How Teaching Religion 101 Saved My Ministry

clearly the fact that I’m sitting down
means I declined to give a lecture, but I am so happy to be here this week
with all of you in this new configuration of this divinity school
with Andover Newton. I’m freshly here.
Berkeley was freshly here. When I arrived.
I’m, I’m looking around and seeing friends,
old and new and we’ve all held up really well.
So, um,
I want to thank you for engaging. What I’d like to think of as a
conversation, I did think a lot about what I wanted to
say to you and I wrote it in very tiny handwriting,
so I will be looking down at some of this,
my national enquirer headline, how teaching religion one,
oh. And saved my ministry was really a way
of honoring the mission of this school from the time I arrived here in 1973,
I learned that this is a place that was dedicated to educating people for
ministry in and beyond congregations. And since I was an unchurched person at
that point, had not yet found a denominational home.
That freed me in a lot of ways to stand next to Presbyterians who are preparing
for their ordination exams and knew exactly what they were going to do after
seminary and I had not a clue as I did a quick count in the last few days of my
fellow residents in Bushnell House. First Time I came for the Advisory
Council meeting, I tried to find my old bedroom and
realized it was like the stairwell. It was at the top of the stairwell,
so I just stood for the vibes that were left,
but I did a quick count of the of the men and women who lived upstairs and
downstairs in Bushnell house in those days and I counted people who went on to
become a physician, psychotherapist,
Lutheran Bishop, lgbt activist,
author that tells you his age. He stopped at lgbt fundraiser for
nonprofits, college chaplain,
a cofounder of an interfaith wisdom school in Nashville,
Tennessee, and the senior pastor of the National
Evangelical Church in Beirut. I be bothered.
Those are the people I went to school with and it is perhaps telling that at
least two of them were here on a rockefeller trial year in seminary,
which in some ways underscored the mission as I read it in those days,
which was, this may not have been in your career
plan, but come check it out,
you know, to take a year at a seminary of your
choice to think about what it might be to serve in ordained ministry I think
was the wish then, but the physician certainly went on to
medical school and someone else went into forestry and I think the
Rockefeller brothers finally decided to make it a little more narrow in terms of
the vocational things that might come out of that. But I all but one of those housemates of
mine were ordained and several served congregations for a time as did I.
But it wasn’t either or for them. I don’t think.
Certainly not later in life. They like I at Midlife have found that
their roles and their souls were a little bit out of sync and that it was
time to readjust. That.
We learned here there were different forms of ministry both in the world and
in the church and at different times of life.
On Monday evening here, we honored I’m a 1975 alum of the school
who took his theological education into environmental law.
Uh, one of my oldest friends here to occurs
into community social work. I sit here with people who have come
through Yale and done a wide variety of things in light of the changing
realities in churches in seminary sense. I left here.
It seems to me there’s no better time to both bless and educate for all kinds of
ministries by vocational, multicultural,
interfaith, post denominational,
lay ordained. Um,
I was even enamored of Vedanta monk I met recently who said that a fake monk
had moved into the Vedanta house to help him.
And I had to explain to me what that but he’s very helpful.
He’s very helpful around here to me. you know,
I don’t think he really is, was,
but he ended up saying, And I thought,
well, there’s one more to add to my list.
Fake monks that are nonetheless fulfilling a form of ministry that,
that fell in front of them. Um,
one of the hardest things about speaking to public gatherings right now is how
often I get asked to predict the future of parish ministry or Church or
seminaries. And I could not be more clueless. I often tell people I wouldn’t have
written a book called leaving church if I could have figured out how to stay.
But at that point, you know my vision of how to move
forward in that place at that time, um,
hit a wall. And I did later,
many years later, write a book called leaving church.
I left the out of it on purpose. It was not leaving the church,
but it was remarkable how many letters of constellation I got from people who
regretted to here I was leaving the ministry or leaving the church.
And one, one bishop who I love so much wanted me
to get into spiritual direction quickly before my relationship with God was
completely gone. And I had to write him back and say,
this is really hitting the wall in, in,
in parish ministry. It really,
God doesn’t have tons to do with it, so,
so he was relieved, but it was really interesting how the
news that I had left parish ministry became the news that I left ministry,
had left the episcopal church, had renounced my orders and I will tell
you this story in my way of how really my education here saved that for me
saved my sense that I still had a ministry though there were a number of
years when I lost a great deal that had been associated with that for me,
so I don’t have answers. You should ask the professionals.
There are many of them here this week of deans and board members,
advisory council members, professors and students who are
brilliant. I do however,
have a narrative and it’s what I’ve been doing with the last 20 years of my life
along with teaching college is is writing books,
the chief virtue of which is that I will sometimes say things out loud.
Other people have the sense not to say and then they come up afterwards and say
things like, I thought I was the only one or I’m so
glad you said that out loud. So I’m Kinda like the kid on the old
cheerio’s commercial, you know,
what was his name? He’ll try anything.
Give. Yeah,
Mike. Mikey will try anything.
So, um,
I’ve got a kind of Mikey vocation of go write about.
And I’m certainly not alone in that. ahead,
try it, Um,
the, the,
so I’d like to talk in first person narrative and,
and what that means above all is that it is,
um, it is a first person narrative.
I arrived at that after years of using the plural pronoun.
We, we believe we’re called to,
we understand, we read scripture to mean and um,
that once I got in the classroom got whittled pretty quickly down to I,
there was not a lot I could say on behalf of the wide variety of students
in front of me, but it turned out to be liberating
because you can’t argue with me a lot about my experience.
That’s my sacred thing. So I want to talk a little bit about
what, what happened to me in,
in a very culturally specific part of the country,
the southeastern United States where Christendom is not post yet.
Um, but interestingly not post yet though. The county one hour south of the college
where I taught is one of the 300 a minority majority counties in Georgia,
which means they’re 89 different religions.
There are 110 languages spoken in the public schools and Piedmont college more
and more a matriculated students who had graduated from those public colleges.
So I think in a way Clarkesville Georgia and Piedmont College,
a small church related now I’m dually affiliated,
UCC and the good old in Cccs, if any of you remember them,
that we are not UCC ecs. Um,
but it’s a dually affiliated college with a mayflower on top and with dorms
named Ipswich, you know,
in Demaris, Georgia.
So, so it’s an,
it’s a rich and interesting part of the country.
There is a terror Vada, a Laotian Buddhist temple,
nine miles south of the college. Beyond that,
there are not enough Jews to form a minion. There are not enough Muslims to keep a
halaal butcher in business, and the wide variety of religious
diversity that I encountered was Christian,
and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but it’s also a privileged narrative.
I after all, went to yds.
So, uh,
it’s my story. It’s not your story,
but I’ll be really interested if I can manage my time to hear how it perhaps
touches or sounds a little bit like yours.
So I’m sticking with my national enquirer headline,
how religious teaching religion one-on-one saved my minister.
You might need to know that before I arrived at Piedmont College,
religion one-on-one was introduction to the Bible.
Um, and that was challenged and changed
before I ever arrived. There was no religion major at Piedmont
before I arrived there. There was a philosophy professor who
taught in the Department of humanities and religion,
one-on-one was changed to religions of the world. And that was a decision by virtue of the
then faculty Senate before I got there, which I found such an interesting
change. I’m not unopposed by any means,
but it, it seemed to the faculty and the board
at that time, that teaching world religions in a small
liberal arts college in the rural part of northeast Georgia was the thing to
do. So what shifted for me at the same time
that I was running out of steam and had asked God for a vision that God did not
provide for a small church that was growing beyond its 82 seats and did not
find that comfortable. A religion position opened up at
Piedmont College. Uh,
a major was started and for the next 20 years I served as the only they would
quarrel with full time, but only fulltime religion professor at
a church related college. There was one philosophy professor,
one religion professor and one chaplain at a time when they were 20 English
professors, more coaches than I can count. Um,
and in a way, a miniature version of I think what this
university went through. I’m wondering whether there was any
place left for religion major, um,
at a church related college. So interesting times.
I’m especially interesting times to teach world religions before nine slash
11 and after nine slash 11 and through wars in Kosovo,
Afghanistan, Iraq,
Syria, during different times of that school’s
life being a place where people who had come to this country as refugees,
ended up being funded to attend this small college largely by congregational
parishes who knew it, you know,
as a small place where students might, um,
not be thrown into the University of Georgia with as many students as my
county has inhabitants. And the main thing that happened and not
willingly perhaps is that teaching religion one,
oh, one began to say my ministry by getting
me out of the house to be a parish minister in a small,
rural town. As many of you know,
to try to get out of the house is like trying to break up with your cell phone.
It’s really hard to do because the screen’s always busy.
There’s always a reason to answer one more email,
return, one more phone call,
open the mail file, the parochial report.
It was my job. It was what I did was to nurture faith
in what in my county is a really bond side tradition.
The Episcopal church was so unknown when I tried to find my way to the church for
the first time, I had to stop and ask at a filling
station because there were no episcopal church welcomes you signs.
Apparently it did it, you know,
or you had to know your way to get there.
And I remember still someone who said, oh,
you’re looking for the despicable church.
And I thought so it was a, it was an,
again, an interesting little little tiny
denomination, but it did keep me in the house a lot
and I really had to go off screen to follow on moving day,
a little flatbed truck that the Piedmont maintenance department had sent to empty
my little parish office at Grace Calvary. You know,
the old desk, the chairs,
the Sofa, the many,
many books and all the other things that I’d gathered in five and a half years
there to follow a flatbed trucks, six miles to my new domiciled and to be
escorted to a little tiny office where the nameplates said not the reverend,
not endive, but Barbara Taylor humanities.
And that was a bit of a shock. I didn’t know whether I didn’t.
It was a shock and in a way a wonderful reprieve all of a sudden to be welcomed
to the department of humanities and not any longer to be the person who’s chief
credential was master of divinity, which in fact was an inadequate degree
to teach college. So I was soon a priest without a parish
and a professor without a phd, which was good.
A good liminal place to be. So I,
I opened the door to that small place. Um,
I realized it was time to downsize big time because I,
there was no room for my stuff in there. Um,
and then the building burned before I could even move in.
So make of that what you will. But it was not the same at all to be all
of a sudden part of a faculty. Piedmont was not a university,
but I felt as if I had been placed in a universe of standards of truth,
of ways of making meaning of people whose expertise was was cataloging new
salamanders in the rich biodiversity of northeast Georgia.
I’m a a biological level illusionist who is also a deacon in his Baptist Church
and had a hard time reconciling those identities.
I mean the number of people I sat in faculty meetings with and listened to
the ways they were training their students to make meaning of indifference
in the world was very different from what I had done in parish ministry. So it got me out of the House and had me
finding my way around a new neighborhood that in some ways brought back proverbs
eight. I had to look it up for you,
but. But the phrase about how wisdom in
Chapter Eight stands at the crossroads. She’s out in the roadway,
you know, she,
she’s calling from the heights. But I hadn’t been at quite a crossroads
like that. And again,
very relative for you in in urban centers or who’ve been in much more
diverse positions than I am, but getting out of the house for me
brought me into a crossroad of different disciplines,
different ways of, of making meaning and measuring
excellence that were new to me. I’m teaching religion one-on-one,
saved my ministry by absolutely knocking me off my pins.
My clothes didn’t work. My pronouns didn’t work.
My Christian vocabulary, especially my episcopal vocabulary,
did not work. My biases did not work.
You know, the,
the, the,
the. I was,
I wouldn’t say I was comfortable in parish ministry,
but there was a we there that worked, if you want it to pray the book of
common prayer. There was only one place to go in
Habersham county and it meant the daughters of the American revolutions
that next to the League of women voters. And it meant that one of my dearest
parish lay people was just the youth recruiter for the National Rifle
Association. And he wanted to come to my house and
fit me out with a pistol and a safe room so that if worse came to worst,
I would be safe. And that was out of pure love for me.
So I came into much more diversity even in the episcopal church than I had in an
urban place where you can drive past other churches to get to the one where
you’re most comfortable. But mercy,
the first day I looked out at that classroom and it was not apparent then,
but I was talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses and seventh day adventists and holiness
pentecostal and, and see ame and ame and,
and, and Mormons and,
and people who use such different Christian vocabularies for me.
Only a spattering of international students.
Often when those, the students who had come in,
some kind of refugee situation came in. But I,
um, I learned quickly that first of all,
my Christians crowd was so small that most had never heard of it.
Um, to find students who had come from
traditional mainline traditions was like finding a classic car in the parking lot
of the Presbyterian student whose dad was a pastor down in coastal Georgia,
came in already having read everything, Marcus Borg Road,
and having written a fan letter and gotten one back then.
But he was very unusual. I’ll tell you what though,
his faith was safer than people who had not gone to the mat with it the way that
he had. And,
and so there was a lot of learning from the main line students who came in in
many ways more secure on their feet because they’d heard some things and
read some things that students from what you might call more protected or insular
traditions, had not one woman’s husband for bad her
to go on a field trip to St Phillips Cathedral in Atlanta for even song.
As I was trying to take students on field trips,
Christianity gave me a lot of choices. But I thought a number of them might
enjoy watching people in ruffs around their necks looking very British sing,
um, made evil things.
And one woman’s husband told her she could not go,
that that was not of Christ and that, and that was quite a shock to realize
that I was not of Christ, but so many kinds of Christians. So you can begin to hear a kind of
humility that really knocked my pins out from underneath me.
A lot of my favorite words were gone. I even pretty famously found myself
switching a position I’d had in church that we needed to preserve the
vocabulary of faith. Even the episcopal vocabulary,
I’ll meet you in the Narthex or the sacristy after the vestry meeting,
you know, the,
the things that just, um,
and, and I had sort of followed will willimon
and Stanley hower was on the need to preserve that language.
But not if I wanted to talk to students from such a wide variety of traditions
in many ways that it was time for me to learn their languages.
There was a phrase a long time ago about being a servant leader.
And I learned how to be a student teacher in a different sense to be a
teacher. I had to be a student of the students to
be their teacher. There was also this whole new world of
assessment that was shocking to me that all of a sudden I was part of an
academic system that wanted me to link my course assignments to measurable
objective learning outcomes that required annual self evaluations from
me, including my goals for last year and how
well I’d done for them. They had to be measurable goals and to
set new measurable goals for the following year.
Peer Review, a Dean’s response to my self evaluation.
I had never been scrutinized. I mean,
my complaint in the parish was. It was hard to tell if I was doing a
good job in the college. It was almost impossible to escape the
measures for whether I was doing a good job.
My Dean was a Missouri Synod Lutheran who,
who had his phd in math and that concerned me for a while about my
ability to operate on several levels with him,
but his son ended up in my class on New Testament,
which ended up helping him a great deal. And he asked me to write his
recommendation to a Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary.
So again, it knocked my pins out from underneath
me. Um,
that’s another thing it did for me. Later you can say.
And why are these things good? Um,
it changed my role dramatically and this is really the heart of,
of what teaching religion one, oh,
one did to my sense of ministry. I come from a mother,
father tradition, Christian tradition where people are
still called father so and so. And when I go to really the beating
heart of the episcopal church in the south,
it’s so wanee and I’m walking across campus in a clerical collar.
I have to prepare myself for someone to say,
mother, do you want a ride?
And I look around from other, you know,
to see where she is. But there’s a sense in which I come from
a mother, father tradition,
which in many ways they accentuated a lot of the parental language,
both in the prayer book and in scripture. And it did mean that more times than I
was comfortable, especially as a person who had not
parented children of my own, that I was working out some very old
stuff with people around authority and Deity and fatherhood and motherhood of
God. Um,
and that changed radically when I went into a classroom,
first of all with the whole crowd I almost never saw in church.
And that was college students because I was not,
uh, you know,
in a campus church I was not in any kind of church with an active campus
ministry. So all of a sudden I looked out at a
classroom of 19 to 23 year olds. Um,
confirmation class had come and gone for them.
And they were on the whole, I would say whatever course it was they
were, they’re testing the teachings that
people like me had given them when they were younger. They were there on their room,
springer, you know,
they were there on their walk about to decide what was going into the rummage
sale. As Phyllis tickle famously said,
you know, what had the people who loved them,
given them that they wanted to keep, and then frankly some of them would say,
and what were they lied to about, what were they protected from?
Um, and it turned out that it was impossible
to avoid those topics in, in any kind of religion class.
But the last thing they wanted was apparent.
The last thing, or an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent
or frankly a pastor, they didn’t want the loving monitors who
had loved them enough to stuff their backpacks with good stuff before they
left their home. Churches who had laid hands on them and
blessed them before they went off to college.
And some had been warned to stay away from the religion curriculum that that
was the worst thing they could do. And that even if they meant to go on as
pastors, they could get that later or get that at
church. But they should not by any means.
You know, wander into the wilderness of a college
religion class, which would make them lose their faith.
It actually would, but I’ll talk about that in a minute.
So I was their teacher, which turned out to be a whole new
paradigm for me. Really.
It is its own paradigm and it’s not parent,
it’s not parental, it is perhaps priestly,
but I wouldn’t have said that, but to be teacher,
I’m not a church teacher because I can give grades.
And that leverage was alarmingly sobering,
you know, to realize that I could set up for about
10 days a comradery with students who were so happy to be in a place where
they could ask questions and trespass and read books that would not have had
the imprimatur of their home places. Um,
they were so happy to be there until the first quiz.
And then they, their eyes would get slanty,
you know, as the grades came back and they said,
you’re not my friend, you know,
you are acting like my friend but you, you’re my,
you’re going to grade me on this. And that introduced a new dilemma.
Where do you put ability to tolerate existential ambiguity,
you know, on measurable learning outcomes or
growth and spiritual maturity or an ability to ask better questions,
you know, I mean,
those kinds of things were impossible to grade on.
So in some ways the sojourn in the classroom was also a way of finding
subversive ways to meet the academic requirements and not short change
students on that, but to give them large ungraded
assignments that they had only to complete to earn the points and it was
not going to be that, but it was different from being a church
teacher because I kept attendance, I gave grades and that went on their
syllabus. I’ve decided that’s like the classroom
version of you’re going to heaven or hell and I’m in charge,
so you better come know the ways in which that doesn’t get people to church
in quite the same way anymore. Still get students into the classroom.
So, um,
I was not there to give them answers. I sort of switched from the answer
business to the question business. Um,
and again to resist, they’re fond wish that they’d come to a
place where they could get answers, but instead to focus on asking better
and better questions, which was not what some had been looking
for and I wasn’t even there to buttress their Christian identity because there
was a Bible school 20 miles away that did that.
And students who chose that college got good educations,
but it was different. They learned Christian apologetics and
world religions class, which was how to be,
be in dialogue at best or to rebut, you know,
at worst I’m different. I’m competing truth claims.
So if they came to Piedmont, they came most of them with some kind of
Christian identity, but it was no longer my job to buttress
that, you know,
the Christian formation was underway, but it was not my job.
My job instead was to help them recognize.
And this was so hard for some, that they had a worldview,
you know, that they had a social location,
that they had a cultural history and identity.
That they had an idea about what constitutes normal.
That people didn’t all share. And the classroom had to become a safe
place to encounter that huge, I don’t know what word you’d put on it.
Huge invitation to relative truth that caused some to slide right off the
Christian map. You know what I mean?
For some just the idea that it was a worldview and not the worldview was the
most, the most upsetting thing that happened
to study religion in a way that few of them had before,
so that I had to spend a whole class session talking about the difference
between devotional study of faith and academic study of religion and that they
did not have to crash, but they were going to be different. And the way I tried to soften this was
to talk about the difference between primary places of faith.
And I said we’re going to learn some upsetting things here and you need to
take some of your questions to your pastors and to your Bible study leaders
into your campus chaplains. Um,
this is a secondary place. I said,
and this is not a place for formation of faith,
but it is a good place for testing of faith,
for deepening of faith. Perhaps for some of you in a minute,
I’ll tell you how for some it was where they woke up to faith.
Big surprise to me, but what it meant,
and I hate to say this and it’s still a regret,
is I was in the business of making misfits who might never fit comfortably
in their home congregations again. You know,
I still remember the young woman who was so fascinated and she’s one of these who
just took fire. She was a messianic Jew who so took to
the new testament and would bring her Jewish new testament.
You know, it’s substituted Machai for Messiah and.
But when she found out about the septuagint and that Jews,
including Paul, had quoted from the sap to agent,
you know, in the New Testament,
she had to go home and let her past her habit.
She’s just sort of baited him and what he could tell her about the septuagint.
I thought this is why he told you not to take religion classes,
you know, but,
but it was, it was her way of going home and being
in dialogue and being so thrilled by what she had learned to finding.
She’d lost her conversation partners, you know,
that, that,
that it was not going particularly well. So I finally got some solace in the
humanities meeting and they say, oh,
that’s what we do. We make,
we, we disorient people,
Miss Bits. We,
we equip people with things that are not going to help them fit easily from where
they came and we’re not going to solve it all for them.
But that seemed to me the opposite of what I’d been doing in church,
you know, which was trying to strengthen identity
and, and give people a place to stand and,
and a vocabulary. And uh,
we are we pronoun. So,
um, so,
but what I found was a secondary place was what many,
many students welcomed a chance to explore and trespass and confer and
decide. And when I gave them opportunities to
check, how did I put it,
Ebu Patel taught me to say, how do you identify around religion?
I think that’s the way he says it. So you don’t require people to be in
one. But I give them the boxes and you
guessed it, spiritual but not religious. Got Quite quite a few checks.
Enough for me to ask them what they meant by that.
But it didn’t match up with a pue 2018 survey of the nuns.
The non us about the main reasons why they remained unaffiliated.
And as recently as this year, apparently 60 percent said they had
questions about a lot of religious teachings they had received,
interestingly, not religious practices they had been
taught is that not interesting and maybe that’s the same in their minds,
but to me they weren’t crest questioning practices,
Eucharist, baptism,
foot washing, row k.
But it was the teachings that we’re separating them for more people than it
seemed to relate them to. They were deciding whether to recommit
or not and others had been expelled from their primary places.
Um, largely because of sexual identity,
um, people with very traditional faith,
very interested in serving in traditional capacities in their home,
churches in singing, in Bible study and youth work who found
themselves uninvited to assume those positions of leadership and so who were
really at sea about where they would land because they didn’t want to give up
the faith and they share and weren’t going to give up Jesus,
but they had lost a community that I’m blessed that they bless their
participation in that. So I found a large sacred part of my new
job was to be a companion in that. Not Officially,
but in their papers, in office hours.
I’m not as their chaplain because there was a chaplain at the college and I
freely referred people, but as their teacher,
it was a different thing to be their chaplain in their thinking,
to be their chaplain in they’re asking of questions to be a chaplain to their
skepticism and a and a chaplain to their believing ness.
So that when I came to one of the hardest things for any of them,
and I haven’t gotten to world religions yet.
Here goes conversation was the canonization process of the new
testament may not sound like much to you,
but when a student finds out that a ceiling tile did not open in,
the new testament dropped out and that it is what the early Christians read,
you know, at church on Sunday,
it’s quite a shock to discover it took 400 years for that to solidify. And,
and as you watch scales fall from people’s eyes and various measures of
distress. I used to offer alternative ways of
telling the story. I said,
now if you have a high view of the Holy Spirit,
you know, the Holy Spirit was all over this right
from the beginning, making cream out of some of those early
documents and letting others fall to the bottom,
you know, inspiring the emperor constantine to
embrace a tradition of. I mean,
I said, I gave him a whole way to tell the story
and then the skeptics, I said,
and you’re, and you’re also right.
It was entirely political intrigue and it’s where empire took over church and,
and then perhaps not nicely said, decide how you’re going to tell the
story because the facts are not enough to support one of these definitively,
so you’re going to have to choose not only how do you understand and tell that
story, but how are you going to understand a
lot of other stories about the Christianization of the world,
about the great commission, about John Fourteen,
six, you know,
there’s some things to talk about. Um,
so my business was to disorient and I never knew what they were working out.
I’m not until later did I find out one of just the beloved students who went
on. Not In religion.
There’s so many people minored in it. It got to be a great minor.
But she ended up after a classroom discussion on different theological
positions on adult and infant baptism. She,
she sort of focused on. She’d never had been baptized.
And unbeknownst to me, because of religion,
one, oh,
one sought out a pastor arranged a baptism in a river and and took a place
in a church that would come sing and help dry her off and they hadn’t been to
the river in awhile. So Carson also showed them that another
student I didn’t know, she’s working on her conversion to
Judaism, you know,
but when it came time for her class service and,
and bring candles and Hala and let us project,
she asked permission to set up a Shabbat hear how she was learning to sing the
blessing prayers. I did not know that one student’s pastor
in her community church. This is being taped,
but it’s all on podcasts. Anyhow,
he was presenting a three week series on the Koran at which he had read cove not
knowing Arabic, not knowing a single Muslim,
but he had read the Koran, I believe,
at a genuine benevolence. He wanted his congregation to know what
it really said. Unfortunately,
his view of what it really said was this is a tradition in which it’s all about a
God droning on and on about how if you do not follow the Muslim path,
you will go straight to hell and meanwhile we’re studying the formation
of the Koran in New Testament and not in New Testament,
world’s religions, and she came in one day and said with
her paper in hand, she said,
it’s so interesting to listen to him on Sunday and you on Tuesday. And I just thought,
what a phenomenal thing. You know,
that that happened to be what we were studying.
And again, very confusing for her,
but I do believe she came out of it thinking neither of us were people of
ill will, but that she was going to have to
decide, you know,
w w how she was going to tell that story.
So little did I know. I’m surprisingly very surprisingly to
me, quite a few are working out there call
to graduate study in religion. They came awake in the classroom in ways
they had not come awake in their home churches.
Academic study gave them such academic freedom.
I didn’t mention that earlier. They had a kind of academic freedom that
had been unknown to them. I wrote more letters of recommendation
to seminaries from the classroom than I ever did from the little church I
served, um,
three to here, including one for an Orthodox Jew who
left after his first year. He said,
it’s so Christian. I said,
Tim, what did you expect?
But he was drawn here because of the mission statement that this was a place,
you know, that would take his tradition.
He now teaches history very happily, a one to princeton,
to, to emory,
to, to Mercer Mercer’s McAfee School of
Theology, one to general seminary in New York,
one to southern Baptist seminary. We sent her to wake forest,
but I think she went to the other one. Um,
which was southern baptist, uh,
one of the Missouri Senate seminary, uh,
from Little Piedmont College and Demaris,
Georgia never occurred to me, never occurred to me.
I would write three, four,
five, six,
seven, eight,
nine, 11 letters of reference to seminary.
Granted one or two came in with that in mind,
but the places they applied to switched Patrick,
are you here? One is here.
Kind of glad he’s not because I’m telling Lake wobegon stories here. Uh,
but Patrick Reed is here right now and his beloved Emily Reed is why I’m here
for teaching religion. One-On-One saved my ministry because it
was world religions and it made me responsible me responsible for other
people’s religious treasures to communicate those largely to Christians
in a way that woke the golden rule up for me like never before to do unto
these other traditions as I would have them do unto me and to imagine a Muslim,
a Hindu, a Buddhist who had exactly four class
sessions to present the treasures of Christianity and to do my level best to
do unto them as I would have them do unto me.
There’s way more in that to talk about. Um,
it also meant that it made me responsible for getting out of the house
in a whole different way to teach world religions in a classroom is to like
teach cooking by eating menus. You know,
you just couldn’t do it with paper, you had to get out of the classroom.
So I had to go relearn the city of Atlanta where every major religion we
were teaching had multiple, multiple variety of expressions in an
hour and 15 minutes. We could be at the Tibetan Buddhist
monastery. That’s the seed of the Dalai Lama when
he comes into town, or the $10,000,000
Alpha root masjid that serves Muslims from 30 nations in Atlanta has been
there for 30 years. I had to relearn the city of Atlanta
where I only knew peachtree street, you know,
with, with honest to goodness,
some of the finest examples of mainline protestantism and Catholicism in the
south. And yet you had to look between and
beyond them to find them. Much later funded.
The synagogues were well funded early in Atlanta,
but not the mastheads and not the Hindu temples and Buddhist temples. Um,
so again, I had to become a student teacher as I
tried to find places. They were open to student visits,
showing up in all our clumsiness. I’m trying to be perfect strangers at
Friday, Juma prayers or at a meditation session,
um, and at the same time to help students
take the batteries out of the burglar alarms of faith because some of them
absolutely freaked out in the van on the way these places because they were so
used to being evangelized. They were sure they would be evangelize
the minute they stepped foot, you know.
So I still remember the one student ahead of me at the,
at the Tibetan center who was listening to a talk on cultivating happiness and
about three minutes and he turned around and with big mouth said,
this is just about life. And he was so relieved to realize he was
welcomed there too. Somebody was saying,
here, you can borrow the cup,
but you don’t have to buy it, you know,
you can, um,
take this Cup your cups. Wonderful.
You know, go home with your other cups.
So I had to resist the tastes like chicken phenomenon where I wanted to
teach everything in another tradition by saying how it tasted like chicken and to
finally realize alligator tasted like alligator.
And Buffalo tasted like buffalo and it made me a student fifth by getting me
out of the house and knocking me off my pins and changing my role drastically
and making me responsible for other people’s religious treasures,
including their Christian other traditions I had.
It made me question everything, made me question everything I taught
guests who had to think about her world, view her cultural history and identity,
her social location, her privilege,
her normativity, and it couldn’t teach all that without
going home and staying up half the night doing my own homework. And the more I learned about other major
world traditions to come home, questioning my own teachings on original
sin, salvation by faith alone,
atonement, why the Great Commission became more
beloved to so many people than the great commandment.
Why? People who knew John Fourteen,
six did not also know John Twelve, 42,
he who believes in me, believes not in me,
but in him who sent me. Why do we privilege the texts we do,
um, to,
to, to look at the effects of clumsy
evangelism and Christian normativity. How it led Muslim students in class to
say, please don’t out me as Muslim.
I’m not ready to be seen that way to, to,
to see my tradition from the outside too,
to not by virtue of being in a congregational college where a clerical
collar much anymore. So I learned how people talked when they
didn’t know there was a clergy person in the room. There was a huge drop in cabin pressure
to find out my planet was part of a universe of faith and I needed better
answers for students who wanted a rationale for why they should be in a
class like world religions. Why should they sit in a class where a
Christian was going to tell them about the wisdom in other traditions?
Um, and I decided I needed to do what
Jonathan sacks had called me to do years earlier in his book,
the dignity of difference. And that was to work in my own abrahamic
tradition, to search my own scriptures and
traditions, to formulate a theology of difference,
you know, to,
to look at my own Bible stories, my own teachings and practices in order
to formulate a way of speaking, of how the unity of the creator is
expressed in the diversity of creation. And,
um, and to offer that to students who
perhaps had never heard Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth as a sermon about
disowning God. God came not to the lepers are the
hungry widows in Israel, but went to the widow of Zerephath and
went to name in the Syrian, you know,
who may never have heard the story of the Good Samaritan as someone who was
the exemplar and went away to continue becoming a Samaritan who did it the
wrong way. You know,
I mean the ways in which Christian tradition had its own tradition of
righteous gentiles, of people who visited us,
blessed us, challenged us,
and left us, but did not become one of us.
And that, that might have been God’s will.
So that issued in a book called Holy Md. That’ll come out next march.
Um, boTtom line is I believe that teaching
world religions saved my ministry by an moring.
It, um,
I felt most like brendan, the navigator,
the sixth century irish saint who got in a little boat according to legend with
14 monks and three unbelievers to go search for the island of paradise,
of the blessed I’m teaching religion one-on-one in an unintentional way,
set my boat afloat. And it took me far beyond my competence
deeper into the cloud of unknowing than I’d ever been.
It gave me new reasons to search my own scripture and tradition,
new ways to exercise my priesthood, largely official with a far More lay
vocabulary, with more humility than I had ever had
two experienced before, which,
which many of my christian peers saw as infidelity on the one hand.
And gUllibility on the other hand. Um,
but I, I took a lesson from richard rohr who
said, I have prayed for years for one good
humiliation a day. I didn’t even have to pray.
And then he said, I must watch my reaction to it.
I have no other way of spotting. And both my denied shadow self and my
idealized persona. I thought that was interesting.
so I got a lot of built in, um,
humiliations, which I read his humility makers,
um, post retirement now I retired a year
ago. May,
I don’t know if you know that. Yeah,
I, I thought it was something that would
happen. Like you retire and life would become
calm and it turns out you have to make yourself be retired.
But I’ll tell you an interesting thing that has happened because I think I have
a reputation for being unmoored and for being perhaps gullible.
And I dunno what I have found myself invited to the most interesting places I
have found new crowds of christians I never knew existed. I found a crowd,
you probably know, call themselves post evangelicals.
4,000 of them gathered at the wild goose
festival last july. I was there meeting pastors of
pentecostal churches in nashville who just come out for marriage equality and
lost half their congregations overnight. He came to visit and clarksville taught
me a heap in a week. I’ve met more and more of the spiritual
but not religious. Got invited to something called walk
fest, a global healing condition initiative in
Idaho springs, Colorado,
where I was on the ticket with yoga teachers and people who work with
compassionate capitalism and, and make molars out of crystals.
I was out of my league. They’d never heard of me.
I had never heard of them. And we all wanted to heal the world.
Um, I work a lot with churchill loams people
who have left their churches or who still have an absolutely put in it,
but who are looking for secondary places who knew and who show up at weaken
conferences here and there. Their names would delight you if you
don’t know them. Awakening soul,
gladdening light wisdom ways. January adventure mountain top lectures.
I’ve gotten on this speaking circuit that’s largely people my age.
My color haIr is dominant, but,
but who have served, did formed and are now at retirement
age, doIng what good forest dwellers do and
that is reforming and rethinking faith before they go on to whatever comes
after one leaves this incarnation. So that is sacred work too,
but they to people my age in my position are looking for secondary places that do
not cause them. Again,
many of them are the mainstays of their churches though they will say they don’t
go as often as they used to Because they’re often gladdening light and
awakening soul, but they weren’t places also where they
can explore and trespass and confer and reform.
And I know the territory. So it’s not a career path,
man. This is not a career path.
I don’t recommend it. But it began for me here.
It began at yale divinity school where I learned that there are many ways to
serve many ways to serve both in and beyond congregations that I did,
did not leave ministry when I left parish ministry.
And that there is unity in diversity, not only in ways that people are human
and ways that people are religious, but also in ways that people are in
partnership in rapidly changing times. Um,
I’m grateful for my kinship with every one of you for everything that you are
doing in this world and all the ways that you have given feet.
And hearts and hands to the mission of this school and I’m above all.
I’m grateful to you for inviting me and for being here to keep.
Keep all of this so alive and beautiful. Thank you for having me. Thank you. You want to talk a little bit?
I would love to talk a little bit and we’ve got about 10 minutes,
so I’d love to hear from you. I’m happy to hear a question,
but I’m also happy to hear a challenge or a testimonial or. Yes,
high schools now, so formation is.
It’s integral, but I have the privilege of having
taught part time in a catholic related liberal arts school and the west coast
some some years ago. My question is not forming christian
identity in the role that you had, but wasn’t there some formation going on
and. Yeah.
I’m a big believer in the liberal arts mission about formation and if a
professor in religious studies is not intentional,
they’re probably forming them anyway either to be skeptics or academics like
or or maybe take a spiritual journey of some form in that catholic setting.
I used to have one assignment in an ethics class or religion class that
encourage them, didn’t require,
but really them to take on material from a faith or ethical perspective.
Um, had one paper from a satanist
perspective. It was California and others from,
you know, other kinds of perspectives,
but I really wanted them to engage it as a participatory knower from their own
perspective, even if it was temporary.
Um, I’m curious if that has a place in
liberal arts education or for you inviting them to actually to be the
claim, a place of formation for themselves
sometimes if they’re well defined, coming into it that way,
but if not taking it on as a I was.
Yes. possibility. Yes.
And um, you know,
the course that jumped to mind right away,
world religions does that again because christianity and students,
you know, people are one of the big five
religions, often will come up and say,
I just found out I knew less about. I did worse than my own and I did in any
of the others, but,
but to, to require them both in field trips and
then an a class called religious movements in north America.
They really took on some of, you know,
every religion born in America showed up in that classroom from the native
american church to satanism, which turned out not to be what we
thought but, but to engage those dialogical and,
but the way you said it, I like it,
is to claim their own place of formation.
I could give them models for that and and frankly some of their history
professors in english professors were they were getting it from other,
other places and, actually doing more to keep calling them
toward christian formation or religious formation. Then I was.
So that was interesting. So yes,
and I’m encouraged now to see more and more seminaries at the graduate level.
I think so on. He has a required course in world
religions. I’m more and more have them on the
ballot, but I’m watching ways in which you can’t
prepare for christian ministry without a medium level of religious literacy or
your youth group members will know more than you do about the world of faith,
so that that’s been encouraging, but the main thing that came to mind is
how grateful I’ve been for an education and vocation.
In other words, people who come into classroom with a
with a sense of readiness to learn, but vocation will translate across every
major at piedmont college and and it is a real.
It’s religiously couched, but lily and other groups are working
really hard and brilliantly. I think it’s saying no. There can be a call,
a christian column, muslim call a jewish call,
a religious call of faith, call to vocation in a wide variety of
professions. And again,
I think this school brings the theological education to bear on a wide
variety. I’m watching seminaries redesigned
certificate programs and degree programs to equip people who are going into law
and medicine and forestry street dimension to into other things,
but are bringing those values to bear. So you asked a great question.
Yes. Formation was occurring and I had to do
is sort of learn what I could put my hands on and what I should not put my
hands on, um,
and how I could work in concert with a whole educational planet there.
Thank you. Yes.
Oh yeah. I don’t answer short.
I’m sorry. Thank you for this.
Thank you for everything. Everything.
Um, how did you explain,
interpret, um,
talk about your particularity, your answer to the question.
What is your, uh,
what is he, how does he boost your relationship to,
around religion or how did you explain or interpret who you are to your
students? That’s a good question because for a
while the idea was you, you were a blank slate.
You didn’t tell your students anythIng. They weren’t supposed to know anything
but that they would google me, you know,
so there was no, I mean,
now you can google anybody, right?
You can also rate your professors with chili peppers,
which is really hard. Can you rate your pastors with chili
peppers on online? That was a but,
but I, but I,
I reversed that. I said,
you write, you need to know right up front who’s
teaching you this stuff, you know,
so, so let me tell you briefly and then,
but I would say I consider this my christian ministry now,
I would say that to them, you know,
that the part of my call I took up was the bridge building peacemaking piece
and that the way I read my tradition, my job in right now was to take the
battery out of their fire alarms, you know,
about other world traditions and especially to kind of hold up this idea
of holy envy that they didn’t have to leave their traditions if they had them. They didn’t have to convert if they
identified as humanist satanist. However,
I didn’t have that. I had a lot of wiccans and goths and
other things at times. But,
but the holy envy gave them away to envy,
to admire some things they were seeing in other traditions without having to
switch, you know,
or without having to feel unfaithful to their own traditions.
So. So I tried to introduce that.
That’s krister stendhal’s phrase, and I even put it on the final exam.
What has inspired holy envy in you this semester?
And that was an ungraded answer and they were just terrific answers,
but I identified upfront what I did for a living but that,
but that I saw the classroom is the place that I was doing my best with the
great commandment, you know,
doing my best and, and trying to learn what my neighbor
held sacred because I didn’t know any other way I could love my neighbor,
but to do that so you know, and so professors can’t help.
We’re going to model stuff. We’re going to choose books we like.
They’re, they’re,
they’re helpless to defend themselves against our ideologies regardless.
But I just told them up front and fortunately my early peripatetic
religious seeking because I wasn’t raised in a religious household.
I was pretty equipped. You know,
I’d been a baptist and episcopalian presbyterian would.
They told me how many churches they had been through. I,
I had some sense of what it was like to to keep looking.
And as a student, look,
to keep looking, I love said to me last night,
to keep looking not only for the place you want to welcome into your life,
but the place that welcomes you into its life and that that’s not always easy to
find. So thanks.
It’s great to be with you. I look forward to continue.
I’m going to stick around for a little while.
If any of you have more, um,
one on one things you’d like to say to me.
But I hoPe this is a wonderful schedule coming up.
Thank you, barbara.
We want to say thank you for your authenticity,
your honesty and your perseverance in your quest,
your own search for who you are and how you’ve represented the values that we
hold sacred here. Thank you.

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