Fruit of the Spirit

There are many times in my Bible classes when it is incredibly useful that I’ve memorized lots of Bible verses over the course of my experience in Christian culture. Sometimes it helps me to tie a classroom dialogue back to the Bible. Sometimes it helps me point a student to the specific text they are trying to call to mind.

Recently, there was a moment at work when it was useful for me to list the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I have quoted this list from memory for most of my life, from the time I was a little girl.

So this time, when I called upon my brain to quote this list from memory, it responded,

“Ah, yes. Word chain. Nine items1. Ahem. *deep breath in* Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…”

One of my seniors responded by asking if I was okay.

1 There were still nine planets when I first learned to list them from memory.


Souls and Bodies

Among the many points made by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in his latest book, Reconstructing The Gospel, one, in particular, struck me by its pervasiveness in Christian culture. He posits that the idea of ‘saving souls’ was invented by white slaveholders as a way to not have to face the social implications of the gospel. Instead, the gospel was used to keep slaves docile and grateful because it was better for their body to be enslaved and their soul saved than for them to be a free heathen in Africa.

In the last four years of my Bible teaching career, my school has been trying to build and expand our international program. Most of our exchange students to this point have come from China, with a few from South Korea and Japan. So far, I’ve graduated one student who was with us for three years, will graduate another this year who is in their third year, and have four more students coming up through the sophomore class. All this is to say that, per the requirements of our school, these students, like all the others, will have had a year-long Bible class for every one of their years at our school. And I (or my students or our host families) have yet to make any converts.

I was talking recently with our Exchange Student Coordinator after one student shared in a paper for me about an extremely difficult situation back home that they were trying to navigate and understand last year, while experiencing depression and not feeling like they could be honest about that to the people around them. It was a situation that brought up the big questions of meaning and existence. This student communicated that after going through that time, they were not sure what to believe. I was grateful to be trusted with that piece of their story and proud of their strength in vulnerability.

Since the Exchange Student Coordinator and the student’s agency were both familiar with the situation the student wrote about, I passed the paper on to the Coordinator who then shared it with the agency. The agency is hoping to share that writing with other Christian schools to help them understand the struggle that exchange students face when they are essentially force fed Christianity and sometimes judged for not accepting it.

Any good missiology course will teach you that you cannot effectively communicate the gospel without understanding the context in which your are trying to evangelize. And that context is embodied in all of the people you encounter. You must be a listener and learner first. Our exchange students may be in America, but everything about them still embodies everything they’ve grown up with. When we present a gospel that is supposed to call out someone’s sin problem and point them to salvation in Jesus, and these students don’t have categories for sin, or a personal God, or salvation, or any number of things, we cannot expect them to just understand and believe in Jesus.

And when our gospel communicates that a person’s soul being saved is most important, it gives us license to ignore everything that may be true about that person. We lose sight of what it’s like to be in their skin. Their doubts, their confusion, their story becomes less important than praying a specific prayer to avoid eternal punishment. I am sure that fear of eternal punishment creates a sense of urgency to bring someone to repent and believe the good news. And if our urgency just bulldozes who someone is, that is not good news. When we value someone’s soul over everything else about them, we make them into an object to be molded and controlled however we see fit.

What this student’s writing helps to reveal is that these kids are living in a clash of worldviews, sometimes being told that the truthTM is something other than and completely foreign to what they have grown up hearing and believing for upwards of 15 years. When the version of the gospel they are given is a white gospel that makes no inherent sense in the context of everything they’ve ever known, of course they don’t understand it and they don’t accept it.

That piece of writing is the fruit of a two year relationship. And so far that fruit is simply the openness to questioning what to believe. It takes patience and love to create a space that is open and safe enough for someone’s true thoughts and feelings to come out. If we jump to save souls without knowing the other as a person, we are not creating that safe and open space. Kids are smart, and they know how to give answers that adults want to hear. If a student is feeling unsafe and unseen, and knows that they will be left alone if they start talking about how Jesus saves sins, of course they will take that option as a form of self-preservation. If our students feel the need to protect themselves in our classrooms, we have not shown love and we have not provided for the needs of those students. They will develop an increasing resentment towards the supposed ‘good news’, and the gospel will be shut off from bearing fruit in their lives. In the words of Paul, ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.’ It is not our job to save souls; it’s God’s job to save people. Our job is to be present in relationship to the other, without objectifying them. Our job is to love people whose story is written in their bodies, who exist in a context and a culture, who see the world differently and beautifully.

Four Responses to Power

I have a favorite project that my New Testament class does near the start of the year. After a little bit of setting the stage by looking at the cultural shifts of the Intertestamental Period, I divide the class into 4 groups. These groups are tasked with researching and taking on the identity of one of the four main sects of Judaism during the Second Temple Period.

The first of these sects are the Sadducees, who were generally members of the wealthy upper class and had the most political power. During Roman occupation, the Sadducees aligned with Rome for survival. Likely due to their submission to Rome, the Sadducees were the ministers of the Second Temple, Herod’s Temple. As such, the Sadducees did all of the priestly duties and offered sacrificial animals for purchase in the temple courtyard.

Next are the Pharisees, who we in the Christian tradition typically give a bad rap for their legalism. The thing is, the Pharisees were threatened by the Roman Empire and afraid of losing their identity. Their strict emphasis on following both the written and oral laws was an attempt to preserve who they were within an empire known for gradually absorbing the cultures it conquered.

Third are the Zealots, who generally believed the same things as the Pharisees, and were violently against the Roman occupation. Zealots remembered the days of the Maccabean revolts and looked forward to a Messiah who would lead them in an effective revolution out of Roman rule.

Last are the Essenes, who sought to preserve their identity and purity as the true Israel by living outside the towns in their own compounds. The Essenes followed a similar strictness to the Pharisees, and they believed that their separateness from greater society made them holier than those involved in that society.

Another group, not represented in the class, would be the poor and disabled. Popular wisdom of the day said that those who were in this last category were there because of their own (or their parents’) sin. The Zealots, Essenes, and Pharisees all believed that the advent of the Messiah was contingent upon Israel’s purity. This enforced the strictness with which they lived and led them to look down on the poor and disabled, who they believed to be evidence of Israel’s lack of purity. This last group typically had no power or voice in their society.

(Note to you history nerds: some great resources on the topic of Second Temple Judaism that we use in class are Daniel Erlander’s Manna and Mercy and two titles by Darrell L. Bock: Studying the Historical Jesus and Who is Jesus?)

Upon finishing research, the groups present who they are and what they believe. Next, we dig into Mark, chronologically likely the first gospel written. As we read, each group strives to make sense of Jesus through the lens of their sect. Sometimes they were together in their sect groups, sharing information from different chapters as though they were spying on Jesus. Sometimes they form groups where one of each sect is represented, and they attempt to share their findings in a way that protects their own interests yet also finds out what the other sects are thinking.

As we near the end of Mark, I bring the sects together in a forum. The purpose of the forum is to determine what needs to be done with Jesus. Most years, every sect finds enough reason to see Jesus as a threat, traitor, or both, and then they try to find a way to get him killed. The tricky part here is that only Rome has the authority to kill anyone. The sects find themselves walking a delicate balance between a Roman Empire that is both entirely disinterested in petty, Jewish affairs, and still sensitive to any threat of sedition their occupants (*cough* Zealots *cough*) might be concocting. After taking time in the forum to present one’s views, ask clarifying questions of the other sects, and answer concerns, each sect proposes a course of action and everyone votes for the option they like best.

This fall was the 4th time I have done this project, and it was the first time I had a group fully support Jesus throughout the whole study of Mark’s gospel. The Essenes saw how Jesus was caring for the poor and disabled, recognized that all of the sects, themselves included, had failed to do this, and decided that this was generally good for society, and it got them off the hook. (This second reason was probably the big sell.) They held their ground in the forum and were eventually outvoted by their peers who decided that the Essenes should be offered as slaves to appease the Romans in exchange for executing Jesus. While I was surprised at the Essenes tenacity of loyalty to Jesus, I was also surprised by something I’ve seen every year, and in the biblical narrative itself.

The Pharisees and Sadducees always determine that they should be working together, despite their differences, to achieve a common goal. Having a sympathy for the Pharisees because of their desire to maintain their identity, I was struck by why they should ally with the Sadducees in the first place. The Pharisees viewed the Sadducees as sellouts who had voided and betrayed their Jewish identity for a position of economic and political power. The Sadducees should have been the greatest threat to the Jewish way of life, even more than Rome. Rome could give them a hero’s death, but the Sadducees, even if they claimed to be Jews, had bastardized what it meant to be God’s chosen people.

And yet, isn’t this the same pattern we see in our own American political system? When we feel threatened, when our very identity and way of life feel at stake, we align with the powerful. The church has often allied with those in power. This may require us to give up pieces of the identity that we are trying to protect, and yet we think that survival demands protection from those in power.

The example of Jesus stands in stark contrast. Jesus spent his time with the powerless, changing their lives, liberating them from an oppressive religious system, providing hope. He gave up power, submitted to being slandered, beaten, and executed. In one account, Jesus stays silent, not even offering a single word in his own defense. This example runs the risk of death, of annihilation, of losing one’s identity with one’s life. And it is the promise of resurrection that keeps this story compelling.

So we have to ask ourselves: Is our alignment with power about what we truly believe is right, or is it about self-preservation? Does this alignment cause us to jeopardize our own integrity? Do we care about what happens to those without power? And do we believe that the death of the ego, the identity, the ideals that carried us this far are also given the promise of the resurrection? Can we trust Jesus with even that?

Exit Letter

I have been a vocational Bible (and band!) teacher for 7 years.  I have felt the pressure, assumptions, and expectations of being good enough and polished and Christian.

But I wonder if maybe it’s a holy moment when one of my now seniors, who was once one of my adorable six grade saxophonists when we first got to know each other, who, despite hating sand and letting me whine about also hating sand, despite having a fear of tsunamis so deep that he had to work up the courage to walk down the stairs to the beach, did just that for community building with all of his 7-12th grade classmates; who, with courage and authenticity admits to me, the Bible Teacher™ that, “yeah, if there’s a tsunami, we’re all fucked anyway.”

I have come to a place where I can’t live up to the ‘good Christian’ expectation anymore.  When I can’t be myself, when I can’t speak honestly about who I am, where I’m at, what I feel, curse words and all, I am not being honest before God.  When I can’t preface a sentence with “If God exists, then”, I am not being myself with God. And if I can’t be authentic with God even in these (quite frequent) moments, how can I claim to have a relationship with God?  My fakeness, even if it looks Christianly acceptable, does not bring me closer to God. It does not make me ‘pure’ before God. This is the ‘righteousness’ that is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

I feel the pressure, sometimes spoken or implied and sometimes probably my own fears and assumptions, as the Bible Teacher to have it all together, to be the paragon of morality, to know all the answers, to be righteous.  And I know, I have known, that I can’t live up to it. I have tried to still be myself, to be as real as I can without worrying administration, parents, my students themselves with my doubts, questions, and curse words because I do believe they want what’s best for the kids (certainly, I do too).  While I may disagree about what’s best, I try to respect where others are at too since that’s what I hope for myself. And there are limits on my authenticity because of fear. I need the paycheck and don’t want to jeopardize my livelihood by not fitting in.

And the reality is, I don’t think I can fit in anymore.  I want to be real. And I want to honor this community that has been a huge part of discipling me into adulthood.  All relationships, all communities are messy. Not everything I have felt has felt like a gift, and I want to assume a posture of gratitude for this community in which I can no longer find myself.  Thank you for loving me, being patient with me, teaching me, making me laugh, making me grow, and helping me to see through eyes not my own.

To all of my students:  I love you all and I am so grateful for all you’ve taught me, for your realness with me, and your encouragement.  I hope I have shown you how big God is and how roomy faith can be.

While I no longer find my place here, I know that others do and that is real.  You are a vital part of my story and many of the reasons I am where I am at today.  I hope that as I form the narrative of my life, I can figure out the balance between telling my story with truth and boldness, and honoring the community that took me in at 24.