Thursday, July 27, 2006

Taking Stock

Time, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed from his Nazi prison, is a funny thing. While we mark it off moment by incremental moment, dividing it into equal, measurable units, our experience of it is neither uniform nor always linear. Some moments fly by, almost unnoticed in their haste to move from future to present to past. Other moments hang around interminably. Most moments do neither. Perhaps they sneak up on us, but then hang around for a little bit once we notice them, only to depart as stealthily as they came.

Eighteen months ago this morning, my son Adam was born. The time we've spent together since then, and even the time my wife and I spent waiting for him to arrive on our scene, cannot be easily described. It has been neither fast nor slow, neither orderly nor chaotic, neither linear or circular, and neither good nor bad. It has, however, been a time of inordinate change.

While bringing new life into the world is always momentous, and while the chaos that it brings into your order (as well as the order that it brings into your chaos) necessarily implies a great deal of change, the changes in my life since Adam was born have been so disoriented that I don't often recognize myself anymore.

Eighteen months ago I was in my fourth year as the Youth Minister at Epiphany United Methodist Church on the south side of Louisville, KY. While I loved that job, and while I was proud of the program that I had built and the kids produced by it, I new that I would not last much longer there. Every year I got a little bit older, and every year my Youth Group stayed about the same age, with graduating Seniors being replaced by incoming Sixth Graders in a process that might be best described as a stabilizing transition. The names and faces might change every year, but the ages and personalities remained almost constant.

My religious interests were constantly deepening, but the needs of my ministry required a certain amount of shallowness, a certain amount of basicness. No matter how much I grew, no matter how much my interests evolved, my job there would always be to try to meet the spiritual needs of teenagers. A rewarding job, to be sure, but it takes a certain kind of person to remain in Youth Ministry for very long, and I am not that kind of person.

Eighteen months ago I was in my final semester as a college student, finishing up my desperate cramming of four years worth of classes into three years. I was at the end of a relentless schedule of eighteen credit hour semesters followed by a couple of summer classes. My course load was hard enough, without accounting for the work that I was doing at Epiphany. I was quickly burning out.

At the same time, though, I relished certain challenges. The summer before Adam was born I took a course in modern African-American literature. I'd love to say that I signed up for the course because of some special interest in the subject - and since I had already taken a course in African-American music I'm sure there is some truth to that - but mostly I took the course because I needed three credit hours in literature to graduate, and that was what was available the summer I decided to get my literature credit in.

Whatever my motives for taking the course, however, I loved it. In that class I wrote a paper on John Edgar Wideman's unique use of language in his amazing Hoop Roots. After reading that paper, the professor approached me and said, "Every year students ask me to do an independent study with them, and I always turn them down. I don't do independent studies. But, if you want to turn this into a publishable paper, I'd love to do an independent study with you." You can't turn down an offer like that.

The semester before Adam was born I took a course in Buddhist philosophy. I took it for three reasons:

1. As a philosophy major on the religious studies track, it was a very useful class for me.

2. It was taught by my favorite professor, a lover of Asian philosophy who had already taught me everything I know about Chinese philosophy, and brought some of my best work out of me.

3. I have had a life-long fascination with Buddhism, a fascination which is from time to time reflected in this blog. If I were not a Christian I would be a Buddhist.

In that course I was particularly inspired by the traditional Buddhist idea of pattica samuppada (Pali), concerning the interconnected and interdependent nature of all things. While pattica samuppada is originally concerned with the cyclical nature of suffering, as a metaphysical concept it can be applied much more broadly. I thought that it might be particularly able to inform our approaches to environmental ethics, and so approach my professor about doing an independent study designed to look at how this teaching has historically informed Buddhist approaches to environmental ethics.

Frustrated that it has not historically been used that way, I eventually broadened my topic. So, eighteen months ago, when Adam was born, I was right in the middle of not one but two major independent studies aimed at writing publishable papers. The first one, like the paper which gave rise to it, concerned John Edgar Wideman's use of language in Hoop Roots, and is to this day one of my proudest achievements. The second was at least as bold, focusing on comparing and contrasting Buddhist and Christian approaches to environmental ethics. While I was disappointed in how that paper turned out, I did get to present my research at my university's philosophy colloquium, an event which earned my infant son the nickname "the little philosopher." He sat with his mother in the back of the room while I presented, in rapt attention, hanging on every word that I said. Some of the professors remarked that the baby was a better listener than most of their students.

Eighteen months ago I was also an Exploring Candidate for Ordination in the United Methodist Church, about to become a Certified Candidate subject to appointment. My time at Epiphany was, as I've already noted, quickly running out. Not only was I growing frustrated with my responsibilities at the church, longing to work with a "more mature" group; but my best friend had just left as pastor of that church, to be replaced by a fundamentalist. While the former pastor and I had basically shared a brain, being able to finish each other's sentences, the new pastor was a foreign to me as I was to him. We had different concepts of God, different concepts of what constitutes a healthy church, and different goals for ministry.

He was very kind to me personally, and very helpful in advancing my ministerial career, but the whole time we worked together we were engaged in a sort of cold war for the heart and soul of that congregation. As such we shared a goal: getting me out of that congregation and into my own pulpit. Of course, you know how that story ends.

Eighteen months ago, then, I was a college student and a Youth Minister, and my biggest goals were to get into seminary and my own pulpit, and to pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church. Since then I graduated (with High Distinction - it would have been Highest Distinction but the semester Adam was born produced my first two B's!), became a pastor, entered seminary, withdrew from pastoral ministry and dropped out of seminary. I've gone through the application process to get into law school only to decide (along with the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law) that the law isn't for me.

Now I'm looking for a job. I've always felt that God hasn't called me to a serve in a particular profession, but rather to be a particular person. So long as what I do comes out of who I am, and so long as who I am is consistent with who I ought to be, I don't have to worry so much about what I'm supposed to do. But the fact is, I've got to do something, and I've got to do it soon.

I have been blessed to spend most of Adam's first 18 months of life with him. While I was both a student and a Youth Minister when he was born, I often took him with me to class and church. Since I dropped out of ministry, and later seminary, I have been a full-time stay-at-home Dad. I can't even begin to describe how that has changed me. My life has been dedicated to the welfare of a precious child; a child who is growing up well, and who is a credit to his parents.

But, as much as I love being a father, I can't be myself and be a stay-at-home Dad. So, I've started looking for emotionally enriching and rewarding work. I've resisted the temptation to post very much on my job hunt because:

a.) I didn't want to bore anyone to death with the constant refrain of

1. I applied for a job today, followed by

2. I haven't heard back from anyone yet, or

3. I just got another rejection

and

b.) I didn't want to do anything to in any way jinx the few job opportunities which have looked promising.

But today, bad joo-joo and superstitious thinking be damned, I'm going to share a little bit about my job hunt.

Last month I saw that the Peace Education Program was looking for a Trainer to work with urban teenagers on non-violent conflict resolution. It seemed like a perfect job for me, so I applied for it. Earlier this month I got a letter from them saying that, to their great surprise, they have received 40 applications for that position. They are currently looking through the resumes and letters of recommendation for each candidate for the job trying to narrow the field to 10 or 15 candidates before they begin their first round of interviews. They are to notify me by tomorrow to let me know whether or not I've made it past the first cut.

To put it another way, I've got to beat out 25 or 30 applicants just to get an interview. I went through this sort of process to get the Youth Minister job at Epiphany, but I'm still not so sure about my chances. These are, after all, some seriously long odds.

On the other hand, if you'd told me 18 months ago, when my son was born, that I would have already had my own church and resigned from pastoral ministry, I would have thought they odds of that happening would be a great deal longer than this.

I don't know why all of this is coming out today. Perhaps just because I can't believe that it has already been 18 months. It seems both longer and shorter than that; like he was born yesterday but has always been here. Time is, as Bonhoeffer noted, ever so elusive.

9 comments:

Brian Cubbage said...

It is odd how quickly things can change. I suspect that that becomes terribly obvious with a young child in the house, since they change so quickly.

I'm sorry to hear about the stiff job competition. Having to beat out 30 other people just for the privilege of competing against another ten for the job sounds a lot like academic job-hunting. You have my sympathies. I hope that it goes well.

Amy said...

Sounds like a great job - is that with Interfaith Paths to Peace? They host quite a few events at my own James Lees. Have you been keeping an eye on www.idealist.org ? They usually have a decent selection of non-profit listings - In fact, that's how I found the job that brought me her. Avoid ACORN or the PIRGs there, and you should be fine.

PamBG said...

One thing that you are absolutely right about is that you are - we are all - called to be a particular person.

I am impressed that you have understood that fact at the age of 27 AND that you are pursuing that goal. My own experience and that of most of my contemporaries seemed to be that I didn't even begin to get an inkling of who I was until I was 30, didn't know who I was until 40 and didn't start pursuing my vocation until age 45. I hope this doesn't sound patronising, because it is meant to be encouraging; I think you are already walking the path to wisdom.

You are an incredible writer (I must confess to envy here) but most of all, your writing is prophetic and insightful. May God bless you and lead you on your journey.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

Thanks for the sympathy. Hopefully this is not quite as competitive as an academic job!

Amy,

I don't think that the Peace Education Program is with Interfaith Paths to Peace, but I don't know much about it. Hopefully in the coming weeks I will be in a position to tell you more than you'd ever want to know about the program. If not, I'll certainly take your suggestion and try www.idealist.org. Sounds like my sort of site.

PamBG,

Thanks for your kind words. I read the last sermon you posted, and really enjoyed it. Coming from me that is really saying something - I'm a sermon snob. I'm glad to see that your spiritual journey is leading you to a Methodist pulpit.

Tyler Simons said...

*cough*Ph.D in Theology*cough*

Sandalstraps said...

Tyler,

Thanks for your less than subtle hint. I just found out that I won't get the Peace Education Program job, so I'm running out of options that don't involve retail sales or academia, and between the two I'd certainly pick academia.

The only real problem with going for a PhD in theology is that it would require moving my family, and I'm not yet ready to do that. If, however, I keep striking out in my job hunt, I may have to take that as a sign from God to go back to school.

PamBG said...

Sandalstraps: Thanks for your compliment on my sermon; I would have been highly flattered by your praise anyway but now I know you're a 'sermon snob' I'm even more complimented.

If, however, I keep striking out in my job hunt, I may have to take that as a sign from God to go back to school.

Twice in one day I find myself saying "Do what gives life". That's where we find our vocation.

Amy said...

Are you still planning to come back to LPTS as a non-degree seeking student in the fall? I do hope so... I think academia could be a very good fit for you. But then, it sounds like that's been coming from quite a few other sources as well...

Troy said...

Chris,

I'm glad you shared all this. Much of it I didn't know. I can't believe you don't have a graduate degree. I am also struck, as I have long been, by your personal maturity and your strength as a writer for a person your age.

I know little about Buddhism, less than I'd like, but I do recall bhakti, something close to Christian faith, and have wondered if it had Christian influence in its development.

I've long wondered about any connection between Plato and Hindusim, but now I'm off topic.

You are a special man, Chris, and you will do well whatever you do. Academia, no doubt, would find a niche (more than a niche) for you. I'm sure you could teach, and study, many things: philosophy, theology, 'religious studies,' literature.

You pick. It's funny I'm also considering theological graduate school, but I have the luxury of time and, even more unfair, an income.

Be well friend. Your blog is always a good place to be.

t