Sunday, May 25, 2014

On Finishing 1716th

I ran a half-marathon last weekend with my daughter.  I was thinking of saying that the training for this race was not nearly as arduous as for last November’s marathon in Richmond, Va.  But then at my age, every time I go out to run my body says, ‘Excuse me, but have we ever done this before?’

We ran the Marine Corps Historic Half marathon in Fredericksburg, VA.  Beautiful place for a race and absolutely perfect weather for running – 40s, clear, sunny, low humidity – no excuses.

My daughter had run several half marathons before.  This was my first.  She declared she wanted to run with me.  I know from experience that she is quite a bit faster than her father, so I figured that after an initial gesture of comradery, our natural paces would take over and that would be the last I saw of her till I crossed the finish line.

But it didn’t happen like that.  Instead, we started together, we ran together, and we finished together.  What a privilege!

But running with my daughter who runs fast had the effect of pushing me, to the extent that I ran this race faster than I have run any distance race in my life.  We clocked in at seconds over 2 hours flat.  I wish I could say that the last mile or so was an exhilarating, endorphin-enabled sprint to the finish line.  Truth was I really had to push myself and reverted to my childhood mantra ‘Are we there yet?’ when the finish line didn’t appear and didn’t appear and just didn’t appear.  But finally it did and yards away, as my daughter and I made our final push, I grabbed her hand and we took our last steps together.


We finished tied for 1716th.  And we both got a medal!  And so did all of the 6400+ other participants who finished.  The last one who crossed after 4 hours 22 minutes and 48 seconds of hard work got the same medal as we did as the first one who crossed in an astonishing 1 hour 5 minutes and 9 seconds.  For me, just finishing would have been a triumph.  The fact that I finished with a personal best time and pace at my age is gratifying.  I should run with my daughter more often!

The signs and t-shirts say that ‘Running is cheaper than therapy’.  I think I just might qualify as the poster child for this cliché.  Not that running is magical or that it has taken my problems away.  But it has given me something useful and healthy to do with myself. Signing up for the marathon last November and this half-marathon in May has given me a challenge to work towards.  I never dreamed I would be running 10, 12, 14, 20 miles down Virginia country roads.  And then actually running races is just an awesome experience.  All these men and women of every age and ethnicity and background, each one with a story, each one having worked so hard to get to this point, all running together.  And then the cheers and encouragements and high fives from the people lining the streets.  And then running towards that finish line and finally crossing, and getting my medal, and getting my freebie ‘race treats’ and then getting to go to the ‘free beer’ tent at 9:15am and after 13.1 miles and it (the breakfast beer) being so good…  The past year has been a desert for me with respect to joy.  But last weekend was one of those God-given oases.  More than worth all the hard work.

Post-race Celebratory Breakfast for Hungry Runners

Friday, May 23, 2014

'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life'?

I remember the first time I heard this astonishing statement.  I was a high school student and hanging out with friends one Saturday in our local mall.  I had been a Christian for several years, a member of our Presbyterian Church and active in our youth group.  I was approached by a couple of clean-cut Clemson University students who politely asked if they could take a few minutes of my time and go over this little booklet called ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’.  I agreed.  They were, of course, not convinced when I told them I was already a Christian.  For some reason they were even more suspicious when I mentioned that I was Presbyterian.  I listened to their presentation and when they asked if I wanted to become a Christian and pray the prayer with them, I tried to explain that I already had.  Always the accommodator, I thought about just doing it so they would then go away.  But I just thanked them for their time and they went on their way.

Since this encounter, now almost 40 years ago, I have often thought about this first of the so-called four spiritual laws – God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.  I do not doubt that God loves people, with the important caveat that ‘love’ is as God defines it, not what we want or need it to mean.  I also do not doubt that God is sovereign; but again, not in the mechanistic predestinarian mode of planning that usually comes to mind and which usually then turns into a titanic battle with a similarly mechanistic understanding of ‘free will’.  God is God, and our ways of trying to explain who He is and what He does are doomed to be misleading from the start.  We only know and describe God by analogy; we simply to not have the capacity to contain the reality.

But what bothered me then and what bothered me along the way and what continues to bother me today is that the impression given by this approach to evangelism appears to guarantee participation in God’s ‘wonderful plan for your life’ if we agree to sign up for his salvation program outlined by the remaining ‘laws’.

Although I didn’t sign up on the dotted line for this ‘wonderful plan’ at the mall that Saturday, in many respects I already had.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was firmly rooted and established in the Reformed Tradition.  And as I began to grow in my theological awareness, I accepted, as all us Reformed folk do, that a loving God is in control and that we are in His hands and we can trust Him with our lives and that He will work everything together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes in Christ (per Romans 8).  This all gives great comfort, so long as one is not in distressing circumstances.

The impression is given by all this that God is somehow orchestrating everything for his glory, and that even the challenges that we face and endure have been sent/allowed by God to further his ‘wonderful plan’ for our lives.

But I am coming to wonder if this kind of happy Calvinistic and evangelical pietism could happen only in middle class and upwardly mobile North America.  A similar observation could be made about the rampant health and prosperity media gospellers and their wannabees scattered across the globe.  But that is another post.  The major problem with both of these perspectives occurs when they collide with both the Gospels and with reality.

First, the Gospels. Jesus never promises or even intimates that following him will mean or even lead to a ‘wonderful life’ or activate some wonderful plan for my life.  Jesus is actually not concerned with ‘quality of life’ issues.  He is all about other, more difficult things, such as repentance and reconciliation and salvation.  Sure there are promises of God’s provision and answer to prayer, but always in the context of giving one’s life away, dying to self, being crucified with Christ, loving neighbors, etc.  The paradigm for us of what this life of discipleship should look like is obviously the lives of the disciples themselves.  Not a single one of them managed a comfortable middle class life while they followed Christ.  Every single one of them ended up losing their lives as martyrs for Christ, with the exception of John, who himself endured suffering and exile.

So when it comes to what the Gospels, and Acts, and history actually tell us, telling someone that God ‘has a wonderful plan for your life’ is theologically presumptuous at least, and may be out and out misleading.  I also realize that if evangelism is some kind of sales pitch, then making the probability of being crucified with Christ one's clinching argument is not likely to result in many signatures on the dotted line.  'Wonderful plan for your life' is a lot happier.

But such a statement also collides with reality.  God does not treat believers in a quid pro quo manner.  For this we can be grateful.  The reality is that bad things happen to people.  All the time.  For Christians who believe in a sovereign God, this is a problem.  Because now they have to explain where these bad things come from.  And they all – all – must come from God, if God is sovereign as they define sovereignty.  There is, at this point, much verbiage spilled explaining how the bad things that happen to people are not really God’s direct responsibility, but that God has allowed people to reap the consequences of sin or of living in a sin-marred world.  This all makes interesting discussion around a theology seminar table, but if you ever have tried this line of explanation on a mom and dad whose daughter was killed at the hands of a drunk driver in a road accident, or whose four year old has just been diagnosed with leukemia, then you begin rather quickly to realize that this is not a very comforting perspective.  Rather it is a case of trying to have one’s cake (a ‘Sovereign’ God) and eat it too (who is not really responsible for the bad things we experience in our lives).

Western theology, both Protestant and Catholic, has repeatedly gotten into trouble by trying to explain too much.  The problem is, the Scriptures often do not give us enough information.  What we do know is that, somehow, God is in control, and somehow we make free choices which carry real consequences for which we may be held accountable.  We are given no help in the Bible about how these two perspectives relate.  Both just are.  And that’s a mystery.

But back to the ‘wonderful plan for your life’.  Jesus never slashed prices on a few headline items just to get people into his store.  Jesus never recruited followers with promises of 70 virgins in the afterlife if you blow yourself up in his name.  Jesus never promised that you and I would get rich, or get this car, or have this house if we had enough faith.  In fact, on at least one occasion, people grumbled because what he was saying was too hard a thing for them to swallow, namely that He was the bread of life.  Jesus himself complained to one crowd that they were there just to get something from him.  Thousands came to hear what he had to say, but in the end, there were maybe 100 or so ended up in Jerusalem at the end of his last week. And when he was crucified, all that was left were a couple of old men and a small group of weeping women as they put his body in the tomb and drew a line under his astonishing life and tragic death.  This was not a ‘successful’ life.  But then, it wasn’t meant to be.

Just like our lives as disciples.  Biblically speaking, we are not about success, nor are our Christian lives intended to be.  Instead, they are about salvation.

Just like our churches.  Biblically speaking, we are not about success, nor are our churches intended to be.  Instead, they are the context where we are meant to live out our salvation.

We are fallen.  Our relationships are fallen.  Our world is fallen.  It should, therefore, not be any surprise that challenging, difficult, bad, even tragic things happen to us.  It’s not like, as was promised in the little booklet, we are now ‘saved’ and must now figure out why things like this happen to ‘saved’ people.  Instead we are needing to be saved, we are in the process of being saved, and God is saving us. 

Our own rebellion affects our lives and the lives of those around us.  And the rebellion of those around us affects us.  And the consequences of the sins of all who are living and have lived wash over us like storm surges, threatening to wash away our foundations, to crumple our lives, to swamp the little dinghy of our hearts.  Peter stepped out of the boat into the storm tossed sea at Christ’s call to join him walking on water.  He did.  And, he didn’t make it very far.  Instead he had to be pulled up by Christ’s strong grip and saved.  I think Peter is us.

This is one of the reasons I became Orthodox.  I speak only for myself.  But I found the reformed and evangelical constructs of my theology unable to handle the increasing challenges of my reality.  My theology made God too small and more manageable.  I can’t explain why this theological perspective that works for so many millions of people gradually began not working for me.  I pass judgment on no one, as we all are doing what we can with who we are and what we experience and what we know.  I just found that there wasn’t much room for my messy reality in the theological circles that defined my Christian life for nearly four decades.  When I stand before the iconostasis in prayer for Divine Liturgy, I find that God relieves me of the task of figuring Him out and making Him ‘work’ according to my needs and perspectives.  Instead He calls me simply to Himself, to find forgiveness, home and safety in Him.

Whether or not God has a wonderful plan for one’s life turns out to be not the issue.  It’s actually a classic American sales pitch, and one with a lot of small print at the bottom.  And it can deform one’s spiritual perspective unhelpfully by directing one’s gaze inwardly or on one’s circumstances.  It can give the impression that the Christian life is about me.  It can give the impression that salvation is an easy transaction, a change in status, and that once that’s done with, we're saved and can go on to other things.

But God is not a benefits plan we sign up for.   Instead God is a person.  Christianity is a relationship.  It’s a discipleship.  A following after.  It’s not about fitting God into my plan for my life; instead it’s about me aligning my life with God’s.  God refuses to fit into our categories, theological or otherwise.  Which is why, in my experience, there has always been more mercy in Christ than in human organizations and institutions.  The more like Christ, the more mercy is shown. The less like Christ, the less mercy is shown.  Just saying.

Disclaimer:  The above is just my opinion about some theology.  It is not my intention to express an opinion about a group or church.  I do mean to share my own experiences and provoke discussion about theology.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Older White Christian Guy Attempts to Find Job in (mostly) American Higher Education

I’ve got a BA from a leading American university (Duke), a MDiv from a leading Evangelical graduate school (Gordon-Conwell), and a PhD from a leading British university (Cambridge).  I’ve got 13 years’ experience teaching in Ethiopian and Kenyan universities and graduate schools.  And I’ve been attempting to find a teaching job at an American institution of higher education for more than two years.  I’ve applied for positions in my area of training (Early Modern British history) and in my area of recent teaching experience (intellectual history, history of Christianity, Christian theology).  I’ve applied to every position that seemed plausible, whether university positions, college positions or even community college positions. Here are my results thus far:

Community college in CA – No thank you.
University in northern VA – No thank you.
University in Georgia – No thank you.
Community college in AZ – No thank you.
University in Kazakhstan – No thank you.
University in NY – No thanks.
University in VA – No thanks.
University in NC – Nope.
Another university in NC – Nope.
College in MA - No thanks.
Another university in MA – No.
University in Alaska – No, no, no.
University in SC – No.
College in SC – No.
Another university in VA – Nope.
Community college in FL – Nope.
University in the UK – No.
College in OH – No thanks.
College in PA – Nope
Community college in VA – No.
University in MD – No.
Community college in TX – No.
College in TX – No.
College in WV – No thank you.

And these are the ones who have had the courtesy to send me a form rejection letter.  There are just as many who have advertised positions to which I have applied but from whom I have heard nothing.

I have read that there are 100 or more applications for many of these positions.  I’ve also read that graduate schools have been unconscionably churning out PhDs without regard to what those PhD-endowed people might actually do with themselves once they leave their program.  I wonder how many other PhD-holders are like me, working at the equivalent of the YMCA as the front desk guy for a salary marginally better than minimum wage while I wait to see if I get to use the academic skills I honed in graduate school and the teaching skills I honed in multicultural contexts in Africa?  Presently I am honing other skills, like phone answering, locker room cleaning and floor mopping.  Not everyone, it seems, is interested in the delights of 17th century British history or in the fascinations afforded by the contrasts in Western and Eastern theologies.

So, it’s tough for American academics without a job or even a foot in the door.  Just like it’s tough for those who have made it in the house but whose life is consumed by the realities of ‘publish or perish.’

Even so, American higher education is a different world than it was a generation or so ago.  Perspectives on race have changed dramatically.  Perspectives on gender have changed dramatically.  Those who piously lament that the change has been too slow and or not enough do not appreciate from whence our culture has come.  But ‘the system’ has always been such that someone with a contribution to make has been left out.  Higher education fads are always exhilarating for those who have caught the wave, and they always seem so right at the time.  But these fads have almost always seemed to pit one group against another; someone is always on the inside and someone is always on the outside; someone is always a winner and someone is always a loser.  The only thing that seems to change is who wears the designation of ‘loser’.  And as someone who is (currently) among those deemed on the wrong side, on the outside, among the losers, not the right age, or the right color, or the right gender, the experience is not pleasant.

Too bad those in positions to change the system are not interested in doing so.  For those on the inside, it is always easier to look down on those who, for whatever accident of birth, history or opportunity, simply weren’t deemed worthy enough to make it.  And yes, whites have done it to blacks, men have done it to women, English have done it to Irish, Kikuyu have done it to Luo, etc., etc., ad nauseum.  But for whatever reason, in every single case, being the recipient of discrimination (and even persecution) is often used as justification for visiting the same on the former persecutors if and when the tables are finally turned.  In Kenya, it is called ‘our turn at the table’; or, the spoils of graft and corruption may now be distributed amongst our people for a change, with no sense whatsoever that the fundamental corruption that lays at the heart of the whole system should in any way be addressed and fixed instead.  One might call it the Golden Rule of the Way Things Are Really Done: ‘Do unto others as they have done unto you.’

People in positions of authority and/or who are on the inside are allergic to any hint of accusation that they may have possibly done anything wrong or may be party to anything untoward.  We live in an unhappy age of litigation.  So I will say nothing about anyone.  Only to observe, just as generations before me have experienced and to a much greater extent than I have, as long as there are people involved, injustice is woven into the fabric of whatever we do.  As is racism.  As is sexism.  As is ageism.  One can find these things in every corner of the planet, festering in every single culture.  We, in my corner of the planet and in my culture, have done well to recognize that some groups have been the recipient of very unfair treatment.  And it could very well be that were there a genuinely ‘level playing field’ I might be rejected by just as many if not more college professor search committees.  I have to be willing to admit that there just might be people, women or men, Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian American, younger or older, who are better qualified than I am who really should be chosen to fill the various positions to which I also have applied.  Having conceded these things, I am still left with the feeling that the correction for certain of our sins, in North American academia at least, may have missed the necessary point, and that someone who is 55, or who is a man, or who is white, or who is a practicing Christian, or, heaven forbid is all four in the same person, is simply wasting his time applying for any of these jobs, because we don’t serve those types here.  The public side of all these job announcements and processes are, of course, all made with plausible deniability stamped all over them.  And it could be just me.  But having been at this for a while, my gut tells me it may be otherwise.  I, of all people, would love to be better informed and proven wrong here.  

Monday, May 5, 2014

If You Are Thinking About Becoming a Pastor...

I read this today and resonated with so much that I thought I would pass it on.  Churches are as 'good' as the people who make them up.  And people are, well, sinners.  The degree to which repentance characterizes the people in a church will determine much about the health of that congregation and the church's relationship with its pastor.  I have known churches whose leaders and people know and live repentance, and churches whose leaders and people are into other things.  The difference is pretty obvious.

What follows was written by Jared Moore of The Aquila Report:

If you enter pastoral ministry…
10. Not everyone will like you.
9. You will make people angry regardless how godly you handle yourself; it comes with the position.

8. You will feel like a failure often, and when you do appear to succeed, the fruit that is produced cannot be accredited to you. God alone gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:7). Thus, there is little “sense of accomplishment in ministry” that you may be accustomed to in other vocations.

7. You will fight legalism and liberalism, along with laziness, ignorance, tradition, and opposition. Yet, your greatest enemy will be your own heart (Jer. 17:9).

6. Not everyone will respond positively to your preaching, teaching, or leadership. You will bring people to tears with the same sermon: one in joy, another in anger (I have done this).

5. You will be criticized, rarely to your face, and frequently behind your back. This criticism will come from those that love you, those that obviously do not like you, and pastors and Christians that barely know you.

4. You will think about quitting yearly or monthly, if not weekly or even daily.

3. You will be persecuted for preaching the truth, mostly from your brothers and sisters in the pews. You shouldn’t be surprised by the sight of your own blood. You’re a Christian, after all (Matt. 16:24).

2. You will feel very lonely on a consistent basis, feeling like no one truly knows you or cares how you feel, because you do not want to burden your family, and trust-worthy peers are few and far in-between. Because of the ”super-Christian” myth accredited to pastors literally, you will find it extremely difficult to disclose your deep thoughts and feelings to others. Thus, you will struggle with loneliness.

1. You will probably pastor a church that is barely growing (if at all), is opposed to change, doesn’t pay well, has seen pastors come and go, doesn’t respect the position as Biblically as they should, doesn’t understand what the Bible says a pastor’s or a church’s jobs are, and will only follow you when they agree with you (thus, they’ll really only follow themselves).

After understanding these realities, do you still want to be a pastor? If so, then God has probably called you to the ministry!

Pretty much nailed it on the head, in my experience.  And yet it is a calling.  And one cannot just walk away.

Friday, May 2, 2014

My Brush with the Affordable Care Act, aka ‘Obamacare’ – A Personal Story

First, an observation.  Although I am sure there are exceptions, every critic of the Affordable Care Act that I have heard or read has come from the ranks of those who have decent to excellent health insurance benefits, usually provided through their place of employment.  This is precisely the demographic that the Affordable Care Act was not intended to help, for the simple reason that these people are not in need of help.

I was comfortably ensconced among this American majority, until suddenly I wasn’t.  This past week, I was informed that my insurance company had canceled my insurance policy, because my former Christian mission employer, which had terminated me because of my conversion to Orthodoxy three years ago, had also just terminated my wife, through whose employment I had maintained my insurance.  Given that I am on several medications that require monitoring and regular refilling, being without insurance has an immediate effect.

I am currently between positions, making ends meet with a part-time job at the local YMCA that pays $11/hour for a 30-40 hour work week.  I am not allowed to work 40 hours/week because then the Y would have to pay me benefits, including insurance.  But the level of pay (and this is after a $3/hour raise in March when I was given supervisory responsibilities over our front desk team) translates into a less-than-living wage.  This amount has been supplemented by on-going raised support for my previous position as a university lecturer in Kenya.  But that support is ending this month as well.  I am applying for a new position with the same group which would allow me to return to Kenya and teach.  But that process has its own challenges.  So in the meantime, I have joined the ranks of the working poor, not making enough money to pay insurance premiums, and thus facing an uncertain health future as one of the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, among other things.

Needless to say, I was alarmed.  So yesterday, I decided to explore the Affordable Care Act website,  This, of course, is the site that caused so much excitement when it was rolled out DOA last year, followed by pledges by government officials to fix it, followed by months of quietly doing what it was originally intended to do, which is connect uninsured Americans with affordable options for health insurance.  Then came the celebrations and sighs of relief when the ACA plan exceeded expectations of enrollment earlier this Spring.  Then came word of my own insurance crackup.

Whatever the online horrors of last October and November, I had no problems navigating  The site was well-designed, easily traversed, and, when I was confronted with insurance jargon I didn’t understand, there was always a way presented that I could access to find out what was being discussed.  Best of all, I discovered that I was eligible for a significant monthly reduction in the premium of whatever plan I might choose.  So I chose a plan, one which would have cost me $440/month out of my pocket, but which with the ACA discount will cost me $95/month.  I couldn’t afford any of the other plans out of pocket.  But this I can do. 

So I have enrolled.  And am waiting to pay my first bill.  And I will have insurance again as of the first of June. 

I hope one way or another to get a job that will afford me insurance as part of my package.  But given that this is not my present reality, that I am unexpectedly living the life of a single underemployed 55 year old man, I am grateful for a way to afford insurance.  Because I’ve lived long enough to know that nothing lasts forever, and things can change in an instant.

Whatever else one may want to say about the ACA/Obamacare, I’ve been helped.  It’s provided me the bridge over some unexpected uncertain times with respect to managing my healthcare.  And in my case, it is working. And I am grateful.

In my experience, at least.