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.