Tuesday, March 30, 2010

my story (or a version thereof)

In a group that Julie and I meet with, we've been discussing "our stories." I've long held the conviction that such things are necessarily selective and fluid, and rarely told the same way twice. So even though I've written down my story before, it's never come out quite this way. Read it as much for what it says about me now as for what it may say about my past:

My governing sins have always been in the areas of pride and vainglory. I have generally been confident in my own intellectual abilities, at the expense of everything else. I think I believed in God from as early as I can remember, but I didn't really start to take my faith seriously until I reached sixth grade. From that point on, I found ways to serve pride through religion.

My Sunday School teacher decided to pay students money as an incentive to read the Bible. That kind of mercenary spirituality would continue into my teen years, with quiz team and a camp scholarship program that required things like reading and Scripture memory. I also began to make friends with men in the church who were older than my parents. As a general practice, this could probably be a good opportunity for spiritual influence on youth, but in my case I saw it as another recognition of intellectual maturity beyond my years. They got me hooked on Christian apologetics, which encouraged me to "share my faith" through argumentation. Throughout high school, it became my personal crusade to show others that Christians (namely, I) could be intellectually respectable.

From time to time adults, impressed with my abilities, would suggest that I become a pastor. At first I scorned the idea, thinking that my intellectual abilities were too great for professional ministry. I had chosen engineering as a career when I was in fourth grade, and I wasn't ready to give up the opportunity to remind people of that choice. I spiritualized it by identifying a calling in my intellect--I, as a smart guy, was best suited to influence other smart guys. Anything less would be a waste of the talent God had given me. But my pride was multifaceted, and it wasn't long before I found a way to make professional ministry serve its ends.

I suppose there is probably some positive use to the notion of ministry as a higher calling, but it's hard for me to see it as anything better than a lesser evil. Men--especially men with a personality to lead--will generally take pride in their career. If they're going to explain why they chose the path of ministry, it will need to be framed as a step above whatever else they could have done. Hearing enough of this sort of thing eventually had its effect on me, and one summer I finally decided to throw my symbolic stick in the fire and dedicate my life to whatever God wanted me to do. Conveniently, God still wanted me to show off my intellect, just in a different field. I made a deal with him at that point--if he would save me from the embarrassment of a weak public speaking ability, I would go to Bible college. At the time, I really did believe that God must have made the difference; now, I'm not so sure it wasn't just the force of my own determination to excel in a different area. Either way, my pride remained.

My pastor tried to advise me against Bible college. He suggested getting a bachelor's degree in some other field, then going to seminary. That way I would have a fall-back career if I needed to support myself, and I would get a higher-level ministry education. I figured school was mostly just a formality anyway--I could learn whatever I needed to, when I needed to--so I wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. Worrying about a fall-back career would just be a sign of weakness. At the same time, I did recognize something about my own tendencies. I was genuinely concerned that if I gave myself too much opportunity I might choose something more comfortable than ministry. But the advice he gave was wiser than I imagined at the time, and it was arrogant to write it off so quickly.

In college, my focus began to shift away from apologetics to the core areas I was studying--Bible and theology. No longer surrounded by unbelievers who needed to be convinced that Christianity was true or respectable, I got my thrills from arguing with classmates about mostly pointless theological controversies. I was attracted (even when I disagreed) to the most intellectual and controversial of professors, and when authority clashed with heresy, I chose the latter. Even so, I had absorbed the narrow focus of the fundamentalist college I was attending. I ended up going on to seminary after all, and I chose one that was comfortably similar in doctrine but intellectually more rigorous.

Even going to seminary was a last-minute decision. It was not my original plan, but as I neared the end of my undergraduate studies, I realized that I was too young for the kind of job I really wanted. Also, school was comfortable for me and held less uncertainty than ministry. Many of the same trends continued in seminary, as I gravitated toward the areas that would be most intellectually challenging, most obscure, most academic. Not surprisingly, I decided before I was done that I would rather teach than pursue pastoral ministry, which meant I would have to go on for a Ph.D. But there was a spiritual dimension to this shift that took me longer to recognize.

I don't think I ever really had much of a true devotional life. In youth group, I was expected to keep a journal of prayer and scriptural meditation. It was checked regularly for completeness, but not at a level that would distinguish real interaction with God from intellectual contemplation of the assigned passages and meticulous maintenance of prayer lists. From time to time, college and seminary classes also required me to keep some kind of devotional journal, and I would comply as necessary. But aside from that, I generally assumed that my school work was spiritual enough. Early on, I developed a methodology for what I was doing. If the goal was to know and serve God better, I needed to understand what he expected of me. To understand that, I needed to grasp biblical theology and praxis. To grasp that, I needed to read and analyze Scripture intelligently. To read and analyze, I needed to get as close to the original texts as I could. And so, my intellectual pursuits were organized around acquiring the tools I needed to do all of this for myself, not to rely on anyone else's conclusions. Assuming I was actually working toward that goal, it all should have added up to spiritual growth, without adding anything else to the mix.

In the same way that I had no real relationship with God, after marriage, I had no real relationship with my wife. Most of my time was devoted to school and work. Even when we were together in our apartment, we were usually doing different things. I did not concern myself with what she wanted or even needed, and I justified it all as a temporary condition that would stop when I was done with school. But school dragged on, and things didn't change.

I was required to serve in church during college and seminary, and so I did. I genuinely cared about doing well whatever I was given, and I honestly looked for ways to apply my abilities to the greatest use. But I don't think it was ever an expression of love for God or even for other people. It was preparation for my chosen career, and I naturally wanted to do it well. But eventually my intellectual pursuits began to outpace other aspects of my life. I sensed a widening gulf between what I thought and what I did. And I knew that there were limits to what I could say out loud or apply in real life. My eccentricity was accepted to a degree, but church life was insufficiently flexible to accommodate full disclosure. That's when I realized that I could not be in paid ministry, whether I wanted to or not, and I also realized that I wouldn't have much future teaching in the kind of schools I'd attended.

So by the time I started my Ph.D. program, I was back to looking at the secular arena for my career. I figured that if necessary a Ph.D. in Semitic languages could be applied in a seminary, but I was really interested in teaching in a secular or at least not-so-fundamentalist college or university, where no one would care exactly what I thought about conclusions, as long as I could teach the right methods. It would probably have been less costly in terms of time, money, energy, and relationships if I'd just decided to pursue a different career altogether. But I was trying to save face, to prove to myself and others that I had not wasted the past several years of my life on a career that I would never pursue.

The crux came when I finished coursework on my Ph.D. and simultaneously became a father. In my self-centered pursuit of academic goals, we had put off having kids as long as we could. But now I had more freedom with how I used my time and more motivation to get things right. I somehow sensed that real life was becoming considerably more important than academia, and I pushed school to the back burner, in favor of sorting out more practical issues like faith and politics. I was still self-centered, to be sure, but I think it was an important step to open up my closed, little world to the influences of reality. I concluded pretty readily that I could not continue down the same "spiritual" path--which, as I said, was never really all that spiritual in the first place. But now it was intellectually impossible, like trying to go back and watch a magic show after you've seen how the trick works. No force of will can make you believe again.

I had followed the path to its end and found that it didn't really lead anywhere. Moving forward would mean making my own path (and knowing it). The only option that retained hope was to back up and turn aside into something altogether different. But I had become so jaded that even this move felt like I was still deliberately charting my own course--like there was no God to be found at the end, only more disappointment. But I could hold out hope that I would never get far enough to find out. I began exploring other faith traditions, looking for something that I could "live with"--something I could respect as honest about itself as a tradition, and intellectually challenging enough to hold my interest. I hadn't really changed all that much--it was still about what would make me feel a certain way, and still without any expectation of a real encounter with a real God.

My first trial was characteristic. I explored Rabbinic Judaism mostly through reading, without opening up to anyone else about my interest. One significant change was that I was by this point pursuing something with a more spiritual dimension to it. So I spent a good deal of time trying out Jewish prayer. But I was still not prepared to follow any path of conversion that would require me to start over. Some things I could give up, but not my freedom to challenge the status quo.

I briefly considered Messianic Judaism as an alternative. It would not require a formal conversion, or a renunciation of anything in particular, and there was a better chance that my wife would go along with it. But it had too many of the same problems that had turned me off to Evangelicalism, in some cases to a greater degree. Ultimately, it was not a viable option, but this stage included some important turning points. One was that I finally opened up to my wife about what was going on. We were still miles apart on these things, but at least I was operating somewhat outside of my own head. Another was that it raised questions for me about early Christianity, which pointed me in the direction of Eastern Orthodoxy. It was a purely intellectual progression at the time, but I don't know how else I would have got there.

Eastern Orthodoxy was a viable candidate in terms of my search. It definitely had a deep sense of tradition and the potential to be very satisfying intellectually. Also, my Ph.D. work had provided me with some useful exposure to Orthodoxy, so that I not only had some sense of what it was and how to get more information, but I knew Eastern Orthodox people whom I could contact for help. But the real difference was the reality of the encounter. Yes, Orthodoxy responded to the questions I was asking; but it went far beyond that by both raising and answering the questions that I ought to have been asking but wasn't. It finally took me beyond what my own intellect could expect, to a real encounter with a real God. No, there were no heavenly visions, no physical symptoms. It was not even what I would have characterized at the time as a spiritual experience. But I was quietly carried along, until I realized after the fact just how far behind I'd left my initial pursuits.

Orthodoxy has plenty of room for intellectual exercise--that was never in question. But it also has centuries of experience ministering to the needs of the most common, illiterate peasant. It has an arsenal of very practical tools for the day-to-day spiritual life. So in addition to a lot of reading about a lot of different things, I was able to immerse myself in more practical matters of prayer, fasting, liturgy, and obedience. These disciplines did their work of softening my heart, to the point where I could accept the teachings of the Church not for their intellectual impressiveness, but implicitly as the faith of the saints. Most importantly, I was finally confronted with the depth of pride in my own life and how it had shaped my story.

One of the most perplexing and frustrating things for me about Orthodoxy was its lack of urgency. I had grown up on the standard appeal: "If you were to die today . . . " But here was a faith that welcomed this questioning seeker with a firm but gentle, "No." No, you may not convert right now. Seriously? Your wife is not with you. But what if I die before she changes her mind? If I had good reason to suspect you were going to die soon, that might change things, but since I don't--No.

So the first lesson of humility was accepting that some priest could tell me it wasn't time. The second was accepting that my own failures had a lot to do with the circumstances in our family. The third was realizing that there would be no quick fix. No, saying a prayer and writing down the date so I can remember when it happened won't do it. I have to wait for God's timing. But in the meantime, there was a fourth lesson--the long, slow process of repairing the damage--of becoming the person I should have been in the first place. And there's no guarantee attached to that either. I'm doing it because it's what I'm supposed to do--if I get there, all glory to God, whether my wife follows or not.

Along the way there have been encouraging moments--like when the priest finally did say "yes," after asking my wife, after she miraculously agreed, after she even allowed the kids to enter the Church with me. But we're still far from being on the same page. And I'm still far from being as humble as I should be. So every day I forget what I'm supposed to be learning. And every day God quietly reminds me. It won't be fixed by my intellect or my effort. And "fixed" won't even necessarily be what I think it should. It will only work out in his timing, according to his plan. I get that on some level, but I still have a long way to go. My Teacher is patient, and I know by that that he is not me.

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