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.”

losing the forest in the trees

I have moments in my dissertation writing when I feel like I’m a horrible writer and I need to just to quit.   I go down an emotional rabbit hole.  Writing has never been my strong point.  I’ve had moments in my academic career when professors have read my work and told me they had no idea what I was saying.  Of course, I knew exactly what I was saying.  I never really learned whether it was a problem of my choice of words, writing style, or that my flow of thought was just plain incoherent.   Maybe it is a mix of these things.  But, internally, the problem I feel is that I get lost amidst the trees.   It’s not that I don’t understand what I’m saying or thinking.  It’s that I see so many questions and connections at once, I get lost in perspective.  And, as I get lost in the possibilities of one sentence or paragraph, I make the mistake of wanting to put too much in a sentence.   That can make it difficult to cipher what I’m saying.

One fault of mine is that I’ve never been good at outlining.   I’ve never found a way to outline that works for me.  I think best in pictures and mind-mapping.  (Mind-mapping is when you create diagrams of ideas and their connections.)  But, linerality for me is hard.  And writing moves from left to write in a linear way of reading.  Structuring my thoughts in such a way that I know what I want to say in a linear presentation is difficult for me.  But, I have no problem digging in and discussing.  Texts and ideas are like bodies of water for me.  I just dive in.  The dissertation process, however, requires me to do what I don’t feel good at doing: outlining a set of ideas in an argument that I can deconstruct by simply taking another angle on my own line of thinking.   This is horribly frustrating for me because beneath all the critical thinking I am fearful of being discovered as an impostor, an idiot, simple-minded, or someone found impersonating someone worthy of a PhD.

It is difficult for me to really make sense out of the fact that I have almost 300 pages of writing and, yet, sometimes when I’m revising it I don’t really know what I am saying.  in fact, I do know what I am saying.  I just stopped and got lost, losing the forest in the trees.  I get lost in revisions.  I so easily get lost in a sentence or paragraph and don’t see the bigger connection.  I have the unrealistic, even ridiculous, expectation when I’m editing or revising that every sentence and paragraph must be decisively constructed in such a way that it analyzes the concept I am highlighting completely, as if much of my writing isn’t also supposed to be descriptive.  Since I am dealing with dialectical philosophy and theology, it is easy to get lost in analytics and forget that I am constructing a view from a certain way of thinking.

In the end, I just hope I have the sense to keep going.  I’m not that bad of a writer.   In fact, many tell my I’m an elegant writer.   I guess I am as long I have a point to make.