The Wilderness: Wandering in Life’s Desert
Those who follow this blog, or at least used to, know that there has been, with one exception, no activity over the last year. One major reason, as I explained in my last blog post in January, has been that is has been a very busy time in my life. That has certainly been a part of it. But, I was very busy when I was blogging before. Part of the reason also has been that I hit a bit of a wall in the wilderness experience I have been walking for the last few years.
I remember in early 2010 feeling like I was finally where I wanted to be personally and professionally. I was 37, happily married with five happy kids, I had a house that was pretty darn close to my dream house and I was heading an art department with colleagues I genuinely liked, some truly dynamic students, and a school that was talking about growing. I was on a panel at an international conference for Christian Colleges because I was one of eight professors who had participated in a cross cultural excursion to Indonesia and we were introducing a large traveling show that came out of that experience. To make it even better, an influential gallery that I had been in contact with for several years contacted me and said they not only wanted to show my work but they wanted to represent me. I was already represented by a couple of galleries. But, this was right in my niche. Plus, I had three solo shows at colleges and universities scheduled for 2010. Things were good.
But, as the spring semester proceeded some concerns I had about the spiritual and academic health of my college became more poignant. That summer my father was in a near fatal car accident in Virginia. My dad lives in California. I spent six weeks in Virginia helping him and my step-mom in whatever ways they needed. It was a stressful time that highlighted areas of un-health in my family of origin which were painful. Further, because of the accident and my time in Virginia caring for my Dad and step-mom my relationship with the gallery that I was so thrilled about fell through. In the spring of 2011, my ordeal with my former college began resulting in months of stress and finally a restraining order against the college but no full-time job. After a year of working part-time at a local state university, searching for a job, and realizing the devastating consequences of my ordeal with the college I decided to return to school to work on my PhD.
So, in the summer of 2012 my family packed up, left our dream home where we had lived the last five years, and moved back to California for me to study Art History and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. The original plan involved us living in my childhood home which was then and still is vacant. But, those areas of familial un-health which were highlighted in the summer of 2010 still existed; so, plans were changed resulting in counseling and unanticipated and continuing financial stress. But, school was good and leaving Louisiana had lifted a burden. Though it did add others. One of our children was diagnosed with autism our first year in CA, another was diagnosed with Turner’s syndrome, with a significant cancer risk, another with dysgraphia (our second with that), learning delays, and what two evaluators called the most pronounced case of ADHD they had ever seen. My wife and I felt like we’d been hit by an additional ton of bricks.
Tensions at my former college picked up again and I began blogging on those issues. Eventually, the President was removed. But, he was granted a sweetheart deal and continued to receive public support from the college which lessened any sense of wrongs being righted. Further, I saw people involved with the controversy who had not shown discernment or backbone (depending on the case) land positions—some better than what they left. I also saw others who were once fighting on the side of oppression settle wrongful termination suits with the school. From the outside, it looked like despite cowardice, lack of discernment, or even in some cases pure evil people were able to move on in positive and self-sufficient directions.
In the fall of 2014, I presented a paper at a conference for Christian historians. When I was there I found out that many academics across the country had been following what had happened at my former college. They praised my fight against the corruption and commented on how glad they were that I landed on my feet. Landed on my feet? Is this what being on my feet feels like? I was living off a combination of adjunct over-work, student loans, and help from my father. I was alienated from my former faith community and my family. I was lonely in my current faith community. I felt unemployable. When I first went on the academic job market in 2006-07 I applied for four jobs. Two schools cancelled their searches and I got job offers from the other two. In 2014-15, I applied to sixty positions with no offers and just two semi-finalist interviews. I don’t feel like I am on my feet at all. I still feel lost in the wilderness.
Over the last several years, I had seen cowardice rewarded, evil rewarded, faithlessness rewarded. And, then there was me. Though I make no claim of personal perfection, I identified with the Psalms. I still do. But worse, over the last few years the truly evil things that had happened to me had all been done by Christians. I had seen Christians lie, threaten my families well-being, call me evil and irresponsible. It had happened professionally and personally, in Louisiana and again in California. It left me wondering: Why do right? Why advocate for this faith and its Object I had followed and trusted for so many years? Then I looked at the politics of Christianity in our nation and they seemed much the same as my personal experiences. They seem more hateful than loving. They seem motivated by greed and prejudice and an inability to look beyond one’s self…all the same things I was seeing in my personal and professional life.
In some ways, it was a crisis of faith. But, I never stopped believing. In most ways, it was a crisis of praxis. Why do right? Why not be evil (or at least selfish) and just call it good like I was seeing at seemingly every turn? How can the Biblical story of prodigal grace and unbounded love result in such gracelessness and lovelessness? Lord help my unbelief! If I feel this way should I stay? But, as Peter said to Christ, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.”
I don’t have answers. But, despite it all I do believe that Christ has the words of eternal life. I do believe He is truth. I don’t understand why life unfolds the way it does or why it often seems that evil prospers. I don’t know why Christian politics often seem so at odds with Christianity. Or why sometimes those who claim Christ are the ones who do the worst things. Honestly, I don’t always feel that God is faithful. But, I also know my perspective is limited. I know that God sees more than my wilderness. While I only see the wilderness sands, he sees the fountains of paradise. While I am weak and broken, he is whole. Ultimately, Christians and Christianity are not the light by which I see the world. He is.
All that to say—I’m back.