Our office happens to hold most of our media, our bookshelves, our computer, all of my teaching materials, our deep freeze, and a lot of storage of personal items, so it's a space that is loaded with a number of different issues in terms of clutter. But last year, I was able to spend a significant amount of time during the summer and fall working through the office in particular, so I was feeling a lot better about its contents and my overall life journey; I even got to the point of seeing past the superficial layer of clutter through to the deeper projects I would want to finish at some point, as I chronicled here.
But things changed, as they are wont to do: I started working (again) as a substitute teacher and, before I knew it, it was June and most of those things that I had dreamed about doing were not only left unfinished, but had been obscured by the junk that I had allowed to build up over the course of the year. By the time I was finished with the school year, I was disheartened and disjointed and just generally out of sorts, a general attitude which has carried on throughout the better part of the past six months, through the first third of the next school year.
It has been a frustrating half-year of fits and frustrations, stops and starts, stutters and successes. It's not like things have been all bad or that I'm feeling entirely unproductive or unsatisfied, but there is certainly an sense of existential malaise that permeates much of my otherwise unoccupied time. I have had good weeks - some of which have even occurred consecutively - but I would describe my overall orientation right now as "out of sorts", a term to which I will return later.
My office, in this regard, serves a metaphor for my life in general; I rarely feel satisfied with my progress therein, and although there are times in which I find myself pleased with where things are at, I see that there are some significant issues with the overall structure. And even though I frequently perceive ways in which I might rectify some of the issues in either my office or my life and I attempt and enact some of the solutions I conjure, I find myself continually struggling not only with the smaller tasks but also the larger picture.
Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation
As I have been processing this with my wife in the past few weeks, she used the term "disoriented" to describe herself, and something finally clicked for me with that descriptor in determining my current state. I recently read a book - Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective - in which the author, Robert Vagacs, analyzed the work of U2 largely through the lens of the work of Walter Brueggeman. The particular construct Vagacs applied was Brueggeman's interpretation of the gospel narrative as a cyclical process of "orientation, disorientation, and reorientation".
Brueggeman, Vagacs posits, sees the redemptive nature of God working through this process, which Vagacs then further applies to the career of U2: War, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree as "orientation"; the 90s triumvirate of Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop as "disorientation"; and the pairing of All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb as "reorientation". (The book was published in 2004 after the release of Dismantle, and I would be fascinated to see how Vagacs - or Brueggeman himself, for that matter - would interpret the past decade of U2's career in this light. My suspicion is that it has been a period of "orientation", which could mean that we are in store for another period of disorientation with their next album. But I digress....)
The point here - much as I might hope otherwise - is not to delve deeper into the theology and mythology of U2, but to point out that the combination of my wife's comment and my recent reading of this particular book made me recognize that this pattern of "orientation, disorientation, and reorientation" is significantly present in my own life. Allow me to explain.
Rubrics for life
Several years ago, a friend gave me a simple though meaningful rubric to evaluate my life. Her perspective was that if you are feeling good about two of the three areas of life - work, home, and life, in her words - that you're doing well for yourself. I would clarify her specific wording to "vocation, home/family, and life/community", but I think the sentiment remains the same. If you have two or sometimes even only one of those areas going well, you're doing okay in life.
Using this simple rubric in addition to Brueggeman's view of orientation, it is then possible to create a method to evaluate one's own life and to determine which level of orientation applies to one's current circumstances. If, for example, you are in a season in which all three of those areas - vocation, home/family, and life/community - are between "okay" and "good" - you're likely in a period of orientation. If you are in a period in which those three are not on track, it's more likely a period of disorientation. If you are seeing a progression between the two in a positive direction, it's likely a season of reorientation.
I would also argue that there is another layer that can (and should) be applied in this evaluation, which is the emotional, spiritual, and/or prophetic understanding of one's circumstances. It might be as simple as processing one's own feelings about their lot in life, but I have been fortunate enough to have significant experiences with a supernatural sense of direction or purpose in life. I believe that this layer, whether accessed through introspection and self-knowledge or some kind of supernatural revelation - or often a combination thereof - can not only help us understand our season, but it can also contextualize that understanding to the point that it is possible for us to endure challenging seasons with a view of a greater purpose.
Life, of course, is rarely that simple, and it is likely that it is difficult to qualify and quantify seasons of life quite so clearly, but I would posit that it is usually possible to determine an overarching season, even if there are smaller micro-seasons and variations within that overall season. Some people might feel that they live their entire lives in disorientation, but I am fairly certain that even given a certain level of pessimism that even the most cynical souls could determine times in their lives when they were feeling like they were in a season of orientation.
I can, of course, identify periods throughout my life of orientation, when things were going well; I was engaged in enough areas of my three vocations - education, communications, and ministry - to be satisfied; home/family was good; and my life/community was also positive. I know myself well enough to know that I am not in one of those periods now, and that I am, in fact, in a season of disorientation.
There are different degrees to the sense of disorientation, but I have realized that this season of disorientation is at least three years old. I could argue that the entire period of seven years since I was laid off from my first permanent job has been an overall season of disorientation - and I do not think I would be entirely wrong in doing so - but I can also recognize that cycle of "orientation, disorientation, and reorientation" in the midst of these past seven years, so I am going to focus on the more immediate period of disorientation.
The year immediately following my layoff was certainly disorienting, as it was the first time I can remember that something I had started had been terminated by a factor other than a natural ending point or my choice to do so. It was a brutal process, both in terms of the emotions I experienced as well as the way in which the entire employment situation was managed, and I found myself having to navigate a difficult season in which I had to be the most mature despite being the most disoriented person involved. I have written not infrequently about that experience, so I'm not going to dwell on it here, but I mention it as a point of reference for the greater conversation at hand.
I would argue that the following year, in which I had a very challenging teaching position, was ultimately a combination of disorientation and reorientation. The following two years, despite a dearth of teaching position, were ultimately a season of orientation: I was happy enough with my work; I had ministry through church leadership and in directing camp in the summertime; I had great friends and meaningful community; and my home and family life, though at times stressful due to the financial pressures incurred by that lack of work, was positive overall.
The next step, of course, leads me to my transition just over two years ago, when my wife and I chose to relocate ourselves and ultimately enter this current period of life, which has resulted in disorientation. We had enough natural reasons to look at moving back to Saskatchewan - the possibilities of better employment and friends and family here including an adorable nephew chief among them - but we also had a supernatural sense of calling in our discernment process, so we decided to move on faith, thus incidentally inciting this season of disorientation of my life.
As I have begun to process this sense of disorientation, I have realized that it is not only an overall sense of disorientation in which I am functioning, but that the nature of my current employment as a substitute teacher also mandates a daily renewal of that sense of disorientation - micro-disorientation, if you will. I never know where I will be working and what I will be teaching; I likewise can rarely anticipate if and when I will be working or not working, and that level of insecurity has continued to be very challenging for me.
There have been periods in which I have been more comfortable with this unpredictability, but more often than not, it has been a hindrance to me rather than a help. I do what I can to manage myself and my emotions in the midst of this variability, but I am by nature less inclined to function well with this kind of vacillation.
I do recognize, largely by my wife's pointed observations, that even when I am feeling like I am "in a rut" that I still am able to accomplish more than most people - for example, I rarely, if ever, have found myself in an extended Netflix binge session on days on which I do not receive a call - but I have also learned that I cannot measure my successes or failures by the amount of tasks I accomplish or leave on my list. (Well, I might still be learning that lesson, but you get the point.)
I also recognize that much of my disorientation is of my own volition - I chose my career, I am choosing not to change my career, we chose to move back, we chose to leave our church - so this is not intended as a complaint, per se, but an admission of the difficulties, both internal and external, that are contributing to this season of disorientation.
Regardless of the combination of factors that are contributing to this season, the reality is that this is my season and it is practically difficult to see how it will change; I'm not intending to sound (or be) overly fatalistic, but there is no "magic wand" simple fix solution for this season of disorientation. There are, however, steps that I can take toward alleviating the sense of disorientation, which often take the form of conversations with others who know me well enough to help me understand my own condition.
I am grateful for the company of my friends and family who have been subject to my various requests (and demands) for encouragement through this entire process. I can honestly say that I could not have done it without many of them, and their contributions to my life have been invaluable, even in the times in which I may have seemed insufferable or inconsolable. I look to their company and encouragement as a form of self-care, but theirs is not the only help I seek.
I often read books by authors in order to encourage me, whether through echoing the sentiments I have been feeling about life, church, and vocation, or through discussing periods of their own lives in which they have experienced a similar sense of disorientation. There has been a rich tradition of twenty- and thirty-somethings writing about their struggles in the midst of the North American Evangelical church, so I have had lots of company in my journey over the past decade and a half.
In the past, Donald Miller was one of those authors in some of his earlier works such as Blue Like Jazz and Searching For God Knows What, though his recent shift in life has left me with much more of a sense of "self-help" from his work. His most recent book, Scary Close, had significant hints of the old Donald, but I also felt like it was a little inauthentic and preachy at times; then again, I would imagine that people feel the same way about my writing at times, so I suppose I cannot fault him too much for that.
In the past few months in particular, I have found comfort in the stories of female authors of faith, particularly as they have processed the overly misogynistic context of the recent American election. It's not that I eschewed female authors in the past (at least the recent past, at any rate), but I think that the combination of an increased internal emotional sensitivity, the presence of several strong women as mentors and co-sojourners in my life, and the surge in the popularity of female voices in this particular field in recent years has resulted in my focus on actively cultivating a female authorial presence in my life.
I have been encouraged by posts and articles from writers such as Ann Voskamp and Brene Brown, whose books I am currently slowly working through. I have read everything Lauren Winner has written, and passages from her heart-breakingly honest Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, about the implosion of her marriage, haunt me and linger like lines from the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Rachel Held Evans' Searching for Sunday was incredibly helpful in processing some of ways I have been feeling about the Evangelical church. But there is one author whose work cut deeper than any of those others in the past half-year: fellow Canadian Sarah Bessey's book Out of Sorts.
Out of Sorts
Bessey's book, which has the subtitle "Making Peace Out of an Evolving Faith", uses the metaphor of sorting through things like a rummage sale for the way in which she has sorted through aspects of her faith and life. Her conversations, by the way, served as the inspiration for the introductory section (about my office) to this post.
As I read through Bessey's book, which chronicles her thoughts on various aspects of a faithful life such as theology, the Bible, church, community, the Spirit, justice, and more, I was continually struck by how much her journey and her thoughts seemed to echo my own, which perhaps should not have been that surprising considering our mutual roots in the Canadian prairies and our dalliances with Evangelicalism and Pentacostalism.
Bessey gave me the opportunity to experience my own disorientation within the church and in my own life in a new and fresh way, and Out of Sorts felt like the kind of revelation that I had previously experienced in reading Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz or Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis - a seemingly perfect distillation of my own thoughts even though it was expressed by someone else.
Much of the book still stands out in my mind - especially the concluding chapter that serves a prayer over the reader in regard to everything she has discussed in the course of her discussion - but there was one particular fact that stood out: her journey of disorientation, from leaving her husband's job in ministry and their life in Texas for a new life in Abbotsford, BC, took nine years. Nine years.
That number is simultaneously daunting and inspiring. On the one hand, I have been in this season of disorientation for anywhere between three and seven years, depending on the exact measurement, so if nine years is a possibility, I have made significant progress. On the other hand, nine years is a long time, and whatever time I might have left in my process - which, of course, may be far longer than nine years, a number that serves only as an arbitrary marker for the purpose of this comparison, since everyone has a different journey - seems not insignificant and at times overbearing.
In the end, I found her discussions more heartening than heart-breaking, as she not only wrote from the point of view of someone sympathetic to people in that season of disorientation - particularly in regard to the church - but she also demonstrated empathy in the style and content of what she wrote. I knew she knew and identified with my experience from her experience, not just from her interpretation of someone else's experience. Sometimes, it's just enough to know that other people are on the same journey, even if they're in a different season, and it's enough to know that there are people who are journeying with you, which I felt when I read Out of Sorts.
How to Be Here
There was another book that also significantly affected me in a positive way in recent months - Rob Bell's How to Be Here, which is his first book since his unofficial "excommunication" from the Evangelical establishment in the wake of his book Love Wins. (I speak metaphorically, of course, though Bell himself acknowledges that he is persona non grata in many of the circles in which he once traversed.) In the time between those two books, Bell left his church, wrote another book, moved to Los Angeles, and started a new life in which he has a show on Oprah's network and writes screenplays and hangs out with showrunners like Carlton Cuse of Lost.
The things that Bell writes are not revolutionary, nor are they overly complex. He relates stories from his journey that have led him to a new understanding of what it means to fully engage in his life and how to experiencing the moment in front of you. Like much of what Bell has written, it's not groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but there is an almost intangible quality about the way in which he writes that is soothing and reassuring without being reductively prescriptive or presumptive.
What I found particularly refreshing about How to Be Here was how Bell works to simplify the entire process of life in a way that is not condescending toward the reader. He acknowledges the simplicity of the lessons he has learned while still respecting the reality that the process is not simple - not even in his own life. He had to take some significant risks and experience some significant disorientation in order to get to where he is, and he writes about how it was not an easy process. Simple, but not easy - a reality I understand all too well.
The temptation of narrative construction
There were many times over the past six months in which I considered writing this post, but I found myself unable to do so for some reason. I still cannot explain the things that interfered with my composition, much as I find it difficult to identify the factors that have interfered with my various projects and creative endeavors over the past seven years. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) this inability, I have realized that it is enough to admit that I am disoriented, and that my disorientation is enough reason on its own to justify the time and energy it has taken to do something as simple as writing this post.
It seems like this is a lot of words to ultimately come to that conclusion, but I would counter that I have needed to live out the past six months to be able to have the voice to process and express this season in a way that makes sense not only to myself but also (hopefully) to others. Nevertheless, in the wake of a post that has been in composition for half a year, I find myself trying to reach some sort of tidy conclusion without actually having the inclination or the werewithal to do so.
Part of the problem I have been experiencing is the desire to force this season of my life - and this post, for that matter - into some kind of overall narrative, and I cannot quite seem to get it to fit. I imagine that there will be a point at which I will be able to look back on this season of disorientation and contextualize it within the larger narrative of my life, but this is not that point, and I certainly cannot prescribe how this season will fit into the larger narrative of my life.
So my role now is not to construct a narrative, but merely to live and learn through this experience, which is the essential lesson of How to Be Here - live to the fullest in the moment. I recognize that much of what I am learning in this season is valuable not only for what it may yield in a future season, but also for what it is doing in my life at this moment. The point is that I need - indeed, we all need - to receive the seasons given.
Receive the (Advent) Season
Right now, in regard to the liturgical calendar, that season - aside from my personal season of disorientation - is Advent, the month that precedes Christmas. In the church, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus, and many churches observe four thematic focusses in the weeks leading up to Christmas that accompany and are often derived from the readings of the lectionary: hope, joy, love, and peace (in some order).
I have deliberately observed Advent for the past eight years, and I have found each year that there are different aspects of Advent that stand out to me. One year, it was hope; in another, peace. I'm not yet sure which of the four seems most apparent to me in my life now, but it certainly seems as though I need some semblance of all four right now. I find it interesting that I am finding the space and language to work through this season of disorientation in the midst of Advent, and that I am learning again how to press into a season of waiting, which is an inherently disorienting process.
Waiting is focussing on the not yet and the may be and the might not ever happen. Waiting is wondering and pondering and wandering. Waiting is staying in a suspended space with no guarantees and endless possibilities. Waiting is remaining steadfast in all seasons of life, and so, this Advent, I am waiting for Jesus to show up in the midst of my season of disorientation.
In a sense, I am waiting for the star to appear, or for the angel to warn me about the way I am going, though I acknowledge that it is not likely to be that easy or obvious - even in a metaphorical sense. Everything that Jesus did, including the entire narrative of the Nativity, is intentionally disorienting in regard to established structures of power and expectation, so it seems much more likely that Jesus will show up in the most unexpected places in my life - the manger hidden in the back corner of my heart.
I have to keep focussing on ways in which I am being oriented toward Jesus, and the "Advent"ure on which he is taking me. All I can do is to receive the season, to keep watch, and to let Him work through both this season of Advent and my own season of disorientation.