First, despite my best intentions, I’ve not been able to keep a consistent blog. Much of this extends simply from the unavoidable distractions of life circumstances and that I spend most of my day each day researching and writing my dissertation on Stanley Grenz’s trinitarian ecclesiology. I have spoken with several PhD candidates who have managed to blog in addition to writing their PhD thesis with mixed results. A few have indicated that blogging enhances their research, but several others have said it was or would be a distraction and subtract from their research. For me, after spending most of my day writing and researching, the thought of writing a blog on top of that just isn’t appealing. Still, I have been encouraged not to give up on the blog by some who say they have found it useful. I have some ideas on this front, which I will get to at the end of this post.
Second, ‘New Years day’ has dropped in significance for me that last few years and I tend to be dubious about the whole ‘new year’s resolution’ thing. This might explain why a post like this coming over a week late! You might even call be a New Years grump. My first reason for being grumpy is the typical ‘resolutions’ seem to most often end up being lists of wishful self-help ‘goal-setting’ motivation that we find has been ignored by year’s end. I am open to charges of cynicism, but I do tend to think we need something more substantial that what is represented by the typical New Years resolution. Most important, however, is how I’ve come to mark time. Instead of being dominated by the consumerism presented to us in the ‘liturgical’ observance of the ‘hallmark holidays,’ the church year has afforded me a way to mark my time according to the abiding reality of the divine enfleshment and ‘God-with-us-ness’ presented to us in the Incarnation and thus be shaped by the story of Jesus. It’s not that I dislike the first of January. It’s a fine day as any other. Rather, the more I have followed the Christian liturgical calendar, 'new years' for me occurs at the beginning of the church year – that is, the first Sunday of Advent.
In August of 2013 my wife (C.C.), daughter (Damaris), and I moved to Scotland for me to do my PhD. This was a risky venture at what was a pretty low point for us, in which we are thankful for the support of some key friends and family. My wife, C.C., was in a wheelchair when we arrived, due to her Fibromyalgia. Despite our best efforts otherwise, we had been without insurance for an extended period of time and she had not been able to see a doctor who could adequately treat her. Thankfully, the combination of having access to medical care here in Scotland, a temperate climate, and a stubborn refusal to not be beaten by her chronic illness, C.C. has not had to use the wheelchair in over a year! It would be impossible to overstate how proud I am of her. She is the most awesome, impressive person I know. I knew the first time we were able to go for a walk again together, despite the risk and uncertainty in coming to Scotland, that even if this was the only walk we got together it was still totally worth it. In addition to this, C.C. and Damaris also co-hosted with a friend a knitting retreat here in Edinburgh (which was a success, but admittedly tested everyone’s resolve and limits).
As for me: I’ve been able to present papers on Grenz and Ricoeur at four different conferences with very good feedback at three of those and mixed results at the fourth one. I will be presenting another one on Grenz at the end of January at New College here in Edinburgh and hope to present again at the Society for the Study of Theology (SST) conference in the Spring, which is in Durham again this year. Other than that, as I already indicated, I spend most of the day researching and writing on the dissertation with the evening and night devoted to family time. The odd thing is that I am in my third year of PhD studies at New College, and while I have quite a bit written, it feels like I have not written much at all. I find that I’m compelled to rewrite and rewrite, with the net effect of convincing myself I’m not as far a long as I should be. I have wondered if I’m alone in this, but have found other PhD candidates report the same sort of feelings, so perhaps I’m not all that unusual (at least in this respect).
There are two main things I anticipate for the coming year. The first is continued improved health for myself. When we arrived here, despite having a retail job in the States where I was on my feet all day every day, I discovered the ever present hills of Edinburgh about killed me. The walking has paid off though, as I have managed to lose weight and can now walk to the top of the Mound (where New College is located) without being majorly out of breath. And as an ‘encouragement’ to keep walking, C.C. got me a Fit Bit so I can track my daily steps.
The second involves writing goals. Aside from my anticipated papers mentioned above, I also have a goal of getting two papers published in academic journals. I know which papers these are and have some revision to do before I submit them. After that I will set my efforts toward revising a couple of my conference presentations for publication. We’ll see how much I can get done. I also have goal to have a full draft of my dissertation completed by the end of August. This means (hopefully) in the not to distant future I’ll be sending drafts to readers for review and comments. My hope is to have the whole of the Fall 2016 term to work through revisions and edits with my supervisor, with the plan to submit in Winter/Spring 2017 (which seems both way too close and far away at the same time). To accomplish this basically means I’m going to be really super boring for the foreseeable future!
While I have a lot to anticipate, there are a couple areas where I experience significant apprehension. The first concerns our funding that allows us to be here in Scotland. While some have guaranteed funding for their PhD studies, mine has to be renewed each year and its not simply a given. To be fair, we knew this going in, but given where we were at and C.C.’s declining health, Scotland was the door God provided for us to walk through. It was totally the right thing for us. I have no doubt about that. But we are due to apply for the funding for the next (and final) year in a couple months and I find myself worried.
The second has to do with job prospects after I’m done. This is fairly typical for PhD candidates. Its no secret the job market in theological education is insanely crowded and very uncertain. Several have suggested doing a post-doc, which I think would be a good thing and I will definitely investigate the possibilities (but again, it’s a crowded field). But even after a post-doc, one inevitably needs a more stable paying gig somewhere. And yes, a significant portion of my worry here has to do with C.C.’s health. While the strides she has made are phenomenal, we need ongoing access to medical care for her chronic illness or the gains we have seen could slip away. At a very pragmatic level, this either means we need to be in a place with access to healthcare or I need a job that provides suitable health insurance.
Having just come out of the Christmas season, I have at the forefront of my mind the repeated command of the angels before and after Jesus’ birth to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds in Luke 1:1–2:20, telling them “Do not be afraid.” One of my favorite cinematic portrayals of this is from A Charlie Brown Christmas, when Linus recites the shepherd passage and he drops his security blanket at the precise moment he says, “Do not be afraid.” I remarked to a friend a few months before we came to Edinburgh that this part of our journey would be a real test of faith. I didn’t mean necessarily the writing of the dissertation per se, though that has needed faith in ways I did not anticipate. It was more the realization hit me rather forcefully, literally during the sale where we were selling almost everything we owned (including most of my books!), that we were really going all in on this ‘faith’ thing. So, yeah, we press forward in faith as always (even for things like funding and continued access to medical care). Yet, I confess, its hard not to feel some apprehension as well.
As an aside: I joked with a fellow PhD candidate recently how every time we are asked what we want to do post-PhD, it’s a bit like being asked what you want to be when you grow up. Joking aside I think my answer is simple. I want to be someplace where I can talk and teach about what I’m passionate about (theology, trinity, church, mission, hermeneutics, Grenz, Ricoeur, etc.) and I would want to be able to continue to advance a research plan to make an academic impact. I currently have what I imagine to be two book length research projects I could conceivably take on post-PhD, not to mention a slew of essay ideas. But aside from that, wherever we end up (whether that be the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.), I want to be in some way connected with local churches and have contact with local church pastors and ministerial students. In my own life and church ministry, my undergrad and graduate professors were invaluable guides and mentors. Wherever I am, I want to pay that back.
Now for my ideas about what to do with this blog. You’ll notice I put this under the heading of ‘good intentions’ so as to not promise too much. The truth is no matter what I intend, the blog will take a back seat to life circumstances and the dissertation. And that’s ok. My present situation demands that I cut back on distractions … especially social media distractions. I already rarely look at my Twitter except to schedule posts, and Facebook I fear has been overtaken by the social media outrage machine. There are, of course, exceptions, but mostly it is a distraction at this point for me – which means I will be backing away from most social media for foreseeable future. Here is what I’m going to do.
First, I know some family friends overseas rely on Facebook/Twitter to know I still exist! So, I’m not deleting any accounts yet.
Second, I will continue to only look at Twitter when I schedule a post (I use Hootsuite) but no scrolling for me. People can still private message me through Twitter and/or respond to a tweet and I will respond.
Third, my Facebook use will be severely limited. I’m using the Facebook list feature to filter content but even with that, my time on Facebook will be still be minimal. I will still respond to comments and private messages though.
Fourth, I’ve gotten backlogged on book reviews. In order to fulfill on all righteousness on that front, you should expect to see some reviews (no more than 1000 words each probably) pop up in the next few months.
Fourth, the above actions (1-3) are needed to clear distractions and free up brain space for research and writing. Still, sometimes I also need a break from the heavy dissertation related stuff and a well managed, intentional ‘distraction’ is in order. I do some of this through various online links and reading, some of which I have previously passed along through twitter and Facebook. I will be drastically reducing the amount of individual links I share in this manner. Instead, I will mostly gather select links and online reads into posts on my blog and share them that way probably weekly or bi-weekly (but nothing that will be too time consuming). But like I said, right now using my blog for this purpose is all in the realm of good intentions. I’m definitely stepping back from social media … we’ll have to give it some time to see what happens with the blog.
A blessed 2016 to you!