Now that it’s getting to be near the end of another year, it would seem like I need to do the obligatory year in review, taking stock of my life and assessing whether or not I’ve actually grown as a human being in the past year. I will save the suspense by stating unequivocally that I have not grown much at all in the way you would have hoped I had grown. If anything, I have had to uncomfortably face many of my prejudices and biases toward people, and come to the conclusion that I may never get along with everyone. Am I still going to be a pastor? I hope so, but I am not clinging to the dream so tightly anymore that it causes me to flail about in dismay when something unpastoral in me inevitably pops out.
I have had a few moments over the past year where I met new people I couldn’t get along with after so many attempts, and people I was unlikely to ever love, having realized it almost immediately. I lost my temper in a Sunday School class. I lost my temper at a local restaurant that had an outdoor playground with parents and children. I lost my temper in a seminary study group. I had very bad thoughts when Trump got elected and defriended family members on Facebook. Would you say that I even had anger in my heart to the point where I broke a commandment, in the tradition of what Jesus said about this? Yes. Would you say that I am pretty dodgy these days on how great Jesus really was after all? A little bit. If Jesus was the true son of the OT God, and in fact one and the same as that God, Jesus is pretty far from being murder-free himself.
Of course, there are ways to get around that–like saying most of the OT stories of mass murder on God’s part were fictions of the Hebrews who felt marginalized at various times in their history. You could even become like the heretic Marcion and throw out the entire OT, stating that Jesus is the son of an all-loving God who is not the same deity as the OT God.
For me, the old myths are completely fascinating and necessary. The Ugaritic myths, the Egyptian ones, the Greek ones, etc. People became more civilized and stopped seeing a god inside every last little totem. Once they had some control over their lives and their environments, but not as much control as we do, it became a lot easier to see an all-powerful remote God being in charge of things instead of a bunch of little ones who were always there all the time. From my theology class, I have learned just how much most Christian theologians would prefer that we continue to believe in the nearness of God, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary. This becomes an incredible tightrope act for me. It’s easy enough to imagine a computer programmer God who made the Matrix, and steps in often enough to tinker with things and fix them before stepping back, but it becomes a lot harder to appreciate and relate to a God who is constantly there with me being all providential in the Calvinist sense. I would like to believe that a truly providential God would have stepped in and stopped my little brother from dying, would have eradicated my mom’s cancer, and would have saved any number of really good, Godly people. Maybe all those people are up in heaven now perfectly happy and not missing this world one bit. I don’t know.
I do know that as much as I’ve tended toward extreme absolutes over the past few years just to keep me on some path resembling a straight and narrow one, my tendency is to relax and let go, and let everything just be. At the end of the day, I don’t even think I have much control over where I end up when I die. All I have to take with me are some memories of being incredibly human–too human for the likes of most of the righteous saints who will be singing in the choir.
But, what of taking stock of things?
I ran for the better part of the summer, which was nice. I need to get back into running, and taking advantage of the seminary workout room before it’s all gone. I need to start eating more healthy foods again, and trying to be nice to people when I don’t want to be. I sold two properties this year, the only time I’ve ever sold properties and maybe the last time I ever will. I don’t think I will buy another house until I am living in the community I will spend the rest of my life in, and I imagine that my wife and son will end up deciding what to do with that house after I’ve died.
I did little work for money this year. I did some freelance work, and made a few calls down in the school fundraising office. I wrote some thank-you letters as well. I volunteered very little. I mentored a young fellow from about February through May, and worked in a homeless mission inside my church for a few months, once a week. I wrote an Advent devotional for my church and wrote a confessional for a school chapel service.
I wrote a slim science fiction novel. I finished a semester of classes that included an intense exposure to biblical Hebrew. I will be able to read Hebrew for the rest of my life–I mean, actually sound out the words and read the characters and vowells–I still have a long way to go before I know what most of the words mean.
I hardly remember the books I read at the beginning of the year. Where did I travel? I don’t think I left the state of Texas in 2016. We had small getaways in San Antonio, Houston, and Corpus Christi. I hope we can travel outside of Texas next year, but I’m only medium-optimistic. Oh, I just remembered the trip up to Missouri. Almost forgot that–my bookend of sorts before seriously returning to school for the first time in almost twenty years.
Looking back through all of my Amazon book orders for this year, I can see that in addition to all of the religious books, I was into Japanese poetry and Russian literature among other things.
Who was I in 2016? I was a man intent on becoming righteous man, and I veered off at times into the land of being a pious fool and a hypocritical jerk. Sometimes I really was righteous, but it was usually embodied in something I did for somebody, not really in what I said to them or how I might have otherwise acted around them. Indeed, I seem to be at my best when I can demonstrate my love for my fellow man in a very concrete way. I would much rather buy you a pair of shoes and a dinner than sit and talk with you about God. However, I still think God is important, which is why I am getting an MDiv and not an MSW.
God is important to a lot of people in a lot of different ways, which is something almost everyone who has some degree of book learning seems to ignore. The really smart religious people think that your average person at church wants to know God in precisely the same way your denomination’s founder thought they should know God, and most people don’t. The atheists of the world, both the dumb and the smart ones, seem to think that if people will only start to think like they do, people will be so much happier because they will no longer worry about death and God and stuff like that. What none of these people realize is that each individual has a rich and deep understanding of God or a lack of God based on a combination of intense personal experiences and convictions as well as what that individual has concluded when in community with others. We tend to assume that nobody thinks about anything too deeply, but I am not so sure that this is true. I think that everyone thinks about many things very deeply, but only a few of us have taken the time to consider how we would put our thoughts into words. For the rest of the world, they tend toward shutting up completely and not sharing a damn thing that they were thinking, which is why smartypants folks start asserting that the common person doesn’t care or think about deep things.
My own lifelong goal in my writing has been to come from a place that is deeply personal, very much that of a particular human individual, but at the same time I hope to be capable of expressing universal human truths. Some of the people I’ve found to be more recently irritating are those who would try to shut me down when I speak because they are certain that nothing comes out of my mouth that isn’t “mansplaining” or coming from a place of white male privilege. I would argue that it is just as dangerous to stop listening to a person because you don’t think they can say a single word that resonantes with you (due to the fact that they are generally white, heternormative males) as it is dangerous to be a white, heteronormative male calling for some type of return to white, male exceptionalism. The agressive will toward silos, tribes, contextual theologies and philosophies and the tendency to view any given white person as being blind to your own particular brand of humanity is, in my opinion, a dangerous trend that only exacerbates the echo chambers we all have experienced this year. At the end of the day, I would much rather affirm and empower every single human being on this earth to be as successful and happy as they possibly can be, no matter what their background is–and will to seek out the common ground from which I can possibly begin to empathize with them (if that’s even possible)–than to affirm and empower select groups of people who feel like they need special and extra attention. Does this mean that I am “anti-BLM” or opposed to paying attention to Native Americans, or whatever? Of course not! But, my own strength as a thinker and writer and human being is always going to come from the place of an individual human calling out to other individual humans throughout many different times and places. Perhaps I am overly optimistic about what I am capable of. But, I do see that so many humans who are in deep pain and pure survival mode simply don’t have the time or energy to politicize their struggles and recast them within a tribal narrative. They are human beings cast in a very real human struggle. I don’t think the message most people needed from presidential candidates this year really came from the mouths of any of the candidates. The message of “I feel your pain” was once felt genuinely, and it was so unfortunate that the man who said it (while probably mostly meaning it) went on to take advantage of his position of power in a grotesque sort of way. His singular action wasn’t worth all of the attention given to it, especially by so many who were just as awful in their spousal cheating, but his action was despicable in that it set back the ability for so many other Democrats to succeed in the subsequent two decades. He ultimately screwed over so many more people than he or your or I can ever possibly imagine. Sure, blame 2000 on Ralph Nader all you want, but the real asshole who ruined it for everyone was Slick Willie.
Now, a politician can’t really say that anymore, but I think they need to figure out a new way to say the same thing: “I feel your pain, no matter where you are. The struggle for you is real, and I’ve been in some of that struggle, though not all of it. I’m not going to lie and say I know exactly what it means to be you, but I do know what it means to be a human being who has been poor, bullied, working class, and who has suffered great losses of many loved ones. I don’t feel your exact kind of pain, but I feel your human pain because I’ve been a real human like you, not some gold-plated asshole whose dad gave him a million bucks (and a helluva lot more, actually) to poop it off and screw others while keeping himself in the tabloids for years and generally being known as an asshole about town.”
2017 will be the year where we all get to feel what so many people have felt on the receiving end of one of Trump’s deals. I can hardly wait. I just hope that I am enough of one of the little people, and too damn poor as I was during the Bush years, to really notice a whole lot other than the exhorbitant gas prices, which haven’t seem to have gotten nearly as high as they did under that asshole W. Yes, I’ve just labeled Bill Clinton, Trump and W assholes. Well, they really are. And we will get to meet so many more to come this year, I’m sure.