A Cruciform Life

Bear with me, dear blog reader, as I keep working through this upcoming move and all that it means for me and my family. As the time for our move quickly approaches, my excitement and fear increase in seeming direct correlation to one another. I am excited about having a "home of our own." I’m excited that it is a nice house in a nice area, but that it is not extravagant or huge nor could be characterized in any way as "conspicuous consumption." It is simply "enough," and for that I am exceedingly glad. Of course, I fear that something will prevent it from happening and imagine the worst, but this is a well-entrenched "defense mechanism" in me that I have long been working on. I do not, then, think that I am a malcontent, that I am unable to appreciate the good gifts that are given me. Indeed, I am exceedingly grateful for everything that I have, for all the good around me. I recognize where the good comes from, and Kirsten will tell you I am the first to advocate for giving credit where and to whom credit is due. I think that I have learned the lesson of the ten lepers Jesus healed in Luke 17, of which only one bothered to be thankful. I highly value gratitude.
 
Of course, like most people perhaps, I experience periods, even seasons, of discontentment, but not in the sense of some sort of general "restless aspiration for improvement." I would like to think that I am not so easily enticed by the latest bauble. I do not always want more or better things. In fact, there is much in my life that I know in my heart of hearts is the utter best that God has for me. With my wife, for example, I am utterly and completely pleased. I do not truly wish for anything more than what God has blessed me with in Kirsten. Likewise, in my son’s smile I have known the depths of utter joy. I delight in Samuel in a way that I did not know was possible. I am, however, often restless (though not again for the material "improvement" noted above)- especially vocationally, and I am utterly plagued by insecurity, which often translates into a longing for circumstances which will increase my sense of security. In large part this restless insecurity comes from my upbringing and the abuse I was subjected to. Those experiences helped to frame my outlook on life and have been the lens through which I have interpreted everything that has followed, including my parents’ bankruptcy and the loss of the only home we ever owned when I was a child. We had it for just a short while and so most of my growing up years were spent in a trailer in Texas.
 
Other seemingly similar experiences followed: the disappearance and possible death of my sister when I was 18 (she was missing until I paid someone to track her down almost four years later), which was only a part of much turmoil in my college years. In the midst of some of that college turmoil, Kirsten and I got married, and our nine years of marriage have been wonderful, but also very hard. During that time we have moved 11 times, and the upcoming one will be our 12th. Two of those were moves to a different apartment in the same building. One was to start seminary and have room to care for my Dad. One was to help Kirsten’s mom in her house (with my Dad still with us!), though three months later she decided to sell the house and we had to move again. We have had three family members live with us in various times of need. As many who would read this know, my mother in Texas died little more than 24 hours after Kirsten’s father died in Minnesota. We were present for Kirsten’s father’s death, and I have always viewed these deaths as a study in contrasts. Kirsten’s father died at home in the middle of the night after a day in which every family member came by and said goodbye to him personally. The mood was somber, to be sure, but there was also a sense of celebration of a life well lived. After the extended family went home, one by one Kirsten, her sister, and her mom finally fell asleep. As I was sitting alone with him, I watched him take his last breath, as if he knew that his family was resting and he could too. My mother’s death was far different, and I do not want to say any more about it here, except that we went to one funeral on Friday, flew to Texas on Saturday, and went to the other on Monday. That seminal period in our married life together has obviously had much to do with everything that has followed. The impact on our respective parents and the larger families has of course been hard for them too. For a while after my mother died we sent my dad money each month, and then as he got sicker and sicker we asked him to come live with us, and he did. He was with us for almost a year and a half during which time he had two major surgeries and was bedridden for months. During that period I was also in seminary, and we all moved in with Kirsten’s mom, as I alluded to above, to try and help her as well. Shortly after my dad left, my sister came to live with us while also sick, and she also had surgery.
 
We started our married life in Philadelphia because I wanted to be here as a  result of my Kingdomworks experience. I have always said that during that summer in 1995 I was able to "build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there- in the world." Later, after moving to Minnesota to be with Kirsten’s dying dad and while I was in seminary there, I learned that my metaphorical bridge could be traveled in both directions- that in my encounter with the suffering "other" in the world, I could be brought back to the debilitating impact of my own personal suffering. Consequently, I did not at that time continue pursuing ordination as a future MDiv graduate in the ELCA, and instead graduated with an MA, after which we returned to Philadelphia. We did so because of our memories of what it was like to "be the church" as a part of Circle of Hope and our hope for what the future might hold in that community. While leaving Minnesota and Kirsten’s family, we still had a sense of our responsibility to care for our family, especially Kirsten’s mom, and so promised that she could move in with us in Philadelphia, hopefully after we had a house, if/when she needed to. We arrived in Philly then, and I in particular quickly took on many responsibilities here. Soon I was a cell leader and we were part of the formation team that would plant a new Circle of Hope congregation in "east" Philadelphia. Not long after we moved in with some folks from Circle in the hope of doing "intentional community," and while in our initial conversations with those folks we spoke of our promise to Kirsten’s mom and there was some hope that there might be space for her too, that talk quickly subsided and we had to put our promise to her on hold. Soon I became a cell leader coordinator, part of the leadership team of the church, while also working full-time and pursuing an MSW at Temple.
 
When Samuel was born so traumatically, all of that changed, and in short order we left the intentional community we were living as a part of, in part because of the stress on the community of us both not working for a while as we visited Samuel every day, clinging to hope that he would live, and eventually thrive. The larger stress of it all also exposed how unhealthy our relationships had become, and after an initial attempt to work it out it became clear that it was better for us to move. I, for one, couldn’t battle the stress of what was happening to my son and not have a safe haven to come home to. I needed someplace- any place- where I didn’t feel threatened or ill at ease. So, we tried to buy a house though this was in hindsight ill advised at the time due to the stress we were under, and also because of our shaky financial situation as a result of me not working and then leaving the agency I worked for, and also all the uncertainty regarding if, when, and in what condition Samuel would come home. I have to believe, though, that God had something to do with all this, because as it turned out right about then Kirsten’s mom was out of work and unable to support herself any longer and needed a place to go. So, we eventually got our current apartment, which was almost miraculously available with less than a day’s notice and was more than big enough for all of us. In hindsight, of course, I also see God at work in not getting that house- so many obstacles- big clues- came up and there so many little clues as well that indicated that we needed to stop pursuing it, and I am very glad. It was tiny, overpriced, and our loan would not have been a good one long-term. I do not know if Kirsten’s mom would ever have felt safe there. By contrast, the house we soon hope to be in, Lord willing, is simply a dream. As I’ve said before, I know we don’t deserve it- we are not entitled to it or to anything, but then again, we know some people who were married for a relatively short while and in short order became homeowners and have experienced little of the drama- and trauma- that we keep finding ourselves in. We aren’t those people, and especially after everything noted above I have to believe that it isn’t evil to want to own a home, to want to be settled, to want to exercise good stewardship by building equity, etc. It can’t be wrong to care for family, even if sometimes "unhealthy," and God in fact seems to place a premium on caring for the widow, for example.
 
Our decisions in the wake of Samuel’s birth- to leave the community we lived in and eventually Circle of Hope (for reasons I did not go into above) have understandably been challenged by some, and of course I have no harsher critic than myself. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is not the first time that I have made a decision that other seemingly well-meaning Christians rebuked me for. While at Gordon College for three years during my time as a traditional undergraduate there, I had to leave school three times before leaving for good. I left during orientation week sophomore year because my dad was in intensive care in Texas. I came back a few days later when he had been moved to a regular room, but that only lasted for half of the semester before he called and asked me to come home because he was by no means well and the family needed me there. So, of course, I did. I was able to return the following semester. Then, after doing Kingdomworks the summer after my sophomore year and meeting Kirsten as a junior, our relationship quickly progressed and when it seemed that for financial reasons she would have to leave school, I volunteered to leave instead and go live with her parents while working to pay her way. Of course, we had already spoken of marriage, and obviously got married. By leaving school that time I had to surrender my Resident Assistant position and my spot on a mission trip to Ireland the following summer. About a week later, we figured out a way to make the finances work and so I returned, but my roommates would not take me back and I got threatening notes in my campus mailbox, including one that quoted Romans 2 at me, saying that because of me the "Gentiles curse God."
 
I hope, though, that it is obvious that I want to live faithfully, and that as a family we strive to do so, however flawed the results might be. I am, though, perhaps not so quick as others to assume I always know what living faithfully means, and our actions no doubt attest to that. The laundry list of hurts and trauma above and many that weren’t included I hope attest to the brokenness out of which all my decisions are made. I do not want, however, to always behave like a victim. I have not and will not assume that mantle. Instead, I will take on the yoke of Christ. There are some spectacular failures described above, but I think they sometimes follow in the wake of spectacular acts of faith, and just like my abusive upbringing shaped my worldview, so to, from a very young age, has the cross of Christ, and I will yet persevere in my aspiration, not for more and better, but for a cruciform life and the promise of healing and a future with hope that, like God’s kingdom itself and my own redemption, is "already, but not yet." Like Peter, I may be in danger of drowning- and taking my family with me. I may even deny Jesus- repeatedly- but I will still follow him onto the water, and he may yet build his church on a foundation that I help to lay.
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