Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The New Bible College...a Dream within a Dream

I just woke up from a dream. It was another Simpson College San Francisco dream. I have had them for 30 years now. But this one was different. It was not dark or mixed; the others have always been a mixture of longing, some alienation, some sweetness and often humor…very much as my experiences that year were.

Let me start with the dream while it is still fresh. I am returning and, as is always the case, the place is Simpson, but not the same one. It retains a Simpson-esque nature, which I think anyone who has any sense at all would pick up on immediately. It could be seen in the furniture, which was always cheap, nearly weightless wood, with a decent stain. Perhaps in some cases emblematic. The other physical aspect was the dark red brickwork. Old, weathered, a throwback to the 1920s, if not earlier.

This Simpson was larger, more modern, but still retained those features somewhat (my desk was ridiculous…I thanked God immediately that I have most everything I need on my laptop). There was not much shelving for books. I thought, “good, I only need about 140 of the best books, both reference or otherwise, and I’m pretty sure I know what most of them are.” My other 2,200 volumes have been sitting in a storage unit in Roseville, California, for years. I wouldn’t care if it caught fire. One less trip or two to Roseville.

This Simpson was in San Francisco, but in a new location, just as I myself have returned and now live in San Anselmo (named for the great Catholic apologist and priest St. Anselm). I live at The Citadel, a converted mansion, and we have the middle flat with three old-style windows set into some kind of mortar that is impervious to anything short of dynamite. That’s my room with a massive view of the hills of San Rafael. It has been my haven, but also a prison of sorts, however self-imposed. Still, as prisons go…

I laughed at the desk in the small dorm room and then noticed there was no bed. I hardly needed one then, and I hardly need one now, running often for weeks on end on 5 hours sleep a night, or less…and not because I am driven. I have been largely unemployed the last four months.

It was about 2 a.m., and I went down to the Library area. On my way I saw Rich standing at someone’s study desk, joking around. I nudged past him, slamming him just a little, like I didn’t see him. He called after, “Bakdon, I’ll see you in your room in ten.” I was in no hurry, as that meant he’d be there around 3 or so.

The library was small but adequate and open 24 hours. Late is best, as serious students like quiet and free reign. I saw a younger student I had seen perform before. He was brilliant. I liked him and thought he would do well.

After that I showered, then grabbed my clothes. Still in a towel, I thought, I haven’t seen one girl, and I’m too old for this bullshit when it’s just 25 steps away. Some personality traits never change.

Others do. I was my present age, but I have been fortunate. I am youthful, strong, sharp, and in reasonably good shape despite two divorces, 15 moves, two “crash and burns” and a long battle against a deadly disease. I should look like a man of 80. In fact, only a full head of gray hair, the typical battle of paunch, and some slight puffiness under my eyes distinguish me much from the boy who entered Simpson 30 years ago. Perhaps vanity will be part of God’s last purging before resurrection. Either that or it’s meant to be a sign, as this dream may, that I have turned the new page on a new life and that all the previous 50 years have been leading up to this.

But let me finish with the dream. It is not much longer. After, I will extrapolate.

I was suddenly dressed and wanted to see what view was availed me out the four windows on the northern wall of my small room. There were cheap bamboo roll-down shades inside, and similar, yet different, wood-stick shades outside hanging from the awning. As usual, it was all one large complex so that one might not ever have to out outside and actually feel the shudder of the Pacific under one’s feet or feel that wet, sweeping air on your cheeks. I tried to roll them up, but they were of the usual type with that small steel dragging clip that is supposed to work but never does. Still I could see the tops of trees outside, and to the very far right saw the top of the southern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge jutting up behind them in the not-too-far distance. This pleased me no end, as I have always been an utter mixture of Urban and Ocean. Baker Beach would not be far, nor Crissy Field…both favorite haunts the last 20 years.

Looking down, I saw two small bookshelves. They already had all my writings. There were many—probably measuring three feet wide and each of the two stacks just high enough to hold thick binders. That’s actually probably conservative.

One huge difference in my second Simpson experience would be speed. I write like a banshee on crack, sometimes publishing five or six online articles by the time others are groaning out of bed. This little piece might take a few weeks for someone who simply journals. It will be done in a few hours, sent to the few who have the maturity to handle it (and who will appreciate it) and that is probably the end of it—like much in those binders.

I would put another row of bookshelves at my own expense in front of those so I could see just the spines if needed. I figured I probably wouldn’t, but nice to always have a hard copy.

The books would be dominated by needed reference materials. What I lacked in that department was at the Library probably 800 feet away and one floor down. The other 40 percent would be the concentrated books, each of which was like having 10 of the best on the subject. Becker, Berger, Brueggemann, Brooks, Bonhoeffe, Beauchner…all the Killer B’s. Then Merton, Lewis, Nygren, deRougemont, the Dalai Lama, Lamott, Kierkegaard, Percy and Pascal. Then small esoteric works that are hard to find but you want closer than 8,000 feet. The Art of War, The Desert Fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux, Otto Rank, Andre Malraux. The last would be art books and Russian, French, and English/American literature including only a few poets—Everson, Eliot, Oliver and Pinsky.

The experience this time in class would be very different. I would immediately transfer out of any bullshit classes and go for the hardest ones that offered depth. These teachers would know more than I on their subject and I would gladly learn from them. But I would retain different angles of approach alongside their more rigid Modernistic/Critical approach and avoid reading any assigned works with titles like “Towards a preliminary understanding of….” You fill in the nonsense. We live in a different time, and plain, deep, relevant and compassionate speech is called for.

We needed a grounded Christology. That seems obvious, but apparently it is not.

Rich came laughing down the small hall with a friend named Cal. He was familiar in an acquaintance way. Apparently we had met long ago and had given each other quite a ribbing. He seemed a decent fellow, and anyone in Rich’s good graces has always been good enough for me.

It seemed odd to be back and ready to study. It was apparent both of us would settle right back into simple routines of long hours, good conversation and lots of dark French roast. Rich seemed lighter than in the last decade and, frankly, so did I.

And perhaps that is true, despite our trials that have often, in some ways, mirrored each other—and in other ways were simply the trajectory we were always on. I was always the more complicated one…perhaps more inwardly troubled. We shared nearly the same past and, as such, were solitary warriors. I, the warrior-poet; Rich, the warrior-strategist. We have a Jonathan/David relationship.

Point is, all the others we had known there were gone or would not be joining. Doc is dead. Delinda is serving and loving young mothers and helping them have their babies in Colorado, and Devan Devan, as a good Lutheran, is probably at the bottom of a pint still muttering about the humiliations we placed him through. No, only the two of us back in San Francisco with separate yet similar callings. And both with renewed vigor, settled hope, and old issues finally laid to rest.

Now the above does not seem like much until you allow it to inform and reform the last 30 years.

Why have I had these reoccurring dreams of a small Bible college in San Francisco that I only attended for a year? I think I mentioned them to Rich once, and he said he has not had any. That is also typical. I am the brooder who, with rare exception, has not had much “success.” Rich, on the other hand, took the bull by the horns and has been quite successful. Yet the deeper longings and truths have always been there for us both. Most of the time I did not want them. Now I’m glad they stayed alive in me.

Nothing particularly major happened on the surface of the dream, but then I have never been a surface person. I did not meet a girl there, have my heart truly broken there, break a bone, lose a family member, or have sex for the first time. The most stunning achievement was doing 40 units in that one year at a 3.75 clip. Big deal. With the exception of Wallmark, Doc, and to some extent Claspill, I hardly had to study. The other three more than made up for it. Even Greek came easy. It was a system so logical and with tables and, unbeknownst to me then, I was ADHD and immediately grasped complex relational systems that others found daunting. More than once Devan Devan cursed me before a Greek test.

Now I would assert that the dream is about what I began with: longing, alienation, sweetness and humor.

I’ll start with humor because it’s my dream and I’ll do what I want.

The essence of humor is discrepancy, just as brevity is the essence of wit. My life has been filled with it, mostly with me as the punch line.

It would be more than a mild understatement to say that my life has not turned out like anything I expected at the “first” Simpson. Like many men in their early 20s who are suddenly exposed to the powerful adult world, I found I had new powers and avenues open to me, added to natural gifts. Not yet tempered by failure and humiliation (it takes higher doses for some of us), I was not just bulletproof—bullets feared me.

It was the same for Rich. It was the wisest decision either of us made (and it was quick and early) to join forces. I suppose it would be like Frazier and Ali deciding not to pound each other but instead take on the rest of the boxing world.

Perhaps the story that best illustrates Rich’s artful humor was when David Miller had published something about Rich’s secret appliances in the gossip column in the Simpson paper. No one ever questioned the validity of a gossip column in a Bible school but did have a problem with small appliances.

To send a clear message (he said, dodging the word “revenge”) Rich selected a large, dark and ugly potato bug and deposited it in Miller’s bed, deep in the sheets.

Miller was two doors down from me on the third floor, and Rich and I were up at around midnight studying together when we heard an awful scream coming from two doors down.

[ I looked over at Rich.]

“What the—?”

“Don’t worry, Bakdon,” he said. “I put a potato bug in Miller’s bed.”

“Dang. Those things are nasty!”

“Bakdon,” he said, holding his hand out in classic Rich stance (the two long fingers protruding like a gun), “as C.S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, ‘It’ll hurt, but it won’t kill.’ ”

I suppose that would be my present choice for my headstone. Life has hurt and beyond measure the majority of the last 22 years. I have suffered the loss of all things but my children on nearly three occasions now. On the upside, I can move my earthly belongings in a day and my creditors have nothing to attach. I have learned to be Zen. I cannot take it with me, apparently often here as well.

But this is where grace comes in, which itself is Divine humor. We are, each of us on our own, a joke. We pretend, and build up mini-kingdoms in the world of ideas, possessions, bank balances and status, but the banana peel is death.

God, not to be outdone, takes the most serious pretense of death and lets it slip on the banana peel of resurrection via the cross. And in so doing taunts it the way one does after delivering an unanswerable prank to a longtime and bitter rival.

As I mentioned, most of my jokes now are solely at my own expense. I’m an easy target (the big ones always are) and I never miss hitting myself. Plus, I feel safer if I get there before you.

The First Simpson was alienating by having created essentially no private space. One cannot be invited “over” to another building, or down to the coffeehouse or to events that air things out when you are all on the Starship Simpson. Had it not been for Doc Humphries and his invitations to coffee and assignments to museums we might not have ever seen the City at all.

It was a place of loneliness at times. The dark, brooding evenings after having been indoors all day. No nightlife. We had no theater or films. The library was closed way too early for reasons no one could fathom. And then the worst: the control issues. Sign-in, sign-out…don’t wear jeans (apparently today jeans are godly at the Simpson in Redding).

It was in reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (once again at Doc’s instructing) that Rich and I hit upon our metaphor. Like two caged Bengal tigers, we would not go quietly. That, and using the entire Starship Simpson as our own holodeck.

There were other culprits, mostly notably Devan Devan and the beautiful, but dangerous, Delinda.

Both were an immense help to me in dealing with the inherent alienation. Devan Devan, always a willing cohort; and Delinda, definitely the most beautiful woman on campus (and also a campus official), yet somewhat untouchable, in a good sense. For me, she was my Miss Moneypenny, and I a bit of a 007, only with Starsky and Hutch hair. I never hit on her, but I flirted a lot.

And then there was Doc…but I shall deal with him under sweetness.

The New Simpson of the dream engages the alienation of the world and culture outside its walls. Nothing is more alienating than Western Culture. By its nature, it seeks individual freedom and self-created meaning amidst thousands of major competing voices of truth and billions of personal voices with no central pull or common language of meaning. To this world the Church has largely capitulated, turning itself into a sort of giant Christco, where you can get books on how to raise your kids, balance your finances, get a 10-pound bag of chicken, a power tool, film for your camera, and get your Jesus/religion inoculation shot at the checkstand.

Nice going, guys.

Oh, and—while we are at it—let’s leave the question of personal discipleship and the organic calling to the Body of Christ to the side in favor of obsession with gender and political issues. That way people can throw the baby Jesus out with your dirty usurious bathwater.

No, this was different. Scholarship with a grounded incarnational purpose (I’m allowed to be redundant for emphasis). It was missional in a way meant to subvert the culture in love and grace. Culture and the City yell as loud as they can. God whispers.

Into the breach dives the Incarnate One who is beyond transhistorical and transcultural. That is an understatement, but a nice place to start your understanding and experience of Him.

I went to the First Simpson because I wanted to learn the Bible. I wanted to learn the Bible because I longed to know God as deeply as possible. My supposition was that hearing and studying the Word of God was meant to draw me into Himself. What I was presented with was largely religion. To be sure, like much of American Christendom, there is still a pulse of Gospel under the piles of religious horseshit that are so much digested guilt, anger, and the fear of death.

But it was not a total loss by any means. I learned tools. I learned how to do exegesis, which is like a doctor learning the entire medical system so he can access what he needs when he needs it. He may not know the answer, but he knows the best sources and has the tools to access the best of what is available. He is never at a complete loss even if his study lands him in mystery.

I had already learned Lewis and allowed him to train my mind before I got to Simpson. Afterwards I learned hermeneutics and apologetics. Then I was given the English Puritans, and my mind and heart went ablaze for Jesus.

They should have killed me then, in 1985.

That longing, no matter how dormant at times or muted, has survived and is at the core of what I will do at the New Simpson, yet more purposeful and definitely more free. I had the feeling that it would often be independent study with credit for the quality and depth of the work done. There would be no tests for repetitive knowledge that would be rote but meaningless. More important now to look for patterns and the nuances of Scripture. It wasn’t about a degree so much as preparation to serve outside.

  • Why is Christ made commemorative in the Modern Church when at the core of our faith He is Living Lord today?
  • Why is the Bible used as a legalistic weapon when it is an intricate and endlessly equipped vessel of mercy, love and hope?
  • Why do we construct walls and hide behind them rather than engage people openly in the public square and allow it to be a true dialogue of grace with God invited?
  • Why are people encouraged to have private, all-inclusive spiritual lives instead of being lopsided gifts to each other as the living Body of Christ?
  • Why are gender issues rending the Bride of Christ (we are all the feminine) when in the Bridegroom (in Christ) there is “neither male or female”?

Does faith in these realities mean nothing at all?

  • Why has serious exegesis been replaced by topical studies in PowerPoint presentations that change minds for the moment but have no transformational value at all?
  • Why are we religious consumers instead of spiritual disciples?

The list is near endless. And I ask these questions of myself as well. Where has my First Love gone? It’s me who has avoided Him.

Of course the longing will always remain while we are here. But we have pictures and types along the way.

This morning, after going back to bed having written the above till 3 a.m., I had the intention of falling asleep thinking about “longing” and praying it through. I thought, What if I get something really good but forget it by morning?

That’s the old voice. Always utilitarian.

Then I heard a new voice inside me say, "Then wait until it comes back and is a part of you…deeply inside you so it’s natural to speak of it."

Later in the morning, at 7 a.m., I looked at my email, and there was a letter from Rich. I cannot remember the last time I got a letter from him.

Rich has a new wife and a new life. I will as well in six months if she has not come to her senses and will have me. But these fine women, mates, are themselves also signs of grace given and also not yet seen. Behind the love of a husband is the True Husband. The same for a wife. Best to never confuse the two. It’s a role no man or woman can sustain. Easy to do because they are seen and can be touched…and they do carry the scent of Him.

But it was, is, and always will be about Him.

There was also a sweetness and playfulness at moments at the Old Simpson. Doc skewering Rich or me, the pranks…some serious learning, and lastly the man we kind of all looked to: Doc.

The only commemorative thing I have ever purchased was a paver stone at the Valley Springs Presbyterian Church in Roseville. It was my last footprint in that whole (for me) somewhat loathsome valley, just as Doc left his footprint inside me from that one year at Simpson. A man of refined taste, humor, grace and intelligence, he was a fine mentor.

As I have been Jedi master to as many as ten serious “patowans” (seven of which are in ministry or ordained), Rich and I were Doc’s renegade patowans. He had others. Dale S. was president of the student body and a boy scout…true, a Canadian boy scout, but we were converts from across the tracks. Raw, uncultured and devoid of religion. Doc took a quiet joy in our exploits, even as he tried to impart the beauties of art and literature in Western culture and managed to pass on his love for Kierkegaard on to me.

Over coffees, he endured my constant, and not yet gracious, railings against church institutions, including the one that he was vice president of.

The New Simpson would be more free and joyful and not be about fundraising or building expansions. Someone like Doc would be at the helm…a quiet, thoughtful, even reserved man of wisdom and depth. Those there would have the mirth that Lewis speaks of—a laughter that is deeper because those involved have taken each other and their callings seriously first.

That’s the dream and my view. On the other hand, it might just have been something I ate.