Life Transitions

On November second – in the middle of Game 7 of the Cubs World Series victory – my wife and I welcomed our first child, Sophia Lenore, into the world. The miracle of birth and the joy of new life is itself overwhelming, but I think the Cubs victory added a bit of excitement. The coincidence of her birth and baseball have forever connected the two in my mind and memory.

And just as Sophia was born at the end of the baseball season, she was also born at the end of the liturgical year. She was born one day after All Saints day and shortly before the start of a new church year with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany falling within her first weeks of life. Stronger than my associations with post-season baseball, her birth and these seasons of the church and now linked in my mind and memory. I’m using these liturgical seasons and some theological concepts to provide language that will frame some of the “epiphanies” I’ve had in the first few weeks of parenthood.

Daily Bread

Over the course of the last few weeks and months, one of my most consistent thoughts has been this: being a parent is hard. Really hard. The lack of sleep, the extra loads of laundry, the anxiety surrounding caring for a tiny human have all combined to make this season uniquely difficult. The difficulty of this season has added new meaning to the biblical hope conveyed in one line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Like few other times in my life, this season continually forces me to rely on God’s providence for strength and courage each day. Like God’s people had to gather manna in the wilderness each day, I too must gather strength and courage each day. It would have been nice to stockpile extra kindness, grace, and courage – not to mention sleep, freetime, and clean laundry! – but this season has given me a new awareness of my reliance on God and the insufficiency of my own strength and will.

Another way I have thought about this is using the text from the hymn: “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” I’ve felt a similar dependence on God and God’s people at other times during my life – new job, school, difficult seasons – but this transition has removed all notions of self-sufficiency or autonomy by underscoring how much I depend on God and the people of God.

Simul Justus et Peccator

Another theological principle that has taken on new meaning is the Luther conception of humanity as both sinner and saint. I’m learning to embrace all of my humanity and accept the surprises of this new awareness. I’ve surprised myself with my own saintly behavior: lovingly cleaning up dirty diapers, patiently rocking a crying child, wisely choosing things that lead toward flourishing and joy. I’ve also been surprised by my own sinfulness and vices: flashes of anger over spit-up, gluttonously rolling over for another few minutes of sleep instead of tending to my stirring child, jealousy toward others who seem to be having an easier time of it.

I wish I could say that this transition to fatherhood has made me more saintlike – I’m still hopeful that it will! – but right now this transition is helping me to accept more fully the heights and depths of my humanity. I’m becoming more comfortable wielding both my saintly power (“I can hold her while she cries, you sleep.”) and accepting my human limitations (“I’m having a tough moment, could you hold her for a while?”.)

The Communion of Saints

Lastly, my transition into fatherhood has blessed me with a fresh awareness and appreciation for the Communion of Saints. In this transition, I know I’ve joined the community of parents. But the Communion of Saints stretches far beyond the community of parents and includes all those that extend love and care for others. The Communion of Saints that has surrounded us includes the doctors and nurses who extended care; family and friends who came bearing gifts of clothes, blankets, and food; those who offered quiet words of encouragement or silent prayers; and others who in whatever way extended love and care in this season.

Inescapably as I hold my own child, I think about the people that held me when I was a infant and my mind wanders to those that taught me in and out of school, watched me, etc. I’m newly aware of people who have offered me love and encouragement, guidance and hope, books and stories that have guided me on my way. So through this transition, I see more clearly and with ever growing gratitude the Communion of Saints that has surrounded me since before my birth and continues to bless me with love.

And – embracing my Saintliness!- I think about the role I’ve played in the lives of other people. I’ve been a part of that Communion of Saints in the roles I’ve played in the life of others – as a camp counselor, Sunday School teacher, librarian – and hopefully in my daily living in this world. I think about the Communion of Saints as a great interconnected web that stretches through time and space that binds us together in our common humanity and in relation to our triune God.

Perhaps because I’m writing this reflection during this time between All Saints Day and Epiphany, I’ve combined these two theological movements in my imagination. I imagine my wife and I as Mary and Joseph standing in awe of this new life. And I imagine the Communion of Saints streaming not through “Gates of Pearl” as the hymn suggests, but streaming into the smallness of our home just as the Wise Men came to visit the baby Jesus. And like the Wise Men, the whole Communion of Saints comes bearing gifts to the newborn child: gifts not of gold, frankincse and myrrth but gifts of food, clothes, books, love, encouragement. And like Mary, I sit by “treasuring these things in my heart” newly aware of the rich blessings I’ve received and recommitted to serve the greater community. And to raise my daughter to know know that the richest part of life is found in serving others.

In all of this, I feel a tremendous and nearly overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am grateful for God’s promise of Daily Bread and grateful to receive “Strength for today and bring hope for tomorrow.” I am grateful that the fullness of my humanity – both sinner and saint – is accepted by God and the people of God. And I am grateful for the great and diverse Communion of Saints that stretches throughout time and space.

Zenos Hawkinson for the Covenant Companion

A recent issue of the Poetry Magazine featured a section called “Antagonisms” which invited poets to “write short pieces about some ostensibly great poet they had never really liked, perhaps even hated.” That is not my task here – I’m sharing about a book I really like and perhaps even love – but one line from that unlikely place has stood out to me. Peter Campion wrote this about D.H. Lawrence: “I … want to open Lawrence’s Collected again and find that … the poems had been reading me, underlining all my shortcomings.”[1]

As I’ve read the writing of Zenos Hawkinson, collected in the book “Anatomy of the Pilgrim Experience” and published by Covenant Publications, I have felt that Hawkinson’s writings have indeed been reading me and underlining some of my shortcomings. Zenos Hawkinson taught history at North Park College for over forty years and our shared connections to North Park and the Covenant Church made his writing personal to me. Though he wrote on a wide range of topics, this book focuses on themes of identity and formation that Zenos addressed by telling stories of people on the move. I first read this book during my last semester at North Park and these stories seemed particularly relevant to me as I prepared to move from college student to college graduate and into the work force. I was on the move in my own life and this book served as my companion along the way.

Zenos’ words guided my vocational search and underlined some of my shortcomings. My time at North Park cultivated a love for mathematics and a desire to serve God. This book helped me understand those passions and created a desire to see them engaged in my daily work. Zenos’ belief that “we need meaningful labor just as we need sleep, bread, and water” added a new focus to my job search by reframing work not as meaningless toil, but as a meaningful expression of faith.[2] With all of this in mind, I began looking for a job at a math teacher. I thought this would be a job that would combine these interests and lead to meaningful work that I could serve faithfully and wholly. This was also motivated by Zenos’ concern about human wholeness, wholeness that I understood as the integration of all things. I wanted my whole life to reflect my faith; to use what God has given me to help save the world, serve the church, and met all the other demands of life as I moved into adulthood.

My attempt to move into adulthood quickly became difficult and stressful. After some disappointments in a short job search, I found a teaching job that almost immediately overwhelmed me. Having been motivated by Zenos’ concern to “serve the work” I found new words speaking to me now: “if you feel perpetually unrewarded, unappreciated, misunderstood, you are probably not serving the work, or you are trying to serve the work for which you were not gifted.”[3] These words struck me, pushed me to ask difficult questions of myself, and seemed to underline my shortcomings.

In retrospect, I see that my shortcoming was not in achievement; my error was in my goal and mindset. My conception of wholeness was one of perfection; I was hoping that every part of my life would be acceptable, under control, and perfectly integrated. And while this is perhaps a valid goal, it is not what Zenos had in mind when he talked about serving the work or wholeness. I see now that Zenos associated wholeness as Christian realness. “Our problem is to find a way to be God’s people and real people. I associate realness with wholeness, even if this wholeness is marred by warts, even if, as a consequence of my wholeness, I am forced to confess to you that I am less than I ought to be.”[4] After graduation, I felt like I ‘ought to be’ someone who had life figured out and was doing good work, yet my attempts ended in experiences of frustration and anger that ran directly counter to my hopes. To me, wholeness now means the acceptance that everything – things as they ought to be and things in disarray – are still within the divine order. In my effort to make my life acceptable, I forgot to accept my life as a good gift from God meant to be enjoyed.

And even though Zenos caused some of my consternation and confusion, Zenos also offered encouragement and hope rooted in God’s goodness and expressed through the Covenant tradition. As I struggled with questions, words of encouragement and hope came in lines like this; “Imperfect as we are, we are yet, in ourselves, messages from God to each other, in that incarnated form we creatures most readily understand.”[5] I felt heartfelt emotion and confidence when Zenos reflects on the final line from a hymn: “that you are ransomed as you are. We have, praise God, the right to be ourselves” and when he offers the repeated exhortation to “trust the Word.”[6] Zenos offers hope to individuals and encouragement to the whole Covenant church that is rooted in the pilgrim experience and the love of God. It is good to have those stories as reminders.

The image I’ve used in this reflection – that Zenos’ writings has been reading me, underlining my shortcomings, asking questions, causing confusion, offering encouragement, and revealing hidden strengths – can be expressed more directly; Zenos is a teacher. The way this book has influenced me and changed me is connected to how a loving teacher grades the work of an honest student. “Anatomy of the Pilgrim Experience” has added question marks to certain areas of my life and exclamation points to others. This book has underlined some of my thoughts, crossed out some of my goals, and offered fresh thinking at pivotal points in my life. Zenos Hawkinson’s book represents the work of a great teacher who draws on the best of the Covenant tradition and I recommend it everyone, especially those who find themselves “on the move” in life.


 

[1] Peter Campion, “Delicate Mother Kangaroo: reconsidering D.H. Lawrence,” Poetry Magazine (January 2013): ???, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/245162.

[2] Zenos Hawkinson, Anatomy of the Pilgrim Experience: Reflections on Being a Covenanter (Chicago, IL: Covenant Publications, 2000), 130.

[3] Ibid., 128.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 86.

[6] Ibid., 91.