Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"An Open Letter to Will Lightfoot"

Below is a letter I sent out to a good friend when he was looking at grad schools back in 2003. I thought publishing this here on the blog might offer some better insight into my previous post about this season of convergence here in Holland Michigan at Hope College. I also thought about it because my friend Tyler has asked about it and I know several other students and recent graduates who are considering Regent College.

I want to make a note about my use of rhetoric here: sometimes being caustic helps a writer get his or her point across. I fear that some of my exaggerated expression in this "Open Letter" might lead some people to have skewed ideas about Regent. If anything, it reveals how I was fighting to make sense of my life at that time and exposes more about me than Regent. So, for the record I decided to complete a full Master's degree, their MCS in Independent Studies. You can definitely find some rigorous academics at Regent, but there are many students there from many walks of life who are interested in many things other than getting straight A's--which is refreshing. Oh, and it is very difficult to take Old and New Testament surveys on your own via audio lectures. So, beware!

"An Open Letter to Will Lightfoot" 1/18/03

I heard a rumor that you are still considering Regent as an option for your postgraduate studies. I was out for a walk today by the water and was feeling all sorts of joy about my being here, and I thought of you and thought of what I would say to you about Regent after completing a semester and a few summer courses. I think what I am about to say is more for my benefit though. I am trying to nail my thoughts down and take a position on this season of my life and publishing these thoughts to you will make it official: Jesus has been generous to me by bringing me here.

I will say this: come here not to do academic work but to study. Stay for only a year. Settle for earning a diploma. Work your hardest to get A’s so that they will look good on your transcript if you decide to apply to other schools where academics are the only thing provided. Don’t let career goals in academics rob you of the opportunity to learn real things.

If you chose to stay for only one year, don’t take the two survey courses of the Old Testament and New Testament while here. You can take those classes in the summer over a two-week period, or you can finish them in an audio correspondence format later.

Come here if there is restlessness in your soul about who you are, what the Church is and how you fit into the world. Take classes and read the books and write the papers that will help you answer your most personal questions.

Come here without the expectation of making friends. Come with a willingness to risk on community…or better yet, pursue communion with strangers and be patient. Wait to discover how they are really your brothers and sisters.

Come and sleep in on Sunday mornings and then and hang out at Starbucks even though it is a corporation. They have consistently good coffee, good music and comfortable chairs. Chances are you might want a job at Starbucks someday. I heard they pay $10 an hour and have good benefits. Graduate students need to keep their eyes open for good part time work.

At least visit churches if only to remind yourself how much you love the church.

See if you can shake the false guilt of missing church, then go and make it a discipline.

Hang out with girls—befriend them. Try not to think of everyone of them as a possible wife. Think of each of them as something that your guy friends are not: sweet, beautiful and good listeners. Each one of them will be a blessing.

Read constantly. Read in the morning with coffee. Read in the afternoon with coffee. Read after dinner with coffee, and stop to take naps and play the guitar. Read when you are falling asleep, but find a book that you are not assigned to read like a novel or something on the history of jazz.

Admit to yourself that you probably won’t read like this when you leave. Don’t worry about the reading you won’t do later. Take advantage of the crappy weather and lack of friends. Stay inside and read now. When the weather breaks you can wrap yourself in a blanket and read down by the water.

Read the Bible every morning and don’t worry about it when you don’t. Read it like you are a beginner every time. Read it out loud and know that you might not remember it later in the afternoon.

Pray after you read the Bible. I am not exactly sure what this means. I thought I did this morning, but I already forgot. I think I’ll have to give it another try tomorrow morning.

Make sure you come with lots of good music or at least some extra money to buy new CDs. Music is cheap here and there is a great independent store about ten minutes from Regent. Find people at Regent who are obsessed with music and learn from their taste.

Listen to each song as if it was the best worship song you’ve ever heard in your life. If you can’t do that then don’t listen to that song. Skip it and go on to the next one.

Make sure you have a good number of worship songs memorized that your friends have written. Playing them will help you enter the presence of God, and it will also help you feel like you still live near those friends.

Put pictures of your friends on your computer’s screen saver so that it scrolls through them like a slide show. Leave the monitor on all night while you sleep and maybe you will dream that you are hanging out with them.

Take walks and try to love jogging. Go outside in the rain and in the fog and get wet. Exercise and being outside will be the best anti-depressant.

Come here to study and ask questions and realize that you are studying while you sleep and while you walk or jog, while you listen to music and play your guitar, while you try to commune with other people and with God and nature. Realize that intelligence is often wasted in the classroom because the classroom like the church often keeps you from being honest about what your real questions are. Intelligence without honesty is stupid. I’d rather just be honest. The good classroom will only help push you farther than you might have gone by yourself. Without it most of us will never know what we are capable of.

Do all of this one day at a time leisurely. Think of it as training on how to live one day well. Forget all that carpe diem crap. You can’t enjoy having to cram the “best” into every day. Sucking the marrow out of life can be very wearying. Realize the “best” is only how miserably you will fail at pursuing Jesus everyday. Accept your spiritual weakness. The best you will ever be arises out of how well you know that God doesn’t care that your efforts to pursue him really stink. We will always be beginners.

Oh, and make sure you read works by Colin Gunton, Martin Buber, W.H. Auden, George Steiner, Richard Neihbur, Micheal O’Siadhail, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kathaleen Norris, Annie Dillard, Fredrick Beuchner, Mary Oliver, Alan Jacobs, Roger Lundin, Thomas Merton, Leslie Newbegin, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Jeremy Begbie, Scott Cairns, Lionel Basney, Chiam Potok, Eugene Peterson, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Phillip Yancey, Walker Percy, Jarslov Pelikan, Alexander Schmemann…oh, did I mention Colin Gunton…jeepers what have I been doing without a Trinitarian understanding of God?

If you come here it might not feel very important while you are here. It probably won’t be exciting unless you make it exciting and search your heart for the right questions.
Many people at Regent have been hurt by the church. Don’t be surprised by their questions. Try and find a roommate like mine who visibly loves Jesus, who will eagerly drag his guitar out to play worship songs with you.

Peace to you. I will be praying about your last semester. Let me know if I can be of any help in your decision making process. I don’t know if this was helpful for you, but it sure was for me!

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Goodness of The Lord in the Land of the Living

Convergence is the word I used with Trygve at lunch on Thursday. It has been a long time coming and I recognize that this is a blessed season that could change. When things are good, I confess that I often wait for the shoe to drop and for things to slide back into the ho-hum of the grind, but for now I am confident in saying that I have never known such fullness—such felicity, the life well lived, as the Greeks called it, eudaimonia. When I hit a wall at the age of 27, it was because I had stretched myself too thin. I wanted so much to be a pastor and an artist and to also stay fed and warm at night, and in order to do all that I had to work part time at both the church and as a high school teacher as well. And as I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a part time job at a church or a school. I called into the school twice to request “mental health” days off back in the Spring of 2001, my final semester of teaching high school. For some of the teachers that just meant a day off here and there to catch up at home with family and other things. For me that meant that I literally couldn’t get out of bed. I had a few panic attacks and found myself sitting alone at home on the couch weeping for hours, un-able to move. During that year my average week was something like 65-70 hours of work. I was working in the studio on music and running a house church too with twenty something singles while serving as pastor of music and art and also teaching World History.

I left Oklahoma City and took two summers and a full year of courses at Regent College in Vancouver B.C. The classes were very important for my journey, but the better gift was Vancouver itself. I feel that in many ways I was saved from myself and set down in the most remarkable of places in order to re-discover how to live well. I had spent so much of my energy trying to perfect the balance of everything so that I could be an arts pastor and I had become numb and tired of people. It seemed as if God was using me in spite of me, in spite of the empty shell of my heart. I needed the Spanish Banks, this series of beaches on the south shore of English bay. From the Spanish Banks you can look Eeast to the downtown metro area, North at the foot of the Canadian Rockies and West on a clear day allows you to see Vancouver Island. I actually became a quasi-jogging/exercising type of person not so much because I was interested in being in shape but because I was interested in being outside to take it all in. I ended up in a community house on 7th street with some other grad students, and I could walk to the Banks in less than fifteen minutes.

That was a good and fertile season in my life, but wasn’t convergence. It was formation. Teaching this “Ministry of Theology and Worship” course at Hope College is restoring my passion for teaching. The recording studio is getting better and better and therefore more and more useful. I have several student leaders who are joyfully partnering with me and carrying the weight of leadership beside me. My wife and I are more in love than ever, and I have a delightful ache to sing to God. Honestly, I have wrestled with the artistic merit of much of the contemporary worship that I play at Hope, but the spirit of the worship and the worshippers is what is so compelling. I can sense a genuine desire among the students to be changed into the likeness of Jesus. There is a depth and a fervor that Trygve and I were careful to not name too specifically on Thursday at lunch when we last talked about it. I’m mindful of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Total Eclipse” when she is frustrated with a bystander who too quickly assigns language to the sight of the eclipse as a lifesaver candy, rounded but having a hole in the middle. We have to be careful with how we name things, and we have to be careful to not try to name the un-nameable things. The best word for me here at this point in time is, convergence. I can point to a few tangibles here and there, but I feel awkward and ashamed to try to put any more language to it. If I name it, perhaps I’ll try to claim it for my own and try to control it and then the shoe will definitely drop or perhaps a hammer instead. We often have so many let downs because we place such false expectations on our lives that we can’t help but be disappointed.

I’ll borrow from Biblical language and say the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living is a bright and shining light, and I am full of joy, gladness and thankfulness.

One more thing I want to discuss is my deep affection for these students here at Hope. I fell in love with the sixth graders I taught in Oklahoma City. They had a way of getting into my heart that surprised me. Every now and then I will get an email from one of them or I’ll find myself wondering how they are faring in high school. To work with college students has required another kind of leadership however that requires even more of my heart than ever before. As a classroom teacher, you have to work hard to draw the line between yourself and the students in order to maintain control. If you become one of them and buddy up, they will eventually find ways of taking advantage of your friendship. Because I love those little kids, I had to maintain control so they could utilize the classroom for the purpose of learning. To pastor college students, I have to become a friend in a very different way. My leadership emerges because they see and know more of me. My home, my marriage, my friends outside of school, my time management, my favorite movies, my favorite books and music, my whole lifestyle, all of it becomes a witness and a model that they sift through, critique, analyze and compare contrast with other adults. And as this kind of ministry becomes more established here, there is a deepening with the students to the point where I now can call them friends.

This is why I ache so much for Susanna to have permanent employment here too. Her one year visiting professorship is up and she isn’t one of the final three candidates for the position in creative writing. With marriage, the truth is that the whole sum is greater than our individual parts. Susanna and I are better together than we are apart from each other. We’ve made for a good partnership during this last year as we get to know each other’s students, spend extra time with them at the coffee shop or have them over to the house. I’m glad that together we are able to create a bridge between the classroom and the chapel. I am the worship pastor who loves to read and teaches a theology class that covers T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” She is the widely published and award winning poet who does not pull any punches in her writing and yet she regularly comes to chapel and sometimes even participates in the teaching or prayers. We want very much to model a commitment to learning, the arts, and our faith that helps Hope students envision a fuller and more dynamic humanity that reflects the witness of Christ, God who became man on the earth. It is not that either of us have it all figured out, but at least we have each other as we work this out in “fear and in trembling.”

Susanna has two prospective jobs at other schools. I’m not worried that she will not find work. I’m just sad for the sake of Hope College. We will miss out on her bright and shining light.