Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pre-Summer Summary

The end is near. That’s what I keep telling myself at least. Yet before this semester’s eschaton I must contend with an apocalypse of work—reading reflections, final exams, a whole lotta Greek (I spent two hours writing out paradigms last night). I am surviving this cataclysm through daily time with the scriptures and prayer. As I explained in my last post, a devotional habit is really the only thing that keeps me sane. Through it I remind myself of the truth; otherwise I become quickly lost in doubt and self-deception. My spiritual memory is notoriously fickle without God’s intervention.

It has been an intense two weeks. From the 8th-11th our whole school traveled to Ridgecrest, NC (5 min from Black Mountain, 20 min from Ashville) for the national Anglican missions conference that happens every three years. I admit it was strange to be at a missions conference when you are fairly sure that you won’t be doing missions in the foreseeable future. Even so, there were two or three key moments when the Lord grabbed my attention, but they had to do with a lifestyle of prayer and not any kind of sending. It was a huge blessing, though, because my mom, sister, dad and stepmom all drove to Western North Carolina in order to visit me. I definitely enjoyed the time with my mom and sister, but the time with my dad was even more meaningful simply because it is the first time in my living memory when he came up with the idea to and sacrificed for (an eight hour drive that took him into the wee hours of the morning) my sake. He really showed me that he loves me in a way that he hasn’t in many years, and that’s priceless.

Last weekend, the Trautmans, Scott Bowles and I drove from Pittsburgh to Wheaton, IL in order to attend the annual Wheaton Theology Conference, this year dedicated to engaging the work of N.T. Wright. Scott and I used to listen to him while at work and then talk at length (usually favorably) about the implications of his epistemology, ecclesiology, politics and so on. So it was appropriate that our first time seeing him in person would be together. But it was no weak exercise in brown-nosing; although the overall tone was positive, several presenters—esp. Richard Hays—presented substantial and fundamental critiques of Wright’s theological-historical method. Between the beautiful weather, good time with friends, delicious food and sustained intellectual stimulation, it was a great weekend.

My summer plans are up in the air, but whatever they are I will remain busy. There is still the chance I will do a CPE program at the Aliquippa jail with Denny Ugoletti, but I have been leaning more towards taking a language this summer. Either way, I am definitely taking Ken Bailey & Grant LeMarquand’s June term “Jesus Through Non-Western Eyes,” for which I am duly excited. Ken Bailey is a Presbyterian minister who lived and served in the Middle East for 60 years before retiring in 1995 and is now canon theologian to the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is one of those wizened sage types who you could listen to tell stories one after the other and never tire. Grant is Trinity’s academic dean and has been doing work with indigenous African theologians for many years now. If Philip Jenkins is right (and I think he is), our sons and daughters will be reading their books when they get to seminary.

For my friends scattered to the 50 states (esp. Florida. Woot.), I want to commend Trinity School for Ministry to you. Many of you have graduated college and are in a twenty-something’s no-man’s-land of disposable jobs and pre-marriage socio-geographical flexibility. Trinity is a great school with a small, loving community and top-notch academic instruction. Recent donations to the school have made it possible for full time students to receive full tuition scholarships—you are not going to find a cheaper, high-caliber master’s degree. Exercise some imagination and ask the Lord if this isn’t a possibility for you; fourteen months ago Trinity was barely on my radar, now I’m finishing my first year. Come check out a June term, or come to Be a Seminarian For a Day. But don’t write it off just because you’re not Anglican! The Lord is with these people, and working through this institution.

Finally, I am excited because it looks like I am going to get involved with my church’s prayer ministry. That means I would be involved in post-communion prayer on a regular basis as well as the monthly soaking prayer that happens before service on the last Sunday of the month. My closest friends know that I have long had a heart for prayer and some know that I really get energized and enlivened by praying directly for people. I love it because I usually sense that God is present, speaking and working and because it helps me grow in love for others. Day to day life does not always engender either of these. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

God and the Abyss

I gave this as a public testimony in chapel this morning.

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” ~Nietzsche

“Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.” ~Psalm 34:9

I grew up in the Bible belt city of Jacksonville, FL, in a charismatic and fundamentalist church, in public school classrooms, in the fantasy world of books, in the virtual world of video games and movies. I came to faith in Jesus Christ at the depraved age of six, having responded to multiple children’s church altar calls just to make sure it stuck. At 7 my parents separated; dad moved out and left the rearing business to my mom. I spent the bulk of my young life in the company of women, especially my mom, sister and grandmother. I saw dad on weekends, usually no more than five or six hours any given Saturday. I tested, I humbly submit, above average on standardized tests at a young age. At school I excelled, breezing unchallenged through my elementary years with high grades and the favor of teachers who love to dote on precocious wunderkinds. At church I squirmed restlessly during children’s services until my first early experiences with the Holy Spirit. These first occurred in strength when I was about 10.

The sum total of these experiences was not a well-adjusted preteen with trust for family or society to show the way to a stable path through life. Rather, this confused, imaginative, extroverted, isolated child experience a deep sense of anomie or not-fitting-in. He had no sense of what it mean to be a man or want to be a man. And his church’s vitriol against the dangers of Darwin, Clinton and the academy forced a false choice between reason and faith, mind and spirit. Books, videogames and movies provided a regular escape from the painful mental and emotional chaos of life; my favorites drew me out of my secure yet unhappy life and away to the dangerous joys of Narnia’s northern moors, Final Fantasy’s empire-imperiled kingdoms and Endor’s tall forests. These fictions, like twin suns setting over a far horizon, teased the Tatooine-esque desert of my isolation with the hint of something more exciting and less senseless.

The onset of adolescence meant the discovery of sexuality and critical thought within the same year. Body and mind both chafed under the strictures of Christian morality, and a holiness at home opposed to magic and violence constantly conflicted with the desire to explore as many fictional and virtual worlds as I could. It was when faith threatened to separate me from my closest friend, however, that I was finally willing to abdicate the confession of childhood for the prospect of claiming an identity and social life of my own. I put God away and decided to do my own thing, though I kept my apostasy hidden from mother’s watchful eye. Her strict religious oversight caged, stifled, frustrated and protected me all at one. Far and away the bulk of my rebellion consisted of salty language, contraband entertainment and godless friends—a functionally, if not eternally, tame set of vices.

The loss of God meant the loss of a life narrative, of any sense of direction or purpose. This sunk in as I struggled through my first two and a half years of high school, where I fared well enough academically but often waded through bouts with depression. Walking away from faith solved no problems other than my desire to imagine myself in alternate worlds as often as possible, a practice unhelpful to the growth of emotional and social maturity. The more I looked into myself, the more I looked at the world, the more Nietzsche’s abyss looked back into me and I sank progressively deeper into hopelessness.

During Lent in 2001, I began waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning every single night. Many nights I could not fall asleep again. I wasn’t disturbed, I wasn’t sick. Yet, night after night, I rolled over to read the red digital readout: 3:00.

Good Friday 2001, roughly three quarters of the way through my junior year of high school, I was forced to attend a charismatic worship and prayer meeting by my mom. I should interject at this point to add that, through these years, that my mom was not only a source of moral frustration, but also the sole breadwinner of our family, forced to play both nurturer and provider, and constantly in prayer for myself and my sister as well as the children she ministered to weekly in a downtown project. I’ve no doubt that her prayers kept me safe from unknown and unseen dangers and that the next part of the story was an answer to many of them. At that worship meeting, I sat off to the side and mulled over my hopelessness as well as the God-encounters I remembered from my youth. At one point the worship leader began talking about prodigal sons returning home yet I paid little attention. Then he said, “You’ve been waking up at 3 in the morning and you don’t know why.”

I had a choice to make. The abyss had proven a dark reality more powerful and crushing than any literary or visual fiction could escape. It had nothing to offer but senselessness and death. God, on the other hand, would not let me forget his entreaties to me as a child, and now he made a clear, irrefutable gesture of peace and love in my direction. I had nothing to lose but the petty freedoms of my selfishness. I confessed Jesus as Lord once again, and the Holy Spirit stirred within me powerfully. Though there have been mountains and there have been valleys, I have not looked back since.

I find this to be true: when I turn my thoughts, hopes, prayers and time toward God I am at peace and can cope with life’s challenges. When I avert my gaze, the abyss still waits to swallow me up: the path is indeed narrow. Like the psalmist says, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.” Not that I ever fear the loss of my justification, but rather that I have learned that yes, God’s path is narrow, but it is a good path, and he is the king.