Learning to Dance

Explorations in the Spiritual Life

Month: December 2017

Pa rum pum pum pum

It’s a cold, overcast day, a tiny sliver of blue sky off to the west, but the rest of the sky is gray.  Forty two degrees, just a tiny breeze, just enough to shake the now brown lingering leaves on the bare branches.

I stand outside for brief moment, to take the scene in but nothing really pulls me outdoors. The busyness of a suburb during the week is just enough noise and activity to pull my thoughts from running free as I stare at trees and birds. Oliver joined me outside, a crabby boy indoors, he seemed delighted to look around with me. Cars passing by, trucks and planes off in the distance making noise–it’s trash and recycling day–but we talked about birds, and that tree over there, and how it’s hard for people to fly.  He also realized he needed some socks, so ran inside to get some before coming right back.

We live near the edge of the city, so not in the middle of the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet it’s a consistently active street, a minor thoroughfare through the housing developments, one of the few that get a person from the main street to the upper neighborhoods.

I miss being able to sit outside and hear the wind in the trees without hearing or smelling the cars going by.  My discontent stirs as I wish to be where I’m not and wish for a place I don’t have, a place with a quiet getaway from the frenzy, a place with trees, and birds, and animals to get to know, and maybe a creek.  I pray for that place, but I don’t know if I’ll get there.

That’s one of those persistent conflicts for me, realizing I’m about as introverted as they come, surprisingly sensitive to noises, and come from many generations of folks who kept coming West to work the land.  My genes have combined over the generations to yearn for a lot of space away from the crowds.  I want that to be the song I sing.

But my rhythms haven’t led that way, and so I seem to constantly be in battle with where I’m at versus where I want to be, and realizing (in my quiet moments) that I’m at where God wants me to be, and so it’s not just an issue of aesthetics, it’s an issue of obedience and faith.  God made me one way, I realize in my more frustrated moments, to not fit in with those places I seem to be the most. This underlying tension of my rhythm not matching the rhythms around me, dissonance and missed beats resulting.  When I want to clap on my 2 and 4, I end up clapping in the world’s 1 1/4 and 3 1/4.

When should I clap? My tendency is to stop clapping altogether.  To feel the strain and stress and do that which manages my stress, which is generally retreating to solitude.  But that’s not my calling in this season either. I’m called to more hospitality.

The tension builds.  And when I move around, exist in the everchanging seasons of different uncertainties, I never quite get a rhythm of the place I’m in, and lose my sense of self.  I leave behind hobbies, and rejuvenating places, as the busyness abounds. So, struggle getting reset.

It’s all part of this whirling, swirling. Which sounds much more dramatic than it is. I’m gazing deep into my inner being right now, and trying to discern what leads to the outward discontent and diminishing enthusiasm.

All of this speaks to how I’m securing my being, how much I’m existing as a participant in the Kingdom versus other systems of value.  I think that if I truly was oriented wholly in the Kingdom, I’d find a consistency and enthusiasm uninfluenced by circumstances.

That’s the challenge as I face a year of more busyness and possible upheaval.  Stop blaming, start being.  Because there’s always something, whether in lack or in success, there will always be something to try to pull me away from my true self.  I have to find the rhythm of the kingdom, and offer myself in that rhythm. That is the point at which I’ll really be worshiping in full and really living as my true self.

reminders

I had a problem with this site, not surprising after letting it lie fallow for so long.  I backed it up, uninstalled it, imported the old posts. It looks exactly the same, but it’s all new. There’s an analogy in that somewhere.

In the midst of this, I was worried I might lose my posts in the process, so I went looking for a document I made a number of years ago using all the posts. It’s a Word doc, and I was reminded of a couple things. One, is that my posts over the years make up about 362 single spaced pages, and that’s 238,311 words.

Second, in my rebooted posts below, I talked about my goals in moving to the mountains and having to recover that sense of purpose in the face of my uncertain future. To latch on to my true calling. Well, it happens that in my random quick scrolling through that document, I came across a most appropriate post from May 2004:

Here’s the relevant part of what I had to say:

There is a place for the focused pursuit of God, I believe, where being an adult means being mature before Christ, not proving to this world how I can do exactly what 99% of people accomplish. Maybe that’s my issue, I don’t feel a need to prove myself, or I don’t most of the time, so I’m happy to do that which brings real progress in my soul, in my spiritual state, willing to let loose the security of this present world to grasp ahold of that which is eternal.

Others who feel a need to prove, look disprovingly on me as not playing the game rightly. Assuming my reasons are what theirs would be in retreating, the feared show of weakness, the abhorred reality of incapability.

That is the case, and yet at moments of confusion, at times in which I stumble, I feel the weight of justifying myself. I know, of course, knowing myself, that the real challenge is not others… it’s me. The person who had dreams of a federal judgeship while in college, who planned for many years the precise path, working at the foundations. Or the person who came up with what, I think, were some rather nifty ideas about church, who found himself dialoguing with some great thinkers and influencing thoughts, knowing that given the right context he could make a real mark in the church world. That person found frustration along those paths, the heavy hand of God leading and guiding, and yet not removing the inner ambition, the drive to have a voice.

Now, voiceless, influenceless, without any aspect which one could admire or respect, living what many would think is the worst reality for someone of my age and education, I struggle to show that my ambition has redirected, become more attuned to the Divine. I struggle because I myself rebel, doing those little things which assert my independence, when in reality my only freedom will come in completely letting go.

I feel the need to prove myself, to myself, to those who doubt. At the same time I realize this need is precisely against my higher goals. Only when I let loose my demand to justify myself will I find the contentment which eludes.

I know in my mind what I cannot achieve in my heart. So the dissonance arises, stifling any expression, making me unsuited for either reality. Ah, but at least I know what battle to fight. That is something. I hope.

Tidal Life

I didn’t know anything about Sacramento before moving here in August 2015. Well, I knew it was the state capital. And I knew it was a little less than halfway to Portland, situated on the 5, so made for a sense of accomplishment when driving south to north and north to south.

I didn’t know it made an attempt at seasons. Southern California hardly even tries. The trees, some of them, change color, but not always when you’d expect and sometimes at different times of the year. It got more consistently cooler but never quite cold in winter. There’s reasons why they haven’t written about SoCal Christmases. “I’m Dreaming of a Seventy Degree Sunny Christmas” doesn’t have the same romance to it.

Sacramento doesn’t get cold, though snow and cold is within reach in the mountains (about ninety minutes away), but it does get cooler. The trees turn colors, leaves are everywhere for about a month, and it gets foggy and stormy. Or at least it should. It has gotten cooler, lows in the upper 30s and highs in the low 60s today, but that’s a lot warmer than it has been the last couple of years where it seemed to get up to the 30s during the days in December. I remember because it gave me the rare chance to wear my winter coats.

The past two years, I would sometimes walk to work, which was about a mile south of my house. About half of it was through a curiously shaped park, and another 1/3 involved walking along a drainage canal. Which doesn’t sound very inviting (a river like runoff from farms to the north), but it has a nice walking path and I would regularly see geese and wading birds like egrets and herons.

It was also a daily way to stay connected to the world around me, noticing the trees, the quail, the jack rabbits, the bees that picked one tree to buzz about in but wasn’t where they lived, and all sorts of other moments of minor wonder. I also got a daily bit of sunshine, good for my being in all kinds of ways.

That office shut down entirely in August. So, I’ve not had my destination driven walk to and fro, and I’ve not had my daily interaction with Natomas (our neighborhood in Sacramento). It was another loss among the losses that drove a sadness deep into my core, and which I’m trying to find my way out of without, and this is the key bit, having a replacement or transformation. The loss just sits with me each day. The could-have-beens, the what-was-this-fors, the what’s-nexts, all the needling quibbles of being where I was sent but then the reasons for being sent pulled out just as we got here.

And that’s the driving frustration in my heart. Because that’s a common theme in my life. Sent but not settled, neither here nor there, always in between, a sunset without the glow, a sunrising into an overcast day. That’s not me being negative. That’s my experiences, in which God has certainly worked, but has left me with a deep sense of always being an outsider, always a wanderer. I’ve not had a settled place since we moved from San Dimas in 1983.

Some of that has been disasters happen in my family–loss of homes, etc. and so on. Some of it has been my choices, initiated with hope and purpose, but then leaving me feeling alone and stranded. I’ve sought to follow God’s leading all along, and I feel like I’ve been in a wilderness for the last 34 years. Disaster and un-chosen change always around the corner, attempts to gain a foothold beginning well, then slipping, falling.

Which raises the important question, am I just a silly sinner? That’s what I was told when I was dealing with a lot of depression in college. It’s not untrue, that’s the problem. But I don’t get a sense that this is all a lot of trickery and punishment.

A good navigating rule in theology is that God is not a trickster. He’s complicated, to be sure, but he’s not a trickster.

And that means in this present reality, where I have a job but don’t have a job, where I have a home, but don’t have a home, everything loosely given and loosely held and even if there are answers ahead they likely involve radical changes, and yet more transitions.

I’m weary of going but never arriving.

Which brings me to my current immpasse. I can’t keep going in the way I’ve been going. I’m exhausted and discouraged and frustrated. It has led to my loss of focus and struggle to hold onto hope.

Which isn’t me talking about of depression. This is me diagnosing my inner reality. Because I’m trying not to choose depression. I’m wanting to move forward. But there’s no forward, even in the answers, there’s only this driving, swirling, experience of upheaval that lifts me up in its winds and drops me back down from its heights. And that’s just how life seems to be and how it will be, at least for the foreseeable future.

The challenge, and this is what I woke up to this morning at 3:45 thinking, is not to somehow abandon the calling (because I think God has called me out and up) or to embrace despair, both of which whisper and tempt me these days. The challenge is to reconceive (again) my purpose in all of this. Did I get a PhD so that I could find honor in the academy? Did I get a PhD in theology so that I could get social respect? No. I got a PhD in theology because that was the door that opened in light of my lifelong pursuits of seeking God in the midst of disorienting challenges. I stopped and faced that crashing wave, which crashed over me, and gave me, apparently, thoughtful things to say that I wrote in a couple books and that got me a fully paid fellowship.

I didn’t pay for my PhD. All my debt comes from what came before. So why is my heart so heavy in me as I face a future where I wonder if my PhD in theology was worth the struggle?

The struggle is that I want to have a house, and pay for food, and provide my kids with the kind of settled life that I never seemed to have. Do I trust God to provide for that?

The struggle is that I felt like I’ve followed God’s calling in going to Wheaton and then Fuller and then Fuller again. Did God trick me? Is there even a God? (Ah, there a whispering woe sneaks up behind me!)

Why did I do that which I did? Where do I seek value?

I ask this now, when my future is undetermined (at least for me). I don’t know what I will be doing next year or where. I may very well be still in academia, teaching and researching (and oh how I yearn for more of the latter finally). After teaching 10 different courses in the last 3 years, I look ahead to only having classes I’ve taught before and the dream of writing a lot gets me exited. But if that doesn’t work out, if I don’t get a full time position in academia–and I don’t have any offers right now for that–will I abandon hope and fall into frustration

Why did I do that which I did? Why do I do that which I am now doing?

That’s the fundamental question. Because if I can find my way to saying–really saying, authentically, wholly saying–I do it all for the sake of God, come what may, I think that is the place of substantive peace. If I stay in academia, then I can navigate that world while being driven by God’s leading, rather than the honors and values the academic system uses to co-opt theology. I can participate in that world without being defined by that world, and I’m pretty sure that is how to actually become a real person in that world. I can be free in teaching and writing and creative exploration because i’m not always second guessing. And if I don’t get that chance, if the door closes, if I can find that peace of value in God’s kingdom, then my PhD won’t have been a waste because from beginning to end it was always, really, about finding a depth in God, pursuing truth, exploring the treasures of wisdom.

I’ve been driven to see God, and yet God is always just behind the next hill, and there’s a hill in front of me yet again and a wave behind me, and I’m tired of walking. So, so tired of never arriving. But now is not the time to let the fears stop the insanity. So forward.

Sunday and a new day

As a family, we lit the advent candle at church today, read a passage from the Christmas story in Matthew. Amy led worship, always a joy, she has always called me back into worship from the beginning.

Beautiful day, but I only spent a little time outside, reading a book on Francis Asbury. About time I dug into learning more about his life as I go on to teach a class on Wesleyan Theology this next quarter.

That’s on my mind, as is a couple of commentary passages I’m supposed to edit, and a book I need to edit, and travel plans to make for my HT503 classes in Phoenix, and… well, add to the mix all the nibbling concerns that fill my mind with clutter.

In this day I also kept coming back to my thoughts of the morning, not intentionally, just part of the swirl. I realized something. Not anything new. Not really anything profound. But it was important nevertheless. I spied the source of my discontent.

It comes down to the Kingdom. I walk in many kingdoms, among which are my will, the will of the academy, the will of the church, the will of financial success.

I’m mixed in all my motives and divided in my being.

If I can find that way to really seek the Kingdom in full, as my concern, my orientating value, my constitutive desire, then I can see my way forward with joy no matter what happens.

That’s the challenge. That’s the trick.

finding the music

A lot has happened since I last wrote here, and much of it speaks of a wonderful work of God.

Two kids, a job with APU and then a job with Fuller. I’ve not been without medical benefits since graduating with my PhD. And yet, the nature of my contracts with Fuller and APU have been time-limited, first 1.5 year with APU and 3 years with Fuller. The former ended with a transition into working for Fuller, without a day in between, and also involved a transition to Sacramento. The moving process was chaotic, to say the least. We moved to Sacramento, got settled into a wonderful, God-directed (I have no doubt) home to rent a mile from the Fuller campus, and got started with a new life up here. That was late August. In earliest February, we were told they were shutting down the regional campus. First they said that next June (2016), then they expanded that to August, 2017.

This blog was a site for me to navigate finding faith in the midst of an emptied life. I left everything behind when I moved from Pasadena to Lake Arrowhead. I left behind rational ambitions, I left behind friends. I left behind a pathway to financial freedom. I embraced a kind of insanity. At age 28 (almost 29), I moved back in with my parents, to focus on writing, but mostly to stop running. As I said then, I was tired of being chased by a gigantic crashing wave that was always just behind me, leading me into frenzy as I sought to escape its tumbling, swirling, mass.

I had wrestled with finding the voice of God in my life for so long, and realized that the voice of God was not in front of me, the way I was running, but it was behind me, behind the wave.

Moving to Lake Arrowhead didn’t make any sense in the rationality of the world. My soul didn’t care. Creeping, enervating depression was my daily disaster, assuaged only when I wrote, and only so long as I stopped pursuing a rational approach.

I stopped running. I turned around. The wave crashed over me. In the tumbling, bruising darkness between life and non-life–not physical death simply social death–I learned how to listen better. I read monastics, I read myself. I talked with my parents, and the friends I had left, some where I had once been, some much farther away. I learned how to listen to the chorus of trees, to watch the rhythms and signs of nature around me, never pure, always punctuated by noisy neighbors and frenzied busyness, which served as the burr in my being that kept me from retreating ever inward and isolated. My frustrations were part of the cure, my anger and rage and irritation ignited and dissipated in my helplessness to change others. I had only myself. What was I to do with my self?

That is the impossible question, the unwanted and rejected question, that which leads us to seek any sort of distraction.

The self is a punishment. Which is why solitary confinement is used in prisons.

What is that? In my stopping, I had to face myself, giving up on my hopes to undermine the power of my fears, and having just myself. I made progress. Not as much as I would have liked. But enough for that season, it seems. God opened the once locked doors, everything in life blossoming rather than covered in frost. I published. I married. I bypassed a highly deficient resume by building a new course of life, a curriculum vitae, through PhD studies.

Life has not stopped since. The wave crashed over me and behind it, with the leading of God, was another wave, a wave I swam with as it led me to new shores.

Behind it has been another wave. A wave more like the first one. A wave that is made up of my fears and doubts and frustrations and anger at mismanaged opportunities and opportunities started well but shut down because of the goals of others. I face the summer with no contract, and a radical increase in busyness and travel these next two quarters. I miss listening to the trees, to letting my self stop and ponder, to watching the birds. The frenzy stirs and twists, nudging me toward panic. The wave behind me approaches, looming and blocking out the light.

I’m tired of its threats. I’m tired of knowing but not listening. I’m tired of waiting but not seeing. I’m tired of existing but not being.

So, I return here, to see how I might discover a reformation of my misplaced self. Not that I’ve done anything wrong, not that I’ve done everything right. I realize there was a opening in 2007 that led to new realities, but these realities were a new stage, not a conclusion of the work once started.

I recognize the fears, the frustrations, the depression, the distraction. It has been with me all along, and now, in the face of an unsettled future, it tries to take control again. Leading me and yelling at me.

What does it mean to stop running now and face the next wave? I don’t know. It’s not the same as 2003. But there’s a self-similar work involved, one that I must discern and find discipline in.

IF you do not stand in faith, you will not stand at all, Isaiah once said, when the city was surrounded by enemies.

Yesterday, while engaged in the relaxing reading of Sharpe’s Rifles, I read this and it poked at me the way Thoreau once did back in my 20s: “Now was not the time to let the fears stop the insanity. So forward.”

My path in life has been about embracing a kind of insanity. First to Wheaton, which I couldn’t afford. Then to Fuller, which I couldn’t afford. Then to the mountains, which I could afford but which kept me from being rational in gaining sufficient income for anything else. Then to a PhD program in a field where there are not jobs. Then, to teaching non-stop when what I really love is writing. Fears creep up, reminding how stuck I am, how lost I might be, how there’s no way someone with my training and personality (extreme introvert) can find another path. No doors open, no way back.

Now was not the time to let the fears stop the insanity. So forward.

But going forward isn’t enough. I need to come to terms with those fears, to deepen my hope, to explore my frustrations, to expand my love. To choose faith, to make faith an intentional choice when I really don’t seee what the future holds and have no power right now to make an answer happen, other than doing my daily tasks. I want to choose faith. I want to dance once more in the music of freedom, even when all around me seems like constraint. I want to be. So forward.

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