek was finally out of the woods.  If he hadn’t chosen me before, that certainly cemented it.

Even though Trek was out of the woods and he and his sisters were mostly healthy after that (not counting the Great Canned Pumpkin Debacle of 2012), they still needed a lot of help to become halfway decent cats.  I had a lot of assistance in this regard from Iba and Fiyero, but the transformation of Trek and Laila and Chilli kept me occupied.  It gave me purpose.  It kept me from going crazy in my dead-end, low-paying job.  I rescued these kittens.  I medicated them when necessary and cleaned up messes and taught them what was and was not acceptable behavior (though Trek and I are still working on this).  But they rescued me too.  Without them, without their constant need for care and attention and also the constant amusement they provided, I would have been miserable.  So I have embraced the cliché. 

Why is this important?  For a couple of reasons, actually.  First of all, kitten season is upon us once again.  Throughout this country, humane societies and animal rescues will be begging for foster parents.  In Stillwater, Tiny Paws Kitten Rescue is kicking things into high gear.  The city has given Tiny Paws a building and renovations are on-going.  They still need help, both financial and of the manual labor variety.  They also need fosters.  Holly routinely offers foster training during kitten season for those who are interested.  Check Tiny Paws’ Facebook page for more details.

In Waco, big things are happening.  The Humane Society of Central Texas is working with local rescue groups to reduce the number of animals that have to be euthanized.  They will all need volunteers to make it through kitten season.  The Humane Society, MARC, Fuzzy Friends, and Starfish Cat and Kitten Rescue are all great organizations that are looking for help.

Trek giving his sister a hug, December 2012
The other reason for this blog post is more personal.  Trek and Laila, the scrawny, flea ridden furballs that actually rescued me last spring turned one today.  After several trips to the vet, Laila’s abandonment issues and subsequent imprisonment in a DIFFERENT bathroom, and several more trips to the vet, these silly, sweet, playful, troublemaking little creatures are now strong, healthy, silly, sweet, playful, troublemaking big creatures.  Trek climbs on EVERYTHING and thinks any open door is an invitation.  Laila plays with the tails of Iba and Trek as well as her own and loves to snuggle on my lap.  I have invested a lot of time, energy, effort, and money into making sure these kittens survived to see their first birthdays.  In return, they have blessed me in ways that only another animal person can possibly appreciate.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

On having it all…or, How I learned to stop worrying about others’ expectations and became my own “woman of valor”

In January 2012, I wrote a blog post in reaction to a sermon preached at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas by a wonderfully insane Christian ethics professor at Baylor by the name of Jonathan Tran.  Aside from being wonderfully insane and a professor at Baylor, Tran is also, along with his lovely (and not insane) bride, Carrie, the leader/facilitator of the Young Professionals Sunday School class at Calvary.  Jonathan pointed out in his sermon that we (the church) spend far too much time trying to cater to our pre-conceived ideas of ideal church membership (a husband, a wife, and their 2.5 kids) that we often overlook the nowhere-near-married in our midst.  Young adulthood is a time of great learning, maturing, and figuring out one’s calling and purpose in life, and it should be appreciated as that, rather than seen as a time to speed quickly through on the way to “having it all,” whatever that means.

I reacted strongly (positively, yet strongly) to Jonathan’s sermon because I was dealing with all sorts of questions about what it meant to “have it all” and to “have a life” in the aftermath of finishing my PhD.  The past year has been spent continuing to reconcile where I am in life to where society expects me to be.  It has also been a pretty awesome year.  Not a lot of people can say they landed a teaching job at their dream school right out of the gate, and yet, here I am.  We’ve heard a lot this year about women and “having it all.”  “All,” as typically understood in American culture, includes a job at which a woman can excel and a family with a successful husband and Stepford children.  By this definition, I do NOT, in fact, have it all.  But I don’t see it that way.

One of my favorite bloggers is Rachel Held Evans.  Many, many times, I have read something she has written for the interwebz and said, “Yes!” almost immediately followed by, “I wish I could have said it that eloquently.”  But alas, bluntness, rather than eloquence, is much more my style.  So, of course, I was beyond excited to buy her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  The premise of the book goes far beyond the idea of “biblical womanhood.”  It’s really about the dangers of picking and choosing which scripture to adhere to and uncritically discarding those passages that we find uncomfortable or “outdated.”  However, one of the features of Evans’ new book that she (and many of her readers) have truly latched on to is the notion of eshet chayil, or “woman of valor.”

In many evangelical circles, young women are taught to approach Proverbs 31 as a checklist—a whole rubric to discern where they fall short of being a “Godly woman.”  After all, evangelicals do enjoy a Bible-based guilt trip, even if the exegesis leaves something to be desired.  In correspondence with a rabbi’s wife in Israel, Evans discovers that, to the Jews, Proverbs 31 is not a checklist designed for women, but a blessing to women from their families.  In fact, Jewish men recite Proverbs 31 to their wives at the Sabbath table.  As Evans says, “Eshet chayil is at its core a blessing—one that is never meant to be earned, but to be given, unconditionally.”  Anything a woman does to her utmost can make her a woman of valor.

I may not “have it all,” indeed I reject the American ideal of such, but I have embraced the idea that even still, I can be a woman of valor:
  • I may never have children of my own, but in counseling, nurturing, encouraging, and teaching classrooms full of college students, I am a woman of valor.
  • I may not be a parent to two-legged children, but in caring for, amusing, loving, and nurturing my cats, I am a woman of valor.
  • I may be an only child, but in loving my “niece” and “nephew,” supporting their parents, lifting up those families in prayer often, I am a woman of valor.
  • I may never be the “go-to” commentator on all things related to the Middle East, but in doing whatever I can, whenever I can, wherever I can to correct faulty assumptions people have about Islam and Muslims, I am a woman of valor.
  • My parents and I may not always get along perfectly, but in assisting them, communicating with them, and helping in times of medical uncertainty, I am a woman of valor.
  • We may not in the same city or even, in some cases, in the same state, but in listening to, loving, and laughing with my friends, I am a woman of valor.

Over the past year or so, as I have contemplated what life as a “grown up” looks like and the pressures that women feel within American society, I have decided that we would all be a lot happier if we would tell society to take its expectations and shove them.  It’s not society’s expectations I ought to be concerned about, but my own.  If I am happy, if I am making contributions to society, if I am loved, if I love, then I am a woman of valor, irrespective of my marital status or any other ridiculous metric that society and especially America’s religious culture suggest ought to be applied.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mark Driscoll, the "Un-Christian President," and the Arrogance of Presumption

Damn you, Mark Driscoll.  I had stuff I wanted to get done today, but now I have to stop and get THIS off my chest.  All because YOU couldn’t keep your hateful rhetoric to yourself.  Subtlety, Mr. Driscoll, is definitely not your strong suit.  Maybe someone should give you lessons (I’d volunteer, but alas, subtlety isn’t my strong suit either).

So for the rest of you who have no idea why I feel the need to go on this diatribe against one of the most popular hipster preachers in America, allow me to share:
Shortly before all of the inaugural festivities began, Mark Driscoll tweeted "Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know."
“a Bible he doesn’t believe…an oath to a God he likely does not know.”  *sigh*  Before I go any further, I want to make something abundantly clear: I do not, in any way, shape, or form, doubt Mark Driscoll’s Christian faith.  On the essentials, he and I agree—Jesus Christ is the son of God, born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross, on the third day, rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.  On anything beyond those essentials of the faith, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t agree: Not on how we approach the Bible, not on church leadership, not on church discipline, not on gender roles, not on the role of women in society, not on the charactersitics of God.  All of that said, I believe in the sincerity of Driscoll’s faith and I have no reason to believe that he won’t be granted admittance to Heaven upon his death.  Would that he could grant others, not the least of whom the president, the same courtesy.
This isn’t just about one idiotic tweet.  It is, more deeply, about two deeply disturbing trends: one political and one theological.
First, the political….It is, after all, inauguration day.  The notion that the president is not “one of us” has been perpetuated by plenty on the right who, for reasons known only to themselves, wish to emphasize the color of the president’s skin or the funniness of his name or the fact that is middle name is Hussein (also, “Barack H. Obama?”  Really?  Are we afraid of the “Hussein” of it all now?).  Is he a Muslim?  Is he a radical black Christian?  Is he an American?  Is he a communist?  Is he one of us?  The myth of a non-Christian Obama has been at work for years to undermine his legitimacy as one of us.  In questioning whether Obama believed in the Bible upon which he was sworn, Mark Driscoll was perpetuating this insidious and narrow view of what constitutes a true “American.”
Theologically, Driscoll presumes to know the eternal destination of President Obama, and that’s a problem on a variety of levels.  First, let’s all agree that Driscoll is a Calvinist; I am not, but that’s another post for another day.  Calvinists believe that they are a part of God’s elect and that the way their election is shown is by their fruits.  It’s self-fulfilling, really.  Act like a Christian, look like a Christian, talk like a Christian, and you’re a Christian.  That said, even the most hard-core Calvinist would agree that ultimately, only God can judge the sincerity of one’s belief.  Two problems, then, appear in Driscoll’s doubt of the president’s faith, one political and one theological (sensing a pattern here?). 
First, and I heard this all morning from a variety of supporters of Driscoll on Twitter, the argument by Calvinists that would support Driscoll’s assertion is that the fruits they see from the President are insufficiently Christ-like.  He doesn’t talk about Jesus enough.  He doesn’t support the “right” causes or political agendas.  This is NOT a religious argument; it is a political argument masquerading as a religious argument.  This is a bunch of mere mortals claiming to know the true path of “Christian” political leanings.  Hello, arrogance!  There are a number of ways to interpret the teachings of the scripture in light of modern political and social realities, and anyone who claims to have the market cornered on any kind of political “truth” in the Bible is a fool.  Second, if only God can judge the sincerity of one’s belief, then Mark Driscoll, thorough-going Calvinist that he is, should know better than to open his mouth and remove all doubt  that he is a fool.  Driscoll cannot judge President Obama’s faith anymore than President Obama can judge Driscoll’s faith. 
I’d say Mark Driscoll should stick to what he does best, preaching and church planting, but I’m not entirely convinced he’s all that adroit at either of those (also another post for another day); so instead, let me give him this piece of advice: If you must be a troll, Mark, do so under a bridge where trolls belong and not online where your stupidity can be broadcast to the masses.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Afflicting the Comfortable....

I have a love/hate relationship with American civil religion: as a subject of academic study, I love it, and as a citizen, I hate it.  Civil religion can bring people together, but it can also be ridiculously divisive.  At its best, civil religion allows people of disparate faiths to unite under one banner; at worst, it becomes a narrowly defined checklist of what is and is not American.  What we saw tonight in the auditorium of the Newtown, CT High School was an exemplar of what civil religion can and ought to be. 

But there’s more.  There’s always more.  Martin Marty argues that there are two kinds of civil religion: the priestly and the prophetic.  Tonight, President Obama, as “Comforter in Chief,” showcased the priestly—the quasi-official civil religion, often exemplified by the president in times of crisis.  There is also the prophetic—the type of civil religion which calls Americans back to their higher ideals.  Both of these can, and when used in a positive manner do, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  Tonight, the interfaith prayer vigil, the words offered, the scriptures read, the speeches given…all of these comforted those afflicted by unspeakable tragedy.  But the president’s words gave us a hint of what is to come, what ought to come: afflicting the comfortable.

Who are the comfortable here?  They are legion.  They can be found on both ends of our political spectrum, worried about any number of issues: guns, mental health, education.  People whose positions have become so entrenched that they simply cannot grasp that someone might have a reasonable opinion contrary to their own.  Inaction in this situation would be the greatest political sin.  We will not save the world.  We will not put an end to violence in this country or in the world.  But we should try.
I don’t have children of my own, and I can’t fathom what the parents who lost children must be feeling right now, but I do have a nephew who will turn two on New Years’ Eve and a niece who will be a year old three days after that.  They are both happy children, always smiling and laughing, often getting into trouble, but the apple of their parents’ eye (and Aunt Steph’s too).  My world is a better place because of them.  It is because of them and all of the children like them who are likewise the apples of their parents’ eyes that we should demand of our leaders that they afflict the comfortable, and that we, as citizens, should afflict our leaders because they have become the comfortable.  To quote one of the great priests of the American civil religion, Josiah Bartlet (given voice by Aaron Sorkin), “We can do better and we will do better and we must do better.”