When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.
For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives. I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about. When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:
I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.
This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean. It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.
With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.
So, this image has been with me for the last four years or so. It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.
It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology. I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.
Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015. I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding. I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.
Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration. It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.
Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.
Which isn’t an easy realization for me. Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths. I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.
I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity. I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.
Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed. But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated. My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty. But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it. Somehow.
I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme. It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.
I hate that nagging. The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity. I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.
Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.
It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however. So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.
I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year. I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.
I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger. It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth. I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.
But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean. I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day. She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.
The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin. I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.
“Bring on the fun!”
Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery. Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons. Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.
This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.