The Before Times

In my last post, I referenced a time period in my life that I’ve began referring to in my head as “the Before Times.” I also consider them to be “the Good Times,” times before certain decisions were made. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that I will be referencing that concept more frequently over the next few months, so I thought it worthwhile to talk about what I mean by this, what that time entailed, and why I was thinking about it a lot to begin with.

Elizabeth and I had been married about 3 years, and we had gotten this fantastic apartment. Dual income and no kids, we were living the lives of successful post-grad-school professionals. I was still pondering “what next,” and we were very actively involved in creative ministries in our local faith community. I had not changed careers yet. I was helping people, every day. We were dreaming about what we wanted for our lives. Netflix subscriptions still mailed DVDs every month. The Internet was not yet in everyone’s pocket.

There was this specific moment that I recall in which I was home from work, and was looking out the window later in the evening as several others began returning from their workdays. I remember them seeming obviously stressed, obviously having put in a long day (given the time), and thinking that I was thankful to not be in the corporate machine. I never wanted to be in the corporate machine. I was, in that regard content.

Through a series of life events, I made a career change that was a great financial move, but entailed being drawn into the corporate world with which I never anticipated being involved. I didn’t know how negative an impact that would have at first. I wouldn’t learn until much later. I remember our oldest daughter being born just before that career change…the time that I was able to spend with her. After the career change, the time vanished, but in a deceptively subtle way that you don’t notice as it’s happening. It was years before she regained that time. I shudder to think that perhaps our youngest never had that time.

I realized this when I was briefly unemployed last summer. Those sorts of crisis events have a way of giving you space to focus on what’s important. I’m blessed to be out of the corporate world now and am regaining my faculties.

There’s something else that contributed to those times, all those years ago, being better. Technology had reached a point where it was helpful in many aspects of our lives. There was a “sweet spot”, as it were. We’ve passed that now. We’ve reached a point in which we’re willingly serving the technology instead of the technology serving us.

As I think back to those times, I remember an idea that I had once to write a book, sort of a memoir, about all of the places that we had lived and some of the neighbors we had encountered. I may have even started a manuscript for it somewhere, long ago. We’ve had a lot of neighbors over the years, and I’m amazed to think about how our lives have impacted each other, briefly been a part of each other. Those are holy encounters, encounters which are sadly less prevalent, or at least less appreciated, now in the age in which we serve our technology.

I want to go back to the Before Times. I entertain this desire occasionally by watching television series from that period. I would love to go back and re-make some decisions, but, as Billy Joel pointed out, we can’t go back, only forward. I’m wondering what from that time I can bring forward into this time, because I’m convinced that our family will be better for it.

Prayerfully, that will be a success.

Into the future we go….

Why Yes…I Do Want To Do Things Differently in 2024

Happy New Year's 2024. Used under Creative Commons.

Dearest reader…especially those who have been with me here for a while…can I just tell you that 2023 has been a crazy experience?

I feel oddly reminiscent of when I wrote about the change of decade in 2020. I wrote a post so full of meaningful reflection and optimism, only to go falling with the rest of the world headlong into a generation-defining event. In a somewhat similar way, I journaled about New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of 2023, and the year began perfectly fine. Then, as fear about the economy shifted, I was laid off from my job, as were many of my colleagues. Needless to say, the summer was tumultuous as a result. In the middle of this, we switched the kiddos to a new school and we began attending a new faith community in a city that we had only moved to a little over a year prior.

A little change is a good thing. Too much is chaos.

The strange thing is that I’m not sure I would have had many of these things go differently, because I experienced a great deal of life change and personal growth through that trying time period this summer. I also truly experienced the depth of Romans 8:28 is a manner that I’m not sure I ever had before, in that, after scrambling to find employment and all of the panic that went with that experience, I ultimately ended up with what could quite possibly be the best job that I’ve ever held. I feel as though work holds its proper place in my life, and only its proper place, in a position that I find fulfilling. In short, I couldn’t be happier with that part of my life.

“All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich

All of that to say, while there is now a happy ending, life was strictly about survival for a bit of this year…thus the notable absence of writing here.

So tonight, as the Christmas lights on the outside of our home are illuminated for the final time of the season and I watch the clock tick down to 2024, I’m remembering the New Year’s resolutions that I made for this year, and how many of them received no attention because life got in the way. And, I’m debating whether or not making such resolutions is really just an exercise in futility, if I’m to be honest.

Still, there were good intentions there, and some of them I want to keep in 2024. I still want to watch less and read more, as well as writing more…here, finishing my novel, as well as other ventures. I have the time and the mental space to do that now, which is such a gift that I don’t intend to waste.

I want to re-establish contact with old friends from the before times (I plan to post about what I mean by that soon). When I dropped most social media, I didn’t think through how to maintain contact, and so I’m leaning heavily on my contacts application and hoping that a lot of those details haven’t changed for people.

I feel incredibly optimistic about 2024. I have learned and grown this year, and have emerged both with a newfound perspective on what’s important, and with the space in my life to work on implementing what I’ve learned. We can’t know what lies ahead…I know many who are filled with pessimism about the upcoming year, which is an easy state in which to arrive if you read more than a few minutes of news. I’m holding out hope, though.

My friend, I don’t know what 2023 held for you, or what 2024 will hold. I pray it’s all working out for the best for you. I’d love to hear from you about how it’s going. Please keep in touch, and I’m planning for more space for conversation here in the coming year.

Here’s to 2024!

Image attribution: Carol VanHook under Creative Commons.

What To Do With Anxiety?

If I could articulate one truth about life as a follower of Christ, it’s this: we live many areas of our lives in a state of cognitive dissonance between what we know to be true, and what we experience. Our emotional response to an event is frequently incongruous with our theological understanding on the same event. In other words, we know that God will take care of us, and can look back to see how He always has, and yet we’re in this tension of “will He this time?” when confronted with an event.

There’s a lot of writing out there examining the question of whether or not anxiety is a sin. Various writers fall on both sides. Many writers who fall on the side of it being a sin, I think, are in a mindset that treats psychology and mental health as being somehow inherently invalid, that every problem is a spiritual problem. So before I go further, let’s dig into that statement for a moment. First, every problem is, in fact, a spiritual problem. We know a great deal more today about both physical and mental well-being than we did even a decade ago. Theologically, I’m a trichotomist. That is, I believe that the body, soul, and spirit are three separate and distinct aspects of humanity’s existence. Each person has each aspect. I find it obvious that each of these aspects inform each other, and impact each other. Spiritual health, mental health, and physical health inform each other. It is difficult to maintain mental health without spiritual health, or physical health without mental health, for example. Accepting that, then every problem becomes a spiritual problem, because our spiritual state impacts every problem that we confront. Human beings are amazingly complex, and we are not living in the condition in which we were designed to live.

I think you see where I’m going with this.

There’s a lot exegesis of the the Greek involved to decide whether or not you believe that anxiety is a sin…that is, if it’s wrong, and thus subject to a need for forgiveness. I am not convinced that it is, but even if you are, you’ve experienced anxiety. Given a frightening enough scenario…imagine being confronted with the potential of a catastrophic loss of income, or with a war, or an assault…the human condition is such that it will experience anxiety, especially when secondary to trauma. And while there are many definitions of trauma, perhaps, I would argue that we all experience a trauma at some point. I heard a mental health professional say once that, if trauma were effectively handled when it occurred, that the DSM would be a pamphlet. I think that speaks to how critical it is that we accept this as part of the human condition, to not avoid it, but to confront it.

I recently went through an incredibly stressful period with life events. So many of what I understood to be stable aspects of my life were suddenly thrown into question. I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety over the past few weeks, as would, I think, anyone in a similar position. Through that experience, I’ve learned many hard lessons, grown as a person and as a Believer, and found a great deal of peace.

The first step in living with the cognitive dissonance that I mentioned is to recognize that it exists, and to not deny it. The Christian faith is full of hope, but, as always, we have to approach that hope from the starting point that it is needed, which is rather difficult to do if we deny a problem to begin with. So I guess my point here is, don’t run from it. Don’t theologize yourself into thinking that you shouldn’t be experiencing anxiety about a situation, that it should somehow make you question your faith. That way leads to legalism, and, if anxiety is what you’re experiencing, then it is freedom that you need.

And I pray that you find it.

Image attribution: Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons.

Second Nature: A Theological Idea

Something has happened to me that I never anticipated. Words that I never imagined saying escaped my lips this week.

I’ve become a morning person.

I have no idea how this happened (a friend’s response was words to the effect of “welcome to being old”), but it has. I’m routinely up 30 minutes before my alarm, often with two hours of quiet before anyone else in the house is awake. I eventually stopped fighting it, and accepted that I now have this wonderfully quiet time in which to pray, journal, and be productive. So, fresh cup of coffee in hand, I start with trying to just focus on God each morning.

Which is difficult. Oh, so difficult.

Almost immediately as my brain begins to wake up (see the previous reference to coffee), the concerns of the day begin to crowd in. All of the things that I haven’t written down are spinning in my head. All of the day-to-day things that need to be done are pressing in, even before I’ve consulted my to-do list. Because we live in a material space, it’s really difficult to be aware of anything beyond that. And, almost all of the things crowding into my head at this point are material, at least in the sense that they involve physical things (“wow, the kids didn’t pick up their toys again in this room”) or the practical (“I need to schedule the maintenance appointment for the car”). These are things that I can observe, things that have a concrete outcome, things that just need to be done.

Since my Easter reflections, though, I can’t get rid of this awareness (when I can quiet myself enough) that, beyond the white-noise of our lives, there is this extended reality that, while not immediately observable, is more real than the concrete. The realm of the spiritual. The part of our existence from which we become increasingly isolated because of our excessive focus on empirical data.

Now, as certain readers of this begin to rage that I’m anti-science or some such, I’m not. Empiricism has its place. I’m just asserting that that place is not to be worshipped or deified, which currently seems to be the religion of the day. I’m cautioning against scientific reductionism…the audacity to assume that because we know everything about a thing, that we know the thing.

The reason that I bring this up here is not to re-state my previous post, but rather to expand with this idea that I can’t let go of: that the salvific process of choosing to follow Christ fundamentally alters what we think of as the human condition. We are very different once that happens. Human, but in a way alien as well, in the sense that our humanity is somehow changed.

Hear me out before thinking that my sanity has finally escaped my grasp. After Pentecost, it was established that Christ-followers receive the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, as part of the justification event. I was raised in an atmosphere in which the work of the Holy Spirit was somewhat minimized to “conviction” or to some form of inspiration. What I think I’m beginning to see is that, as the Holy Spirit somehow joins with a person who is otherwise in a fallen condition, a regenerative event takes place that makes us, though still human, somehow very different. I think that this difference is somehow instinctively detectable by those who have not had the experience, and thus they become uncomfortable. I also think that the experience is frequently barely registered by those who have it, because of the crowded landscape of observable data that I mentioned above.

I’m getting this hypothesis from a few references: Romans 8:9 and 8:16, I Corinthians 3.16, Ephesians 2:6, Colossians 3:4, I John 3:1-10.

I’m also not in anyway suggesting that this result in a mindset of “the other,” in which Christ-followers view those who do not follow Christ as somehow less or deserving of disdain. In fact, the event that I’m discussing should have quite the opposite effect when realized.

To summarize, I wonder if, at the moment of decision to follow Christ, our humanity is somehow and suddenly different because of the Holy Spirit’s “moving in?” I’m holding onto this lightly because someone (including you, dear reader) could present a persuasive argument to the contrary. If I’m right, though, it changes so much of how we see our day-to-day, forcing a re-prioritization of our concerns.

The Way Back Machine

I’m beginning to feel like the grumpy old man who complains about what kids these days are watching and listening to, rambling on about how none of it is as good in quality as what we had. I suppose it’s inevitable in a way. All of my holiday gift cards are being spent on television shows from the 90’s and mid-00’s, when we were first married. Objectively, some of it is bad (mostly the 90’s stuff, but honestly, you really can’t help but dig that dystopian, post-apocalyptic vibe), but some of it was really good. In any case, it’s been taking most of my free time this winter.

This nostalgia thing is becoming serious.

In a sense, it’s a sign, not a symbol, and it points back to some really fun times that we had in our early marriage. I’m sure that it’s normal to reminisce about “back before we had kids,” so I can’t be alone in this. I also remember…and miss…our faith community and friends from those days. We were still living in the city where we had gone to grad school, and still had many of those connections. We were very active in the arts, in our faith community, and full of optimism for the future. For whatever reason, it’s much more difficult to make those tight friendships in New England. It’s also exponentially more difficult to find a faith community in New England. As we have searched for both, I’ve found myself missing those days of 10 + years ago much more profoundly, which I think has been informing my nostalgic memory trips.

Our local faith community had a theatre group in which we were leaders, and it took so much of our time. I loved every moment of it, but eventually, we just burned out. We were so busy, all the time, and we needed a sabbath time to refresh ourselves, to take a break, to think about things. That was ultimately only a year or so before we moved away, although that wasn’t the plan then, but I remember this painful realization when our stepping away for a time to recharge wasn’t received well. We began going to other faith communities to get some time away, and found ourselves viewed as pariahs by some in the one that we had attended. It was painful.

Shortly after Christmas festivities were over this year, there was conversation about how our extended family has always remained close, regardless of distance and regardless of faith communities attended. The comment was made that we are uncommon in that sense, that the experience we had 10 years is far more common. That’s troubling to me.

I understand it, though. A local church has so much to keep up with, so many needs to meet, and it exists to focus on those needs, those people. It’s easy to de-prioritize anything outside of that sphere. In that way, while it’s easier now than ever to stay in touch with friends who live far away, it’s not common to talk to them every day as you once did. The typical experience that I’ve had, however, is that moving away is the equivalent of leaving an employer on bad terms. That’s indicative of a deep-rooted misperception of how the Church was designed to work.

I still view myself as belonging to the same Church as all of those dear friends from years ago, even though their ministry focus is different than mine now. My ecclesiological position (and I don’t think it’s so revolutionary), is that there is only one Church, and that all of us who follow Christ are part of it. I don’t think that means that we’re under some sort of artificial obligation to stay in close touch with people who move on to other faith communities, but I also don’t think that we’re under an artificial obligation to cut ties with them, and it’s the second case that I’ve observed happen frequently in my life.

I supposed maybe I’m sensitive to this because we’ve moved a lot. A discontented wanderlust seems my burden to bear. As we’ve lived in different parts of the country and have seen how other Believers express our common faith, it’s expanded my view of our relationship with God dramatically. I’m hopeful for a day when I can stay in touch easily with others if we move on again.

Even better, I’m hopeful for a day when I re-connect with those dear friends from my past.

That would be truly nostalgic.