It all began when the only bad mark on my annual review was that I was spending too much time with students instead of going to lunch with my colleagues every day. The irony is that I did go to lunch with them once a week. And once a week I sat at a table, politely welcomed with an opening hello before the conversation quickly turned to football. I’m not anti-football. I just can’t talk about it every week for a solid year! This idea of collegiality was not what I expected. I had a rather romantic notion that when one was on a theological faculty with others who are considered both brilliant and godly that at least once in while we would discuss theology, ministry, the Bible…anything that had to do with our fields. I was very naive.
My time with students was much more interesting. Not only were they fascinated by what they were reading, studying, and living, but they wanted community. They wanted to wrestle with hard questions and talk about what it meant to live an abundant life! They were curious about things that did not fit neatly into the curriculum of any particular course but mattered for them as people of faith and ministerial leaders in particular. They pushed me to think and rethink what I held dear. I was sharpened as iron sharpens iron not because they didn’t respect me, rather precisely because they did. In turn I respected them and wanted only to offer the best of what I could. This meant a great deal of work on my part. Not only was I prepping for the actual courses I was teaching, I was constantly looking at theological concepts, church history, and practical theology shaping my own faith. I also had to think through how to share this with others in ways where they may not have the same vocabulary or stamina for really long dry books that seminary students and professors have. These times with students turned to meals, ice cream social, and game nights at my house. We developed a blend of constant theological conversation with a lot of prayer, laughter, food and community was built.
Ultimately, this was part of my undoing. I have been told by faculty members on more than one occasion that students are not who should receive the lion’s share of my attention. It is not politically expedient. It is not going to get me ahead in the traditional sense. I was told I was being too maternal by going to such lengths in investing in my students. I thought I was trying to bring about something bigger than myself.
The faculty’s critique became a compliment to me. Last time I checked, this is exactly what God calls us to do. (And just to be clear, I am not talking about the mistake too of us women make in never being able to take credit for anything. This is wrong and is a post for another day!)
God calls us to be a theotokos. Female and male, we are all called to bear Christ to the world. Mary bore Jesus, literally as an infant, bringing God into the world. Her calling was not any easy one; it was painful and cost her a lot. What she was able to do, however, changed the world! For some of us, we know what childbirth is actually like. For others it is a metaphorical reality. For all, the theotokos or model of bearing God over and over and over again in the world is exactly who we are to be. We are to bear God to those whom no one else sees. We are to bear God to those who wonder if God is real. We go through the pains of carrying truth within us and labor that others may know that God is real, that God loves them, that God demands justice, that God longs for relationship, in short…that God matters in this world.
As a professor and theologian, being labeled as too maternal was intended as an insult. It was intended to tell me that I don’t fit in. It was intended to harm.
On bad days, I want to scream screw you at those who have been so ivory-towered-arrogant. But on good days, I remember that I, too, have been in that ivory tower. And what they intended for insult, God meant for good. I’ll take too maternal any day over football!