Dropping out of school

When I began at seminary, there were several groups of friends on campus to which I did not belong. The tightest clan consisted of those students who had arrived during the summer for intensive instruction in New Testament Greek. Most of the students who had not gone to a Lutheran college were part of that group, but I had taken classes in Greek in college. Other groups of friends had been formed at the various Lutheran colleges. Those groups did not deliberately exclude me, but I did not have any of the instant connections with other students on campus that many other students enjoyed.

The seminary program, then and now, was a four-year program. In most cases, the third year was spent off-campus in a full-time internship within a congregation. (These interns are called vicars, a word that has different meanings for other Christian groups.) Each crop of students, therefore, was on campus at the same time as two other groups of students each year, but the other two groups would be different from one year to the next. Instead of semesters, the school year was divided into three terms of twelve weeks, as well as a summer term which was mostly set aside for catch-up work should any of the students have fallen behind their schedule.

The campus had been designed to resemble a European fishing village. The chapel stood on the highest part of the campus, with the student union and cafeteria next door. Two classroom buildings were connected by a walkway, making a U-shaped structure. Dormitories were scattered around the campus in various directions from the chapel-union-classroom complex. The dormitories were built to accommodate no more than twenty residents, and each had a lounge/meeting area with couches, chairs, a television set, and a fireplace. The campus also featured wide-open spaces, some of them forested, and an artificial lake below the chapel. One joke about the campus (which I have used productively at several congregations, especially in the south) was that students who arrived at the beginning of September had no hope of being able to walk on the lake, but after four or five months of study, most of us were able to do so easily.

I survived my first term of seminary, but rolling into the winter term, I felt increasingly alienated. Much of the feeling was my own fault—my awareness that I could not continue my college practice of disagreeing with professors and still expecting a good grade, my sense of being outside most of the campus clans and cliques, and the feeling that students and professors seemed always to be looking over their shoulders, cautious about saying anything theological that might be part of one of the synod-wide conflicts. In the midst of winter, I visited with the Dean of Students and asked permission to take a break, to withdraw from spring and summer classes, perhaps returning in the fall, perhaps not. His first question was if my need for a break was finances. He could find help if money was a problem. I told him no, I just needed time to adjust my thinking and to be sure that I wanted to continue what I had started. He granted permission. After completing the winter term, I packed my belongings into my car and headed home.

My parents were worried and frightened about my choice to take time off. They also did not like the fact that I choose not to return to their house. One of my friends had an apartment he was willing to share for a few months. I dropped off my stuff and made a short visit back to the college campus. Then I was ready, for the first time in more than sixteen years, to live a life that was not student life.

The summer between college graduation and the start of seminary, I had worked at a Christian publishing firm, telemarketing one of their magazines. That company was willing to have me back at the same job. The three previous summers, I had worked at Burger King. They were willing to have me back five evenings a week. The money was enough to meet my expenses and also save for the future, whether I would be returning to seminary or striking out in a new direction.

Three people guided my decision those spring and summer months. One was a coworker at the Christian publishing house. Rod came from Hawaii; he was of Japanese ancestry. He had done some amateur sumo wrestling and also had played football (offensive line) for the University of Hawaii. He had not been raised as a Christian. In fact, he had partied hard in college, took drugs, and lived a wild life. But then Rod was born again as a Christian. He became a pastor—and, as a pastor in Hawaii, he left his phone number at half a dozen bars. From time to time a bartender would call him to provide Christian counseling to a customer who was in emotional pain and needed help. Rod was working part-time while taking graduate classes at Wheaton College. He was also receiving medical care for damaged kidneys, a result of his pre-Christian adventures. Rod was excited about the opportunities he saw to serve the Lord. Every week, it seemed, he had a new dream of what he could do for the Church. Then, one week, Rod wasn’t at work any more. His kidney problems had shortened his life. Rod’s enthusiasm for Church work was inspiring. When he was gone, I was given one reason to find my place in the Church.

My boss, George, was also an inspiration. George had served various congregations over the years, Baptist and Mennonite and nondenominational. He also had medical challenges; in fact, he missed some time at work that summer due to a heart attack. But George had advice for me. He said that a ship sitting still in the water cannot be steered; a ship that is moving can be steered. I should ask God to steer, but I shouldn’t be afraid to move, trusting that if I was moving in the wrong direction, God would steer me toward the right direction.

At Burger King, a co-worker my age also provided some help. We did not talk religion with each other. But one day he told me that he wished he had known a pastor like me when he was younger. He had tried to talk with his pastor when he was a high school student, but their conversations had not collected. Paul said that I would be approachable as a pastor; I would be helpful to people like him.

Because of Paul and George and Rod, I ended the summer knowing that I would return to the seminary. No one could tell me where the journey would take me, but the journey was one that I needed to take. J.


Change and continuity

Human understanding of light has wavered over the centuries. Some famous philosopher/scientists, including Rene Descartes, insisted that light consists of waves; others, including Isaac Newton were convinced that light consists of particles. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, most scientists who deal with the physics of light acknowledge that light is both wave and particle. The particles, called photons, also have wave-like qualities. Moreover, electrons also possess the same paradoxical wave-particle duality. Even protons and neutrons, consisting of quarks, appear to have wave-particle duality. Therefore, everything in the material world rests upon the paradox that the component parts of every item are, at the same time, tiny particles of matter and also waves of energy.

One result of this paradox is that knowledge is limited about each particle. For example, no one can know the precise position of a particle and also how it is moving. This principle was first enunciated by a scientist named Heisenberg and is called the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” One famous scientific joke involves a police officer pulling over a car driven by Dr. Heisenberg. When the officer asks the doctor the standard question, “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” Dr. Heisenberg replies, “Please don’t tell me, because if you do, I’ll never figure out where I am.”

By the way, there is also a Salvageable uncertainty principle. Ask me what that principle says, and I will answer, “I’m not sure.”

Larger material items, made out of enormous quantities of protons and neutrons and electrons, generally follow rules of geometry and physics that make sense to the average human mind. A police officer’s radar gun accurately measures the speed of a moving car. That car might be shown, by the radar gun, to be traveling seventy miles an hour. That measurement does not prove that an hour ago the car was seventy miles away. Until a few minutes ago, the car might have been sitting in a parking lot only a few miles away. But, for large material objects, we can account for both the speed and the location of that object and can accurately report both statistics at any given moment.

Philosophically, though, the motion of a material object and its location remain a puzzle. Greek philosophers more than twenty-four centuries ago were already asking how any object could move through an infinite number of points in a finite time. Dividing time into an infinite number of punctiliar moments does not solve the philosophical quandary. We can observe an object at rest and can measure its size and describe its location. We can observe an object in motion and determine its speed and direction. Trying to gather all that information at the same time seems as though it should be easy, but problems remain. As we begin measuring size and location and speed in appropriate units, we are forced to make statements that are philosophically untenable. The car that is moving seventy miles an hour does not disappear from the highway this instant and reappear seventy miles away an hour later. Assuming that its speed and direction do not change, it will be present on every bit of paved highway between here and its destination at some point during the next hour. Chopping the highway into miles, feet, inches, or any other unit—while also chopping time into hours, minutes, and seconds, or any other unit—leaves the location of the car between those identified units a mystery. If, for example, we film the car at a rate of twenty-four frames per second, each frame will show the car at a different location on the highway without any explanation of how the car traveled from one point to the next point, since an infinite number of points exists between those two points.

Aside from that problem, the car in each frame of the film is not the same car. The car constantly changes. From instant to instant, it burns a tiny bit of gasoline. Its tires rotate, and tiny bits of rubber from the tires (perhaps mere molecules) separate from the tires. From time to time, dirt and insects are added to the windshield and other parts of the front surface of the car. Take the same car at any two points along its journey and compare its description; one will see that it is not the same car. Tiny changes have occurred to make the car slightly different as it travels down the highway and also travels through time from past into present and on into the future.

We are all like that car. We change continually. None of us is the same person who woke up this morning. We have breathed air in and out of our lungs, and some of that air has been taken into our body to be used by our cells; other air that was in our bodies has left our bodies. We eat, we drink, and we use the bathroom. We wash, removing dead skin cells from the surface of our bodies. Sometimes we cut our hair or trim our nails. Even our minds change as we experience and remember new events every instant of our waking lives (and also while we sleep). You are not the same person you were when you were a child. You are not the same person you were ten years ago. You are not the same person you will be ten years from now.

On an atomic and molecular level, we change constantly. On a cellular level, we change constantly. In other ways, we continually change while we travel the timeline of our lives. Yet, as we view that timeline from outside of time, we also perceive continuity. Because that timeline is unbroken, we are able to describe ourselves as the same person through the years and over the course of a lifetime. In the same way, a car remains the same car in spite of the many changes that happen to it—a new tank of gas, an oil change, new tires, replacement of damaged body parts, replacement of damaged engine parts. Over twenty years, every piece of a car could be replaced, but legally and philosophically it remains the same car. The philosophic implications of continuity as we change are enormous. J.

“Your dreams are within reach” “Yeah, right”

“Your dreams are within reach.” So promises a sign outside a church I pass every morning on my way to work. Some days I like to think this wish is true. This morning I rather hope that my dreams remain out of reach.

The earliest part of my dreams last night that I remember featured Elvis Presley berating me for the condition of my body. But afterward I was outside my house, trying to set up the grounds for croquet. (When I dream about “my house,” it generally resembles my childhood home, even though that building is no longer standing.) I found that I was unable to place the wickets as I wanted. From that I concluded that the house must have shifted, making the yard smaller. I then tried to hammer one of the stakes into the hard ground. My effort broke open a hole that led to the basement of the house. My father was in that basement, trying to fix the sump pump and not succeeding. The dream concluded with me driving to the grocery store, only to have the car stall at the entrance to the parking lot. By pressing the accelerator while turning the key, I was able to get the car to move forward. With considerable effort, I twisted the steering wheel and coasted into a parking spot. I went into the store and asked to use the phone to tell my family the car was broken. When I dialed, I got the voice mail message, which had been changed by a relative who does not live in our house and had no business messing with our message.

Why would I dream about so many things going wrong in my life? I was jittery yesterday over a number of small reasons. My daughter, who hurt her foot last month in a freak accident, was to have surgery yesterday morning. Her driver took her to the office early in the morning and they waited for a while, only to realize that the surgery is scheduled for Wednesday the 23rd, not Wednesday the 16th. My daughter called home to tell me about the mistake. While we were talking, I heard another voice in or around the house. At first I assumed that two neighbors were having a conversation near the house. When I returned to breakfast, it struck me that the sounds did not resemble a conversation between two people. (You can tell that I was not trying to spy on my neighbors.) For a while I considered that it might be one neighbor talking on a cell phone, but that still didn’t seem to match the sounds I was hearing. When I went into the living room, I found a cell phone on the table that was taking, repeatedly saying “hello” in several different languages. Last weekend my daughters recharged several old cell phones, prior to turning them in for a refund. They did not realize that alarms were still set on these phones. So I’ve been turning off music every morning this week. Hearing unfamiliar voices in the morning, though, left me with a very unsettled feeling.

Feeling unsettled made me overreact when I went on Facebook that morning. I don’t often visit Facebook any more, but sometimes I like to see what family members are saying. One of the first things I saw was a post by my sister which told how to cope with toxic family members. Because I was feeling jittery, my first reaction was to think she was putting me in that category. I know that is not the case; she tends to share things she thinks will help somebody somewhere, whether or not they are relevant to her own life and circumstances. In fact, when I went back later to read the entire article, I could see that it had nothing to do with me. But that’s the frame of mind I was in yesterday, ready to believe the worst about myself from even the slightest and vaguest suggestion.

One reason I am feeling so unstable is uncertainty about my career. I have two or three possibilities before me. One is that things remain as they are. Another is that I might be offered a full-time job in another state. The position has been open for nearly a year, and the committee in charge of hiring has had my name suggested to them, among others. I have yet to hear from them to arrange an interview, but I have good reason to believe that they have not quite reached the step of interviewing anyone yet. If I were offered the job, I would almost certainly take it. Some days I feel certain that it will happen, and I just have to trust God for the timing. Other times I feel as if it will certainly not happen. This winter when I saw cars with license plates from that state, I treated them as a secret message that the job will be offered. But on other days I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, right,” when I saw those license plates.

On one of the second kind of days I got a phone call with a new offer. This would be part-time instead of full-time. I would have to keep my current full-time job to have health insurance, but the net pay would increase, even though I would have to drop one current part-time job. The drive to this new position would be about an hour each way, but I wouldn’t have to do it more than twice a week, most weeks of the year. This offer is on the table, mine if I want it. But I don’t know whether to accept, particularly while the full-time possibility remains hanging in unknown territory.

For those of you who are so inclined, I would appreciate your prayers. I could use some wisdom, but also a lot of comfort and inner strength. Also, please pray for both these positions, that they would acquire the servants who are best for them. And while you’re at it, please don’t forget my daughter. She would really like this foot problem to heal, and to do so correctly. J.