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.