Two years ago, I stepped away from the classroom after nearly a decade of teaching. There were three reasons that led to this major life shift: one, my visiting professorship was up, and I would have to return to the adjunct pool. Two, I had burned out. Years of teaching, sometimes five courses at as many as three universities, while going to school (I hold three master’s degrees), had left me exhausted. And three, seminary, ordination, and taking a pulpit revealed to me that I could no longer spend my time only talking about God, justice, grace, and love. I needed to live it. To follow Jesus in ways that were written onto my body.
That means two things.
My appearance has changed radically in the last two years. I have lots of tats and will get more as soon as I can afford to. I have a long beard, which I have mentioned I grow to stand in solidarity with Muslim and Sikh men; I’ve gained a bunch of weight from medications and while I’m slowly starting to take it off, I’m a big dude; and, of course, I have locs now. Even for those close to me, the shift has been drastic and even concerning, until I explain it. For me, though, it has been taking control of my body. I can now say that I love my body. Every blessed inch of it. I still feel fat, but less often. I still have insecurities, but they are not as insistent. I look in the mirror and I see an external that better fits my internal than in the whole of my lifetime.
And I’ve changed my sense of self in the past two years. I am returning to the classroom at the end of the month, and I am truly excited to go back. But I think that my pedagogy will have changed. For nearly two decades, I defined myself as an academic. An academic who had yet to earn a terminal degree, yet one who published a major book and was an effective teacher; an academic who always felt less than, sometimes as a result of the CV measuring contests that can attenuate academe, sometimes as a result of my own insecurities that plague other areas of my life. But I know that I made a difference in the lives of students; that’s not to boast, but just to state a fact. I have remained in touch with dozens of students and still get messages periodically from people who tell me they went to grad school because of my class, or that they gained confidence in their writing because of my commitment to them. Teaching has been the steadiest blessing of my life, and I look forward to returning. But I know that I’m not an academic, at least not in the traditional sense (remember that I am the child of two academics); this became clear when I was summarily rejected from a PhD program I was certain I would attend. Two failed PhD programs and a rejection was the third strike. No more. A tenure-track position at Xavier or Wittenberg University was not to be my future.
It was in the wake of this realization that I discover Dr. Tony’s Martin Luther King Beloved Community Scholars program at United Theological Seminary. God showed me that I am a pastoral theologian and my call is to be a Doctor of the Church. Just typing that makes me smile. I finally found myself. Well, that part of myself anyway. But this doctoral program has been incredible and I am only in the first year. I’m excited about what God has in store.
Going back to the classroom is part of that excitement. I’m teaching a course I have never taught before, Christian Doctrine I. I have taught the second half, which runs from the Protestant Reformation through Liberation Theology, but not the first half. Putting together the syllabus over the past week or so I’ve realized that the past three years of preaching have prepared me to return to the classroom. It feels odd to put it that way, as I have always maintained that the classroom prepared me for the pulpit, but the fact is, I was still primarily approaching theology as an academic pursuit when I left the classroom. Even though I was a practicing Christian for about half of my teaching life, my faith was greatly influenced by academic training.
This has changed pretty radically.
Theology matters. Theology matters. Don’t read those as the same. I deal with theology matters. Why? Because theology matters.
I get why people are wary of religion. Religion has done a great deal of damage; I encounter people regularly who have been abused by religion. But religion has worked for me. Like, big time worked. It has helped me strip away the false senses of self more authentically and holistically than anything else I ever tried, and short of shooting anything into my veins, I tried just about everything. (That’s basically a joke, but not really but kinda yea, no.)
But I think religion has worked for me because I got my theology right before trying to fit myself within an already existing system. The way my mind works, things need to hang together, or if I am going to exist in contradictions, I need them to be comfortable contradictions. That is what I want to help impart on students. That what we are studying are not just ideas or maxims, but rather we are seeing ways in which persons and communities across time and space have communicated with one another how God operates in their lives. Good theology utilizes a number of languages–and I don’t mean that in a strictly etymological sense–and attempts to be a finger pointing toward the moon.
Bad theology tries to be the moon itself.
So I’m excited to be teaching again. To see how ministry work and God’s continued work in me will impact how I teach. How students receive me. How I feel about no longer thinking of myself as an academic, at least the way I did before. Now, what I do does not feel so academic.
That also means two things.