346. gut check
A few months ago, I wrote that I’ve been thinking very seriously about moving back to Hawaii to do a church plant after I graduate. Well a few weeks ago, I got to go back to Hawaii to visit family and friends and a big part of this visit was meeting and talking with people about this crazy church planting idea.
Unfortunately, what should have been a fun time back home with friends was hampered by a substantial killjoy. See, I had a couple big papers due the week I got back from my trip and so what should have been a relaxing get away turned into a twisted sort of study abroad program. See, if I wasn’t hanging with family or friends, I was in coffee shops and libraries with my nose buried deep in books and articles trying to figure out what I was going to say in the papers I had to write. It was a really stupid way to spend time in Hawaii.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Try as I might, and believe me, I tried, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the reading materials. See, the papers I had to write were for a philosophy class where we studied the movement of post-modernity. The class was scheduled as an end of the semester, four-day-long intensive study class where they flew in a really great professor from the University of Denver to teach the class. I was reading writers like Hegel and Kierkegaard and Derrida and other giants of post-modern thought. And we were assigned primary texts – works written by the philosophers themselves – and try as I might, I just could not make any sense of their work. I also tried consulting secondary sources to see how other writers have tried to understand what these philosophers were saying but that wasn’t much help either.
It was kind of like this. I like to play internet chess from time to time. I’m not very good. I play the most rudimentary kind of chess. When I’m really on top of my game, I can maybe think one or two moves ahead, but not much further than that. I make really bad, really rookie mistakes and I lose a lot of games. Sometimes, to try and better my game, I browse through books on chess at the bookstore. I can really only read the most basic writing on the game because when I try to read something written by a grandmaster, I get lost. They reference opening and endgame variations that I know nothing about and they talk about how a particular pawn move builds a strategic foundation for an attack many moves away. I just can’t read books about chess at that level.
That’s how I felt, trying to read for these papers I had to write. The last philosophy class I took was back in college, maybe fifteen years ago, and here I was trying to write graduate-level essays on notoriously difficult material. It was like trying to learn the rules of chess by reading grandmaster level chess play and then writing papers about subtle chess variations. And trying t do all this in a month.
To be fair, I was supposed to have been reading for these papers from the beginning of the semester, but I was also taking a Hebrew class and that class took up all of my time. I barely had time for any of my other classes, this philosophy class included.
Things went from bad to worse as the due date for the papers drew near. I still wasn’t making sense of the material but I knew I was running out of time. And so I just started writing. But trying to write the papers only reinforced how little I knew about the topic – really, nothing illustrates how little you know about something more than trying to write about that thing.
Essay question analogy: “Explain the different ways that Kasparov, Fischer, Spassky, and Evans employ bishop to b4 in the Nimzo-Indian Defense to achieve long-term king side safety.”
Me: “Wait, forget about differences among those chess players’ styles of play, is the bishop the one that moves in straight lines or along diagonals?”
And then as I was working on my papers I got a letter in the mail from school saying that grading was done for one of my other classes (Old Testament Genre) and I had gotten a C+. And at MHGS, one has to get a B- or better to get credit for a class. Which meant that I had to retake that class.
Honestly, that was the final straw. At that point I already knew the philosophy papers I was writing were crap because, again, I didn’t have a grasp on the material, so I already had insecurities around my ability to write a good paper. Getting this letter completely eroded what little self-confidence I had left.
I sent off an email to the philosophy prof and the TA telling them that I wouldn’t be handing in my papers, that I’d just re-take the class when it was offered again.
And that was the way my first year of grad school ended.
It’s been a few weeks since all that happened. I’m actually fine with my decision to not hand in my philosophy papers, thus failing the class. I’m not as happy about the C+ in my OT class but I’ve come to accept that as well…mostly.
But I gotta say, the combination of those two events really got me thinking about my future, about my thoughts around church planting, about whether I should switch back to pursuing a Masters in Counseling Psychology degree instead.
And it wasn’t just the academics that got me rethinking my degree choices (that was just gut check number one). It was also my trip back to Hawaii. While I was meeting with friends there, the enormity of the task of planting a church really took hold. I mean, I was meeting with old friends who could potentially be some of my first congregants.
On the one hand, things seemed promising because I found that while I had friends who still loved Jesus and were doing great work with the homeless and fighting issues like human trafficking, some of them weren’t going to church anymore because a lot of the churches they were familiar with were only interested in preaching about “how to have a great marriage in three easy steps” or “how to get along with your boss” or “thank God Linda Lingle vetoed the civil union bill.” It was a confirmation that there was indeed a need for a new way of doing and being the church in Hawaii. It should have been a great encouragement for me but it wasn’t.
See, the thing is, I already knew that Hawaii needed something new and my friends’ experiences validated that and while that was encouraging for me, what became even more clear to me was the fact that I didn’t really have a good idea about how to do different. I had a good feel for the problems, but I had no clear vision of the solutions (gut check number two).
But here’s the real heart of the matter for me (gut check number three)…but first a side story.
On my last day in Hawaii, I was driving back to the airport to return my rental car before flying back to Seattle. I was listening to NPR and Talk of the Nation was on and they were doing a show about the best movie pep talks of all time. And there was one quote that the hosts mentioned (I think it was from the movie Hoosiers) where Gene Hackman, playing the coach, says to his team who are going up against a much better team for the state championship, “I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.” And I remember one of the hosts saying, “Wow, I’d do anything for that guy!”
That sentiment – you’re a winner no matter what happens, that illustration of unconditional love, that’s been running through my head over and over again these past few weeks, especially as I’ve been processing all the academic drama in my life lately. Which brings me back to gut check number three.
What if I switched back to the Counseling track and let go of this idea of planting a church. Would God still love me? Or what if I gave up on school altogether. Would God give up on me as well? Or what if I decided that it’s no use working for justice in the name of God. What if I just left the church and Christianity entirely and just worked with secular non-profits without any kind of theological motivation behind it. What would God think of me then? Would God love me or would he turn away in utter disgust.
There’s a part of me that knows the answer – that God would love me regardless.
I know that.
But do I believe that?
Because here’s the thing. The kids who were playing for Hackman’s character? They believed him when he told them that he would consider them winners regardless of the score, and that gave them the confidence and strength to win an impossible game. But I…I don’t know if I believe that God would love me regardless – if I even went so far as to leave Christianity itself.
I mean, I don’t think I could ever do that. I do believe that God is real and that he has a plan for rescuing and redeeming His creation and that this plan is at work here and now and that I have a part to play. I can’t shake that belief – I just can’t. Life would just be too pointless and stupid if that wasn’t the case.
But still, I could believe that and still not go to church. I even think it would be possible to believe that and not call myself a Christian.
But I don’t know how far I’d get.
And here’s the flip side of this.
If I believed that God really would love me regardless, wow! I’d do anything for that God. Anything.
I don’t know what it would take for me to believe. To really believe. That’s another thing that I’m working through with my counselor. And it’s a tough nut to crack.
Lots of things running through my head these days. Not all of it is this heavy and some of it is actually really good.
I mean, even these gut checks. They’re getting me to face some really difficult, really important questions. And better to face them now than down the road when the stakes will be so much higher.
And you know, in a strange way, that feels a bit like love to me.