I have this friend I’ve known since pre school. You might say it’s a friendship I’ve had the longest. But you might also say it’s not, depending upon your definition of friend.
She was one of my very best friends in high school. We stayed in touch through our college years, and attended one another’s weddings. Already on different trajectories, we each journeyed into separate adulthoods of career and family. Along those journeys, facebook happened and we became facebook friends. That sentence would have made no sense twenty years ago!
So, I have this friend I’ve known since pre school. Sort of. I knew her really well through college but for the past twenty-plus years, we’ve been the social network kind of friends: the kind that sometimes sees one another’s family photos and may, from time to time, click “like” on a comment, post, or photo.
Through said social media, we recently made the serendipitous discovery of some shared explorations, ponderings, and evolutions of the ways we think and believe. Nothing too grandiose, just the fundamental nature of the universe, our existential purpose, and how that all relates (or doesn’t) to the conservative evangelical American faith that once so strongly defined who we were back when we were eighteen years old and certain of everything.
It might just be midlife, and it might be the cavalcade of personal, familial, and professional crises over the past decade, but I’ve become a lot less certain and hopefully a little bit less of an asshole than I once was.
My unwanted career transformation of seventeen months ago kind of cold turkey forced me to quit being a workaholic. In an instant, I went from 70-100 hour work weeks to 40 hour work weeks. That’s a different story, though. Back to this one: I’ve had some spare time for the first time in my adult life. For the past seventeen months, two opposing desires have wrestled for the prize of what I will do when I have spare time.
In one corner, we have the desire to retreat from the delusion of any greater purpose for my life and to learn to be quiet and content. Or at least quiet and more likely sedated through Netflix, fantasy football, video games, and other forms of escapism.
In the other corner, we have the desire to tell my stories. I have so many of them. They’re all stored up inside of me and spring to life when I’m out on a long run or ride, or when I sleep well enough to dream deeply. When I’m feeling particularly brave (or delusional) I imagine my stories may be of some use to others, perhaps they may awaken others’ stories.
So I’d already been midway through creating this little web site when my once dear and now long acquainted friend asked if I had a quick summary to share of the past twenty years of my life. More specifically, a summary of how my faith has changed. It’s a story I’ve been working on for some time, as I’d like it to be something more than mere show and tell. I’d like it to be aimed at your inspiration and glorification rather than the attention-seeking behavior of an ESFJ, True Colors Orange, Enneagram 8 with a 7 wing.
This is not where I tell that story. This is where I leave myself (and you, dear reader, if you exist and persist) the breadcrumbs for that story.
1999: Fulfilled the greatest dream of my entire life to date by getting married.
Also 1999: Got my first teaching job.
Also 1999: Spent the first year of marriage being a really shitty spouse. Not the abusive or cheating kind. The absent kind. I gave all of myself to my teaching and my students and then, when I was finally home, to my rest. I gave very little to the love of my life. Miraculously, our marriage survived. Most of the miracles were through the patience and prayers of a wife I don’t deserve. If I believed in Karma, I’d suspect I’m being rewarded for a really kick-ass former life and she’s paying the price for eating a sacred cow or something!
2000-2004: We got a little better at being married. We got involved in a church and made friends. We had our first kid in 2001. Second kid in 2004. I played bass guitar in the church worship band and was very public about my christian faith in my job as a public school teacher. I thought I was making a positive difference in kids’ lives. I loved teaching and coaching. I loved coaching so much I began a Master’s program in Sport and Exercise Leadership.
2004: Quit my public school teaching and coaching jobs in order to avoid a pending teachers’ strike. Got a job as the Athletic Director at a private christian school. Thought it was pretty cool I’d have a chance to work with students as well as coaches in pursuit of making a positive difference in kids’ lives. Thought it was pretty cool to have a job where I wasn’t being some kind of rebel to be open about my faith.
Also 2004: I enjoyed working with the Athletic Directors in our league. It was a league of smaller private schools. Several of the league schools were religious and would traditionally open each athletic contest with a modest prayer or invocation. This became controversial within the league when one of the schools (my school) started using that opening prayer as the trojan horse for long winded attempts to proselytize the audience. I thought the best demonstration of christian values would be for my school to respect the wishes of our league schools and go back to the simpler practice of opening each game with a modest invocation alongside the rote pledge of allegiance and statement of sportsmanship. My boss thought the best demonstration of christian values would be to become louder and more aggressive in winning the cultural war we were fighting against the infidels. These infidels included the secular humanists, the catholics, the jews, and the lukewarm christians who voted for democrats. That wasn’t my faith at all. I quit that job and never looked back. At the time I viewed the whole thing as an aberration.
2004-2009: I was back teaching in public schools, and got super involved with student activities. We also got super involved with the local church youth group. Many of my students were involved with the youth group. We had our third kid in 2006. I was amazed and inspired to be a part of rapid positive change in a school and a community. I was persuaded by a trusted mentor to go back to school to get my principal’s credentials. Although I had very recently vowed to never leave the classroom again, I found the opportunity to make positive change at the school-wide level incredibly compelling. I thought I was making a positive difference in kids’ lives. One night, just months before we were due to move away from that town, a kid at the youth group asked me to pray for him. So I did. And what I prayed haunts me to this day. I acknowledge the abrupt transition and am not saying more about this now.
2009: After completing my master’s degree and obtaining my principal’s credential, we moved in pursuit of my career advancement in educational leadership. Within months of moving to this new town, we began making the kind of lifetime friendships I had yearned for over the previous decade of surface level friends at work and church.
2011ish: I felt very accomplished professionally, all of my social needs were being met by a broad network of generous and interesting friends, and our family was thriving. After a brief hiatus from coaching high school soccer I was coaching youth soccer for my kids’ teams. I had stopped going to church regularly because the sermons were incredibly boring and covered biblical texts I knew better than the guys that church had preaching. And, I preferred being lazy on Sunday mornings. I felt like I was making a positive difference in my kids’ lives and in other kids’ lives. H kept going to church on her own with the kids.
2014: The beginning of a mysterious health crisis for our oldest kid. It ultimately took the next 3+ years to get diagnoses. Chronic and truly debilitating from high school student athlete to bed and wheelchair. Also a period of increasing job dissatisfaction for me as I struggled with the shadowlands of assistant principal middle management. We decided to recommit to attending church as a family and did so with a different local church where the guys preaching were smart enough and talented enough for my picky tastes.
2015: Kid’s health improved. I began thriving at work again. Really felt like we had stuff figured out. I lost interest in attending church again, this time because the music bugged me.
2016: Got my dream job, what I’d been working for since 2009. Principal of a large local high school. This was my chance to really make a significant positive difference in kids’ lives!
2018: Terrifying health crisis for our youngest kid. We clung to each other and were sustained by prayer and by the kindness of our friends. Took it as a wake up call to firmly commit to church together.
2019: After a year of fully engaging with a local church that had heartfelt, literate worship music and insightful, challenging preaching, we felt we were thriving in our faith and in our marriage. We still had difficult circumstances but those all felt bearable. We thought it was time to begin serving in a greater capacity with the church. There were some minor concerns about two of our three kids feeling uncomfortable about going to church, but we passed that off as typical adolescents being adolescents.
Spring 2019: I lost my dream job in a very public, very painful, and very unjust way. It had nothing to do with my job performance. But because of my job when I made a bad choice it made the papers. I don’t think I’ll be ready to tell that story until I’m free from any desire for retribution or justice for the way things went down.
Winter 2019: I was grateful for what I still hoped would be a temporary loss of a career I had invested so much of myself in, because of the way it forced me to seek a truer, more important identity than identity through career. I was grateful because of the relationships it grew in our home and amongst friends. I spent more and more time in reading, reflection, and meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus. Through this I grew increasingly uncertain of orthodoxy’s certainty with the tittles and jots of singular sentences out of Pauline epistles. I grew increasingly convicted about the differences between the way of Jesus and the various isms of the church.
Through this season I grew even more convicted about the need to provide connection and community for others. I was (and am) blessed to be a part of a small band of brothers who meet weekly. Where we once were bound only by a shared profession and a shared faith, we now share our sorrows and delights and hopes and fears with one another. We also share a sense of some kind of call upon our hearts towards practicing the way of Jesus.
I believe a close reading of the stories of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John reveals the simplicity of the Way of Jesus. It is love. It is inclusive. It is simple for the meek and impossible for the proud.
Sometimes I find it so simple and so sweet. Sometimes I find it impossible. That makes me grateful for loss and for grief. It’s in my loss and grief that I find the Way of Jesus. It’s in my triumphs that I find his way impossible.
When COVID-19 hit and all public gatherings including church gatherings stopped for a while, we were on the verge of initiating a difficult conversation with the pastors at our church about leaving that church. Previously we had never “officially left” a church, we just stopped going. This time we are committed to formal communication. Their doctrinal statement is clear about where they stand in their reading of the tittles and jots that keep women from ever teaching or leading. Their doctrinal statement is one of exclusion rather than inclusion when it comes to the Samaritans of this moment in the cultural history of the USA. And in 2020, after a soul-warping, conscience-searing 4 years of Donald J. Trump’s profaning presence on our national stage, their silence on matters of racial justice and (very American) hyper-focus on individual sin conjoined with a refusal to acknowledge systemic/generational sin makes it an organization we will no longer be a part of.
But COVID-19 hit and due to our eldest kid’s health conditions, we have been incredibly cautious with our social distancing. We’re not going to any church building for the foreseeable (hopefully short term) future. And, I don’t believe it’s right to break up with somebody over text or email. I’m sure as heck not going to create a Zoom session to break up with that Church. I realize the irony of blogging about it right now.
We still haven’t fully decided whether we are supposed to leave yet another church we have differences with or whether we are supposed to try to reform it from within. So instead, we wait and pray and read/listen to John Mark Comer, David Gushee, Brian Zahnd, Rachel Held Evans, Richard Rohr, The Bible Project, and more recently thanks to the recommendation of a long-time dear friend, Sarah Bessey, Jeff Chu, and the Evolving Faith Podcast.
Whew. If you’re still reading, thank you for your stamina. I’d love to respond to your questions, challenges, and/or reflections about this.