Swimming Upstream – an Autobiography (Part 4)

Continued from LEARNING TO THRIVE. Or return to INDEX.

LEARNING TO SWIM – I was in the big pool now.

In the week prior to starting at seminary, I had moved into an apartment on campus – completely furnished and outfitted from the generosity of my Liberty Church supporters – and I had finished up a six-month, 10-hour per week consulting gig at Sterling Commerce, a division of the telecom giant, SBC. I had hated the thought of returning to the business world, but the opportunity had cropped up within hours of deciding to go back to school. At first, I thought, it seemed like the perfect obstacle to set between me and seminary – a high paying consulting job as financial advisor to the Executive Vice-President of Global Development that would tug at my old addictions to profit and power. Then, the news from the Financial Assistance Director at the seminary changed my perception.

Because I was admitted, initially, on a trial basis – I had to prove my ability to do graduate level academic work – I would not be eligible for any financial assistance. The total tuition for the first year would be roughly equivalent to half the amount I would earn from the consulting job. I could live quite well for a year on the other half. This was too coincidental to be coincidence – so I accepted the gig as a gift from God. During that six-month period, I found that I no longer ran the risk of getting sucked back into the corporate grind, as I endured each hour I spent pouring over numbers and strategies. I celebrated my last day with probably a little too much vigor. I knew, without knowing why, that this was indeed my last day in the bowels of corporate America, and I was finally totally free.

As my classes started, I tried my hardest to develop a routine – each one of which was very quickly discarded. L. decided to take a job that required her to leave the house before the boys got up. My life took a wonderful turn. Each morning, I would rise early, drive the five minutes to the house, get the boys up, fix them breakfast, help with the last minute details of the homework and see them onto the bus. I then had a half-hour before my first class. To say that these were some of the happiest times of my life is an understatement – I was in heaven. This is how I always wanted to parent, and never gave myself the chance.

That all crashed into a pile several months later when L. informed me she and the boys would be moving ninety minutes away. Thus began a pattern of change and behavior on L’s part that seemed to be designed to make my relationship with the boys difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. Now, only seeing them every other weekend, when there weren’t other plans that kept them from being available, I threw myself single-mindedly into my studies.

I had six classes, the maximum I could take in my year as a probationary student, in which to prove my ability to function on a graduate level – an ability I had no clue that I possessed. It slowly dawned on me that all of the unorthodox ways that I have been taught to learn would now provide the tools to navigate academia – albeit in a highly unusual way. I found intersections between theology and economics that informed both my understanding of mission and administration. Initially having extreme difficulty with Hebrew, it finally dawned on me to treat it as a mathematical system of symbols, after which I excelled at it. I saw links between the most disparate subjects, and between those and all the things I had learned along the way of life. And I found that all those years of writing to process my depressive episodes had given me a more than adequate command of the English language and the way it could be used to express the inexpressible. Not only could I do graduate work, but I could do it well while being creative and original in the process.

Only in hindsight, since I wasn’t diagnosed as such until very late in 2008, can I understand that being bipolar was an asset in this environment. What appeared to be chaotic and fragmented thinking at first, proved to be an ability and compulsion to see presumably unrelated things as part of a whole. Learning language as mathematics, studying theology using patterns from quantum physics, and exploring ethics as economic transactions were just some of the ways in which my mind interpolated new learning with that which had been acquired over a lifetime – a lifetime of learning set in motion lovingly by my sister, abusively by my father and pathetically by other addicts like Dr Haynes. Intellectually, I was fully sated.

Personally, however, was a different issue. I was lonely and very intent on staying that way. I did not need the complications of a relationship, especially after my last marriage had gone further south than I did on my mission trips. While amenable to conversations about classes, academics, theology and the like, I quickly developed a reputation as a socially disinterested curmudgeon. This was due largely because to my reaction to a couple of women on campus who were just a tad too interested for my comfort.

At first when I met Jenna, nothing changed. After a couple of chats, I knew she was interesting – too interesting. The fact that she lived with her children three doors away in the same apartment building only further added to my resolve to be terminally distant. Jenna still tells a story about how rude I was on one occasion, after a mutual friend had suggested to Jenna that I was a “wonderful guy.” That all changed the day I noticed that Jenna’s car was not in the parking lot, even though she was sitting on her porch.

It was just a simple question – who would have known it would have had such life-changing implications. “Where’s your car,” I asked. Of course, after retrieving this little red Festiva, which Jenna still owns I might add, and fixing it in the parking lot, Jenna insisted she owed me dinner. Despite my efforts to the contrary, Jenna would not take no for an answer. In her mind, one good turn deserves another – even to the point of sitting through a interminable meal with an emotionally stunted recluse. The rest is history, as they say. One meal and I was quite smitten, despite my best intentions. It did take some courting, however, to get Jenna past her initial, less than flattering, opinions.

Things progressed smoothly and productively on the seminary front, as well as on the good neighbor policy Jenna and I had established. I wrote profusely and well – well enough to warrant being a writing tutor to some with undergraduate degrees but few language skills. I was amazed that so many were not adept at thinking creatively and originally. Jenna also studied intensely, so we were largely in agreement as to the hours we would spend together. The only conflict in my life was with my ex, and far too often time with the boys comprised the front line in the battle – a battle I was ill-equipped to win. My sons and I quickly started growing apart, despite my best efforts.

In January, 2003, Jenna had a long-standing wish come true. She was accepted into a program in which she could do her internship with the British Methodist Church. I had some thinking to do. There was little to keep me from wanting to go, except for the boys who I saw rarely by then. I set about finding a small seminary or university in which I could take classes that would transfer back to seminary. One inquiry after another went no-where, and I began to feel despondent. It wasn’t that the classes weren’t available, but that they had no mechanism to transfer credits back to a U.S. seminary. Usually, in situations like these, students came to earn a one-year research Master of Arts – an endeavor that first required an undergraduate degree. I did not want to spend a year apart from the only woman I had known who excited my brain as much as my heart. I could not afford to take a year off school and, besides, Jenna and I not being married presented difficulties in living arrangements. We were both progressive in theology, but not that liberal ethically. After investigating at least a dozen universities, I was ready to give up.

That was when I received an email from Janet Tollington. A friend of a friend had contacted her about this British ex-pat in the states who wanted to study in Britain for a year. Having just established a similar exchange complete with credit transfer with Columbia University’s seminary, Janet offered me a slot for the 2003/2004 academic year. I finally remembered to ask where I would be attending and almost fainted at the answer. Never in my wildest dreams did I think to try Cambridge Theological Federation of Cambridge University, since I assumed people the world over competed aggressively to gain entrance. Why in the world would Cambridge even consider extending an invitation to me?

The answer, as astounding as it seemed, was that I was vertical and breathing – oh yes, and I had funds and student loans to guarantee fees would be paid. With less than 3% of Britons attending church, there is a dearth of students wishing to attend seminaries, and Cambridge’s seven religious colleges were all in the same boat – world class facilities with few seeking to use them – or willing to pay for the privilege. I got to attend Westminster College at Cambridge because it suited both our needs – and neither of us was too picky. Jenna settled on an appointment 30 miles away from Cambridge, and things looked very, very good for the next year. Trains ran regularly between the two cities, and Jenna and I spent most weekends together.

It didn’t take long to realize I was in the big pool now, however. This was an entirely different educational system than the one to which I had become accustomed. Rigor, combined with very traditional styles of teaching, writing and defending essays, was Cambridge’s claim to fame. No level of need on their part for vertical, breathing minister wannabes, who were able to pay, was going to make them compromise their standards. Every one of my first four essays were returned to be reworked, even though the tutors (examining professors) acknowledged they were “A” level papers by U.S. standards. I showed the usual “American habit” of treating the question as a jumping off point, rather than as the entire point of the essay. Stray from the question at your own risk, I soon learned. As hard as it was to learn, I finally managed to focus my writing so sharply that I earned honors in all but one course. I have been trying to undo that habit ever since.

By December of that year, Jenna and I were getting pretty tired of seeing each other only on the weekends. We were also very much in love. While we had originally anticipated marrying before leaving for England, we decided it would be best to wait until after our return. We changed our mind in mid stream, however, and in March we were married in Letchworth Garden City, Hertforshire, England. I only repeat the name of the place because it is such a posh sounding mouthful. In reality, we were wed in the mission church in an urban neighborhood, which was one of Jenna’s churches. The tiny congregation was ecstatic, since very few people actually get married in churches anymore. The congregation of Norton Methodist Church had to be the dearest people on the planet.

While I managed to navigate the academic rigor at Cambridge, it came at a physical and emotional price. Angina, a periodic and unwelcome visitor because of my prior heart attacks, flared up due to the stress I induced striving to be the best I could be. Two hospital stays and a protracted period of minimal activity invited a bout of depression, which plagued me the rest of the school year. Nonetheless, I count the year spent at Westminster College as one of the best of my life – a social, cultural and academic joy for which I am ever thankful.

Upon returning to the states, Jenna was appointed to churches in Iowa, where she began her process towards ordination. Having the choice between Dubuque, the Presbyterian seminary that specialized in rural ministry, and United in the Twin Cities, which specialized in urban, social justice and issues of sexuality and religion, I chose the latter. It meant driving 1200 miles per week, but that is why God made so many hours, I suppose. A full-time school schedule and a half-time commute left no room for a job, however, so things got progressively tighter.

I am thankful that my education was well-rounded with seminaries that ranged from conservative to liberal, traditional to progressive, and spiritual to justice-seeking. I learned that while each category had answers to the issues facing churches and populations, none of them have THE answer. Learning to swim in the big pool meant that I had to take my floaties off and jump in without benefit of strict dogma and doctrine, to be flexible theologically and ideologically, and to learn to walk beside people in their walk towards God. In short, the road through seminary and into ministry can only be taken trusting in God and holding the hand of Christ. To do otherwise, especially to trust primarily in a denominational structure, is to invite catastrophe and severe disillusionment.

I have a recurring picture that enters my head at the most inopportune times. I am standing in line before God getting ready to have my life examined, with a number of people standing on the right and on the left – just like in the parable. God asks the person in front of me, “Where did you put your trust – in the scriptures and me, or in your denomination?” This person answered, “Oh, I always trusted the PC(USA).” God answered, “Right! You stand over there to the left.” “NEXT!”


2 Responses to “Swimming Upstream – an Autobiography (Part 4)”

  1. February 26, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    I just want you to know that I applaud your openness and honesty. So much of your writing, by comparison or contrast, shows me things about my own journey. I too wrecked 7 cars. [ totaled] . My heart is fine, but my skin rebelled with a malignant melanoma. You struggled to get to seminaries, I fought to avoid them like the plague itself. I too spent time in the UK, but much of it was on an extended pub crawl, or as a Welsh friend called it, “my three month piss”.
    I have had the same exact recurring picture in my mind, You and I will end up standing on the right, you need not acknowledge me if I embarrass you. I could never trust anyone or anything but Jesus.
    Jesus taught us to love one another. You make it very easy for me to love you. thanks.

  2. February 26, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    I cannot imagine you would embarrass me in the least. One thing about the kind of life I have lead is that it becomes pretty hard, actually impossible, to be judgmental.

    I knew from when I first read your writings that, while we were theologically from different schools, there was a depth that I could recognize and a difference i could appreciate. People who think like I do scare me.

    So, ditto on the love, mate. Thanks for engaging, and keep up your important work. Between the two of us, we have two parts of the spectrum covered. Now, if we could recruit a few million more in Jesus’ name.

    Thanks Will, Andy

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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