Thursday, July 09, 2009

part 3: girl meets boy

And then I became a theologian.

It happened like this:

I got a letter, a sweet, respectful, and very brief letter, from a boy I actually really didn't know that well, who was, apparently, a bit impressed with my theological ambitions. That boy's name was, of course, James Brent Bates. I wrote him back, included my email address, and pretty soon, we were emailing regularly. Like, every day. Or almost--the days I didn't get an email, I stalked about begrudging the rest of the world its sunshine and happiness.

Our first emails, I kid you not, were about the role of women in our churches.

It was love at first...well, email, I guess.

And Brent mailed me a care package that included a recording of Carroll Osburn's lecture on the role of women, the one that begins with the facetious "shut up and sit down!" quip. I invited the other American women I thought would be interested to listen to it with me, and we sat in my living room to hear it. Not everyone came. But those who did needed it. Like me, they were thirsty for some word of affirmation and hope, some indication that they hadn't somehow missed the mark by choosing to come to China to do mission work. Like me...They were like me. And not only were they like me, but so was Brent, and this mysterious Dr. Osburn, whose book on women in the church Brent was then helping to research as his graduate assistant. I wasn't alone. I wasn't crazy. (Well, I was crazy, but that's a different story.)

And I could say anything to this guy, this out-of-the-blue sympathetic and smart guy who, for some reason, replied to every lengthy email with equally lengthy replies, taking everything I said totally seriously.

And when I visited him in Abilene (also a different and crazy story), he invited me to sit in on all his MDiv courses, so I could decide whether I wanted to study theology or Bible or what, or perhaps just go on in English lit, or linguistics, or ESL, or something. And I went to his Hebrew class, where they were translating and studying the text of Ecclesiastes, and the professor, Dr. Andre Resner, not only welcomed me but actually asked me what I thought about something. And I sat in on a philosophy of religion class, which Brent wasn't even taking, just because he thought I'd be interested; and again, the professor, Dr. Frederick Aquino, not only welcomed me but included me in the discussion. And I sat in on Brent's worship course, taught by Dr. Jack Reese, where I took notes on the most fascinating things about Eucharist and a man named Justin Martyr.

And I knew, because I felt the same thrill I'd felt when studying the gospel of John with my dad as a high school kid, that this was the stuff I wanted to spend my time thinking about.

So, of course, I married the boy. (Also a different, and crazy, story.)

And he does the dishes if I cook dinner, and he has always ironed his own shirts (nowadays, they're clergy shirts with funny little collars). And he has always, always told me that this is what I should be doing: this thing, which takes my whole brain and my whole heart and consumes my waking lucid moments with its glittering, fascinating, elusive interconnectedness. This faith seeking understanding thing, this theology Thing.

So I joined him at ACU, and we took classes together: theology, philosophy of religion, church history. Sometimes my grades were better. Sometimes this really bugged him. By the end of my degree, it really bugged me that my gender--which didn't keep me from planning grad chapel services but did at that time still keep me from leading them--generated so much attention that Brent's scholarship and contributions somehow seemed eclipsed by all the light and heat. I refused to go on to doctoral study unless he did too; it seemed intolerable to me to concretize that unwanted dynamic in a piece of paper I might someday possess that he wouldn't. He made that Faustian bargain, not simply because he had some desire to go on academically himself, but because he was utterly confident that this was what I should be doing.

So, too, was my mom, who'd always said I'd end up a college professor. She also prognosticated I'd marry a man 10 years older than myself. That turned out not to be true, but even my mom can't be right all the time. So, too, was my dad, who, as a second-career preacher already in full-time ministry, was completing his own MDiv, and used to talk to me on the phone about his coursework occasionally. I send them drafts of my dissertation chapters now, which I don't think they read (who can blame them?), but they tell me they're proud of me. Maybe, crazy hippies that they were, they'd always wanted to raise a little heretic.

I landed at Princeton Theological Seminary, having been warned a few weeks before we packed the U-Haul that I should watch out, because "there's bad people up there." (Sorry, PTS readers.) Not sure what that meant, exactly, but if I was bound to go, I was charged with teaching everyone up there the Truth.

Would I have done it anyway? It's not a question I can answer. I was already pondering studying theology before China, before Brent. But would I have done it? Would I have actually applied somewhere, knowing that not only was there no place to go, but that even my imagined refuge in mission work was proving horribly false? Or would I have found something safe, something secular, something to keep me busy while I waited for Life to deliver whatever came next? Would I have done the unthinkable, and become the high school English teacher I had known for years I no wanted to be?

I thank God I don't need to know. I thank God that, out of the blue, this man saw what most wouldn't: that the defiance, the desire to shock, the need to get out, the desperate loneliness, was an expression of a self in need of a place to go, a place to be. I thank God that, out of the blue, this man didn't just offer me a place to go be myself in the small private space of our teeny-tiny home and in our marriage, as if that tiny isle of refuge (or comfortable exile?) would be sufficient. He has always understood--even before I did--that the church should be everyone's "place to go."

The Bible describes Jesus as homeless: the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. So, too, were the Israelites, the people of God, homeless for a good chunk of their history. Perhaps living with no place to go is simply the reality of vocation. But Jesus also promised us a place to go: his father's house is a mansion with many rooms; he goes before us to prepare us a place there. Some of those rooms, the old joke goes, you have to tiptoe past, because the CofC folks inside think they're the only ones up there. The rest of those many rooms, I'm sure, are plenty big to house the rest of us; but I think I'd like to knock on that CofC door awhile, and see if anyone answers, even if it's a woman's voice they hear, asking to come in, if there's a place for her there.


kel said...

a picture of me right now with tears on my face would say the thousand words i can't right now.

TKP said...

Jennifer Jeanine, please don't make me cry like this. But it is beautiful an I'm so glad you have Brent.

jduckbaker said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Keep writing.
Jenn Baker

Scott said...

This series is amazing. Thank you so much for this.

capnwatsisname said...

ditto. amen.