“Life for me has become a bitter drink, and yet it must be taken in drops, slowly, counting…I examine myself; when I am tired of that, I smoke a cigar for diversion and think: God knows what our Lord actually intended with me or what he wants to make of me.” Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843.
I’m going to start this post off by admitting that I initially did not want to write it, nor did I particularly wish for you to read it. I was feeling compelled to write it quite against my own human inclinations, if such a thing is possible. So then why write it at all, and then why share what I have written? #shrugemoji…?
It’s best explained as one of those persistent impulses, quiet yet unrelenting, that I have come over the years to attribute to the Spirit of that which is holy, which comes from a presence outside my physical and emotional self. Which is another way of saying that God gets what God wants, and won’t leave you alone until this is accomplished. Theologically, we call this the Doctrine of the Spiritual Mosquito.*
(*Not actually a thing.)
The short of this piece, is that my quest for meaningful vocation in the life of spiritual service has been fraught with disillusionments and disappointments, and I’d like to acknowledge that and share what I have learned about this phenomenon. It seems important that we feel free to discuss such a thing, as one’s vocation ties so directly into the animating spirit of human life. Moreover, I wish to reinforce the idea that an existentially unfulfilled longing (as our friend Søren discovered, as many of our Church fathers, monks and nuns, and Christian mystics have discovered through the centuries), may in fact be a natural progression towards deeper contemplation of the mysteries of God.
Perhaps in doing all this, you as the Reader will find yourself in pieces of the story, and therein find encouragement regardless of your vocational callings, attempts, failures, and successes. I have no notion whether this will be the case, or if I am simply offering you a voyeuristic journey through my thoughts. Either way, I have come to rest in this humble submission, and I happily offer it. My most earnest concern is that this will not read as an adolescent’s angst-ridden scrawlings; yet even if it does, may your lessened esteem of my maturity and character root itself in pleasant tidings the next we meet in person.
That last sentence translated: “Just pretend you liked it.”
“Now, some time later, I’m still harvesting the fruits (of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises), one of which is the belief (with Ignatius) that sometimes God leads us to failure. For it can emerge in discernment as a clear ‘no.’ And many things in life are very unclear…Failure is the crisis moment, the moment pregnant with meaning. Will he bounce back? What will she do next?” Tim Muldoon, Ignatian Spirituality
Mentoring. Teaching. Deep discussions on matters of faith. Three aspects of the spiritual life that draw me most regularly into joy. What better setting for fulfillment of these three aspects, what better vocation, than the world of the Christian academic?
Four years ago, it was 2012. Enrolled in Denver Seminary, I traveled to Israel, and began to seriously (again) contemplate leaving the familiar – this time, for the academic Christian life. I prayed in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, at the Sea of Galilee, for direction and for wisdom. I prayed in these places and many others to be a blessing to others through a new vocation of teaching and research. This setting seems significant to note, lest one think that a purposeful pilgrimage or time of fasting is somehow a magic incantation towards success. As I hope my life has proved by now, it is not. Unless we are willing to define “success” quite differently.
Later that year, I experienced my first natural disaster as a water engineer, heading up the charred landscape of the Poudre Canyon as ash, black as newness, flowed like so much weightless lava down the hillsides, tumbling headfirst into the river below as an offering. The Poudre, anointed by Nature to carry away the shavings and detrius. It was some time after this that I impulsively wrote a letter to an old love, followed by a very stiff drink. It worked (the letter, and the drink to calm my nerves), and it would reignite something powerful and result in a reunion. Through disasters, loves, and travels, life had a momentum and a sense of great purpose.
Three years ago, it was 2013. That same love would again grow strong, then troubled, then very troubled by the year’s end. I embarked upon a cross-country trip through the US and Canada, then to Alaska. I saw bears, wolves, buffalo, and more caribou than could be counted. I experienced a new and powerful sensation, as I exited the car in the Yukon and took in that mountainous wilderness in the near-midnight sun. Shadowy trees and brush beckoned in the breeze towards unnamed peaks many miles away – brush which masked terrors both existential and those covered in fur and adorned with razor claws longer than my hand. The deserted 24 foot wide stretch of tarmac on which I stood seemed a most insecure refuge in those moments, and in that quasi-light it was disturbingly easy to imagine stepping off the edge of that thin ribbon of road into the Great Abyss. It was the same feeling one might get peering over the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge, ever-conscious and ever-tempted of the dark, powerful temptation to leap.
Towards the end of that trip, I unintentionally drove straight into the scene of Calgary mid-flood as the Bo River consumed downtown. As I took video from the small Ford which I’d rented, I ever-so-naively assumed that such a sight would be a once in a lifetime event for me. It was only a few short months later that I would experience the first hours and days of the flooding of Northern Colorado’s rivers, roads, and bridges. For weeks on end, I ate out of gas stations and lived in my work truck. I slept rarely, and fitfully, amidst nightmarish visions of homes, vehicles, and washing machines in the base of the river canyons as whitewater rushed around these intruders. I joined morning briefings with the National Guard in Boulder Canyon and rode along a strangely unfamiliar dirt track, where a road once stood, in an ATV fresh off of a military cargo plane. It was the first time that I felt my age. I felt the weight of decisions, the weight of adulthood. It was an incredibly humbling, trying, and gratifying feeling. Still, the desire to teach eager students in the ways of deeper faith journeys was strong, and undeniable. I continued to strategize a way forward, to make that vision a reality.
Two years ago, it was 2014. I returned to Israel, and again found myself praying for wisdom, courage, and vision to head into the next adventure. On a rooftop above the streets of Jerusalem, atop the Cliffs of Arbel, in the Church of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Beatitudes – I prayed. I spent much of my free time that year on my thesis, a thesis which would nevertheless require extensive revisions. So I spent more time reading, writing, and rewriting. This was all heading somewhere, I assured myself. For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:6)
My optimism was tempered by much caution, much realism, much contemplation of the risks versus the reward. I learned all I could glean about the academic job market. It would be a risk, a gamble, perhaps even a lottery. I sought counsel from professors, trusted friends, and the many other students like myself contemplating the vocation of academic Christian life. I read blogs, message boards, and immersed myself in the exploding variety of academic “quit-lit” to be sure I had no illusions about the risks of this adventure. I attended my field’s annual and regional meetings to gain as much of a foothold on the field as possible. I did campus visits.
Finally, it was 2015. I submitted my thesis, and it was accepted. I applied for entry into a PhD programme in Old Testament studies, and still remember the evening that I received the email notifying me of my acceptance. I remember the last moment that I contemplated acceptance vs. rejection of this offer – there were no voices from the heavens to guide me, no last-minute divine appointments to confirm my decision. I accepted.
My year in Hamilton, Ontario, was a surprise.
It was a surprise how much I resonated with Canadian sensibilities. I got to experience their entire election cycle for Prime Minister, which was easy since the *entire* election cycle was little more than a month long, start to finish. Hamilton harboured a unique arts culture that, to be frank, surprised me in its vibrancy. The city is gritty, yet crossed with trails and green spaces. I still can recall multiple night runs through the chilled fall where I observed the flames from the nearby refineries illuminating the low clouds and the massive bridge carrying cars and buses screaming towards the Niagara or Toronto, giving the city and harbour a Blade Runner-esque feel. Canadian politeness, legendary in the States as an ironic trope, became my daily reality. Perhaps a better descriptor in place of politeness would be “human-ness.” There was simply a mutual respect and deference, on the whole, that I noticed the absence of whenever I would cross back south into my own country.
My favourite times were spent in the grad office (aside from the ever-present paper or presentation deadlines), where conversation would invariably turn to: current scholarly controversies, which source(s) we were finding it impossible to obtain from the library, or the zany antics of conservative Evangelical scholars who still thought that Creationism could be taught in the 21st century with a straight face or that gun control was somehow a “Biblical” concept to be defended.
Smart, snarky people should not be allowed to congregate in such ways. But I’m thankful that we are.
The best class times were when we gathered to present our papers to one another. It was a welcome, if daunting, challenge to know that some of the best and brightest upcoming minds in Christian scholarship were about to critique your work. It was a supportive, and rigourous, environment of scholarship.
At the edge of my little community of Westdale, a large trailhead welcomed me into the Cootes Paradise (and yes, the name is so unfortunate as to warrant mention, so let’s just get that awkwardness behind us), which in September and October exploded into colours to rival any New England scene. From here, I would regularly commence my long runs along the Waterfront Trail, which led through affluent communities along the Harbour towards the next city, Burlington. Through the quiet streets and into downtown Burlington with its amazing espresso shops and view of the Niagara bridge, there was hardly a poor view to be had.
At those times where I needed to be away from campus (which turned out to be more and more often), to feel like an actual person, I’d take the short trip into downtown Hamilton or, slightly more afield, into Toronto or Buffalo NY. I have fond memories of both places, that will have to wait for another time to elucidate.
Throughout that year, I came to understand the magnitude of difficulties in this path of Christian academic scholarship.
First, and most obvious, was the realm of the financial. I knew I had a year’s worth of tuition and expenses saved, no worries. But I wasted no time in researching ways to fund my educational journey beyond that. Plans A through C…failed in short order. This was due, in no small part, to Canada’s mild recession and the saturated Toronto job market. I’ll spare you specifics, but it involved great conversations with apologetic engineering consultants throughout the area. The recession simply didn’t allow for them to take on part-time engineers who were not licensed in Ontario. And…a much less-appreciated offer by an “engineering” temp agency, of packing headless chickens into boxes. For minimum wage. During the school day. While in a giant freezer. My TA position at the school, while highly appreciated, simply did not reduce enough of my expenses to be a viable long-term solution on its own.
Second, to be frugal I had elected to share a home in Westdale with five other students, some graduate and some undergraduate. One of my housemates was (and is) amazing. Another was aloof, but smiled a lot and was at least cordial. A third was painfully shy, but helpful – I rarely saw him. The other two were…what’s the word? There are no words. No kind words coming to mind, anyhow. So we’ll leave that. But after so many years living solo, this was at times a painfully difficult adjustment. Being “home” was not something I was very often. I could not foresee keeping any semblance of sanity and retaining such an arrangement beyond the first year.
But I’m not being directly honest enough. These sacrifices would have been tolerable, even a joy to continue, if I were able to envision the end game clearly. The opportunities to teach and mentor undergraduates or seminary students. Deep and meaningful conversations with colleagues on the state of our common theology of understanding. And let’s just be practical: the opportunity to support myself financially while doing all these things. What I discovered through my interactions were many, many BRILLIANT and driven Biblical scholars, PhD in hand, who were languishing for years after their dissertation acceptance as adjuncts or part-time lecturers. They wrestled with God’s vocational call, just as I was, except they were years down the road from where I stood. Some ended up in different fields entirely, some into ministry, some into teaching at Christian high schools or even secular schools. A fortunate handfull had recently found their entry into the world of full-time academic endeavours, which brought its own complications of committee obligations and research in addition to the planning and execution of class sessions. One woman ended up in charge of both the Old AND New Testament faculties as the sole faculty member for both!
Ultimately (well, not really, but how much more of this do I really intend for you to read today?), I was forced to reckon with the growing voice deep inside that saw the totality of the modern Christian academic venture, and knew that it was not a good fit. The anxieties produced by the financial precariousness of such a venture, the uncertainties and vagaries of the job market, were indeed stark, and my spirit simply did not have the ability to risk so much for such an uncertain reward. The burden of research, placed so highly above my beloved practice of teaching and mentoring in the academic priority to-do list, would have weighed upon me as exactly that: a burden.
Wrestling with such a realization, and looking beyond the decision of whether to continue or not, was an unbelievably isolating and demoralizing experience. It was easily the most significant challenge of my walk of faith to-date, and it continues today.
As I wrestled with such a momentous decision, and the disappointment and disillusionment wrapped into such a decision, I approached mentors old and new, friends, and colleagues with my thinking. From many, I received words of great encouragement and expressions of solidarity. From a few, I received indifference. Most unexpectedly, from a significant voice, I received shaming words, words that told me that my faith was too small, that I was quitting something out of weakness of character, and that my life would be small because I was a coward. This was initially upsetting, but now has me kind of saying “Meh.” Sometimes “meh” is the most adult, most spiritually evolved answer that we can give. So I am thankful for the wisdom that asks for feedback and help, and for the wisdom that knows it ultimately must go its own way when the answer is ambiguous at best and a muddled shit-storm at worst.
Every morning, I doubt God’s goodness. I doubt God’s direction. I question how a God betrays its own creation. Every evening, during my examen, I praise God’s goodness. I seek God’s direction. I take stock of God’s provision for its own creation, how so great a Thing might consider something so small. So I am thankful for the boldness to question God’s goodness, as such doubt is holy ground and necessary for a Christian to evolve.
I leave you with this brief quote by St. John of the Cross: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”
And I thank you for your endurance.