I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. The goals I set for myself years ago continue into the new year. But this year I made a Jesus New Year’s Resolution as part of my Bible study group’s activity. I know. Jesus New Year’s Resolution sounds corny but it’s no less important to me. New Year’s Resolutions end quickly. And hard. But if you make a resolution with a prayer that Christ will guide you, then you’re more likely to keep it. At least, that was the reasoning of one of my brothers in Christ. However corny that may seem it’s no less important to me.
I set a goal that I’d first continue to have a life outside of my doctoral work–play board games with friends,
go on coffee dates, join an interdisciplinary reading group, write 750 words a day, learn the guitar, read personal essays and novels and short story collections. Second, I’d read my Bible. Because I haven’t read it in a long time. Perhaps since I started my PhD program.
I know there are ways to do this. There’s an app for that called Bible Quotes or the other myriad of Bible-based apps. I get that, but when I say “read” the Bible, I mean really study the Bible. The way I used to in Alabama when I taught Teen Sunday School, when I spent Saturday nights reading about the historical context of the passages we were reading, when I thought about the best questions that would get my students to think critically about the Bible, not just accept the verses for what they were.
I know there are was to do this, too. Carve out some time, about thirty minutes or so to read the Bible. I find my PhD doctoral working getting in the way. Perhaps this isn’t a good reason. I’m giving excuses, but I distinctly remember getting my master’s yet still having the time to read the Bible and to pray . . .
Prayer. That reminds me: last Sunday I went to lunch with some Church friends, two wonderful undergraduates who were really smart and could really geek out over geology, chemistry, and Bible interpretation. We had gotten our food, and I was returning from the bathroom. I sat down and immediately opened my soup. “Are you going to pray?” one of my friends asked. I tried to fill the awkward silence by volunteering to pray.
I look back on that moment as a reminder that I don’t pray over meals. I don’t pray before bed. I don’t pray during the day. In the morning, I wake up and think about what I have to do: how am I going to teach today’s class? I need to write that seminar paper. I need to read that book. I need to send those e-mails. I need to check my budget. I need to . . .
My head I fill with all this stuff. And not a single sign of Jesus anywhere. Except on Sundays. That one day where I’m forced to look Him in the eye. But even then I find my mind distracted. I jump ahead to the afternoon when I know something related to research or teaching needs my attention. After church, I walk back home pumping secular music in my ears.
In my first year, I joined a group for Christian graduates. They held weekly Bible studies. Several small groups disbursed throughout the city that gathered and read Scripture and just Scripture. They met twice a week on Friday evenings for Large Group worship. My schedule wouldn’t allow me to visit the small groups, but the Large Group worship sessions I enjoyed. I could be around people like me–people who woke up every day and thought about research and writing and reading, and they wouldn’t say it aloud, but I’m sure they too felt what, I felt that academia crowded out Jesus. And coming to these meetings served as little reminders that they were Christians. Sundays feel that way. A reminder.
Oddly enough, I do think about Jesus in other ways. Mostly I think about other Christians and how they consistently and stupidly neglect our most vulnerable marginalized people. The battle over “toilet rights” sets my teeth on edge. When I heard that North Carolina based HB8 because they wanted to protect women and children, I knew that was nonsense. I’m glad Jonathan Merrit from The Atlantic perfectly articulated my thoughts on the matter last month. Granting psychiatrists the right to refuse transgender people based on religious freedom sounds worse: first transgender people can’t pee where they need to pee. Now they can’t even get treatment for mental health. Christians refuse to help the oppressed because they think it’s righteous. Because they think it’s God’s will.
But I’m reminded of Israel neglecting the needy (read Isaiah 58:6-7 or consider Malachi 3:5). I’m reminded that Jesus lived among sinners; He didn’t withhold miracles or blessings. That behavior is what separated Christ from the Pharisees.
It’s when I consider these issues I find evidence that I haven’t stopped believing in Christ; it’s when I take five minutes out of my schedule to criticize the bad Christian thought that I find some comfort and some intimacy with Christ. I imagine that this kind of critical engagement with my faith is exactly what I should be doing at this point in my life. I’m not saying it’s okay to not study the Bible and not pray, but I do wonder if being critical of the Church’s worst parts can count as worship. Can we use Jesus as a model, because He spent part of his ministry criticizing the Jewish clergy? Can we even slap some cliched academic jargon on that? Not too much. Just a little something something to make the idea pop? Can we call it “critical worship”? (Academics love to jam “critical” next to something).
I do appreciate this moment in my life when I can get paid to get educated (And to educate other people on the side). I do enjoy research and writing, and perhaps this moment and this place is where I need to be. The time I spend thinking about my research makes me critical (there it is again!) of the most important things in my life. Perhaps I need to be in this progressive city to be both an academic and Christian, and to see academia fold over on to Christianity and back. And that’s what God wants me to do. For Him, maybe, that’s all He needs from me.