Month: January 2014

Bonhoeffer and Psalms

**Note: This post is a devotional written for a congregational newsletter. I’m putting it here as a repository. So if this kind of writing isn’t particularly your thing, hang around, I’ll be back as the reprobate soon.
 
 
Psalms 27:6-7
Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
    be merciful to me and answer me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Prayerbook of the Bible
In 1940 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an 84-page meditation on the Psalms called Prayerbook of the Bible, in which he explains the importance of the Psalms for Christian prayer. I can’t think of Psalms now without thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote concerning them, “Along these lines the Holy Scriptures tell us that the first thought and the first word of the day belong to God.” Actually, I’ve revised it a bit and say it as a prayer: “Lord, the first word and the last word of the day belong to You.” Saying this helps me re-focus—sometimes find focus because sometimes, left to my own devices, my thoughts go immediately every day to myself, my life, my plans, my trouble, my happiness. When the first and last thoughts of the day belong to God, my life—my day—is given context and perspective. This little phrase is a comforting guidepost for me. It really should have been all along, but it was not—until I met Bonhoeffer.
Maybe you have heard of him. If not, you can access documentaries and a movie about his life on YouTube or Netflix. Documentary fanatic that I am, I was browsing them in Netflix one Sunday afternoon and came upon one about him by accident. I would like to say that I discovered this fellow through theological study, but no. I had run out of historical documentaries about Nazi Germany to watch. I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer ever since. His life is an example of how an ordinary human is capable of extraordinary acts in the face of oppression. That sounds trite as I write it, like a bumper sticker, so let me give you a brief biographical sketch. His life adds depth to his writing for me, just as his writing gives deeper meaning to his life, and between the two, I realize that we can be called upon at any time and place to do that which is right. I do not know how I would meet that challenge.
If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had lived in any other place and time, he would have still been known as a brilliant theologian. His book Discipleshipexplains who Christians are; Life Together explains how we live. He was born in 1907 to a life of privilege. His father was a professor, and his mother came from an old and respected family. By the time he was 23 years old, he had written TWO dissertations In 1931 at the age of 25 he was a professor at the University of Berlin. Wow. He wanted very badly travel to India and study with Gandhi, but he never did. In 1932 Hitler happened instead. If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had taught and preached and turned a blind eye to the Nazis, he would likely have lived, married, had children, traveled, written great theological works, and died like old professors do. That is not what happened. Instead he took a stand that Christ, not the Fuhrer, was the head of the Church. It was his call of disciplieship.
He came to the U.S. twice. The first time was in 1930 on a teaching fellowship to Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where he first met African American Christians. He began teaching Sunday School at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, and was moved by the “rapturous passion and vision” of the Black church. It is here that he found connections between religion and social justice and developed a love for Black spirituals—both of which he carried back with him to Germany. He shared both with the young seminarians he taught from 1935-1937.  I am glad Bonhoeffer has a U.S. connection.
He returned here in June 1939 again at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary, as Hitler began invading Europe. But he soon regretted his decision, as he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before the war.
From 1940 to 1943 he worked as part of the German resistance, helping Jewish people obtain papers to escape. He even knew about the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler (My quaker friends cringe a little at this part). He was arrested in 1943 because of conflict between the SS and the Military Intelligence organization for which he worked. When the Nazis discovered his connections with the assassination conspirators—who had also worked where Bonhoeffer worked—he was hanged on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American troops liberated the camp where he was imprisoned.
Bonhoeffer continued his writing—and his ministry—from prison, living and talking Christ to prison guards. His friend, student, and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, recounted the words of the prison doctor who attended his execution, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” Where did he get this strength? Bonhoeffer knew that God heard his prayers because he prayed the Psalms regularly.
From prison he had written his parents, “Before I go to sleep I repeat to myself the verses that I have learned during the day, and at 6 a.m. I like to read psalms and hymns, think of you all, and know that you are thinking of me.” The Psalms were central to his theology—and to his daily life. He began Prayerbook of the Bible with the disciples asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray!” Then he goes on, “At the request of the disciples, Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer… It is a great grace that God tells us how we can pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” He sums up a very important point about the Psalms: Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips (Ps 22:2, Ps 31:6). Bonhoeffer considered Psalms significant because in them we have an example of how God wishes us to approach God in prayer, praise, and professions of faith and trust. This significance is confirmed by Jesus—as His model to the disciples and in his final words on the Cross. I can’t help thinking they were among Bonhoeffer’s final words too.
Try this: read our verses above while thinking about the young preacher’s life, and his death, and his utter conviction that the Psalms are God’s words and when we pray them, we pray them with Jesus.

Music and Me, Part 1

The blessing and curse of being an academic is that whenever I come across any really interesting “thing”–whether it is an experience, a news story, situation, work of art, or take on the human condition–my first thought is, “Wow, that would make a great paper!” I wonder if my other egghead friends do that. It isn’t all bad; the blessing is that clearly there will never be a shortage of topics to write about. The curse is that everything around me becomes a potential scholarly topic. And I start planning out where to begin the search of existing literature before I finish feeling and experiencing whatever it is. A case in point is divinity school. For the first two weeks of being at Candler (School of Theology at Emory University), I felt like a researcher doing an ethnography of seminary. I still think that’s a pretty doggone good idea! It took almost a month before I began to feel the experience as something other than a research project. What’s so bad about that? Well, this world is best experienced by feeling our feelings every single minute we are going through it. I’m sure there is research to support that claim. 

It happened to me again yesterday, but luckily I caught myself. I was at the kitchen counter finishing up my annual review and listening to Elvis on the Sirius radio I had managed to hook up to my home stereo speakers, the coolest thing ever invented. Back in the fall, it had taken me a whole day to figure out how to make my old dvd player into a tuner through which to conduct music into the speakers (Is my technical language impressing you?). Because I had a home kit, the Sirius radio was easy. But figuring out how to hook up the Apple devices was less intuitive. Yesterday, though, as I looked from the kitchen to the system in the living room, the obvious solution just came to me, kind of like how I can think of things the minute or two as I am waking up in the morning that I cannot think of during the day (That happened this morning; I was able to think of the song title, Shine On Us, that the choir had sung Wednesday night. Yes, I did forget the title of a song between Wednesday night and Friday morning. That’s not the point….). So, I disconnected a wire from the radio, plugged it into my iPod, and viola: my music! 

I’m going to try here to explain what I feel when I listen to music. It’s harder than it may sound. I am inspired to do this after having countless conversations with one of my friends who loves music so much she moved across the country to be able to hear live music every night of the week–something, interestingly, one can’t necessarily do in Atlanta. I was also inspired to try to express what music feels like to me after reading my friend Alan’s book, Symphony #1 in a Minor Key: A Meditation on Time and Place. I don’t have it in front of me to quote (I’m at Starbucks) or I would share some of the beautiful imagery and language he uses to portray the importance of music to him as an embodied and emotional experience. That’s what it is like for folks like us, it picks us up and does something to us and puts us back down while something electric courses through us. Yeah, we like music. 

I confess I am not current on music. Whenever I meet someone who is, they have to catch me up some if they want me to be able to talk about it with them. I like it, but there is something about the old songs, the old groups. New music that sounds like it was old. I do like that, but it’s kind of cheating. As I scrolled down through the almost 3,000 songs on my iPod to test out the speakers, that is the kind I chose. A new (well, fairly) new song with a 60s Phil Specter beat: Doin That Thing You Do. And I was not playing around. I turned the volume up on 35 to see what those speakers would do. Drums. I am a sucker for music that features drums. Sixties rock beat. Refrain that shifts to a slightly minor key. The Wall of Sound. Here is where I wish I had the language to describe musically what was happening. I can’t, so you should play the song to hear what I’m talking about. 

You should know I cannot dance, but I don’t think about that when I hear music that moves me. Elvis felt it; he said so when asked about his “gyrations.” He said he didn’t know anything about gyrations–he just felt the music and couldn’t help but move. That’s how it is. I was standing in the middle of my lovely little bungalow yesterday with music blaring, me singing at the top of my lungs and, yes, dancing. I played that song five times. Then I scrolled to the Stars and Stripes Forever and played that five times while I directed it. Listen to it sometime: wait till the very last stanza of it, when Souza puts all the parts together–piccolo, percussion, AND those wonderful loud, blasting TROMBONES. You know how your heart can swell till you cry like mine does when I hear the national anthem at the olympics, or Just As I Am during the altar call? The last thirty seconds of Stars and Stripes Forever goes to my core and comes out something spectacular. Then I scrolled to Martina McBride singing Hank Williams and played You Win Again three times. I don’t have to tell you what Hank’s words sung by a woman in my vocal range can do to me. 

I will confess something: I am fifty years old, and I have one of my brother’s old microphones in my closet. I cut off the cord, and on days like yesterday I take it out and have a concert. So, to recap. I felt a surge of sun-shiny happiness that made me want to move like Elvis–which I did (sort of). I danced, sang, waved my arms in the air (in my mind I looked like one of the Chiffons), conducted a concert band, and sang torch songs deep and loud. Think about anything that can make you move, any physical sensation. Heat or cold, a shock, rain, fear, joy. When we feel these things, our bodies move because we can’t help it. That is how I am when I hear music that moves me–it literally does. I feel happy and strong. Sometimes my eyes tear up, and sometimes my stomach lurches like it does when I see someone beloved to me. 

Why was it important to write this down? For one thing, it means so much to have music–loud magical music–in my life again after I had lost it for so long. More on this later. I’ll tell you one thing. I won’t lose it again because now I let myself feel it. And, it would make a great topic for a paper. 

Giving Account of Oneself

All my brainiac friends don’t get excited. This ain’t about Judith Butler. 

There is one part of being a professor that I actually don’t mind: the annual review process. I also enjoyed (!) the Tenure & Promotion process a few years ago, which is very similar, just a little bit higher stakes. Am I a glutton for punishment? Do I also enjoy visiting the dentist or gynecologist? No, I think find the review process meaningful because, at least so far, when I have paused to give account of myself professionally, I have come out on the plus side. 

My friend Nichole, also an academic–and one whose good opinion I value and want to keep–helped me start the process this year. She has told me several times that she ought to hang out a shingle for all the counseling she gives me. I don’t argue with her. This time, I was bemoaning my lack of discipline and motivation for writing. “Whitlock,” she said, “what are you talking about? You spent a year interviewing people for your book. And you had an edited collection published this year!” I guess, I told her, I hadn’t thought about those. I tend to focus on the writing that I don’t get done. I wonder if other academics do that. I wonder if other women academics do it. It is a very prohibitive and debilitating habit. 

With that in mind, I approached my annual review, which this year must meticulously be entered into an online system. One good thing about having to enter each tiny part of publication information into separate fields is that you can’t miss what you’ve done! In the hope that I won’t lose sight of it this time and thereby break my nasty habit of null productivity (I made that up just now), here is a list of what I have done this year: 
I was invited to speak at TCU as part of the Green Honors Chair Lecture Series. I was awarded a sabbatical (see previous post). I chaired a dissertation committee and served as external member on two from Georgia Southern. I wrote a book review that I’m now revising, and I have one book chapter in press and one published. I wrote an invited afterword in a special edition of a journal. I was invited by the dean to give a lecture in her speaker series. I gave three conference presentations. I researched for a book. As far as service (the bane of most academics’ existence), I am associate department chair. I served on a department-level tenure and promotion committee and on a college-level one. I taught an online course for the first time (and liked it!). And: I started seminary at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and moved from my apartment into a bungalow in Atlanta. I started back to church and joined the choir. I made new friends and reconnected with old 
ones. 

All in all, this has been one of the best years I’ve ever had. 

On Writing, Part 2: The Sabbatical Begins

A sabbatical is a powerful thing. At my university, they aren’t actually called sabbaticals; They are “Enhanced Faculty Leave.” They are competitive, awarded based on a research proposal. At universities that honor the writing processes of its faculty, sabbaticals are given about once every six or seven years. Sabbaticals, not Enhanced Faculty Leave. Why can’t my university call a sabbatical a sabbatical? Because it would imply to the voting (Republican) public that we lazy, blood-sucking socialist/communist academics were getting something for nothing. That’s about what folks think of academics. Just once I’d like our leadership to take a break from politicking local legislators for additional funds for things like football programs and inform the public that about once every six or seven years, professors need time. Just time. To let the fields lie fallow, which is what has to happen for re-creation, creativity, and good writing to take place. As an act of resistance, I will call my Enhanced Faculty Leave a Sabbatical. 

It takes a while to settle in to a sabbatical–I still haven’t completely done it yet. I keep waiting to have to get up and get ready to go somewhere or do something. What I feel beginning to happen is my mind “un-tensing”–relaxing. I’m mentally starting to sort through how I want to approach my various writing projects. I got out a large yellow pad yesterday–the kind people used to hand write dissertations on years ago. I love those yellow pads; you can tell I’m ready to get down to business when I break out an official pad. While I always have top-notch pens, I’ll write on anything. So yesterday I wrote out a list of every project I want to work on this semester. Here’s the list: 1) two conference papers, 2) an essay for a book about my mentor Bill, 2) a book review that’s a year over due, 3) a review of a manuscript for a publisher, 4) my annual review documents, 5) an essay for a new curriculum studies handbook, 6) a book. Thank God I’m on Enhanced Faculty Leave and not a lazy good for nothing sabbatical.

Putting everything on a list is helpful to me. Now, I have sense enough to know that these can’t all be 6 separate writing projects. The conference papers will have to have some framing in common. The book will mine from what I write in them, etc. This prevents me from having to start with a blank page, which is self-defeating to me. If I can only cut and paste a little, I can go forth steadily. Usually. First, I’m going to do the mindless work of the annual review documents. I’m not being flip about taking them seriously. I do. But, it’s like filling out a job application when you have a good resume in front of you. You just lift from on document and put it on the other. This will be time consuming, but little thinking is involved. Next, I will finish the book review before I lose a good friend, the long suffering journal editor, Alan Block. I’m giving myself a week and a half to get these projects done. The others will need framing up theoretically. And that gets tricky. More on this later. 

Recovering from Fundamentalism, Part 1

One of my friends is, like me, a recovering fundamentalist Christian. 

She suggested that I might get to the root of my issues, whether about relationships, teaching, or writing–whatever–by forgiving myself. It took a recovering fundamentalist to recognize that and present it in that way. The closest I ever got thinking about forgiveness was when my therapist (the one I pay) suggested that I look back at the girl who married young because of gender role social expectations and not so subtle pressure from family. She asked me to engage with that young woman, going back even to  the smart tom-boy who felt different and often alone. When I did that very hard work, I asked the young me for forgiveness. I realized that I did not feel like I had taken care of her. I remember that was a very hard session. 

But forgiving myself now–that’s different from looking back at me then. Forgive, for what? The issue is the essentially the same it seems. Since my divorce, I have felt robbed of the 16 years I was married. (Side note: it has been 16  years since my divorce. Geez. Get over it.) Robbed, as though they were taken. Passive verb. I had blamed the fundamentalist church, my parents, my husband, Alabama–anyone, everyone. But me. Thing is, I’ve been furious with myself for having done this to myself–and for staying in it for those years. I did this. Me. (Now suddenly the anger issues my paid therapist brought up that I couldn’t see became very clear and noticeable). My unpaid counselor friend calls it discipline fundamentalism. I try to be “good,” but all that old unforgiven baggage surfaces and I act out (yes, there has been acting out), leaving me guilt laden and sorrowful. I make a pact with myself and resolve to do better. Trouble is, that doesn’t work. Hasn’t worked. 

In addition to forgiving my self, I will tell myself as often as I need to hear it, “it is enough.” Not “I am enough.” I know I am–my issues are not about confidence or worthiness. I’m just never satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. It’s almost always writing. When I can’t dig in and write a lot, I will read, or now, write here. That’s enough. It’s working. Even writing it now I feel a tremendous sense of relief and peace. So whatever I do, it’s enough for today.  

You may ask what this deep reflection has to do with fundamentalism. I think the imprint fundamental Christianity has had on me as a female has been about judgement. Naturally, I was taught at all costs to be a good girl because I would be judged by God. Here on earth, meanwhile, I was expected to be good and conform so I would be judged acceptable by others (what will the neighbors think). I learned to be good so that my daddy would not lose his temper. Be good, be good, be good. And if I were ever human–spontaneous, uninhibited, free-spirited (and all the behaviors these entail)–I felt that judgement upon me from all sides and fell short. So, forgiveness and acceptance is the first, deeply internal step to recovery from fundamentalism. It is the step that allows me to see that judgement is something that somebody else does. And it has very little to do with me. More on this later. 

On Writing, Part 1: Friends and Me

I have lately begun surrounding myself with friends who are either Sagittarius or who have backgrounds in a counseling or therapy profession, or both. I did not start out to purposefully do this, but once I noticed that I seemed to be collecting these kinds of people for friends, I kept keeping track. Now, It is altogether possible that they are drawn to me, so I am trying to figure out what it is that is appealing about me for these inquisitive, curious archers and advising helping professional types. I suspect it is that I tell a good story and tend to have some sort of conflict (I refuse to say drama), entanglement,  or crossroads in my life that I am seeking input for. I don’t mind saying that I like to get different viewpoints about what’s going on in my life. It helps me make decisions; it also means I can change my mind based on what seems to be most suitable. 

They have different approaches, these groups of friends. I don’t think any of them are both Sagittariuses and therapists. If I could find that person, I’d try very hard to move next door to her. Anyway, what this means is that I get different categories of feedback and support. Generally the Sagittarius free-forward-moving spirit helps me break out of my Virgo straight jacket and see my own possibilities. A Sagittarius cheers me on with, “You can DO it! You must GO for it!” as she is boarding the plane for her own next adventure (did I mention that my friends are almost exclusively women friends?). A counselor/psychologist, on the other hand, mainly asks me questions and insists that I feel my feelings before acting on them. 

Let me try to back myself out and try to figure out what it is about me that these bits of cheers and counsel meet. Reading the paragraph above, my Sagittariuses pick up on the doubtfulness, tentativeness, resistance, and hesitancy that I counter with impulsive acting out. My mind-pros insist I get to the root of those feelings, which I avoid by impulsive acting out. Reading the paragraph above, I am surprised I have any friends at all. I think I do tell a good story, and am just endearing enough that they keep me around. I am glad they do.   

What does any of this have to do with the topic, writing? Well, that’s mostly what I am doubtful, tentative, resistant, and hesitant about. And that is not a good thing, since I really, really need and truly want to be writing. Lately I’ve had the thought that even though I am a professor, I don’t have anything that I want to especially profess. That’s kind of like being on the Island of Misfit Toys. It is not that I don’t feel worthy or lack confidence; I have friends who have those issues as demons. I feel plenty worthy and confident. I think I haven’t found my joy, my bliss in it yet. I don’t think I’ve found a way, even after over a dozen years of being in the academy in one way or another, to do this job, this work, joyfully. And I truly believe it can and should approached and engaged with joy. So, joyfully onward today. My day, my work, my terms. My bliss. 

Elvis and Me

Today, January 8, is Elvis’s birthday. He would have been 79 years old, which seems astonishing to me. So on this day, I will offer some random thoughts about Elvis and me. Because of those various threads that run through one’s life from age to age, stage to stage, place to place, Elvis runs through mine. 

I saw Elvis in 1975 when he came to the new civic center in Huntsville, Alabama. My parents, who have never been to a concert before or since, sent away through the mail for tickets. It’s really remarkable to look back that it ever happened at all–but we went. I, nerd that I am, was having a little temper tantrum because I was having to miss the last day of my 5th grade class. That didn’t last long. My parents remind me that I commandeered the one set of opera glasses they bought and saw Elvis magnified throughout the concert. As I have done since then whenever conversations turn to how his body became ravaged and bloated from drugs, I can testify here that in 1975, Elvis looked good. He was in shape physically and vocally; he was on his game in Huntsville. Of all the things I have done in my life, I am glad I saw Elvis Presley in concert. I am glad my parents sent off for those tickets. 

But let me back up. Elvis was a fixture in our house my whole life. My mother owned several original 45 records, and I think eventually she collected every album he ever recorded. I have listed elsewhere all my mother’s Elvis collectibles, so I won’t do it again here. Those records were treasures. The tacit understanding among us was that Elvis was different from the other singers from the 50s they had listened to as teenagers. Even now in my mind there is Elvis and there is Everyone Else. And, as I have also written before, as a good Southern boy, he was ours. 

I am listening to the Elvis station on Sirius radio as I write this, a rare live recording of Doncha Think It’s Time. His voice is familiar and comforting. I know all the retorts, have heard them all. Elvis stole black music. He didn’t write his own songs. He was just a performer. He let himself go physically. He split his pants and busted notes on stage. He shot out tvs and caroused with the Memphis Mafia. He did drugs. He mad b-a-a-a-d movies. He posed for a picture with Nixon. And you know what? I’m at the point in my own life to where I say, “So?” 

Finally, then, what of Elvis and me? Elvis knew who and what he was. He used his gifts. He had fun and worked hard. He loved his mama and his daddy. He gave back. He never stopped seeking (the last book he was reading was called The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus). And he sang. I’ve decided not to make any more excuse for Elvis. Or me. He is what he is, was what he was. Coming back to this blogging space, I will confess something. When I started it, I was very careful not to reveal anything really personal about myself. As a result, there were chunks of explanation–and really good stuff–that would have been through lines to tie the anecdotes together, making it palpably uninspired.  So, like the open casket picture the Enquirer touched up from Elvis’s funeral, I’m writing this for myself, but you are invited to view. 

More on this later. 

For your listening pleasure, here is Elvis singing the best song ever recorded. 

http://youtu.be/yWgprZu4Hk4

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