I have thought of this past year, the year since Everly's death, as my year of discernment. Although I am fifty-six years old with grown children, I have had to reboot my future. I've written about this before. Having lost access to the future with Everly that I was expecting, all the roads ahead seemed strange and uncharted. I'm struggling for the right word here. My dean talks about "renorming" of his life, having lost the "normal" he knew when his wife passed away. That get's at a big part of it.
It's not exactly like going back to the beginning, not a Da Capo al Fine. I don't have to repeat all the misdirections, achievements, and learning of youth. In that way it's more like continuing with a great absence and all the confusion and uncertainty that brings (which, realistically, is actually a different set of confusions and uncertainties than the ones that Everly and I shared). It's continuing, but things don't feel the same, don't taste the same, don't smell the same. It's like walking on a path on a hillside, with everything tilted, with challenges for the footholds.
My having recently moved to a different house, one that has been gutted, rebuilt, and remodeled, puts me into a kind of spacial, structural model for what is happening. It is a kind of rebuilding after a storm. Parts of the structure are missing. As things get into place, I have to figure out how to reorganize. What used to take my time does not any more, but new things beg for my attention that I could previously ignore. I'm not doing a very good job of maintaining a single metaphor here, so I guess I'm back to my earlier point of struggling for the right word.
So in the year of discernment, I was asking a question that in common church-speak could be called "seeking the will of God." Now that things have changed, what should I be doing? Now that I'm not Everly's cheerleading director, where should my energy go? I talked with people I see often. I mulled things over with family. I made efforts to visit with people I see less often. I pulled everyone who gave me some time into my conversation about what kind of life I should have.
Part of it, the part that swam in a deep pool of grief, was about recovering. I'm not saying grief is something you get over. I'm saying that making a life required time and reflection and learning and growth that acknowledges that for me everything is changed. It means trying to remember those strengths that made Everly my chief admirer, an honest and plainspoken admirer, but an admirer no less. It means trying to resurface from the deep pool breathing big gulps of a life that I have always believed God is offering to me as a gift. It means believing again in the reasons I have been driven to be somebody and make a difference in my world.
As it has turned out so far, I continue to teach in the same esteemed seminary where I have taught for two decades. It made sense to relocate back to that vicinity. I had to grapple with my learning about John Perkins and his teaching about "relocation" to live among people with whom one ministers. Puzzling about where that relocation should be, I looked at several different neighborhoods where I have relationships with church people who care about their communities. I had to overlay those neighborhoods with the available housing, to find a place I could live and be healthy, provide space for my scattered family, and, of course, that I could afford. Affordability and livability do not always align. So I have ended up living near the church where I have served as a minister for the past seventeen years, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church.
What will come of all this discernment and seeking? That is something to wait and see. Saturday I led devotional for people who had come to Mt. Level for Community Day. We had health personnel for blood pressure checks, information about chronic conditions, community programs for children's safety, and even flu shots available. There was a cookout fired up in the parking lot. People who needed it got food to take home and help make ends meet. Throughout the day, our ministers led short devotional services for the people who were there.
I talked about the times we are motivated to seek out God's guidance as seasons in our lives change. From the seasons of the year, to seasons of school and work, to seasonal change from major life events, people may be motivated to inquire after God concerning their futures. In those short comments, I tried out a couple of analogies. First, we sometimes go asking for the wrong kind of guidance. We are looking for the GPS god. We want an exact destination, every road and turn preselected, a voice telling us what's about to come next, and no more having to think about it. Anyone who got bad directions from a GPS device knows that's not even a good way to think about using one of those things. But I am convinced that it also misunderstands the way that a life unfolds in relation to God.
Maybe that imagined map of God's will holds on from an age when Christians more widely believed in theological determinism and predestination. In popular Christian talk and thinking, it remains a commonly expressed idea that God's control of the world means that every step our our lives is planned and coming to fruition moment by moment. Most would not spin from their comments about specific events a full-blown theory of predestination, but would instead offer assertions in defense of human free will or even radical freedom and autonomy. So in that way, it does seem more like a holdover, a convention in religious speech passed on through generations, even as worldviews and theological constructions have changed in ways that would contradict it. The continuing presence of this kind of thinking is a partial explanation of why people would go to God looking for a GPS answer.
Before mentioning the alternative that I offered in the Saturday devotional, let me interrupt with the conversations I had with my students over the past week. A big part of the Introduction to Theology course at Shaw Divinity School pertains to theological hermeneutics. Along with the hermeneutical study that students get in Bible classes and in preaching classes, we spend some time on theological aspects of hermeneutics to help students understand that there are critical theological judgments and ecclesiological practices that shape faithful reading of the scriptures. As I conclude this part of the course, I spend a large part of a class meeting in theological autobiography. I tell the story of my upbringing as a white Southern Baptist, a Texan, a minister-in-training, a theologian, a church leader, a white person learning to make black friends, and a member of a black Baptist church.
Having told this story, with illustrations about Bible interpretation at relevant points, and especially to discuss my journey into reading the Bible with people whose lives have not been the same as mine and whose faith sensibilities have been shaped in a very different social and cultural context, students had more questions. Learning to read the Bible in a black church and teaching black ministers has burst open dividing walls, pushed away opaque glass to allow me to see what my isolation in white privilege did not let me see. I try to tell this story truthfully without letting it be a form of heroic tale of the honorable white man bearing his burden. Telling it over and over, with the conversations that ensue, keeps helping me to understand my own pilgrimage better.
This time, a student asked me how I understood what had happened to me in relation to the will of God. Since the most recent chapter of my life includes the death of my wife, that was the first thing that came to my mind. I explained that I do not believe it is God's will that people die of cancer, and that there was much more good that Everly could have done in this world had she not been taken from us by this disease. Thus, I don't think it is God's will that she and I had only thirty-three years of marriage, or that my children will progress through their adult lives without having their mother to encourage and direct them. Some people may feel the need to believe that "it was her time." I would say this time or another could have been her time. Such things are not set in stone nor predetermined. But whatever time her death came, whether she lived or died, she lived or died unto the Lord.
Everly's dying was a great loss to our family and to many other people in this world. But I also told my students that I don't think that her untimely death means an end to all good possibilities for us. It's not a failure of God's love and providence, but a tragic circumstance in which God's love and providence remain and surround our lives. By implication, I am saying that I don't imagine a divine being flipping switches, waving a scepter, or pushing buttons to make every event around me happen. God is active and present, but not necessarily in those kinds of ways.
The great challenge for me, mentioned above, has been rethinking what kind of life God has for me even though for almost four decades it was and would be a life lived with Everly. The year of discernment was partly a year of looking at who I have been with and without Everly. It was remembering what has mattered to me about living with her and wondering what that looks like if she is not by my side. I wondered if, after this devastating loss, I would be able to invigorate, even resuscitate, some of my passion for making a difference in the world. As our pastor, Dr. William C. Turner, Jr, said in her eulogy, she has finished her part of the race and has handed me the baton to keep on running. In her view of me and my own self-understanding, God has not cast me aside and is not finished with me yet.
So as the will of God unfolds for me, I don't think of it as a single road to a single destination. That brings me to Christian Ethics class a few days before that hermeneutics discussion. We examined the Christian understandings of love and marriage and the contrast between those theologically shaped ideas and the popular thinking that permeates our culture. One of the popular ideas is a fatalism of romantic love. It is widespread popular thought that there is a single perfect mate for each person. These two people of shared destiny must find one another and make their fate come into fruition. It's a highly problematic way of thinking that has little room for grace, for redemption, and for growth.
To "fall" in love implies a complete lack of control. But that is to conflate a biologically driven instinct toward pairing and mating with a virtue of love. Attraction and infatuation are not the same as love. Love is an orientation toward the good of the other, not a giddy feeling in the stomach and a fog in the brain. Rather than the fatalistic falling in love, a Christian understanding of love and marriage should be about "growing in love." The contemporary moment in which we live, a blip on the longer history of human flourishing, is all about self-chosen mates based on love as fate based on a self-perceived and self-reported giddiness.
I'm not arguing against people making their own judgments about whom they will marry, but I am arguing for a different kind of discernment process based on a sober evaluation of how deep a friendship is possible with the other person and whether we are pursuing goals that will take us in the same direction, or in Christian language, whether we are sharing a calling we can live out together. For that reason, as a young man I came to imagine different ways of describing the will of God as comparable to maps of two different states of the U.S.
Having spent a summer in Washington, mainly around Wenatchee and Spokane, I had learned that the prominent geographical feature of the Cascade Mountains makes getting from one side of the state to the other a bigger challenge than I had experienced growing up in Texas. There are very few roads that cross the Cascades because of the difficulty of traversing such high peaks and their steep slopes. A few mountain passes allow hikers, skiers, or drivers to safely travel. In winter, the choices for driving become more limited. So if I am in Wenatchee and want to get to Seattle, I can either go this way, or that way, and there are not many other options.
The fatalistic view of finding a mate, when imported into Christian thinking, is operating in an imagined world not unlike the road map of the State of Washington. To break it down, if I am in Wenatchee and if God's will is for me to get to Seattle, then I have to get the exact road right, or I have no hope of fulfilling God's plan for my life. If I have only one perfect mate out there in the world, and I can't keep myself on the path toward God's perfect will, I will forever miss God's plan for my marriage. When I put this in such stark terms, I wonder how such thinking would ever pass careful theological muster. Yet the anxiety of believing in only one path and the risk of missing a turn because of a mistake, a sinful choice, or ignorance, makes out God to be a kind of heartless dictator of sorts.
Once when I was about to drive from one small town in Texas to another, I got out a road map of Texas. Because of legislation in the 1940s to support secondary roads in farming and ranching areas, there are thousands of roads that crisscross every county in Texas. A road map of Texas is a jumble of roads forming triangles and quadrilaterals of varied sizes and turned all directions. Getting from point A to point B in Texas often has dozens of possible routes. There are longer and shorter routes. There are straight, curved, and zigzagged routes. There are scenic routes and efficient routes. When I ask a computer map system how to get somewhere in Texas, if it suggests three routes, it usually tells me they will all take about the same amount of time. Getting around in Texas leaves lots of room for missing a turn or for changing your mind.
It struck me that seeking the will of God was more like this map. (I confess my birth and upbringing in Texas does make me biased toward believing it could be God's country, but I think that is irrelevant to this analogy.) If God has a direction for me to go, it is not necessarily dependent on an exact route. If God has a destination at which I should arrive, there may be many possibilities and ways by which I could get there. God is not so much trying to harness me onto a single set of ruts on a road that runs through the only mountain pass as God is calling me to be a certain sort of person whose impact in the world is a certain sort of impact. There are all kinds of flexibility about how that will play out. I don't have to be in a panic about accidentally missing a road sign or misunderstanding an instruction. God is making the journey with me, and we will work it out as we go.
A week later, in Christian Ethics class again a student followed up on our conversation about the will of God. That gave me opportunity to elaborate further on the idea that our calling is first of all to a relation to God and one another. Jesus called the disciples to "Follow me." He sent them out to go to every village and town, stay a while, accomplish some things, then go on to another place. What mattered was the people they met and what they did as they carried out their mission. The calling of God, following Jesus, and living in the Spirit has its roots in the life of the Trinity and the pouring out of the divine love and goodness in creation. The divine life of mutual love, submission, and sharing is the pattern sewn into the fabric of creation. Humanity's destiny is to love one another, seek the good of one another, and share the bounty of creation with one another.
The will of God for all humanity is a life lived in justice, kindness, and humility. This is what the Prophet Micah proclaimed about the essentials of the divine will. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. To generalize, the will of God for humanity, for me, for us, is a life of virtue. Living in the Spirit means loving, being joyful, making peace, being patient, showing kindness, living gently, doing good, remaining faithful, and having self-control. Following Jesus entails poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, mercy, peacemaking, purity of heart, hunger for justice, and endurance even in hardship.
So I explained to the students that while they should seek God's guidance on major life events and choices, such as whether to become the pastor of a specific church, those moments which seem so critical have to be seen within the bigger picture of God's calling. Being at this church or that church will certainly have an impact on the pastor's life, the pastor's family's lives, and the lives of the people in the church. Yet if a pastor is at church A or church B or church C may not be the most important aspect of knowing the will of God. Is this pastor living in the beatitude that comes with being a follower of Jesus? Do this pastor's life and this church's life bear the fruit of the Spirit? Where there is injustice, are this pastor and church seeking justice? Where people struggle, do the pastor and the church and bring kindness in word and deed? Are this pastor and church walking with God and in humility? The calling is first of all to be a certain kind of people, a peculiar people, a people whose living bears in it the image of Christ.
Finally, I can get to the second part of what I shared at the devotional. Rather than a GPS version of the will of God, I suggested that it is a Jazz Band God whom we serve. I will claim no originality for making this claim. Writers such as Cornel West and Barry Harvey have preceded me in using musical metaphors to help describe the shape and possibilities of human living in this world where God is calling us together. What I said in this case was that a jazz band does not have every note and beat predetermined. It is not without any sort of plan or purpose, but it always remains open for improvisation. It may start in one direction, then regroup and change its direction. The key is that they listen and make the musical journey together. Our God made us to walk this journey with one another, and even with God. Walk humbly. Walk faithfully. Jesus said to take my yoke. Let Jesus share the burden and be a partner in the tasks. The Spirit will guide us into all truth.
God may have specific destinations and specific stretches of road for any of us along the way. We can trust that if God has such specific plans for us, God will make them known if we are walking in the Spirit as we ought, if we are living a life of virtue, if we are following our Lord. But there is no need for constant anxiety about whether in each step we are getting it right. There is so much from scripture that is clear about what sort of persons God has called us to be. If we keep that in the forefront of our living together as God's people, we will always be on the path to do the will of God. For that will is that all creation live in love, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. What else does the Lord require?
Having been pulled into these conversations by students who themselves are pursuing God's purpose for their lives with great enthusiasm, I was able to lay out in close proximity several decades of my reflections on what it means to pursue God's will in life. It has been a fruitful time of reflection for me. I hope some of it can help others make a little sense as well. At least it may be an opportunity for me to gain insight from you and clarify some matters about which I need to learn more.