I’ve already told my story here. But that’s just what happened, and how it happened. Why it happened is a harder story to tell, especially since I don’t know (and may never know, because there may not be) an ending to it, at which point the answer will presumably be made clear. (Or not.)
In meantime, however, I do have two Sabbath days to reflect upon.
April 2, 2006. It is mid-morning, and I am sitting on the front pew (where Megan, our oldest daughter, insists we should sit whenever possible) at our church building watching general conference over the satellite, trying to keep our other two girls, Caitlyn and Alison, quiet while Melissa sits through a Braxton-Hicks contraction beside me. She will give birth to our fourth daughter, Kristen Dorothy, in two days. I am a little over two weeks into the despair that came upon me when I realized that not only would I not have a job come the fall, but I very likely no longer had a career. Part of me sincerely wishes Melissa was not pregnant. Elder Holland is giving a sermon, which I later learn is titled “Broken Things to Mend”:
I speak to those who are facing personal trials and family struggles, those who endure conflicts fought in the lonely foxholes of the heart, those trying to hold back floodwaters of despair that sometimes wash over us like a tsunami of the soul. I wish to speak particularly to you who feel your lives are broken, seemingly beyond repair. To all such I offer the surest and sweetest remedy that I know. It is found in the clarion call the Savior of the world Himself gave. He said it in the beginning of His ministry, and He said it in the end. He said it to believers, and He said it to those who were not so sure. He said to everyone, whatever their personal problems might be: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls”….Brothers and sisters, whatever your distress, please don’t give up and please don’t yield to fear. I have always been touched that as his son was departing for his mission to England, Brother Bryant S. Hinckley gave young Gordon a farewell embrace and then slipped him a handwritten note with just five words taken from the fifth chapter of Mark: “Be not afraid, only believe.”
As I sit, I find myself thinking of Herbert Osborn. He was my dentist, and my patriarch. A quiet, witty man who spoke in pleasant, unexcited tones, he would tell those to whom he gave patriarchal blessings to ask him questions afterwards, for sometimes impressions and images remained with him. I took my patriarchal blessing out from my scriptures, to remember something. President Osborn (for he had been my father’s bishop when my dad was a teenager, and later served in a stake presidency too) had mentioned my “sojourn through the universities of this land” in my blessing; I had asked him afterwards how many he had seen. “At least three,” had been his reply. I put my patriarchal blessing away, and thought: I always assumed that meant my education, not my career. But later I tell Melissa that, perhaps, I had allowed my failure at WIU to frighten me too much. Perhaps, as the old African-American saying has it, God is not finished with me yet.
April 16, 2006. It is Easter morning, and I am attending mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. It is part of Catholic University of America, where I received my Ph.D. six years before; I had often visited the Basilica, thought it beautiful, and was grateful for this chance to fulfill my old wish to attend Easter services there. I am in Washington as part of Liberty Fund conference; one of the other participants in the conference, a Mennonite service missionary, had been as interested as I in finding someplace to worship on Easter, and had come with me two days before to attend Good Friday services at the Basilica. We’d hit it off well, finding much in common, talking theology and politics and everyday life. (We both already knew a fair amount about each other’s religious lifestyle, but there’s always more to learn: for example, who knew that old Mormon and Mennonite families were both likely to be so into Rook?) We are sitting together, about midway up from the rear towards the transepts. The eucharistic prayer is being recited, and I find myself staring at the Great Dome, with the awesome mosaic “Christ in Majesty”–according to some definitions the largest mosaic of Christ in the world–staring down at me.
When Melissa and I first wandered around the Basilica, when I was beginning my journey to be an academic–a journey that, sitting there that Easter Sunday, I thought to be over–we went into the nave and stared up at that mosaic. Melissa named the triumphant Christ depicted therein “The Kick-Butt Jesus.” He does indeed look as though He fully intends to kick butt. He is the no-nonsense Jesus, the Christ who knows all, has descended below all, has suffered all, has saved all, now reigns over all, and has absolutely no intention of taking any more crap from doubters and fence-sitters and anyone else who hasn’t figured out that the time for lukewarmness is far passed. He stares at me, that Easter Sunday, and I hear Elder Holland’s voice: “Be not afraid, only believe.” This frightening Christ would have me not be afraid. As the eucharist prayer comes to its climax, I think of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and the encounter told in that book between an angel and a condemned soul, who has been given a chance to enter heaven, but who has brought along with him a repulsive little beast, representing those sins he cannot get himself to abandon:
“I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came–which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”
“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit–an angel, as I now understood.
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh–ah–look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.
“Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”
“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here–well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”
“May I kill it?”
“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”
“There is no time. May I kill it?”
“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please–really–don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”
“May I kill it?”
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”
“The gradual process is of no use at all.”
“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day. All days are present now.”
“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.”
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
I realize that I am crying, and I continue to cry throughout the rest of the service. My companion looks over at me once or twice, but says nothing. A year ago, I had said that, despite all my doubts, I was not afraid to take a chance on keeping my professional hopes alive. Now, with those hopes appearing ruined in my mind, I realize that I am very afraid indeed. Why am I so frightened? Am I, again, letting my doubts about my family’s future become a cause for inaction, for retreat, for denial, for fear? What hurt am I so determined to avoid as to not want to respond to Christ’s call to hope and trust? And why am I allowing my own small struggles with something so ridiculous as a job to make me afraid?
Through my tears, I look up at those stern, glittering eyes. His eyebrows are uneven: one is raised slightly. He is asking a question. Or, more likely, awaiting an answer.
We leave the Basilica and return to the conference hotel, surrounded by blue skies and cherry blossoms. We talk, my Mennonite friend and I, about the fall of man, and what it means to be a broken thing. I fly home to Illinois later that day, to return to Melissa and our girls and our then two-week old baby; on Mother’s Day, with my father and father-in-law and brother-in-law and bishop, I give her a name and a blessing. In the meantime, I send out a bunch of applications to university jobs. I talk to my father about it when he is there for the blessing, and he in turn gives me a father’s blessing, and predicts that I would receive more than one job offer. Considering my track record, that is a startling claim. Yet I believe him. And then there is some more waiting, and then there are some interviews, and then come the offers–one, two, three (and depending on how you count them, four). We choose one: a tenure-track job at Friends University, a small, formerly Quaker, non-denominational Christian liberal arts school in Wichita, KS. And, quite suddenly, I find myself looking back at the previous three months, and particularly back at that those Sundays in April, and thinking: so, did I have the ending and the answer in my hands, all that fearful, worried time? And then I think: oh no. Not by a long shot.
Benedicamus Domino. Deo gratias. Amen.