So yesterday I handed in the final assignments for my Graduate Diploma in Divinity, bringing to a close 12 years on and off of study at a theological college. I wish I could share with you here the photo of myself on my student card when I began. Disshevelled, full head of flowing hair and a less kempt beard than I have today, I was captured staring hazily in the distance by the chemist assistant taking the photograph and the result was a picture that looked more like a mug shot of a drug dealer than a theological student’s ID card. It would have captured the passing of time quite aptly. When I began my study I was a fresh-faced, if a little disillusioned, teacher two and a half years into my first job. I was also just months away from the short-term mission trip that nearly destroyed me and ultimately shaped me. In those twelve years, I have worked overseas, been unemployed and briefly homeless, been diagnosed with two mental illnesses, married, written a Masters thesis, had children, suffered grief, known surprising joy and released three books of poetry. It’s been a busy 12 years.
Yet I still feel embarrassed that it took me so long. The high achiever in me feels that I should have been able to do it quicker. After all, a Grad Dip only takes a year. Why did it take me 12? The answer is clear. A lot happened along the way. I nearly failed Greek because my eldest son basically didn’t sleep for the first year of his life. I wrote my New Testament exam paper with him playing with his children’s Bible on a playmat before me. I know I could not have worked any faster. But still, there it is: a feeling of embarrassment, as though it’s all a bit anticlimactic.
There’s also the fact that, along the way, I changed directions. Faced in this last year with the prospect of needing to start repeating credit points soon, I made the decision to switch from a Masters to a Grad Dip, which meant also the decision to not pursue formal church ministry, at least not for the time being. There’s a lot of my identity wrapped up in that decision, and it’s been a challenge to trust that God is able to do more than my preconceived ideas of where all this was going. Nonetheless, there’s that to deal with as well.
As I have looked ahead to finishing study, a lot of people have declared that I “won’t know myself” when I’m finished. What they mean is that I’ll suddenly find myself free in a way that I haven’t been for years. Perhaps. But there’s a deeper truth, that I feel slightly adrift, as though, if I’m not a theology student any more, who am I now? Many things of course. A teacher, a husband, a father, a brother, a friend, a son, an uncle, a poet. But there certainly is one of the moorings of my identity that is now gone. And it will take some work to reconfigure how I view the direction of my life now.
Much like we all do now. We’ve heard the phrase “a new normal” many times, but it’s only now that my city is starting to confront the reality of that. With vaccination rates climbing, we’re soon to open up again after our sixth, and second longest, lockdown. We’re going to have to get used to more cases in the community, and Covid being more of an everyday reality, rather than longing for the days when everything will be “normal” again. And while some have been busting to get out for months now, some of us aren’t quite ready yet. Some of us, myself included, feel more than a touch apprehensive of this new normal.
We’ve got some old friends, however, who can help us navigate this space. The exiles returning to Israel with Ezra and Nehemiah had to do something similar. The destruction of their home had shattered memories and everything they had taken for granted. Then they had to learn how to live like exiles, and had tried to make the most of their new life, torn between longing for the old and adjusting to the new. And then they were home again and struggling to feel like it was wholly home.
What is beautiful, however, when you read the post-exilic writing in the Old Testament, is how Israel reconfigured faith in light of this new reality. God hadn’t changed, nor ever will. But they had, and their story had, and now they needed to understand their faith in light of this new story.
When lockdowns ended last year, I wrote a poem reflecting on the sight of people doing old, familiar things in unfamiliar ways. It became the opening to my second book on the pandemic, Anno Domini. I’m sharing it to close here today because it feels all the more relevant now than it did then. May God give us all that we need as we relearn even the very way that we breathe.