Refections & Ramblings: Volume Eighteen
Some reflections about trying not to live life on a binary theological island.
I’m not sure why I so often feel like I need to give some sort of explanation or disclaimer before some of my writing, but here I am doing it again. The following is very stream of consciousness, and it may be completely unintelligible to most people. I ramble and meander. A lot. But one of the goals of my writing more this year is to write for me. First and foremost, that is why I am writing. I am trying to be more transparent, authentic, vulnerable, and true to myself in my own style of writing. I’m not sure if this post accomplishes any of those goals, but at least I’m writing. I never promised it would be good. So thanks for bearing with me.
The other day I met up with a friend that was in town that I hadn’t seen in a few years. She was a PhD student while I was in seminary. And although we were never close friends, we share many of the same interests and passions, something that makes up for the gap in time and experience between. It was so good to see her again.
My first year of seminary was an interesting time for me. I was finally on my own with more independence than I ever had before. I had just come from one of the largest Fundamentalist Christian colleges in the country. And I had just committed three or so more years of my life to another theological degree.
At the time I had just spent four years trying to navigate within the boxed in worldview and theology of fundamentalist Christianity. It’s a black and white world; one where you can know the answers to some of life’s seemingly unanswerable questions. You spend your time building walls, creating distance and seclusion, and vigorously inviting people to come visit your island of binary living, where everything is either right or wrong (and all the women wear dresses.)
I left that island. It took some time to shake the sand out of my boots, but I eventually did. (I think.)
A quick note: I am not bitter about my experiences there. I look back with fondness overall because of the people I met and befriended. I was on an island of people who were not like myself. People who had come from binary places of their own. I learned from them, because you can learn something from everyone. It’s part of what makes this world an interesting place.
I thought I would be well-prepared for life in seminary. And academically, I was. But regarding my theology, and my understanding of the world and how God works within it, yeah, I wasn’t ready for it to be shaken in the ways that it was. (I suspect if I blog long enough we’ll get to all those details, but that’s not my point right now.)
In seminary I met lots of smart people. I met students who could read and retain three books in the time it took me to read one. I had professors from Harvard and Yale. And sure, I learned things from these people. A lot, actually.
But I also met people who had incredible life experiences. People whose life experiences were drastically different than mind. People who didn’t fit into my theological boxes. People who said they worshipped and had given their lives to serve the same God for which whom I said I was doing the same. And those answers I had to some of life’s seemingly unanswerable questions all of a sudden seemed small and elementary.
And at the time I was confused by it. I was annoyed by it. I was angry about it.
But over time I learned to just shut up and listen to these people. They not only spoke from a different worldview than my own, but they also showed me that their experiences told a story that I had never thought of. Experiences that I had never considered on my binary theological island.
One of the people who first did that for me was the woman I met with this past week. She challenged me in a number of ways while I was in seminary, and she did it through complete humility and honesty. She did it through the telling of her life experiences, and showed me what it looked like to not be afraid of asking tough questions. Overall, she did it through not being afraid of doubt.
To talk with my friend again this week was like a breath of fresh, cool air. In many ways since moving out here to Nebraska I’ve felt similar to how I’ve felt in the past, not so much like I’m on an island – for after all, Omaha’s motto is “We don’t coast!” – but more like I’m in the wilderness.
There have been trying times for me since moving here. Lonely times. Desperate times.
I’ve had moments of relief and refuge, but they have been few and far between, overall.
The moments I’ve experienced the most joy – the ones outside of life with my wife and two boys – have been with friends who have visited. Even friends who I’ve only had the opportunity to share a meal with and talk.
Story and conversation are like a huge glass of ice water on a hot day, or a cool breeze blowing through wide open windows right as the summer heat has set in.
For years this woman was a missionary in Africa. She taught at a school there. She devoted her life to those living there and was willing to stay there indefinitely. One day a college asked her to come back, encouraged her to get her PhD and that she would be able teach at their college once she had received it. She had to be persuaded of this plan, but eventually she did. That’s how I met her in seminary.
She led a student group devoted to discussing issues within missions at my seminary. It was something that I attended faithfully and would eventually lead myself.
After I graduated she continued on with her education. She eventually defended her dissertation and officially earned her PhD. What I didn’t know until this week was just how hard that time was for her.
She had practically no money. She did have a job, but spent nearly all the pennies she earned from that job to pay for the car she owned. But the main purpose of the car was to take her to work.
She almost completely relied on donations given to the school from places like Panera Bread and local churches for her daily food.
Life was tough for her. She was poor, and yet finishing up her PhD. She was hired at the college that persuaded her to come back from Africa (a different one from the one we both attended), but after a little more than a year they told her they didn’t need her there anymore and that they were going to go a different direction.
She was heartbroken and confused. To teach at that school was the reason she had come back. The very people that convinced her to come off the field were now giving her the boot.
She had no real job and most of the money she had she was throwing into the money pit of a car.
But eventually she was hired at a school in Chicago. She got rid of her car and was able to move into the 30th floor of an apartment building in downtown Chicago.
She is much happier now. Feeling excited and fulfilled.
But she went on and told me a story of something that happened recently.
One day as she was walking near campus she saw an offering for an art class. Her interest was piqued. Her college degree just happened to be in art. But art was something she hadn’t focused on in decades. She had kind of given up on the thought that she would ever use the degree she had earned years ago. But as she walked past that sign, she thought that it might be fun to go back and start drawing again, to start painting again, to start creating again. She had the time now. And she could walk there!
So she signed up.
She said she had no idea what she was doing at first, but the fundamentals were still there. They were just hidden. The natural talent she had when she was younger had been lying dormant and just needed to be woken up.
One of the things she told me, and probably the main reason I even started writing this post, was that as the teacher was instructing the class recently, he gave a number of instructions in ways that she felt were perhaps a bit too sharp or maybe even glib. She concluded he probably didn’t mean to come off that way, and perhaps didn’t even realize that he was at all. And then she realized that perhaps she too said things in ways like that in her own classroom, and that she would now pay more attention to things like that.
“It’s best to be a learner while also a teacher.”
I really liked that. It’s a simple kind of wisdom, nothing complex. But it’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense when you hear it. It means more when the person who said it isn’t just speaking some sort of axiomatic truth, but when they themselves are doing it, experiencing it, living it.
That story gave me a great big smile.
She went on to say,
“I never thought I would ever use my art degree again, but here I am taking an art class, doing well, and really enjoying it.”
I was reminded why and how this person challenged me when I first went to seminary. It was not through having all the right answers. It was not because she could find all the faults in my boxy theology through an intellectual debate.
She is a humble and wise person. And spending time with her was like being washed in a wave of tangible grace.
I’m not sure why that has been so hard to find out here in Omaha. I have tried to be that for others when I can be. I attempt to at least.
But most of the time, in my experience in the churches that I’ve visited and been a part of here in Omaha, I feel like I’m being talked down to most of the time. The things I hear from behind pulpits are not coming from lives lived out of humility and selflessness. They are coming from people who think they are right and that they have life mostly figured out and categorized. That if they don’t have an answer to one of life’s seemingly unanswerable questions, they can get there by reading a book or two.
I’m constantly being told what to think, feel, and do again. It feels like there is a box constantly being built around me. I am struggling to escape that box. The boxed in life is a tough and unnecessary way to live. Where else do I go? Where else do I turn?
Sometimes the church can be a lonely place if you don’t want to simply accept everything that is being told to you. Living in ambiguity or letting doubt sit around for a while like I do about so many things is unsettling to many people within the church. But creating a false sense of security for so many people from the top down is much more troubling to me.
The reason why I stay in communities like this is 1) I don’t know where else to go, and 2) I want to give that feeling of a cool breeze on a hot summer day to someone. I want to be that person who gives a helping hand out of the box they may be living in. We need people like that in our lives. At this point in my life, I just hope I can be that for someone else.