Monday, May 22, 2006

Another Year Older: Some (Semi) Random Observations on the State of Things

Today is my birthday. My wife, the most saintly person I know, has given me the greatest gift I've ever received: a day to be me. She's taken a personal day, giving me the gift of both her presence and some space from the kid. Today I'm not Super-Dad, I'm just Chris. But who is Chris?

Yesterday morning I preached at the early morning Communion service at 4th Ave again. This time, however, it was totally extemporaneous. I showed up at church like I always do, and I asked who was giving the message this morning. For once the answer I got was "I don't know," in a hushed in worried voice. The person who was scheduled to share wasn't there, and no one had heard from her in about a week.

I said, "Well, I could share something." So I did.

When I was the pastor of a small rural church in the middle of nowhere I was responsible for three services a week: a Wednesday evening Bible Study (which got me in a great deal of trouble because I didn't have the sense to keep from saying what I really thought) a Sunday morning service and a Sunday evening service. I was a liturgical preacher, meaning that in general, unless I had some pressing need to address, I preached from the lectionary, a set of weekly readings. Our lectionary contained four readings each week: a passage from the Torah, a passage from one of the Wisdom books, a passage from the Gospels, and a passage from one of the Epistles.

After a few weeks on the job, I fell into a pattern that suited me very well. Each Sunday morning I preached from the lectionary's Gospel selection, and each Sunday evening I preached from the selection from the Torah. But soon I became frustrated with the Torah selections. The skipped and jumped, providing only very brief sketches of some of the most important stories from our religious tradition, and overlooking some stories altogether. The lectionary was designed to move very quickly through a very large amount of material, but I felt that it didn't allow me to delve into the Torah with any depth at all.

Frustrated, I abandoned the lectionary readings at the end of Genesis, and started a new series completely on my own, on the life of Moses. I treated Moses in depth, providing both some historical context and some contemporary translation (by translation I mean a transplanting of the story from its context to our context, rather than a translation of the Hebrew text, as I lack the language skills to do that) of the story. I never really got to fully develop my treatment of the life of Moses, because all of the nastiness went down just as I was getting into it.

So, yesterday, armed with a great deal of perspective, and no longer having to cater to opposing theologies, I picked up the story of Moses again, using the first half of the third chapter of Exodus to communicate about the divine-human encounter. I hadn't planned on saying anything that morning, but what I ended up saying felt like the best sermon I've ever given. The story became my own for the first time since I dropped that ill-fated series under pressure from fundamentalists.

At some point I'd like to try to recapture that sermon here, writing out some of the main points that I drew out of the text. I'd provide a teaser here, except I know that would derail me from my main purpose in writing.

Today is my birthday, a landmark day on which I mark the passing of another year as others celebrate my continued existence. But I still don't know what I'm going to do with my life.

Last week I got a letter from the U of L Brandeis School of Law which confirmed some of my fears: the "paperwork error" (entirely my fault) which, as I've mentioned here before delayed my application, has cost me any chance of starting there this fall. If I ever become a law student, it won't be this year.

But that if is starting to be a big if. When I got the letter of rejection I felt more relieved than anything else. Sure, part of the relief was in finally having an answer to a question that had been burning inside me and creating a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. But a bigger part of the relief was, perhaps, the feeling of being saved from making a tremendous mistake.

When I left pastoral ministry many of the people closest to me, while affirming the feelings which gave rise to that decision, wondered if perhaps I wasn't running away from myself. I'm not sure that that decision was a running away, a am sure that my decision to try to become a lawyer required me to deny or suppress some aspects of myself which are essential to my very being. It felt a little bit like selling my soul.

I'm not knocking law as a profession. It is a noble and honorable profession. But I don't think that it is my profession. Not that I have a higher calling; no calling, if it is an authentic calling, is any higher or lower than another one. But it is not my calling.

Which brings me back to the question: Who am I? Who is Chris? To what is Chris called?

I have a meeting today with someone from my former seminary, setting up what will most likely be my great comeback as a seminary student. I am no longer planning to become an ordained United Methodist minister, but I do think that part of finding out who I am means returning to that campus and starting a new program.

Today I am meeting with the Marriage and Family Therapy program to see if that would be a good fit for me. I have a good feeling about this, but we'll see what happens. I'm no longer set on entering into a particular profession. Instead I am set on being and becoming a particular person, and allowing my employment, whenever, wherever and whatever it be, to be an extension of that person.

This is a long process of healing, but part of that healing starts today, on my birthday.

While I was downstairs writing this, it turns out, some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door to try, I suppose, to convert my wife (good luck there!). When they asked if my family had any interest in religion, my wife replied, "My husband is a pastor." It has been a long time since she's said that, and a much longer time since she's said that with any pride.

She came downstairs to tell me that story, and also to explain why she said what she said. She told me that, whatever it is that I end up doing, I will always be, in my own way, a pastor. I may not be ordained, and I may not be employed by any church, but I will always try to pastor somebody. That is just a part of who I am, who I will always be.

I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I don't know who will sign my paychecks, or what they'll be paying me for. And yes, on days like today, days on which I have to start getting used to a new number attached to my sense of self, days when I realize once again that even though by some people's standards I'm still young, I'm older than I've ever been; especially on days like this that uncertainty bothers me. But that bothersome worry is smaller than the joy I get when I see my wife and child and realize that even if I'm perpetually unemployed or underemployed, with little to no vocational direction, I'm doing something right.

I'm taking the rest of today off, to celebrate me with my family. This afternoon I'm meeting with the MFT program. Sometime in the next couple of days I will come back to a couple of themes:

1. Concepts of God as a human product of the divine-human encounter (thanks to DagoodS, who pushes me)

2. Theme 1 as seen through the text of chapter 3 of Exodus.

3. What the relationship between 1 and 2, among other concerns brought up in the text of Exodus 3 and the broader story of both Exodus and the Torah, have to do with personal identity. This is seen particularly in what I call the "existential questions" asked by Moses at the burning Bush, one of the products of the divine-human encounter which gives rise to these human concepts of God.

Until then,



Liam said...

Happy birthday, Chris! It seems like you're beginning to find your way, which is a good thing.

DagoodS said...

Happy Birthday, my friend.

I most certainly think that includes a day off from me. :-)

Brian Cubbage said...

Happy birthday! I totally forgot that was today. I guess I've just been too wrapped up in my own stuff...

I've got mixed feelings about your news from U of L. As I've told you before, I am sure you would have made a great law student. At the same time, though, I have to concede that your new course of action does seem more in keeping with your interests. So I'm both disappointed in U of L and happy that you are moving in a productive direction.

Good luck with the MFT meeting-- we're all looking forward to hearing about it!

John W. Loftus said...

Me too! Happy birthday! [Coming from one who you believe has done a thing (or two?) that is digusting {ahem}].

Amy said...

Happy Birthday! I, for one, would be thrilled to have you back on campus. Good luck with your meeting!

Tom said...

Happy Birthday to me, too!

Sandalstraps said...

Thanks to all birthday well-wishers, and especially to my twin brother Tom, who generously shares my birthday with me every single year.


I'm typing this listening to the Radiohead DVD you gave me, which totally rocks! I don't listen to them enough. Thanks as well for the Black Crowes DVD, which delights Adam and I as it drives Sami nuts.

To all,

The MFT meeting went better than I could have ever hoped. It feels very much like me. I'm going to give it a shot.

I should post on this in more detail at some point, but for now, here's the plan:

Start classes at the seminary this fall as a part-time non-degree student, because I've missed this year's application deadline for the MFT program. I can get some of my basic requirements out of the way as a part-time student this fall and next spring.

Then, enter the MFT program next fall, about two years or so away from graduation.

I'll tell you more about program and the plan in a future post.

Thanks again to all birthday well-wishers. This was my best birthday ever!

Troy said...


and a belated happy birthday from me. I'm taking a bit of a blog break and need it. I love your blog, but have begun to wish we could sit down to lunch and actually talk. Unfortunately, that may be a while, if ever!

Blog is great, but it's a weak intimacy. Right now I need as much of the real thing as I can get.

Still I enjoyed reading this. My wife is in an MFT program and that may in fact be your niche. Your analytic bent is so, so didn't ask, but if it were up to me I'd recommend the academic life, probably in theology. It's what you've done for a long, long time. But if you love working close to individuals, can listen forever (as my poor wife has to listen to me) I think MFT is a great thing. My wife's training has helped our marriage, frankly.

I do hope you keep blogging. Yours is one of the very finest I know. If you haven't checked out Incidents and Accidents linked at my site, do so; you two are quite a pair of writers, very different, but both very strong.

Happy birthday, pastor; you surely have pastored me.

Paula said...

Happy Birthday, Chris!