I was pre-law in college. Took the LSAT and did very well on it. But I couldn’t apply to law schools because of the financial trauma. The application fees were expensive, but so was Wheaton, and I couldn’t get ahead of those bills, which tied up my transcripts until well after graduation. I worked, and my family was more than generous as they were able, but every time I’d start to catch up, there would be an emergency draining bank accounts.
The delay allowed me to catch up to myself and consider my passions and real interests. I wanted to be a lawyer because of an idealism about how I could help people, including my family. But then I kept meeting lawyers, none of whom liked their jobs. And in my free time I increasingly was going back to the books I discovered at Wheaton: Eugene Peterson, John Wesley, JI Packer, and many others. It wasn’t a time for peace for me, as I was still recovering from my time at Wheaton, which enlightened me intellectually but crushed me spiritually and socially. I felt alienated from life and all my hopes and plans were cut off by chasms in every direction. I knew God had led me there but I couldn’t see that it was a good thing. My pursuit of God made everything worse in my life.
That’s troublesome language, there, I know. “It wasn’t God,” people want to say. It was God. And I say this more confidently than ever. Why? Because of all that reading I was doing. I found light in the midst of deep darkness by discovering the place of darkness in the lives of people who found the light.
To live is Christ, I prayed deeply my junior year, teach me to understand this. I assumed the way to life was through mountain tops and achievements and discovering great insights and transforming the world. I didn’t expect the place of hurt, the place of abandonment, the forsaken experience of crying out to a silent God who made things darker the closer you got to the entrance, at every step defeat, and every victory accompanied by even greater loss. Needless to say, I wasn’t a very good evangelist during this season.
That which should work out didn’t. That which shouldn’t work out also didn’t. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything right. It was that I could do everything right and it didn’t make a lick of difference. There was a storm in my life and a storm in my soul, pursuit of peace in one erupted the storm in the other. God would not help me but would not leave me alone.
In finding the glimpse of light in writings of long ago, I knew there was something still to discover. I was being drawn onward not pushed away. My casual reading turned more serious when I quit my seasonal job at the post office and bought the 10 volume set of the ante-nicene Fathers.
No one I knew had read them, I didn’t have access to discussion groups. All I know is that I found depth and life and hope in them. Even more, I found this emphasis on love that rocked my experience of church. Reading through these started a turn in my life, but a turn like a supercargo ship. It wasn’t a quick process. I found life. I found the profound emphasis on love. But I hadn’t yet found myself.
On a cool for California day, very early in 1999 I walked over to a nearby county park. I was filled with anger and I found that every time I went to church my anger and depression worsened. Attempts to share, to open myself to possibilities, to try to find guidance was met with confused responses and attempts to put me in the box of programs that were set in stone. My one light, my one release, was playing saxophone in the worship band, but the day came that I couldn’t even do that without my inner being raging inside.
Did you know that historically, the followers of Odin who took his name for themselves were Berserkers? Boiling over with rage is not often socially acceptable, especially in church, so I just left before the service started without mentioning it to anyone.
Anger and depression are two sides of the same coin in my experience. The one outward the other inward, a storm that raged at the world, God, myself; a cyclone of indeterminate blame and exhausted frustration.
I skipped church, bought a Sunday LA Times, walked over to sit by the lake at the park. and read the paper. The reading turning to contemplating, the contemplating turning to praying, the praying turning to listening. Stop obsessing about money and letting it drive you.
What would I do if money wasn’t an issue? How would I spend my time?
Clearly, even without money, I found myself making rather irresponsible and socially confusing decisions to read books written by long dead Christians. This inclination was part of the stirring that I found alternately invigorating and infuriating. I wasn’t able to make sense within a life that wasn’t making sense. My depression would blossom and I would turn back to solace in the saints. I liked studying Scripture, Church history.
“Have you thought about seminary?” the little whisper asked. So I started looking into seminary. For the first time, we were able to save money without an emergency draining the funds. My transcripts were freed, my application submitted, my application accepted, my time at seminary beginning in Fall of ’99. I traveled to
Berlin Pasadena for my studies.
Fast forward to early 2003. I finished my coursework the previous summer. My last internship was officially done in early December of 2002, but was drifting on. I had worked on a number of projects, led a small young adults ministry, played in the worship band. But the previous years had not progressed smoothly. Everything I could do, I did well and as far as I could tell I even did right. But nothing clicked and that which clicked clacked soon after. Church upheavals and dysfunctions deepened. The dynamic reality that was NewSong was caught in all sorts of competing tensions. A pastoral search that should have gone quickly after the lead pastor resigned (well after he should have), dragged onward.
I was caught up in the politics of church life and despised it. I found light and life with the people in my ministry and a number of others, but couldn’t find light or encouragement with those who were defined as leaders and elders. I finished seminary with strong acclaim by professors and others, with encouraging creative instincts in ministry, but when I looked for mentoring there wasn’t any to be found. I was left adrift and my depression broke free from its constraining chains. I tried to join the army. I tore my ACL after starting the process. I sought jobs. Not even interview. I couldn’t afford to pay the gas to drive the 20 miles east to the church. I had to drop out of ministry life. I tried holding on to making sense but there was no sense to be found.
Once again I turned to my books and to writing. When I wrote I felt alive, I felt free. I read John Cassian, and spurred on by my interest in John Wesley, I discovered Evagrius and others.
I started reading a lot of monastic works and finding renewed hope, if not life, in their words. I found the volumes of the Philokalia, and I fell in love with beauty. There was something living beyond the horizon of my experiences. So after finding all my funds and all my interest in regular living falling away, and finding life and hope in reading and writing, I decided in late 2003 to move to the mountains.
I turned 29 that same month. I lived with my parents, helping out as I could. I wrote a lot. Wrestled with God and myself a lot. Realized that God wasn’t calling me to do but to be, and to be me with God. Realizing the passions and frenzy in my soul were constant clamor, undermining my peace and contentment. In the nothingness I found something.
I found theology. I discovered the city of Skete.
I realized I had already been in Skete, between my time at Wheaton and Fuller. Now I was back, and I was back for a long stay.
More on Skete in the next post.