Spring Break Refreshment…

Spring Break, for many graduate students, is not much of a break. Even though the weekly assignments are somewhat put on hold or reduced to a moderate amount, there are still the semester papers, projects, and countless hours of course reading to catch up on. With this in mind, I took a quick trip to Eugene yesterday with my girlfriend – both for a mini-vacation and to show her where I spent seven years of my life.

We first parked on Agate St. just outside of Hayward Field. From there we walked up 15th, past the turf fields, through the dorm halls (passing my own Morton Hall of the Earl complex along the way) toward the EMU (now being rebuilt). After taking a quick stop inside the EMU, we walked down 13th, paused a bit in front of Fenton, and then wandered over to Deady, so she could see the first building built on the University of Oregon’s campus. We continued on to McKenzie, then crossed the street to the Duck Store. She was amazed by the enormity of a school bookstore and I was amazed by the renovations they had made (I used to work for the company and it did not look like that the last time I was there). We then stopped in Café Roma for a coffee with my former pastor, Tony. After a quick photo at the Starbucks next door (where I had met Jenna’s sister, Sierra, who introduced me to Jenna), we hung out at the Knight Library.

There is a song from the U of O’s acappella group, On the Rocks, called “Call Me a Duck” (a remake off of Maino’s “All the Above”). In that song, which is all about being a student at the university without a football focus, there is a portion of a line that goes “Picture you studying Greek…” At the time I first heard the song, I did not think much of it. But when I sat down at a window seat in the top floor of the Knight Library to do a little Greek homework, it was the first thing I could think of.

Top floor, far left corner from the stairs.
Taken after finished transcribing Col. 3:9-11, a passage about renewal.

It was a poetic moment that encapsulated the journey from the University of Oregon up to George Fox Evangelical Seminary, where I am now two years into a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) degree. At a point in the semester (and even in the degree pursuit altogether) when exhaustion is beginning to hit me, it was a refreshing reminder that there was a point when I did not imagine seminary. And as I am now beginning to plan what to write for my Master’s thesis as well as studying for the GRE to move on to a PhD program in a year and a half, it is a nice motto of what I hope to study and teach after I have left George Fox.

No, it is not as if Greek is my primary area of interest, but it certainly is a part of it. It certainly is a fascinating language all its own. It certainly has opened up my understanding of the Biblical text. And I certainly would not be studying it had I not gone to the U of O. As I plan for the upcoming academic year and prepare myself for what may (hopefully) follow, remembering where I have come from and all of the transformative processes I have gone through will be what drives me forward.

Even in seminary, God can seem a little distant. When that happens, one’s future looks a little blurry and confusing. But every now and then, God – on God’s own timing – sends little reminders that God is still there, refreshing you and your passions like rain to an Oregonian.

All that God wants in those moments is for us to simply soak it in.

God bless.

On Being a Seminarian: Sharing Stories…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other blogs, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

In the last six months that I’ve lived in Portland, I’ve been to church three times. It’s not really because I’m busy, nor is it because I work on Sundays (I don’t). For the most part, I like having a lazy Sunday. Yet in such a populated area as Portland is (compared to Eugene, anyway), it’s difficult to find a small congregation. I highlight this because I’m terribly introverted and being in rooms of a 100 or more people is draining in and of itself. I don’t even have to talk to anyone to feel drained.

This is where my time at George Fox Seminary comes into play. In the absence of a fellowship on Sundays, hanging out at the seminary has been a great replacement. I’m not always going to encounter the same people from day to day, but I’m going to encounter just enough people to have a (somewhat) healthy social life – at least, for an introvert.

Most of the conversations don’t dive too deeply; “Hey, how’s your paper going?” or “What classes do you have today?” are some of the more generic things you might get asked on a regular day. Over time, though, the topics shift to “Hey, I liked what you said in class,” or “I heard about your grandpa’s cancer; how’s he doing? How are you doing?” Not long after those topics come up, even deeper ones arise: “So, where are you from? What’s your story?”

There’s something rather mystical about the act of sharing your story, being vulnerable, and giving someone else the opportunity to see life from your perspective. In an age of instant file-sharing, books being read through movies, and the (supposedly) fictional mind-melds, it seems we tend to grow accustomed to instant information. Yet when someone’s sharing their story, everything slows down. As memories arise – both painful and joyous – uncontrollable emotions may rise with them. When that happens, the story is now no longer about information-gathering; it’s about feeling what someone else feels – inasmuch as it is possible to do so.

In the past seven days I’ve shared my story with half a dozen different people. Most weeks are not like this at all. But with as busy as I’ve been with research, work, reading, and regular assignments, I needed it. And if my seminary wasn’t my place of fellowship, I may not have had it. And if I didn’t have the opportunity to recount my story, I wouldn’t have been reminded of why I do what I do.

Seminary has become my “every day” setting and has provided a fellowship of sorts that I didn’t have before and yet was in dire need of. It’s a place to hear others’ stories and to share my own. With as busy as all our lives are between work, school, and whichever form of social life we may have, having that space to share stories is crucial. Stories remind us of where we’ve been and simultaneously of where we’re going. Life becomes pretty dull when we lose sight of that – when we lose sight of our story.

In your “every day” setting, what’s the fellowship like? What are some of the conversations had or stories shared? If you’re in a seminary setting, what’s it like where you are?

On Being a Seminarian: A Wonderful Exhaustion…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other blogs, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

A couple years ago, I was really into running. I still go for a jog or two every now and then (with a few months in between jogs), but back then I was running nearly every day. Sometimes it was only a mile or two. Other times it was three or four miles. Once, to train for a 10k (6.2 miles), I ran a little over nine miles. I know these distances may not be very far for some, but for an asthmatic like myself, they were oftentimes torturous.

If it was such torture, then why did I do it? Why did I push myself through something as boring and miserable as running seems? For one thing, I needed the exercise (still do). For another, although the process wreaked havoc on my lungs, I enjoyed the “runner’s high” afterward (the extra boost of endorphins after a good workout). And after my recent Hebrew class, I had a similar feeling once I got home.

In the first semester of Hebrew, it was all about learning the grammar. For the second semester, it’s all about translating. There’s no final exam; mostly small assignments and displaying an efficient ability to read the language. And as I am quickly finding out, translating Hebrew is a lot like going for a long run for the first time: I’m exercising brain muscles I didn’t even know I had.

Such a feeling, though, isn’t applicable only to translating languages. I had that feeling again on Tuesday when I finished a fair amount of critical reading for my “Paul and the Law” class. Reading biblical scholarship is a style I’m still getting used to. I can’t let my mind check out for a paragraph or two and jump back in without really missing much. If I’m seeking to understand the scholar, I have to read more slowly and carefully lest I miss something important. Yet reading in this way, at least for me, requires a lot more mental energy. Like with Hebrew, I’m working brain muscles I didn’t know were there.

None of this is intended to suggest that seminary is too much work. One must take only as much as one can bear, but I believe I have a reasonably-sized workload this semester that’ll push me beyond the limits I thought I had. Again, I think of an example from my running experiences.

In 2012, Eugene hosted the Olympic Trials. There were a couple days in the middle of the trials when no athletes were competing. So, to keep people interested in the event, a local track club held an all-comers meet with several different running events. I chose to give it a whirl just for fun and signed up for the “jogger’s” mile. We were asked to write our expected time on our name tags so they could group us together with more efficiency. Not feeling like any record breaker, I put 6:45/mile. When it came time to run the event, I chose to run with the 6:15/mile group to see if I might get pulled to a faster pace. Sure enough, I ran the mile in 5:50, tying my high school best. So much for it being a “jogger’s” mile.

My point here is that seminary is becoming wonderfully exhausting. I don’t always get the “runner’s high” after every assignment or reading binge, but I get it enough to know that this is something I truly enjoy – this process of being pushed and pulled to a faster pace of studying and learning. I’m not sure if I’ll feel this way come the final weeks of this semester with my two 10-12 page research papers coming due, but for now, it’s a feeling I’m trying to harness and utilize to get through each assignment. Sometimes, in order to test our true abilities, we need to be pushed beyond what we thought we could handle. We need to be pulled to a faster pace.

With all that said, I think this raises an important issue for many seminarians: How much is too much? It also involves asking ourselves a tough question: Is this difficult challenge a healthy one or is it legitimately burning us out? If the latter, what are all the factors contributing to the “burn out” feeling? Too much ministry involvement? Poor time management? (I’m guilty of that one, but I think God is a Doctor Who fan, so I think He understands.) What’s your experience when it comes to the workload of seminary, your PhD work, or your everyday life? 

2013: Crazy & Chaotic…

Although it is now 2014, I don’t think a review of 2013 would be too late. And considering how chaotic and stressful last year was, I think it’d be best to reflect over everything before gearing up for the rest of this year.

At the end of 2012, I decided I was going to apply for seminary. So during January of last year, I filled out my FAFSA and requested an application from Western Seminary. I figured Western was my best route since I had several friends who had attended there and they are pretty smart people. But toward the end of January and beginning of February, I started thinking I should at least put in an application to George Fox – on the off chance a miracle occurs and I get accepted there. Once the application for Western was finished and sent, I started rounding up recommendation letters and working on the essay for Fox.

I had submitted the George Fox application with less than a week to spare. If you’ve never filled out an application for seminary, it’s not an easy task. You’re forced to reflect a lot on your reason for applying and what you would want to do with the skillsets you’d acquire at seminary. You’re forced to articulate what you believe and why – and, more specifically, how your own personal theology would fit inside their particular seminary. And with everything these seminary applications ask, you realize you can’t even begin to answer them without spending some time alone with God. The start of my 2013 caused me to revise and refine my own mission statement.

Toward the middle of the year, after many baseball games and track meets working with the Duck Store, I received an email informing me that I had been accepted into George Fox and that I would begin classes in the following Fall semester. I cannot recall the last time I had felt such an excitement in being accepted into something I had only dreamed of before. Yet it was right around that time when things started to get really chaotic.

I now drive a 2008 Chevy Cobalt. But I started last year driving a 1996 Chevy Lumina – the car both I and my brother drove in high school. Throughout the near-eight years I had been driving it, it had had a few mechanical problems. First was the alternator belt back in 2008, which kept me from going home for Thanksgiving that year. Next problem were the brakes in 2011, a couple months before graduating from the University of Oregon. After that, which brought about the final straw to my time with the Lumina, was the blown head gasket. And of course, it had to happen while I was parked at a car dealership in Eugene.

My car troubles didn’t end there, either. I traded in my Lumina, conveniently dead in the parking lot at Kiefer Mazda, for a 2005 Nissan Sentra, which only had 70,000 miles on it. I signed the papers, got the keys, and drove it around Eugene frequently. It was the first car I ever purchased on my own, so of course I wanted to drive it a ton. And after a trip to Lincoln City, Portland, Lincoln City, Portland, and back to Eugene, the Sentra started having problems. The engine kept flooding and I had to keep going back to the dealership to figure out what was wrong – since I only had the car for three weeks. Whatever the problem was remains to me a mystery because I gave up and traded it in for what I’m driving now. Yet during all this I was working two jobs and trying to find a place to live in Portland (hence the trips up there and back). “Stressed” is putting it mildly.

As the summer came to an end, though, we had found a place to live with only one catch: The apartment wouldn’t be available until after I had started school at George Fox. In fact, my move-in date was set for the 10th – the day after my second day of classes. I commuted to and from Tigard for the first two days of class and packed up all my stuff in between (as well as finishing homework).

Moving day was by far the most stressful day I’ve ever had. For one thing, I have way too much stuff. For another, moving it all mostly by myself (special thanks to Brian Schaudt and Sierra Stopper – I would be homeless without them… probably) was not the best decision I’ve made. What was really the backbone to the stress that day was time. I left Eugene right around 3:45pm. Our apartment office closes at 6pm. The drive from Eugene to Tigard is close to two hours, especially in a U-Haul, which was also towing my Cobalt. Safe to say I did not have time for any rest stop. Yet I made it with five minutes to spare and, despite exhaustion, got all my stuff moved in (again, not entirely by myself). After a couple of weeks, I had my room as settled as it possibly could have been, which then enabled me to focus on studying more.

Once that happened, things calmed down quite a bit. I was still busy, but I wasn’t stressed. I wasn’t stressed because I was finally doing what I love to do: study Scripture. Of course, that is an over-simplification of my seminary experience thus far, but it is at the core of what brought about my less-stressful life. Reading the Bible, studying various schools of criticism, and then listening to my classmates discuss various points is what draws me to pursue God. And I am most certainly in the right environment for that pursuit.

Not everything that happened in 2013 could possibly be discussed in one post, but I believe I got most of the main points. What I started to thoroughly enjoy toward the end of the year, though, was the new friendships I had made since moving up to Portland. Classmates, coworkers, and friends of friends suddenly started to function like a family and reminded me that the purpose to any degree I might acquire from a seminary should always include an aspect of developing and enhancing these types of friendships. I can only see these friendships growing stronger in 2014.

I hope to write about my first semester at George Fox in the coming days, as well as what I hope to do in 2014 (resolutions of sorts). For now, though, I conclude that 2013 was a chaotic year and grew more chaotic when I chose to follow my passions. Such chaos, though, simply forced me to focus on accomplishing each task as needed and yet enabled me to enjoy those passions all the more.

What was your 2013 like?

Happy New Year to all!

God bless.

“In Eugene…”

Today brought about a hard truth. Feeling the itch to throw a football around and maybe even get caught up in a game, my roommate and I went to a nearby park and tossed a ball around. I originally wanted to head over to a turf field in Newberg on George Fox University’s campus to hopefully increase the odds of playing in a game, but my roommate – who went to George Fox – said it’d be highly unlikely since not too many students play football for fun. During that conversation, I repeated two words I don’t know how many times: “In Eugene…”

I’m not in Eugene anymore. That’s the hard truth I’ve been avoiding for a while, but can’t anymore. I’m not there. I can’t go to the turf fields on any given night and find a couple small pick-up games that need an extra guy. I can’t meet up with friends in under ten minutes for a movie, Suits marathon, or something else on TV; it is at least a twenty-minute drive anywhere to meet up with friends. And I can’t even hang out at my favorite coffee shop and randomly run into friends because I’m not there anymore. Suffice it to say, community – authentic, intentional community – has been tough to come by since I’ve been in the Portland area.

Don’t get me wrong; I have plenty of friends up here. But our schedules are so different and busy that finding a time where everyone can meet is not easy. And even if we do, it’s not a guarantee that something won’t pop up last minute forcing either of us to cancel. I’m still used to Eugene where I knew a lot more people and if I hung out at the right place at the right time, I’d eventually run into someone I’d know (like Starbucks at the Oakway Center – seriously, everyone goes there). I miss that.

I am trying not to sound as though I’m whining and complaining about my new location. My roommate’s awesome, I love my school, and it oftentimes feels pretty nice not to work as much as I used to. But that doesn’t mean there are incredibly difficult aspects – namely, having a genuine community. What I mean by “genuine community” isn’t merely a group of friends, although that is part of it. And I definitely don’t mean “a new church to go to,” either. Merely attending church isn’t community; being a church family is.

This is precisely what I’m after – what I think we all long for. Family. Unconditional acceptance. Church oftentimes creates an environment where everyone is more concerned about their appearance rather than their actual, honest condition. Obviously, I haven’t been to every church; I’m simply pointing out a common vibe I’ve felt nearly every where I’ve gone. What’s wrong with this vibe is that it doesn’t allow for family to happen.

Pardon the bad word, but in family, people know your shit, whether you tell it to them or not. They see how you act, know your ticks, and know when something’s up. And when the time’s right – or even when it’s not – they ask about it. Family provides an opportunity for people to be brutally honest with one another. It’s uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing, but it works. It’s emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually cleansing when someone knows about the things that are bothering you – or the things that are bringing you joy and for some reason you haven’t been able to celebrate them with others. Family works in both directions; acknowledging the bad and celebrating the good.

As I write this post, I keep running into another hard truth – the only thing way for authentic community to happen: I have to work at it. Granted, others have to be a part of it and as I said above, it’s been difficult simply to meet with others (not anyone’s fault; just how it is). But when those times happen, I have to take advantage and, once again, make myself vulnerable. I have to make the strenuous effort to let others into my life, so that they can know my shit and be the family I need.

In Eugene, I had all that. If I were to move back tomorrow, I know that I could very easily get it all back. But renting a U-Haul is expensive and commuting back and forth from there to Tigard (for class) would not be fun. Plus, my current roommate would not appreciate the sudden departure – despite him getting the bigger room. So for better or worse, I’m here in Portland. I’ve gotten settled into my apartment, school, and new work location; now it’s time to get settled into a new family. And if I’m honest with myself, I can see certain pieces moving together that just might produce what I long to have. Yet I have to be ready – ready to be vulnerable, open, and willing to let others in.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

I can’t do this alone. No one can. We’re not meant to.

God bless.

Wait… Where am I?

After being in Tigard for a little over two weeks, I think I have finally been able to settle down. My roommate has moved in, my room is entirely organized, and I’m keeping up relatively well with each of my classes. What I think I am now able to do since things have become less chaotic is figure out exactly where I am.

No, my geographical location is not what I’m talking about. What I really mean is, throughout the last two-ish weeks, I’ve been focusing on things like where to put my reading chair, how to organize my mini-library, and which frozen pizzas to get. With all those things out of the way, I can finally address the city and the community in which I now live. Every time I go to work at the Duck Store at the Washington Square Mall, I find myself saying, “Back in Eugene, we…” Yet I’m no longer in Eugene. Where I identify myself with has changed. Quite naturally, I feel disoriented.

In Eugene, I knew a ton of different people in different parts of town and almost at any given point I could send them a text or call them (let’s be honest, I sent them a text) and in minutes we could be hanging out. It isn’t as easy here – at least, not at this stage of the game. And quite like my physical community changing, my spiritual community has as well.

I haven’t yet gone to a church here in Tigard, despite one being right across from my apartment complex. And no, it isn’t because I had some falling out with God; the next three years at seminary would be pretty long years if that were the case. It’s been because I wanted to do exactly what I’ve done: get settled.

Proverbs 24:27 says, “Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house.” In context, I have absolutely no idea what this might mean. But how I see it with where I am in my own context, it means to get settled with being in a completely different city than what I’m used to, and then get involved.

On Monday I got to sit down with A.J. Swoboda to talk about where I’ve come from and why I’m here. At the end of our discussion, he asked me what I needed prayer for and in that moment I realized I really miss the faith community in Eugene. Not to say that it was better than what it is here – I couldn’t even begin to suggest that since I haven’t gone to a church yet. But to say that I grew really close to plenty of really good people in Eugene and they aren’t physically as close as they once were.

What I can’t overlook, though, is the plethora of friends I already have here in the Portland area. They’re friends I made while in Eugene (or Lincoln City) and will most likely be the people I start to branch out with in regards to a faith community. Until all that begins, though, I think I’m supposed to embrace the disorientation. I think I’m supposed to spend some more time in solitude with God in order to get my bearings straight. I think I’m supposed to wrestle with who I am and how I associate and identify with my new surroundings. I think supposed to find out firsthand what Abraham went through.

What can often happen in a time of transition is intense moments of nostalgia – constantly longing for a time that was easier. But it wasn’t easier. It only seems easier because it was familiar. Knowing that is crucial to growing in a new place with new people.

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you’re doing, soak it in.

God bless.

Leaving Well…

Something occurred to me on my way to work this morning: Exactly two months from now, I will be living in Portland attending my first week at George Fox Seminary.

Okay, technically classes don’t start until September 5th, but by September 2nd I’ll have moved up there and (hopefully) gotten settled in. I’ll be meeting new people on a daily basis and learning my new surroundings. My day to day routine will be completely different from what it is now, except for coffee. I will never cut coffee.

What I’ve been thinking about all day is how I intend to live these final two-ish months in Eugene. No, it isn’t like I’ll never be back, but I am leaving for at least a couple of years maybe longer. And the fact that I’m leaving for an extended period of time makes me focus on how well or not well I’m interacting with the people around me now. Essentially, I’m wondering what my exit strategy is.

“Exit strategy” is a term used to describe the plan for closing out military operations. For example, if President Obama were to lay out a plan for 10,000 troops to come home from Afghanistan or Iraq every month – that is an exit strategy (I have no idea what Obama’s exit strategy is or if he even has one; just making an example).

But it’s also used for when CEO’s or GM’s retire. They have exit strategies as to what they’d like to do with their final few months of influence within the company; ideally, these things would assist in setting up that company for success. How I’m using the term in reference to my current situation is something like this.

Currently, I don’t have one. I mean, there are some obvious things that need to happen; finding a place to live in Portland, packing up things here, and taking some time off of work to get moved out of my current apartment and into my new one. But those are just things that I have to do; they aren’t components to an overall strategy of how I’d like to live the day to day here in Eugene.

What I think are components to an overall strategy are things like hanging out with friends more often, being as efficient as possible at work, or helping my soon-to-be-former roommate find someone to replace me or find a new place to live altogether. Essentially, components to an exit strategy are basically intentional things I do between now and September that are in the effort to leave well.

Of course, these types of things (spending more time with family and friends, working well at my job, and helping people) are things I should always be doing. But when seasons of life change, so do relationships. Sometimes they’re strengthened, but sometimes they’re weakened. Maybe there was an argument right before someone moved away or one person did a selfish thing that negatively effected the other and it left a bitter taste to their relationship that they never sought to mend. What I think of, when it comes to an exit strategy, is doing things that not only end things on good terms, but strengthens the relationship so that it lasts.

Simply because I’m moving to a new location to study at a new school and meet new people and make new friends doesn’t mean that my current friendships aren’t valuable to me. It is this fact that drives my desire to leave well; to spend as much time as I can with my church family, to care for the people I work with, and simply to let those who’ve known me know that I care about them, even though I’ll be living two hours north.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of what it means to have a presence in someone else’s life while not being physically present. What I hope to do in this time of transition is make it possible to have a presence in someone’s life while not being physically there. It means showing someone you actually care about them by listening to them and showing compassion and empathy. It means doing kind things even if they aren’t needed. And it means, while I have the ability to do so, showing up whenever I can – because I won’t have as many opportunities to do so later.

What I really hope for in carrying out this exit strategy is to get a phone call late at night from somebody here in Eugene who, for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to get a hold of anyone else and they just need to talk to somebody. I want to be that person they talk to despite however many miles are between us.

Leaving well, in essence, is a greater focus on loving well.

God bless.