Saturday, March 10, 2012

A weekend away

For almost all of the last twelve years -- I don't think I've missed one since I moved to Arkansas -- I've been coming to Dallas on this weekend. It's the annual meeting of the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies, an umbrella organization that organizes a conference for the members of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the Association for the Scientific Study of Religion in Texas and surrounding states.

Soon after I started attending, some of the organizers asked me to take leadership roles. I started as a chair of one of the program sessions, then served on the executive committee for the AAR's local branch, then agreed to become the AAR coordinator for the region. The six years of that job are almost up; next year will be my last in that position.

When I come to this meeting, I have a lot of jobs to do. Make decisions as a director of the Commission. Liaise between the AAR portion of the meeting and the meeting planner. Drum up attendance for the plenary. Give most of the reports at the AAR region's annual business meeting. And almost always, give a paper, moderate a session, sit on a panel.

This same weekend, my dad is going to a meeting that he's been attending for years. He's a member of the Kairos team that goes into a prison and spends three days with a group of inmates. The meeting involves months of preparation, like mine. It's packed with activities and a tight schedule, like mine. My dad has several leadership roles to enact, like I do. And there's a connection, too, with the premise of the meeting being religious. Mine is about the study of religion in an academic setting, and his is about practicing one religion's mandate to visit those in prison.

I'm sure readers will have their own opinion about which one is more in sync with their values and more salutary for society. As for me, well, we do good work here at the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies, but it's certainly neither as risky nor as courageous as the work of Kairos. I dare say that while our meeting may reach more people to advance their understanding in ways that improve their teaching of thousands of students, those people reached are already committed to that path, and so the advance is not revolutionary for most or all.

I dare say that the 40 inmates this Kairos weekend will reach are much more in need, and the effect on those men of being listened to and loved is potentially enormous, life-changing. College professors are used to being listened to. We have high social status. We are respected. The opposite is true, in all cases, for men in prison.

You might want to read about my dad's experience this weekend in his blog: I am always humbled by what he relates. He may be the most self-critical blogger I read among the hundreds of feeds I follow. While serving others and seeking truth, he's always questioning his own motives and actions -- sometimes to a fault. I need to have more of that in my life, though. My confidence and ambition frequently lead me to believe that I'm a much better, more worthy person than anyone has a right to think themselves.

My dad has always been my role model. These days we often start from different premises in terms of our political and religious stances. The measure of our sincerity and effort surely is that sometimes we end up in the same place.

Those who are with Dad on his Kairos weekend don't have the same doctrine or politics as he does, either. Kairos is interdenominational, and folks participate from the liberal mainline churches, the nondenominational fellowships, the evangelicals and fundamentalists. When they read the Bible, some are reading God's dictation while others are reading human efforts to bear witness. But all are convinced that following the example of Jesus and Paul to pay special attention to society's outcasts is a good idea, good enough to take lots of time and effort and risk to undertake.

I'm convinced of it, too, and convicted. Here I am doing the work given me to do, and I'll do it with all my might, and I know it will make a difference and be appreciated. But how thankful I am that those rockier fields have found their laborers, too, and that I have some insight into their efforts through my dad.

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