Saturday, October 10, 2009

Highlights from Goodman E-mails

I scrolled randomly to a point in my e-mail inbox, just wasting time. I happened across a few e-mails from Dr. Goodman and then searched for all of our correspondence so I could share with all of you, some highlights. A little later, I would really like to share some interactions we had in an on-line forum Dr. Goodman organized for one of our classes (a class Dr. Goodman tried hard to convince me to take, as you'll read below).

After reading through these, I'm not sure I'll delete many more e-mails.


10/10/07, 3PM

"Students usually want to talk and they learn better when they interact with the subject. But if discussions are poorly framed and overly broad (e.g., “What do you think about that?” or “How do you feel about this?”) then they don’t really further our understanding all that much. The questions need to be tighter, more focused, and more purposeful, if that makes sense."

Goodman always asked good questions and always encouraged his students to do so. I still don't ask good questions, but I consistently try to reach his standards. This same e-mail reflected an amazing memory as Goodman referred multiple times to things I had said during class discussion, things I probably didn't even remember saying.


12/10/07 1:20PM

"Your total class participation grade for the semester (25% of your final course grade) is a 107 (outlandish, I know! But that’s the average for a 116 quiz average and a 98 seminar discussion average)."

Goodman gives extra-credit opportunities and always made a big deal about it when somebody received the extra credit, but obviously didn't need it. It amused me.


12/12/07 7:49AM

"Someday, when you’re universally hailed as the successor to Jacques Derrida, I’d like to be able to pull out my grade book from Fall ’07 and say, “Here’s what Mr. Genius did in my class oh so many years ago. Deconstruct this!”

And with that, I thrust my middle finger in the air…"

However, I'm sure he wouldn't thrust his middle finger in the air. What would his mother think?


12/13/07 8:06AM

"By the way, I saw Into the Wild last night. Do you know the story? You may have read the book (I haven’t). Fascinating. A 22 year-old young man graduates from Emory, sends his life’s savings to Oxfam, and quite intentionally disappears from his family to escape society. He spends a couple of years drifting west. His ultimate goal is to make it to Alaska to live off the land, which he does but with tragic consequences. It’s a true story, but I didn’t remember it (happened in 1992). Anyway, thought of you several times in the movie. Lots of literary and philosophical currents to it (more in the book, from what I’ve gathered; I came home and spent a couple of hours reading more about the story).

Hope you have a great Christmas. Are you heading to Maine ?"

A movie that made him think of me now makes me think of him. I'm not always sure what made him think of me, but I treasure the thought that it did. I remember being a bit surprised with the end of that e-mail. I was often pleasantly taken aback when Dr. G breached the professor-student relationship with words of friendship.


04/09/08 11:20AM

"Not sure if you've ever come across this group, but their monthly newsletter is always interesting and thought provoking. I'm not even clear about who they are--I think they're "progressive evangelicals." I'm impressed with how they engage culture, philosophy, and literature. And their stuff looks smart! So sorry to add another email to your inbox, but I thought you might be intrigued by this outfit (though this issue of their newsletter doesn't look as good as other issues have looked)."


04/10/08 8:51AM

"And I will remember earnestly in my prayers and best wishes (I don’t always differentiate between the two, you know?) in the days and weeks ahead. I promise. You’re a gifted guy and super-important to this community and to a lot of people in this community, myself being one of them. Anything that I can do to help share the burden, please know I’m more than willing to do so.

Blessings, friend."



08/04/08 11:19AM

"Hope you’re enjoying your summer—hard to believe we start it up again in just a couple of weeks, huh?!?

Any chance you’ve changed your mind about participating in the Jewish-Christian Relations Travel Study class this Fall? Never hurts to ask!


I’m hoping to finish the course syllabus this week and, while working on it, I thought I’d see if there was any possibility that you might reconsider and decide to join us for our week on the road in October. If not, I certainly understand. I ask not to bother you but only to indicate my confidence in how much you’d have to contribute to our experience."


After telling Dr. Goodman I would take the class ...

08/14/08 1:02PM

"Well, this is the best news I’ve heard all day! Glad you’re in and looking forward to your contributions to the class. If there’s anything I can do along the way to help, don’t hesitate to ask, ok?"


12/08/08 12:27PM

"Just a note about our final exam tomorrow night. I’d like to bypass a traditional exam or take-home writing assignment (you have done a decent amount of writing and reading this semester—I don’t really see the point in asking you to write-up rehearsals of material we’ve already covered just for the sake of a final exam assignment)."

Finals are often a waste of time. Goodman didn't waste time.


After we took the non-traditional final exam referenced in the previous e-mail ...

12/10/08 11:26AM

"The peer-grading for your final exam performance was, as you would guess, generous! One student who shall remain nameless wrote this note at the bottom of his/her grade sheet: “I can’t give anybody less than an ‘A.’ They all got up there and did the best they could.” Imagine a heart patient adopting that mindset with his heart surgeon, or an Olympic judge approaching her evaluation of a gymnast that way!! Some of you are just too nice for your own good!"

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Glad Game III

Every once and while, I take a cue from Pollyanna, thanks to a friend of mine, Ms. Jennifer Walker. Another friend, Ms. Jessica Heath, has tried to show me the benefits of this game, whether she knows it or not. So, today I'm taking the much needed time to play the glad game. Please, feel free to play along. To play, you just list things that make you glad. I write a little something-something about most of them, because it makes me even more glad.

1. The Wehmuellers. I went to the "early service" at my church today, the one with the "contemporary" music. I haven't been to that service very frequently since I started preparing for the fall semester at work. Two of the musicians are teenage brothers. Andrew plays the bass and Eric plays the drums. Eric and Andrew are pretty cool in my book. When they were done playing their music, they came at sat next to me. It made me feel super special.

2. Getting slapped on the knee by an man in his 70s. John Campbell is a retired pastor in my church and he has been attending the same small group I attend at church. We haven't interacted very much, which is probably largely the fault of my shy side. I haven't warmed up to everyone just yet, but I'm starting to. Tonight we interacted a little during the discussion time. Near the end, John was trying to summarize something he read in Romans 8. At the time, I couldn't recall what exactly he was talking about in Romans, but I thought I had picked up on what he was saying. When he was done, I said, "I like that. It's that born-again thing," and his face began to light up as I continued, "but not at one point, but your whole life." John shifted in his chair and slapped my knee, grunting a loud noise of approval, his face beaming. Another lady started speaking after, and although my gaze shifted towards her, I noticed John's eyes lingering at me, still pleased. At the next lull in the conversation, he told me I was the presence of God for him tonight, because I was listening to him and managed to capture what he was saying. I think I may have missed something in what he said that time or I simply didn't understand why he was so pleased, but it was enough just to see him so happy, to make the connection with hand and mind. It was beautiful. God touched each of us through the other.

3. Friends, of course! I think I've mentioned friends the last two times I played the glad game in the blogosphere. But they're just so awesome! Today I was fortunate enough to have a bunch of them accompany me to church, another joined me for lunch, and then a bunch came over and had a meeting in my apartment. Yesterday a few just stopped by to say hello. It was great. At this time in my life, these are the sorts of interactions I crave and I need. Sometimes you are blessed to look at a part of your life and say, "This is just what I need." Most of the time you can only utter that phrase when reflecting on the past. Sometimes, those times when joy surprises you, you can say it as it happens. I've been saying it a lot lately. Thanks, friends, whether I mentioned you by name or not.

4. My tattoo. I really like having my tattoo. I enjoy it when my shorts move just enough for my tattoo to sneak out and see the light. It makes me smile. I like art. I like art on me. I like being reminded I, too, am art.

5. Interpretive communities. Interpreting is fun. I think it is an art form. If not, it is at least part of the meaning-discovering (meaning-making?) process. Fun as it is to do sitting alone, working in community with authors, it is also great to interpret with people sitting in the same room. Lately, people have asked me some really good questions, causing me to think a lot. I like talking with those people about those questions, because we interpret life and texts together. How great to live in community! To investigate what is important to us and to bring our diverse and similar experiences and minds together! I've also really enjoyed this small group at my church. We're interpreting a lot together. I really enjoy being in community with people so much older than me. A couple of them aren't so much older, one is the same age, more or less, but three of them are a lot older. And they're offering a lot of life experience--and listening to me, too. It is awesome to respect and be respected by them. I love it.

6. Pandora. Pandora has let me love music I don't own. Modest Mouse, one of Dr. Goodman's favorites. Ingrid Michaelson. Norah Jones. Regina Spektor. Ben Folds. The Weepies. Jack Johnson. Sinatra. Ella Fitgerald. Louis Armstrong. John Coltrane. Coconut Records. The White Stripes.

7. T'ai chi.

8. Learning to love people and doing it.

9. Seeing beautiful people. Have I mentioned I have beautiful friends, beautiful acquaintances, beautiful family, and beautiful residents? How did I end up knowing so many good-looking people?

10. Sharing with my friends ten things that make me glad.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Sign of Jonah (Sermon 10/04/09)

Matthew 12:38-42, 16:1-4; Luke 11:29-32

The Sign of Jonah?

We're not talking political-rally signs. No signs saying "Vote for so-and-so for such-and-such."

We're not talking ASL.

We're talking a signifier signifying a signified. A reader interacting with a signifier to see how and what can be signified. The process of meaning, however (im)possible.

Words are signs. The word "sign" means different things, as just shown. Consider the word "literally," too. If I tell you all I "literally" ate a whole pie last night, you'll understand the signifier "literally" to mean I actually ate a whole pie. On the other hand, If I say, "I literally ate 20 million pies last night," then you're going to understand "literally" to mean quite the opposite of what it signified in the previous example. Signs don't always mean one thing. Sometimes they mean one thing or another. Sometimes they mean multiple things at the same time to different people.

Three times in the gospels, Jesus mentions the "sign of Jonah." And as the gospels are wont to do, none of these stories are the same. In two of these instances, Jesus is asked for a sign--something to point to Jesus' identity and mission. Each time the sign of Jonah is mentioned, it is surrounded by stories of a compassionate and teaching Jesus and stories evoking questions of Jesus' identity--is he of God or the devil?

The sign of Jonah is juxtaposed with these other signs, signs that reveal his glory, as the Gospel of John puts it (2:11). Although the sign of Jonah points to the same things these other signs point to, it is a different sort of sign as it specifically alludes to a book of the Bible whereas the other signs are provisions of food for the hungry, the healing of the lame and sick, the exorcism of the demon possessed, and such.

In Matthew 12, Jesus explains the sign of Jonah as foreshadowing his death and resurrection: "just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the son of man will be in the heart of the earth" (v. 40). But the sign of Jonah is not just about the fish.

In Luke, Jesus describes the sign a little differently. Jesus says, "just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the son of man will be to this generation" (11:30). Whereas Jesus actually explained the sign in Matthew, in Luke, he only complicates the matter further, comparing the sign of Jonah to the sign of the son of man.

Here and in Matthew, the sign of Jonah is somehow wrapped up with the people from Nineveh and their repentance. Jesus isn't telling us everything, expecting us to know more about the story of Jonah. So, let's take a deeper look by reading the whole story--it's short. Feel free to read along if you like. It's one of those small books near the end of the Old Testament: "... Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, ..." Don't be ashamed to look in the table of contents to help you find it.

As I read, pay attention to things that are weird. Jonah is a weird story, I think. I think we are drawn into the story of Jonah by being forced to explain things the story leaves unexplained--what I call filling in the gaps.

Read Jonah.

We've already heard an explanation from Matthew about the sign from the first half of Jonah's story, so I'm going to focus on the latter part of the story, which is just as fishy as the first if you ask me.

Why did Jonah deliver such a short, harsh message? The message in the book leaves a little bit to be desired. Did Jonah really deliver the whole message and nothing but the message that God gave him? Or does the book give us a summary of what Jonah said?

"Forty days and Nineveh is overturned!" Not really the most eloquent of sermons. No hope. No call to repentance. Why even deliver the message? Why give them a timeline? Since when is the God of Israel--Jonah's God and our God--a sadist? Certainly God didn't want the Ninevites to run around town panicking for forty days as they await their ineluctable doom.

I just can't imagine God sent Jonah only to bring news of destruction. Maybe Jonah didn't learn his lesson after the fish and doesn't say what God wants, or maybe the book emphasizes or summarizes Jonah's message. I don't know. But, whatever Jonah said, I doubt it was all rainbows and butterflies, but in spite of Jonah's message, God still held out hope for the Ninevites.

And so did the Ninevites. After one day of a depressing message, the whole city somehow manages to repent. I have no clue how word got to the whole town without someone tweeting, updating their facebook status, or taking the story to the weekend update. What exactly compelled them to believe? What compelled them to fast and wear sackcloth? Did their discomfort and hunger grab God's attention by proving their genuineness? Did it prove genuineness to the community, thus holding each other accountable? Maybe a little of both?

Here's a better question: Why did they make the animals fast and wear sackcloth? Was their too much gossip going on in the barnyard? Too much oppression? Maybe the white sheep were treating the black sheep according to some poor stereotypes. Maybe the bulls wouldn't associate with the steers. And surely the ostriches were ostracized.

Cheesy puns aside, God's reaction is crazier than animals being forced to fast and wear sackcloth because of a message of destruction from an angry prophet who probably smells like fish guts.

According to Hebrew scripture, repentance involves sacrifices and in order to be in God's favor you have to obey the law, be circumcised, and engage in worship at the temple. The Ninevites likely had little knowledge of Israel's covenant relationship with God and likely stayed ignorant of that relationship and the subsequent laws. And God still accepted their repentance. And boy did it make Jonah mad.

God wasn't bound by how Jonah read scripture, even the straightforward parts. Regardless of what Jonah thought, God knew about God's love. God knows everyone is redeemable. Despite God's love wasn't emphasized in Jonah's message, it was still given away freely and in abundance. It seems our God is a God who refrains from destroying the penitent, even when the penitent aren't even completely sure what they are repenting from and how to repent from it.

While Jonah preached hellfire and brimstone, God was singing, "Come just as you are." And brothers and sisters, let me tell you Jonah didn't like that hymn one bit. He was irate. He wanted Nineveh to be destroyed or at least to have to respond to God the same way Israel did. He didn't want to hear "come just as you are," he wanted to hear, "come just the way I asked Jonah and Israel to come."

In all this anger and bitterness, what kind of sign was Jonah to Nineveh? A sign of human judgment and nonacceptance? A sign of trying to put God into a theological box? A sign of reluctance to accept God's actions?

I hope not.

There must be more.

Yes, Jonah had a grudge against Nineveh, a grudge that somehow put him in an awkward situation. Nineveh was part of this empire that bullied Israel and eventually took them over, forcing the people to leave their homes. I don't think we can completely understand that sort of grudge today. Nations, empires, nationalism, and patriotism operate too differently for us to understand Jonah by comparing Israel to the US. For Jonah, his ethnicity was his citizenship and his religion. Being Hebrew meant being Israelite and being in a covenant with God. For us, ethnicity does not necessarily mean you're from the US and neither does it mean you are Christian. We have to get at Jonah another way.

I think Jonah was called to minister to those who had wronged both him and those he loved. And not just those who wronged him and those he loved. He was called also to those he associated with them--people who did nothing wrong but be born who Ninevites. Jonah was sent to those who validated a stereotype and those who simply wore the label.

It's like God calling us to minister to any group of people we judge based on a stereotype. Since I don't know any of you, I can't say who is your Nineveh. And even if I knew you, it isn't my place to judge. But knowing qualities of Nineveh, I can give a few possibilities.

For some of us, it could be another race, nationality, or skin tone. For others, it could be those affiliated with a certain political party. Maybe it is people who dress a certain way or listen to certain music. People who use words we might not use. It could be people with a certain amount of money--rich or poor. Perhaps it is anyone whose ever been to jail--thieves, murderers, sexual offenders. It might be people who believe things you don't believe, do things you don't do, or approve of things you don't approve of.

Part of the message of Jonah's story is the redeemability of all humanity. No matter what we do, we still carry the image of God. That, my friends, is what I see as the sign of Jonah and the sign that Jonah became to Nineveh. He walked in despising those around him, preaching hellfire and brimstone, but found out God loves the people Jonah doesn't. And no matter what Jonah did, no matter what he said, God still showed mercy to a whole city of people outside of God's covenant relationship with Israel.

And so did Jesus, praise God. Without him, we may never have realized how far God's love extends and we wouldn't be part of a different covenant relationship with the of God Israel. Jesus ministered to those who were the sores on Israel's society: the tax collectors who cheated and lied; the prostitutes, adulterers, and others sexually different from the norm; the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the other elite who thought they knew everything about God; the Samaritans, Romans, and other Gentiles who, according to much of the Old Testament, had no earthly right to be loved by God; and Jesus also went to the ever ambiguous "the sinners," which, as we know, is everyone. Everyone. Not just people who respond to God the way we expect them to. Everyone. Literally.

Now, as Jesus says in Luke, "something greater than Jonah is here" (11:32) and the story of the Ninevites bears witness to it. God loves whom God loves and we can't do a thing about it, no matter how much we pout and misunderstand.

Jesus referred to himself as the something greater than Jonah. After his ascension, another thing greater than Jonah came: the Spirit who dwells within us.

The Spirit dwells within us, Church. Because of that indwelling, today, we are the something greater than Jonah. We embody Jesus the Christ. We are called to be filled with the spirit: to die to ourselves and be raised from the belly of a sea monster, to love--to really love with our actions--the Ninevites wherever they be and whoever they are, which is everybody, everywhere.

We can judge however we want,
but God's love isn't bound by us.
Our judgments destroy,
but the Spirit heals all.
No matter how we judge them,
Jesus still loves them.