Life and Community, post-Ph.D.

Limbo.  After seven years.  That’s what it feels like.

Last Tuesday, I passed my dissertation defense and earned a Ph.D. “with distinction.”  On May 15th, I will be awarded the Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from  Chicago Theological Seminary.   Elated and relieved, I remain unsure about what all of it means.

The last seven years have been transformative for me.  In 2003, my family and I moved to Chicago from Kansas City, Missouri.  I quit a job in ministry that I loved, but really was not fully spiritually or emotionally prepared for.  I was to be pastor of a fairly new and large suburban church (around 200-250 active members) that had equal challenges and potential.  But, something within me and in my family was not right.  Margo and I separately felt a mix of latent restlessness and angst.  We needed to break away, move on, give up some things to focus our lives.  My previous six years in ministry had been difficult with consistent leadership changes and direction always dictated from the top.   And, it kept changing in a mix of organizational control, disorientation, and theological reinterpretations.  Spiritually, we were a bit strained.  I would have had one of the best jobs in the church, in some ways, as a full-time Pastor.   But, God, future, and family – and a faint sense that I needed to grow and heal – drew me away.   So we moved.   We left family, career, and community, to look for ourselves and God on our own.  I enrolled in Chicago Theological Seminary’s PhD program.  I went from pastor to student and stay-at-home dad of my 2 year old and 6-week old infant.  Our rent was higher in Chicago than our previous house payment in Kansas City.  Margo went to work for Chicago Public Schools.   Our income and sense of sanity was cut by 30-40%.

Here we are seven years later.  We now own a small co-op just off Lake Shore Drive and can see Lake Michigan from our living room window.  It is both quaint and affordable, though the lack of garage or parking spaces is an ongoing frustration.  Margo works in one of Chicago’s top 25 elementary schools, where Katy and Kenzlee also go.  I work, again, for Community of Christ, which is finding its way amidst new opportunities, shrinking U.S. congregations, and dwindling resources.  I’m surrounded by new inspiration and wonderful people as a church employee, but also a durable struggle for corporate direction.

I have now earned my PhD.  I’ve written a book that has reworked the very way I think about theology, economics, and community.  My work consistently causes me reflect on my own economic habits, who they effect, and what the Kingdom Christ came to affect means to me and those who share my kind of life.  Should we continue to live frugally?  Give money away?  Envision a co-operative with an urban garden with those like-minded?  Look for a job in academia?  Move into a single family home and seek out real community with our neighbors?  I don’t know.  Life, no longer shaped by the pressure of a Ph.D. program and its rigorous requirements, is disorienting.

Limbo.  I’m not sure where the next thirty years will take me.  The city is so different than the suburbs.  In many ways, I like it.  I actually walk by, see, and interact with strangers everyday – right outside my front door.  Even, on the elevator.   But, like a sailor, I’m trying to discern the winds while I have not yet plot a course.  How will God work with me?  Through the winds?  Through the inspiration of my prayer, heart’s desires, and vision?  Do they matter?  Life is, yet is so much not about…me.

I’m lucky to have a job.  Even though it looks less and less secure, especially for both ministry and theological education, the fact that I have a job is a blessing.  I have no doubt I have something to offer both my faith tradition, and if not it, then another tradition or another theology school.  I’m impassioned.  I want to ask the questions Christ’s life and ministry brought into others lives and immerse myself as he did in new life.  For me, church is not a doctrinal system (though I can do those), nor is it some kind of personal spiritual outlook that is somehow more optimistic.   Personal salvation is nothing without life in community, unless personal salvation is about being saved from a life that is ultimately alone.  Life with Christ speaks to relationships.  The Spirit of Christ is both the inspiration and the glue that holds together temporal life with spirituality.  God is creator, Christ is redeemer, and the Spirit sustains.

What does God create, Christ redeem, and Holy Spirit sustain?  Relationships.  Now that I have grown, become a dedicated father and a loyal partner.  I’ve deepened my life in the disciplines of spiritual discernment, of reading and reflection, and the practices of disciplined written and oral proclamation.  I just am not sure what relationships God will call me to next.

I know our world and churches have monstrous challenges to face, spiritual and temporal, and most are without answers.  I fear America’s increasingly robust and elaborate, even if inordinate, faith in ourselves and dependence on the promises of our all mighty economy (“In God We Trust”) is shaping up a storm of forces that will both shake us and unravel some of the fabric of our society and its mode of relationships.  An economy that survives on consumption, self-regard, and debt is simply not a mode of community, sacred or otherwise.  It is a mode of relating in which the very meaning of human being is redefined.  The edifying and enriching part of human relationships becomes what enriches and feeds ourselves, while the commitment and obligations that create and sustain these relationships are relegated to a secondary position.   Our world promotes “have now, earn and pay later” relationships, whether we are looking for a home, a hassle-free meal at the end of a harried day, or the long-standing love of a significant other.   I can only hope a uniquely Christian and profoundly human faith and community can respond with knowledge of a different kind of relationship – ones that flow in grace, peace, and generosity, as well as grounded in a commitment to what ultimately creates, redeems, and sustains human relationships.  I’m tired of relationships based on fear and promises that are increasingly empty.  I’m looking for a community that begins with people who hit the bottom of their addiction and finally realize that real life, now and eternal, begins somewhere on the other side, at the edge, of “me.”

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7 responses to “Life and Community, post-Ph.D.

  1. You have spoken my own mind, Matt. I am so sick of this greed driven economy. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. No one seems to care about the other person anymore. It’s an entirely different world then the one I grew up in.

    I think the church is dying. When my generation is gone, most of the church income is also gone.

    • Perhaps the church must learn the lesson that life begins beyond “us”, too.

      Perhaps when the church has no income, it may realize that relationships aren’t centered in buildings or programs or staff or policies. They are centered in Christ whose mission seemed to require no buildings or programs or staff or policies. The things we believe make us mighty are the things that continually addict us.

  2. Matt,

    Congratulations again on this huge milestone. I appreciated the honesty and careful reflection that colors what you have written. When I completed my PhD May of last year I knew that there would be a time of transition. I decided to give myself something like a mini gap year, like is sometimes done between high school and college or between college and working life in the UK. This hasn’t been a gap year in the sense that I stopped working or traveled abroad…in fact I’m working more than a full time job…but in the sense that I opened myself to mini adventures and intentionally said yes to opportunities that I had been putting off while finishing my degree…renewal time with loved ones/family, watching TV and movies, reading books that weren’t assigned, a few short trips, and things like that.

    I’m sure that you are on your path and doing fine and I look forward to your upcoming adventures.

  3. Im glad your done buddy. Maybe a Limbo of what nows, but I hope it is full of potentials. I just want you to know you are the only doctorate theologian that I know can touch topics about God with his feet on the ground for regular folks. That is impressive from a tall man’s perspective. God bless you and your ministry and your outlook. Congratulations to not just you but to your family for sticking this one out. God has truly blessed you.
    Your Brother in Christ,
    Jacob

  4. Matt, beautifully expressed. Mom and I are so…I’m not sure if the word proud is the right word, but can’t come up with a better one. Looking forward to coming to your graduation. I’m sure that God will continue to lead you and Margo and the kids as you move in faith into God’s future. Love you, Dad Flowers

  5. Congratulations Matt…
    Thank you, and your family, for willing to travel the journey you have thus far, I know on that journey my few brief encounters with you have been a blessing for my journey.
    As we step into the unknown, I look forward to sharing in ministry with you and others as we seek to embrace and live out the message of Christ.

    Peace be with you,
    Lyle II

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