Seminary has been good for me

Seminary has been good for me, though I am loath to consider myself as one of those individuals who come to seminary looking to be fixed. I don’t think of myself as being any more or less broken than anyone else. I may never be the perfect sort of pastor, but I don’t see why I can’t become successful in at least a small capacity of loving and helping others in a disinterested sort of way–by disinterested I mean something like being altruistic, not concerned with how I am paid back, if ever.

Maybe I won’t ever be a pastor or chaplain, but I certainly would like to find that church which really does need more helpers to sustain its life and community and presence in the world. I don’t need to be the star of the church recognized in every bulletin or seen at the front of the church every Sunday with my hands in everything, sitting on every committee and trying to help out in every single way imaginable. But likewise, I don’t want to raise my hand fervently as someone who wants to do more and be a part of more and then get called upon once a year to deliver a bucket of ice and few jugs of tea to a committee of the really important and recognized people of the church. It’s kind of the same thing with life and places I’ve worked at–if you ask to help too much people become suspicious of you and either avoide asking for your help or they decide you are a subhuman worthy of being used up in every imaginable way.

Seminary has taught me a lot about slowing down and meeting people in various modes of time and space that aren’t necessarily set to a calendar full of blocked-off meetings and walled-off moments where they are deigning to give you thirty minutes of their extraordinarily precious and valuable time. There are still people out there who will pause and have a human conversation with you without tapping their foot impatiently because they have somewhere more important to be.

I think that I will come out of here with my faith much stronger, because it has been so rigorously and thoroughly tested. What remains is a deep love for Christ and a desire to be in a more profound relationship with Christ and have a receptivity to how the Spirit moves. What is gone is my sense of a need to be a part of a given denomination, or carefully build up a social justice resume by being seen on Facebook doing highly visible things. What only lingers a little is a sense that I can somehow find something of deeper meaning by reading more and more books. I do think that books are ultimately just distractions if they become the go-to when you are seeking to have a more meaningful and thorough relationship with Christ in your everyday life. Books before prayer, books before communion with others and taking communion, books before worship, books before the Book, books about everything tangentially related to the time and place of the appearance of Jesus Christ, but never a moment of just putting all of the books aside and talking plainly and directly to Christ while reading some of His words from the Bible.

The honest and immediate nature of the act of being seized by the face of the other–Levinas–is a great gift from the seminary. This is much closer to how I think Christ intended us to respond to and interact with others as Christians. Being a better Christian is ultimately about becoming a better human being in all of the most virtuous and ethical ways imaginable, without getting caught up in human-generated laws, norms, codes and straitjacket ways of being that can drive you crazy no matter which side of the political aisle or what brand of Christianity you attempt to align with.

I tend not to think of myself as a fragile person, but I do have my limits

I tend not to think of myself as a fragile person, but I do have my limits. If I feel like the entire world is trying to tell me something, I am going to sit up and listen. I don’t believe in only doing things that please everyone or even most everyone you care about, but I also don’t believe that most everyone you care about is going to be completely incorrect when they seem to mutually assess something about you.

I came down here because I was certain that God wouldn’t leave me high and dry with my only life purpose being to pass on my DNA, or even leave me with no life purpose at all. I have been convinced from before I even left my undergrad years that I could find the perfect thing that I was supposed to be doing, a thing that fit me like a glove; and when I found it, I would give up a lot to go back to grad school in order to do it for the rest of my life.

I took the LSAT while still in school. I thought of continuing my English studies–of course, you get asked that: so you want to teach? question as if teaching were like scrubbing toilets with your tongue or something–surely you don’t want to JUST teach!? I got into computers. Of course, I loved the idea of going back and forcing myself to learn mathematics and computer stuff. I started down the road toward getting a master’s degree in international relations–because Bill Clinton did in My Life, if I remember right. There was the whole non-profit thing–and the political campaign, and going back to be an EMT, and my getting accepted to start school to get my BS in Math, and then this… why this? My dad was perplexed, so was my wife–my pastor seemed to be, too. You, really, a pastor? Are you sure?

Of course, the admissions people wanted me to come down here, that’s what they are paid to do. Then you get this “we don’t accept just anyone, no matter what their academic credentials are,” and you also hear “think of all of the people in your life who have been affirming your call…” um….yeah, crickets. Even my own mother was convinced that God told her my little brother was going to be a preacher and I would be somehow involved in government. Well, I did volunteer in politics for a summer. Maybe my little brother is preaching up in heaven. He’s been up there for a while.

What’s really strange, is that I actually have grown to love church the way I have at times loved Austin. But, like Austin, I don’t feel like it has especially loved me back. Church, at least in my denomination, is for lifelong members of the denomination and marginalized people. Why am I bothering with even wanting to be an X,Y,Z mainline Protestant–surely, I should be going for a nice, bland evangelical church with a rock band or a motivational speaker pastor, or getting mixed up in something like the Landmark Forum.

Am I just trying to design a fantasy based on a cobbling together of the best that childhood, books, movies and personal cooked-up expectations have to offer? Will every community inevitably disappoint in some fashion, every church fall short of expectations, and any given attempt to pursue further formal education result in this kind of directionless malaise? Probably, the answer is “yes” to both questions.

On the other hand, by giving up on a lot of preconceived notions and expectations of what being down here would be like, I have been able to move through my days more freely, and have started to have more interesting conversations (for me, probably not for the other person). Who really cares where I end up? As long as I don’t put my family in a situation that sees us out in the streets, I think things will work out to be okay. Who cares if I end up a Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or nothing/everything sort of spiritual person at the end of the day? Probably not even God.

What really matters is what is happening in the dynamic with me and others (especially my son) in the straight up here and now–not the “some day.”

I am sitting here on a Friday in mid-February

I am sitting here on a Friday in mid-February. Ideally, I should be reading my assigned readings for classes. In truth, my brain is screaming for a break. It wants to relax with fiction and poetry, and then get up again to seek out its own will for how it will be stretched and tested again. In other words, my brain is not especially interested in performing the task of assigned reading. This is pretty typical. It was the story of my previous college years. The subject matter is not what I am averse to. I love the subject matter. I will read the subject matter until I die. It’s the notion that my brain is being asked to focus on this particular reading at this particular time, and report back that particular finding at that particular time.

I need to take a break for a couple of hours and be alone with my thoughts, and possibly God, if God cares to stop by.

This afternoon, I am having a conversational call with a recruiter about the old work I used to do.

It has been making less and less sense to me for why I would be here. I am a forty-year-old man with a very young son, and I am in a grad school program where I will at best hope to be making what I was making six years ago by the time I retire. Meanwhile, if I could, in fact, pick up my career again where I left off with it, I could very well be making a six-figure salary in the next year or so.

Believe me, I am guilty about putting so much focus on money, with the love of money being the root of all evil. I am also guilty about having made the decision to come down here in the first place and put my wife in the position of being sole breadwinner while my son still goes off to daycare full-time (as he would have anyway if I were working full-time), so I can sit, and read and contemplate and think about academic things.

There is enough guilt to spare in any decision that gets made. It is going to be shameful for me to make the decision to uproot us again and put us into the only housing we’ll be able to find down here which will be significantly farther away from my wife’s work and son’s daycare. It is shameful that I have selfishly brought us down here only to ascertain after so many conversations and psych evaluations that I will never be successful at what I am here learning to become. The alternate route of deciding to be a pure academic and go for a PhD doesn’t particularly appeal to me much, anymore, either. The prospects of getting anywhere with that before I am 50 are pretty grim.

There will be, of course, no shame once we are settle again, and I have bowed my head and accepted that I am unexceptional and need to be schlepping it up in an average 8-5 office until I can retire. There will be no shame then, because then I will be like any other average American guy–or really any man throughout history–I will be just doing what I have to do to make sure my family survives and thrives.

I don’t feel a strong sense of being pulled any particular direction, anymore. It is my nature to get excited about something for a little while and then drop it for a little while. I could stay on here, and wait for the early thrill I felt about being on a higher, mystical path to come back. Perhaps I will. But, I am not feeling especially mystical, anymore, these days, I am feeling raw and practical–just gotta do what I gotta do.

Dream last night

Dream last night: I was on a school bus with my wife and son. The door to the bus was open as the bus travelled down the road. My wife stood on the steps of the bus, talking to the bus driver, and my son stood right on the edge of the steps next to the open air. As the bus careened along, my wife nonchalantly allowed my son to stand on the edge. In the dream, he looked like a miniature version of Barack Obama. I was furious with my wife for allowing our child to get so close to a certain death, but she seemed to act as if this were just a minor difference in parenting techniques. I tried to explain using logic why having our son stand right next to an open door where he would surely fall out was a bad idea, but in the dream world, my wife’s calm demeanor of this not being such a big deal seemed to prevail. I finally had to resort to using emotions to make my case, but all this did was get me kicked off the bus and made my wife (in the dream) decide that she didn’t need to be with me anymore.

I walked into a school or library and tried to find sympathy for my situation. People seemed to agree that what she had done was a terrible idea, but they were more upset by the fact that because my son looked so much like Barack Obama, his death would have been all the more a tragedy.

***

Hearing the passage in Mark where Jesus was driven into the desert by the Spirit in class today made me think of my own dark night of the soul. The more that I have embraced Christ in my life, the greater the temptations have been, and the more I have failed miserably in my efforts or non-efforts to avoid sinning. The idea of going out into the wilderness alone for forty days and forty nights has an enormous appeal to me, but I doubt that I will be able to swing it in this life. If my wife goes before me and I am not too old, I will certainly do this. I might even decide to just die alone out in the wilderness. The idea of dying surrounded by people who are faking their sorrow or not, and some of them hoping I will just hurry up and die–this leaves me feeling a little cold, though I suppose in the end we all pass into that good night alone whether we are surrounded by loved ones or not. I just like the idea of having my spirit depart in a natural area that is mostly free from anything manmade, and letting the wild beasts finish off my carcass–there is a lot about how our civilization handles dying that seems to me to be perplexing and overblown.

Immortality certainly has lost its appeal with me. I don’t like the idea of living in a world like this one in a body like this one forever. I do like the idea of coming back again as someone else in a different time period–not necessarily one in the future–or an alternate universe where I can experience living through the early 2000s minus George W. Bush and 9/11.

In theory, with God, all things are possible, although it does seem sometimes like what is possible is really very limited, even more limited than what you might think of as being probable. God has a finite and precise plan for me and others in this particular universe and time and place, and I should be trying to follow the plan as much as possible or I just end up miserable. I hope that my path now to become a parish pastor at a mid-size church in a mainline denomination is closer to the right path, but I can’t be too sure. I would love to see my son and possible other child grow up in a town like the one where I went to school–doing Little League, Scouts, Band, Sports, etc. more or less as I did or had the opportunity to do them. I would like to pass into retirement having spent at least a couple of decades being respectable and established in a nice, all-American community, but I am not counting on it 100%. There are dark days where I think the future for me and my family will look more like McCarthy’s The Road, than anything else.

As I write this, I am running on what should be enough sleep, but of course, I was awakened at 6 AM straight up by my young son, and I did my share of tossing and turning in the night. My 8 AM class was a bit of a struggle to attend, though I like the subject matter and professor. I have these days where I feel like I am just dragging myself through everything, and only animated by excessive amounts of coffee and caffeine pills. Then, when I come back here for a moment of rest and contemplation, all I can hear is the sound of construction taking place outside my window. I don’t know what kind of formation I am getting as a spiritual leader where some of my most desired and available moments for contemplation and introspection are spent with the sound of intense construction noises right outside my window. I suppose the argument could be made that I am receiving a constant prompting from God to get back up and go out and do something–that this is a calling of action more than it is one of introspection or book learning.

The books are very seductive, though. I find myself seduced by the warm embrace of well-turned phrases and lovely ideas and grand narratives. I am utterly charmed by the ancient and classical worlds–the modern era holds a lot of problems for me in terms of what I think is truly necessary and relevant to be human and happy, but I doubt I could survive in any era other than this one. The idea of immersing myself in the churchly life is also intensely appealing–I am talking about getting caught up in the smell of an old church–the mildew in the wood, the mothballs in the storage of paraments, the old books in the library, the peculiar odor of potluck luncheons and the perfume worn by old ladies…it all comes together and you know you are in church simply by the smell and the feeling of being warmly embraced by ancient, friendly ghosts–the ghosts of the departed who choose to haunt the older churches are loving, caring ghosts who long to see more little ones running up and down the halls. None of this is really about getting caught up in Jesus or God, or going out and feeding Jesus sheep–not directly, anyway. Of course, Jesus’ sheep are fed in the communion and the reading of the Word and its interpretation that comes in sermons. God is worshiped, and the Lord is present because two or more are gathered in the Lord’s name.

But, what I am talking about is probably dangerously close to idolatry of the classic, mainline Protestant American church building, and all of the accouterments that come with being a regular participant in church-y things. I don’t know if it’s quite idolatry, though. I am pretty sure that God would be happier with me caught up in all things church than all things sports, hunting, fishing, or stuff I typically do like reading secular fiction, poetry, history, etc. Obviously, being in love with church puts you in a world of a better place than being in love with, say, porn or drugs or alcohol or whatever.

My probable risk lies in the fact that I am carrying around an idealized version of what the perfect church looks like, and no church can quite live up to all of the wonderful expectations I have of it in my head. It is likely an amalgamation of all of my favorite churches and then some. It is a church that may actually be Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist and even Catholic and Assembly of God and other non-denominational churches I attended. Maybe it is the future Temple of the future Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t know. Probably not, since the members are mostly white and old and Midwestern or Texan, until I leave off from simply drawing from memories of churches that gave me comfort in childhood.

Monday morning, first day of Spring semester classes

Monday morning, first day of Spring semester classes, first year of grad school. Routine has been established, but not enough so that I consistently do physical activity and tend to scholarship money. Just enough of a routine to get me out the door and get my son to his school, and me to class so that I can keep my head afloat. I feel an enormous weight off my back sense I’ve decided to abandon Facebook for the second time. Hopefully, this time is for good. There has been way too much negativity increasing inside of me toward others, and a great lack of objectivity about who/how people really are.

It has also been helpful for me to return to reading Buddhist texts, and think about reality outside of the everyday paradigms in which I’m used to situating myself, be it the Judeo-Christian one or the post-modern Scientific one, or even the crazy, post-truth, post-facts world of news and politics.

Mostly, I am looking for a consistent framework that I can rely upon, without this framework becoming so rigid that I can’t adapt to new situations. It should be obvious, but I have to remind myself constantly that I control so little of what goes on out there, and I have neglected to control much of what goes on in here that I should have been controlling.

Random dreams last night about my own vanity. I came across an ID card from ten years ago in the dream, and this card had a little animated GIF of me interacting with someone I once knew on it. In the dream, my hair was plentiful and flaxen, and I looked sort of like an eighties sitcom teen heartthrob. I was convinced in the dream that I was able to look that way from simply using Rogaine, and my stopping the application of it had turned me into a wizened old man who looks more like the Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

I think it was a reminder of how in the past I’d held a much higher estimation of myself and my appearance than I really needed to, or perhaps that I still cling in the present to a false notion of how I once looked. Such dreams are primarily prompts to clean up crud that I still cling to, I think.

I tend to turn toward fantasy when my world stops making sense

I tend to turn toward fantasy when my world stops making sense. It’s a bit of escapism, yes, but it is also born out of the deep understanding that reality is no longer operating as expected. I think this must be why so many people appear to be caught up in alternate explanations of reality, history and science. For me, it’s a dip in the waters of creativity, exploring a few “what if’s…” and then returning to the world that I see outside my window and in my news feed. For some, though, I can understand how it must feel safe and secure in a weird way to know that there are a plethora of underground alien/military bases everywhere beneath us.

I’ve tried to understand the way that I view the world through the generational lens–and maybe this has become too narrow of a framework to build a real understanding for why I hold the mix of trust and mistrust for institutions that I do. On one hand, I have mostly embraced new technologies, getting on social media platforms as soon as I heard about them and purchasing the latest must-have gadget within a few years of it becoming widely adopted. On the other hand, I have held a lot of mistrust for some things–and still like to keep them at arms length. I have never hailed a ride using a ridesharing app. I have never made a purchase at a store using my smartphone. I tend to prefer reading hardcopy books over electronic ones, with some exceptions.

I suppose that anyone you meet could offer a series of explanations for why they are not of their time, but I have noticed how I seemed to have been too young for a lot of the GenX stuff that permeated the late eighties and nineties and too old for the Millennial trends that started to appear in the early 2000s. In some ways, I have grown into embracing institutions and traditions that even Baby Boomers in their younger years spurned. In other ways, I feel like I would thrive better in some future generation where the U.S. has become the fourth or fifth most powerful country in the world in terms of both economy and military. Such generational specifics are, of course, mostly limited to Western culture and probably mostly white, middle and upper class culture, which is why I have come to think that this framework is rather limiting.

The better approach is really to constantly ask myself what I really need to take with me through the rest of my life. Do I need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the current professional sports landscape, or know all of the movies that received Oscar nominations over the past ten years, or be able to recite the words to any number of popular songs at the top of whatever chart is relevant these days? Do I even need to have a more intense and careful reading of the works of philosophers, historians and theologians, in order to help others in a pastoral setting?

I certainly don’t feel as if I need to have a lot of things. As far as stuff goes, my weakness has been books, and I am pretty convinced I will be getting rid of most of my books over the next few years.

In a perfect world where people have access to excellent healthcare and education, and nutritious and healthy food, what kinds of activities should these people be doing to make humanity into a better species? The model of being good consumers of products seems to be eroding. The ways in which people amuse and entertain themselves can only offer so much distraction before a person wants something more out of their existence.

This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of being a human–we are never satisfied with what we have. We know that there is more “out there” somewhere, but we are unable to grasp what that more actually consists of. For some time, having more simply meant working longer and harder in order to get a nice raise and bonus every year in order to buy another car, boat, vacation, or more stuff to add to your collection of stuff around the house. However, subsequent generations have seen the limits of more coming in the form of stuff. More must mean something else.

More of a career? A more rewarding job? A rewarding life doing something that doesn’t necessarily pay anything at all? More money as a hedge fund manager, but not necessarily more stuff–just money as a means of keeping score? More drugs, sex, partying? More video games, live bands, clothes, movies, sports…what?

A few follow down the path of abandoning the desire to accrue more of something and decide they have enough, or they find an outlet in service to others. More of helping others instead of helping yourself. But, at the end of the day, most people still want more out of life than they were able to obtain. Look at our President. The man is clearly unhappy with everything that has been given to him, everything he’s obtained or worked or fought or scammed to get–he seems unhappy even with being President. He desperately wants more of something, but he has no idea what that more is. He thinks it must be something material, or perhaps immortality in the form of an everlasting name he makes for himself. But, in his innermost self, he knows that this, too, will not be enough.

Is the trick to kill the desire for more? Is the best thing to do something along the lines of what Christ did–a self-emptying, or intentional turning on its head of this innate desire for more? Is a Buddhist approach best–stop seeing your self or ego as a unique or separate entity–once you remove your duality, you have everything because you are not setting up a false ego that is trying to accrue everything. These all sound quite nice, except they are much harder to put in practice than they are to more or less understand when you read about them.

And, if you are able to achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-emptying, non-duality or destruction of ego–what do you do next? Die? Wander the earth begging for alms? Sit around doing nothing? All of that seems to be an exceptional waste of a human who has just transcended the self.

Don’t get me wrong–I like the idea of removing all sense of the ego or self, getting rid of the desire to add more to the self, and ceasing to think that I need to be moving toward something because there is really nowhere to go. I’m already here. I’m already one with the earth. But, I still have to raise my son, and I am pretty sure my wife will expect me to do something after I get my degree.

I also love the idea of being able to send warm thoughts of unconditional love energy out to people and heal the world, without having to be anywhere near them. I wish I could put myself into a warm, lovey state of bliss, and never leave it. I still hope for a moment where I simply glow with radiance from having reached a pinnacle where all I can do is love the world no matter what it does to me. I just don’t know exactly how to get there.

It seems strange to say this, but I have to keep reminding myself

It seems strange to say this, but I have to keep reminding myself that I am precisely who I am and where I am today because of choices that I made. On the surface, this is an utter cliche, but the will strongly resists the notion that outside forces aren’t more to blame for me being who I am than I am. If I remember right, the latest round of parenting articles actually poo-poo this type of child education–it was a fad for some time in the nineties and early 2000s to incessantly tell your kids that the choices they make cause the outcomes that they experience, but now something else has taken its place. I don’t know what.

I don’t think I will refrain from teaching this to my son, though. The sooner he starts to learn that he is making choices and his choices have consequences that can snowball into situations that make him unhappy, the better.

I also tend to forget that I haven’t made all bad choices in life, either. My present situation isn’t such a one where my parents are still bailing me out of jail and putting me into rehab, time and time again. I did get a college degree. I did hold down a full-time job for fifteen years that saw me learning dozens of skills that enabled me to remain employed during economic downturns.

I made horrible decisions with my finances. I spent money I didn’t have too many times to count, and bore the burden of paying off all of it and all of the heavy interest accrued on it, rather than declare bankruptcy or ask my parents for endless gifts that we pretended were loans.

It is disheartening to consider that if I’d taken the extra $1500 I had when I first moved down here and put it into a mutual fund, and continued to drop only a modest amount each month into the fund, while earning a realistic compound interest on it, I would have about a quarter of a million in savings today. I can with some confidence and with little actual guesswork assert that I probably paid out that much in credit card debt and car loans over this period of time (which would have obviously netted me even more savings had it all gone into savings). It roughly comes to a little more than a grand a month, and I know there were months where I was eating pasta and beans every day in order to survive while paying interest on many loans.

None of this is really anyone else’s fault. I have at times blamed parents and teachers for teaching financial education minus credit cards and car loans. It is pretty straightforward to learn about how if you make this much money, you can afford this much stuff, or save that much money, but credit wasn’t taught a lot, or very well. When I was 23 and suddenly had a bunch of credit cards with high credit lines due to me lying about my salary, I thought it was free money, more or less.

But, that’s all my fault. There were people telling me that it was going to kill me if I continued to abuse credit cards in that fashion. There were plenty of words of wisdom about going out and taking out another loan on an impractical car right before you have your practical car paid off.

Is my decision to use the extra savings from the past few years to go back to seminary a poor one? It is definitely foolish to anyone who keeps their eyes on their money at all times. If I don’t go on to use my education to help others, I think it will have been but another selfish purchase of an expensive thing that I’d hoped would finally make me happy.

The good news is that if I can keep my health together, and I look to save modest amounts moving forward after I embark upon my new career, and I am able to work for another thirty years, then I could end up with around $1.5 million in retirement, not counting whatever my wife saves and what goes into social security (which I don’t especially count on at all.) Now, obviously, this amount isn’t much and will probably be a lot less in thirty years. But, if I live to be 100 and do work for 30 years after getting my master’s degree, then $1.5 million only has to last for 25 years.

That means I would get paid $60K a year for the rest of my life after retirement.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I’ve made hundreds of calculations about how much money I might have one day if I just work at it and save a lot, and I inevitably end up not saving very much at all. The short term always looks much more attractive–even if it is just spending a little extra on eating out, or nicer food at the grocery store, or a few extra gifts for family, or an extra vacation. Eating peanut butter sandwiches all week and pasta on the weekends, and taking vacations to campgrounds within a hundred mile radius is a nice idea, but it never seems to work for very long. Once the money appears in the bank, the first question asked is: “how can I spend it?”

I wasn’t intending to think so much about money. Perhaps I should think even more about it than this, but the point was meant to be how I am the one who is responsible for the financial state that I am in–nobody else. I have made choices about where I was going to work, or not, that have seen me leave some fairly lucrative opportunities behind for the sake of finding something that will make me even happier. I started to go back to school four years ago to learn math–I would be getting a BS in math this year if I’d followed through with that.

Why didn’t I? I think it inevitably ends up being the two main culprits–fear and laziness. Once those two enter and conquer, then everything you hear me say after that is just a bunch of rationalization about why I didn’t follow through. However, the real reason always goes back to fear and sloth.