Archive for July, 2008

Baggage, Part II

I’ve been debating with myself for almost two months whether to write this blog. When Scott commented on my first post about Baggage, I knew that the only way to fully explain what I meant would be to tell a story not every person in my life knows. In fact, I can count on my fingers and toes the number of people who know this. The only person in my family who knows is my mother, so my family, here it is …

Scott asked me what I meant by “choosing transformation” rather than the recognition that we are “utterly dependent on God’s wisdom and power to redeem our ragged brokenness?” I agree, many times in life we believe in our own personal power to will-away our past. We have the mistaken idea that our own poor choices can be managed and hidden. After all, we got ourselves into this mess, we can get ourselves out of it. It’s this attitude that drives our past further from the present possibility of embracing our ragged brokenness and the redemptive and reconciling power of Christ. But this blog isn’t about the kind of baggage that we inflict on ourselves or others. This blog is about the baggage that has been inflicted on us.

Forgiveness. In Christian circles, I’ve found the issue of forgiveness is often treated with such cliche driven drivel. Rarely do we talk about the kind of forgiveness necessary in those circumstances where part of ourselves has been ripped from us. For me this took the form of a neighbor, a camper, and the stealing away of my innocence at seven years old. I’m sure you can put the pieces together. As a boy I would have nightmares, reliving this event, so afraid, so ashamed. I thought something was wrong with me.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of college. My RD (Resident Director) at a small Christian liberal arts college in Ohio and I had become friends. All year I wanted to talk to him about it but I was ashamed, not about what happened to me but about my response. What I wanted to do to the person who did this to me. A speaker talked about forgiveness in chapel and I got up and walked out. I cried all the way to my dorm room. I knew that my severe hatred had overtaken me. I knew that my continued embrace of hatred would paralyze me.

At 3AM I walked down to my RD’s office and, by some miracle, he was there. I sat down, in silence, for what seemed like days. I just sat there, unable to get the words out of my mouth. Unable to verbalize, for the first time, what had been driving me toward a life of self-preservation, not allowing anyone close enough to me to really know me. In fact, that was my life. I kept people at a distance, but close enough that nobody asked any questions.

As I sat there, trying to get the words H-E … R-A-P-E-D … M-E out of the tightly sealed bottle that had been wedged into the deepest recesses of my soul, I fought one of the most intense battles of my life that would define who I would choose to become. I had to make a choice to begin the long road of forgiveness or continue to live a life of self-preservation. I don’t know how long I sat there. But finally,  I slowly formed the words. My RD didn’t say anything. He just sat there as I stared at the commercial carpeting in his office. I said it again. I said it again and, finally, those words didn’t come so hard.

Complete forgiveness is a process, not the instantaneous thing I had always thought it would be. I met with my RD every week. We talked and read a book, but mainly we just talked. My process took a few years. I began by praying, out loud, “God, please help me not want to kill him.” Hey, that’s extreme but I’m just being honest. It took me months to get to the point of not wanting to take his life. Then I began praying, “God, help me not to hate him.” Again, months went by and I finally reached the point where I prayed, “God, help to forgive him.” This last part took over a year. I prayed this several times a day. And, finally, when I prayed, the words didn’t come so hard.

It’s only by the grace of God that I could forgive him, but I had to choose the kind of transformation I told myself I wanted. It’s one thing to think you want it. It’s an entirely different matter to choose the long, difficult process of asking God to help you forgive when you aren’t sure you want to be helped. In our ragged brokenness, we choose to allow Christ a space in which he can begin transforming our life, from hate to forgiveness. And out of this crevasse, my life was slowly transformed.

The past eleven years, since I finally uttered those impossible words, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people in my situation. I don’t know how but I can tell when people have had a similar experience. In these conversations, I had to suppress my tendency for self-preservation, the desire not to allow Christ to use all of me regardless of people’s response. I had to embrace my life, all of it.

Embracing all of my life, for me, looks like a very different kind of life. A life where I do what I can for those around me, whether I know them or not. The desire to put myself out there, open and wounded, for people to accept or reject. The desire to not give a rat’s ass whether or not I would get screwed in the process. Self-preservation doesn’t allow us to make the first move, to let others in so deep that they, in turn, feel comfortable uttering those same words to us. That’s shalom. That’s one small way I’ve been able to participate in the message of reconciliation and redemption that converges in the cross. To release life in others, I must release it in myself. And, for me, releasing life in myself required me to do the most difficult thing I’ve ever done … utter those words.


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Waiting …

Sometimes life just gets in the way of, well, life. Last week my uncle was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. They live in Colorado Springs, as does my mother, brother, and sister. The short version is that I’m helping my aunt with their photography business, since they trained me and all. This is all rather sudden. My uncle is in his mid-50s, which seems far too young to have something like this. I’m here in Colorado Springs until August 25, shooting weddings, trying to write and get my fall syllabi in order, not to mention fix some things around my mom’s house like replacing toilets. Awesome.

One of the best things about being out here for a month is that I get to spend quality time with my family. Last night, my cousins (his kids) came down from Denver and we just sat outside with my uncle and aunt, laughing about nothing and talking about my uncle’s uncertain future. What’s weird about this form of cancer is that if you catch it early (which the doctors think is the case), you’ll be cured. If it’s not caught early you pretty much have the certainty of death. Last night, my uncle just started talking, letting us be apart of his thought process, thinking about death and wondering about all the things that someone in his position would wonder about. I’d glimpsed something I’d never glimpsed before: peace and uncertainty, fear and hope.

At one point, he said, “The worst part about all of this is waiting.” Waiting. Waiting. Waiting to know if he will be cured or be confronted with premature death. Waiting to here if he will have the chance to walk his 17 year old daughter down the aisle. Waiting to hear if he will have to make decisions about chemo, selling his camera collection, and finding time to write all the things that have been ruminating in his head. Waiting. Simply Waiting.

I have been obsessed with “waiting” all day. In the fall I’ll be waiting to hear about jobs, my dissertation, if my visiting professor position will be extended, etc. Yet, what I’m waiting for seems so insignificant to what my uncle is facing. Life or Death. Waiting. Just Waiting.

Waiting is the height of uncertainty, without any ability to know what decisions come next. Our insecurities are magnified, our dreams seem so far away that we forget what those dreams are. At one point, he said, “I was so looking forward to buying a full frame camera.” Then he just started laughing. What he had hoped to do is magnified by the uncertainty of the present moment. I wish I could say that the material things (like cameras) no longer matter. They do. But it’s not the particulars that matter, it’s the thought of it, the dream that no longer seems plausible. What he hoped for no longer seems plausible.

As I think about how I would respond in his situation, I wonder if I would have a difficult time holding on to my dreams. I wonder if I would be able to think about all the things I hoped to do without giving in to the uncertainty of the moment. I wonder if my laughter would be as common or if I would allow the uncertainty to overtake me. I just wonder.

I wish I could end this with some kind of hope, words that would inspire you and me to not allow our waiting to overtake us. But I can’t do that. When confronted with the thought of my own mortality I just go back to the idea of shalom, the thought that my life should be one the embodies the kind of reconciliation and redemption Christ longs for with his creation. My mortality is certain. I’ve thought about if I would change my life, knowing if I would soon die. I don’t think I would, but maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow. But in the meantime I’ll leave you with one of my uncle’s thoughts: Do you know why Paris Hilton climbed a chain link fence? Because she wanted to see what was on the other side.

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Tainted and Ranting

Today has been a tough day. Things started off great considering that the job site I am going to this week is a short 20-minute bus ride away as opposed to the hour-plus drive I had been enduring. But on the bus I started reading Citizens Dissent: Security, Morality, and Leadership in an Age of Terror by Wendell Berry and David James Duncan. It’s a short book with two essays, each penned in response to the 2003 National Security Strategy of the U.S.- the document that outlined the doctrine of preemption and U.S. determination to spread America’s brand of capitalism. Duncan’s article detailed some disturbing and intentional choices the U.S. made in the Gulf War, you know, the sort of thing that generates feelings that, if you stay with them, you end up a tearful wreck. Contrast my bus-reading-material with my bus’ destination: Yaletown. Yaletown is the hottest spot to live in all of Vancouver, at least if you are a young professional. Rich and trendy doesn’t even begin to paint the picture though; I don’t like those things, but I can handle them. Yaletown is seriously another world. [David, it has changed]. The only way I can describe it is by saying that it is like people think they are movie stars down there; it seems everyone just left a photoshoot. I’ve been to a few hotspots, but nothing like this.

These things are not directly related- though I could probably connect them in a step or two. It is the contrast that got to me. The obscene wealth (did I mention I was working in the 30th floor penthouse!) and the seeming shallowness, frivolity and ignorant bliss did not mesh well with the suffering and outright evil that I was reading about. But this reality is not really new to me, nor is it, I imagine, new to you. I think the difficult thing for me to deal with today was wondering how I fit into that picture. There I was, doing my carpenter’s helper, silly laborer, thing and I couldn’t help but wonder how that fit into any notion of helping the world in any of the areas I care about. This frustrates me. I don’t think that I am saying anything new here, but I wonder how you all deal with these feelings- I know you have them.

I have been thinking a lot about this quotation by E.B. White lately: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” And, if I may add, it makes it hard to plan your life. There are so many things that are good in this world, so many things with which to fill your days that must bring a smile to God’s proverbial face. And yet, there are so many places of pain and brokenness, so many things to do. The balance is, well, um, tricky. I have been taught- and I believe- that the way to plan your day is through your calling. You do what you have been given to do. I find this helpful as far as it goes, but I think it’s pretty easy to put too much pressure on our notions of calling. Unless you are one of those rare people like my sister, who has known she was born to be a vet since she was 8, these are murky waters.

I don’t have any conclusions. Really, I am just ranting, partly to make myself feel better and partly because I feel like many of you have got to have similar feelings sometimes. I would seriously be encouraged to read your thoughts.

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I haven’t written for a while- thanks to Jeff for carrying the load. For a while I was “on vacation” from anything resembling school work. After graduation I was so afraid of losing my reading/writing skills and desires that I jumped right into the blog and a few other projects, but Tami and I soon realized we needed a break. The past two weeks, all of my discretionary computer time has gone to looking for a new job and new place to live (go craigslist!).

It is interesting that Jeff’s last post was about transition because it feels like my post-graduation life just started this past week as well. For a few months I worked for a temp agency on campus so it didn’t seem all that different from school- and I did that last summer. But this week I started working as a carpenter’s helper for a renovation company. So far I have had to commute an hour each way to the sites and have pretty much been bored once I got there. I’m not sure how successfully I have been in rising above self-pity.

Jeff, you asked what there is to fear about transition. Well, for me, the fear is that the direction I am choosing will end up backfiring. It isn’t that I am afraid to fail as much as it is I am afraid that this path will not result in the opportunities I am hoping that it does. Pause. Much of this will probably sound cryptic or vacuous without some background. I am trying to learn a trade- like carpentry- with these few years of work visa so that once we move back to the US I can be self-employed. This will, in theory, allow me to be flexible and free enough to do the things I want to do with my degree. And that is: work with people that I am currently calling fundamentalist refugees or post-fundamentalists. I want to work with people who grew up fundamentalist but have since discovered that there are some serious errors and inadequacies with that way of being Christian. I am especially interested in people who were quite committed but now feel burned and are bitter. Sound familiar? This was definitely my story, and I would really like to help people move out of this into a more life-giving faith. Anyway, the current idea of how to do this best is through some sort of themed L’Abri retreat center place. I am affectionately dubbing it post-fundamentalist camp right now. Oh, the “post” part doesn’t just mean “after,” it also pinpoints the stage I am talking about, the stage where one’s faith is largely negative and defined mostly in reaction to one’s fundamentalism background instead of any positive beliefs or commitments. Unless you know of a patron who may be interested in funding these sorts of endeavors, I figure I need to be able to make a living somehow, hence my desire to learn a trade!

Resume. So here I am, a highly educated person, with the debt and the drive that goes with it, working as a carpenter’s helper. It’s not humbling, I don’t care a thing about that- and I am fully aware that the people I am working with are WAY more intelligent about the things that we are doing than I am- it’s just that I am eager to learn and I feel like I have a lot riding on this- and so far I haven’t seen much potential in my job. There isn’t a lot of energy left over after working hard all day, commuting an hour each way and spending some time with Asher and Tami. Never before have I had a direction I was excited to head- the one briefly outlined above- but I don’t even have time and energy left over to do anything about it. I think the scariest thing for me is that sometimes I feel like I am chasing a pipe-dream, that I am chasing some pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow. I feel like I am working toward a vision or calling or whatever that I believe God has led me to, but the only thing I really have to go on is my own will and whatever faith I can muster. Kierkegaard said that having faith is like being out on 10,000 fathoms of water and I think I agree. The scary thing is that there are no guarantees; my visions and desires could be miles away from God. This probably goes without saying, but besides self-pity, the other thing that I think is so hard about transitions is the patience that they require. In my situation, I know things should get better once we find a new place to live and things settle in with my job. And I know that if they don’t, I will simply get a different job; no problem. The challenge is the meantime, the time of waiting and seeing where things are uncertain; it is hard to exist there for a indefinite amount of time.

I guess I should stop; at least I have broken my silence, albeit very unsystematically. In my next few blogs I think I would like to talk some more about my vision (if that sounds “prophetic,” it isn’t meant to) and also pick up on some of the discernment stuff I was talking about before. Those wonderful notes I have from class should go very well with my mixed-up life!

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The whirlwind of the last four weeks has left me exhausted. Moving is no fun but I imagine it’s much better than the three-hour commute four and five days a week that seemed to be the only alternative.

As I painted and cleaned my townhouse I thought a lot about transition in life. Transition, and I may be stating the obvious here, is liminal. It’s an in-between part of our life where we may or may not know what comes next. It’s a period of uncertainty that can be exhilarating and terrifying. For the first time in my life I felt more terror because I was leaving a place that I called home. I had lived there for the longest period of time since I was 18, had great friends, a great church, and loved the town. Periods of transition had always been exhilarating for me because it was another step in a long educational process necessary to do what I’m most passionate about, teaching and writing. But now I’m here. I’m writing the last chapter of my dissertation and accepted my first post-PhD job. I’m here but I know it’s only for a short period of time since it’s a visiting assistant professor position, making me realize that for the fourth time since undergrad I’ll be moving yet again to start the whole transitional cycle one more time.

I’m not really interested in defining “transition” but in trying to understand what it does to me. I’m at a different point in my life, I guess, where I’d rather be living in the place I’ll spend the rest of my days. I want to be settled, to know that the community I’m part of will be my community. But I think I’ve come to realize that transition is more than moving from one place to another, from friends to loneliness, from familiarity to uncertainty. Times of transition show me who I want to become more than any other time.

It would be easy for me to turn inward, to take the path of self-pity because, let’s face it, this new town blows. The most interesting piece of architecture is the new public library and if you don’t like fast food, there’s no place to eat other than your own home. There is one move theater that has two screens and a Super-Walmart. Yippee! You know something has gone horribly wrong when the best place to buy organic food is Wal-Mart. But the path of self-pity is the path I’m trying desperately to avoid.

Why is transition so difficult, especially when the thought of change doesn’t scare me? My old life in my old town with my old friends was comfortable. Transitioning to a new life, a new routine, a new set of friends, etc. leaves me living a life of uncertainty.

So what is it about uncertainty that frightens me? Why do I fear what I do not know nor can predict? I’d be curious what you think … As for me, I have a few thoughts and will post them later.

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Well, my blogging hiatus has come and gone. I’ve spent the last three weeks painting and cleaning my townhouse, finding renters, packing, and moving to an apartment in small-town Indiana. I’m teaching at a liberal arts college for the next year as a Visiting Assistant Professor. I moved this past Monday and have been thinking a lot about the issue of transition, but this blog isn’t about that.

My new apartment is on the outskirts of this small town. My deck overlooks a cornfield, literally. Last night, while enjoying a cigar, I sat on my second-story deck at dusk to take a break from the unpacking. As I sat, thinking about this transition, the next phase of my life post-graduate school, the cornfield began to light up with fireflies. It was beautiful. I grew up in South Dakota and we don’t have fireflies. Thousands of little fireflies lighting up, randomly, illuminating their small part of the world made me wish that you were here to experience it with me.

I began thinking about life and how these little fireflies were giving me some perspective on this period of transition. It’s hard not to be a little depressed when I think about where I’ve moved, from a town I loved to a little town whose main attractions are a series of chain restaurants. But here are these little fireflies, lighting up there small part of the world, a cornfield.

What does it mean to light up my small part of the world? I wonder about this sometimes. I wonder if it’s really ok just to try to make a difference where I live or if I should try to do more? The thought of changing the world exhausts me but the thought to making a difference in my community excites me. I don’t know why but it does. Especially, because at one point all the fireflies lit up at once. This made me wonder if God doesn’t feel the same way sometimes.

There is beauty in each of us acting individually but as I looked down on the field I saw all of these little fireflies lighting up the same field. It was a profound moment for me, realizing that while I may be living and acting in my part of the world, there are others doing the same thing. Simply trying to live a life of redemption and reconciliation, a life a illumination.

I think about my friends who are doing this all over the world. Just trying to live, to serve. As my (old) pastor often put it, “we are trying to release life in others,” and I think this is the life I want to live. Even though we can’t see it, we are illuminating the same field, living our lives with a similar purpose. It’s beautiful to watch from above. 

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