In 2009, when I was ending a stable career, packing my bags, and moving across the country to pursue a new dream, David died. I didn’t know David, but his death hit me hard and his memory has remained with me over the last six years. I was starting my Th.M. at Duke Divinity School with hopes of going on for a Ph.D. in Old Testament at the same time David had just completed his Ph.D. in Old Testament. He was headed to the mission field to teach at a university in Brazil when he died of a heart attack at age 38. The funeral was held at a local church in Durham, North Carolina. I watched as his wife and four young children (ages 4-11) walked down the aisle past me to the front pew. The little ones placed flowers on their father’s casket. I had never attended a stranger’s funeral before, but I felt connected to David in our shared dreams. The abrupt ending to his aspirations served as a sobering reminder that there was nothing certain about my own.
At the time of David’s death, I wrote:
The uncertainty of life scares me. I cannot control my circumstances or anyone else’s. It is a haunting vulnerability. Yet, that fear forces me to evaluate what I really believe. Do I truly believe there is a God? Do I believe he is good? Good enough to trust when dreams are shattered? When Jesus’ followers were disillusioned, and many of them left, he asked Peter, “Do you want to leave me too?” Peter replied, “Where else can I go? You have the words of life.” That is where I find myself—where else can I go? There is nowhere else. So, I hold fast to what I believe is true: Every good and perfect gift comes from God. Ultimately, our dreams are found in him.
Remembering David has been a means of re-centering over the years. I thought of him again this week when I was discouraged about my future. After more than a decade I am nearing the end of all my graduate studies. What will come of all my labor? Have I really discerned God’s call on my life? When I finish up this Ph.D. in the next couple of years will I arrive only to find nothing on the other side of it? My concerns have been compounded by a struggle to maintain the passions that originally sparked my graduate studies. As I discussed in a recent post, “Private Thoughts of a Biblical Scholar on Faith and Academia,” my research forced me to wrestle with hard questions to the point of cynicism. This was a necessary and important struggle, but it hasn’t been easy. And for awhile, I forgot why I went into biblical studies in the first place—simply to serve God and people.
But David’s death speaks to me. It reminds me that the most important things in life are not graduate degrees, tenure track teaching jobs, book publications, or even ministry positions. Jesus told his disciples, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Ultimately, our deepest desire and need is union with God not our achievements. Similarly, Ignatius of Loyola said, “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.” Instead our one desire is for inner freedom to choose God and his purposes regardless of circumstances. That is a vocation that never ends.
In recent months I have come to realize how much I was finding my significance in the academic machine. I was being shaped in ways that distracted me from my vocation. This surfaced in subtle ways such as being more concerned with tailoring my writing for potential employers instead of discerning what God might want me to write. I also found myself suppressing desires for ministry and even my faith. I began to think I had no identity or purpose outside the achievements that the academic culture envisions for me. To counter this, I have recently sought to refocus by clarifying “What Kind of Biblical Scholar Am I?” And I have made revisions to my blog site.
With this renewed focus, I hope to write more freely. I will no longer yield to the false dichotomy between the academy and the church. I am simply an academic who chooses to roam outside the Tower walls. How many days God will give me to do this, I don’t know. Nor do I know the circumstances in which I will live them. I may not even be able to accomplish the goals I have articulated on this blog site. I can only offer them up with open palms. But, as I do, I remember what David’s life has come to symbolize for me: a life well lived for 38 years whose significance was not dependent on whether or not he ever used his Ph.D. in Old Testament after graduation. His life had meaning because he loved and was loved. His life had meaning because he pursued his dreams in light of God and lived fully into them with the time he was given.
Note: While writing this post, I discovered that three years after David died, his 14 year old son, Peter, committed suicide (Dec 2012). At Peter’s funeral, David’s wife, Leigh, and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann offered addresses that are profound. Leigh urged listeners to “choose life” and gave specific examples of how we choose life in the everyday from offering a hug to cooking a meal for someone. Her courage amid immense suffering humbles me, and like David, reminds me of what is most important in life. You can read Leigh’s address, following Walter Brueggemann’s at this link.