Confessions of a Perfectionist Ph.D. Student: Desiring the Comfortable

As I stated in my blog post about my return to the Ph.D. program, the perfectionist in me must die. But I think that is a bit of an oversimplification of what overwhelmed me the first time around. To be completely candid, there are many other emotions, misconceptions, and thoughts that go into perfectionism. This series will go on as long as I need it to. I do have a plan for more than one.

Confession: Forgive me readers, for I thought research and writing should be free from anxiety.

Let’s face it, we all think that experienced authors are in a class of their own. The muses love them more than us.They wake up in the morning and beautifully constructed prose just flow from their pens. It’s almost effortless. All they need is pen an paper.They know what they are going to say and they say it perfectly. Our writing feels more like Odysseus trying to get home–full of difficulties.

But, talk to an experienced author about some new project they are writing and you’ll find out the real difference between you and them (that is, if you struggle with this….or even care about writing). They feel anxiety every time they begin a new writing project. Maybe not crippling anxiety like I did. But, anxiety in some form. They learned to manage it and work through it.

The anxiety for some, like myself, can be overwhelming.  We have a desire to write, but we don’t write anything because we are anxious. Even if it concerns subjects that we have studied for years. We are ultimately afraid of being wrong, not expressing things well, being disagreed with, or being called a bad writer.

Now, how do we manage that anxiety?

Use your anxiety to improve…not perfect: Go ahead and set aside the unreachable goal of being perfect in writing. However, our anxiety may not be completely without warrant. If we are worried about our grammatical correctness, or flow of prose, we may have a good reason for being anxious. So use that anxiety to improve! Pick up a book, or read a blog post about writing well. Pick one or two achievable goals and work on it during the next writing project. Work to become better, not perfect. Becoming a good writer is about becoming. It is a process.

Write in Community: I’m telling you this now, if you want to be successful in anything, bring the right people along with you. Most people who are labelled as successful usually aren’t alone. They have a good team. Your friends, family, or professors/colleagues, can give you good constructive feedback. If you are writing a book for a publisher, the editor will give you good feedback (please understand the editor wants the book to be a success so it will sell…therefore he is on your side). For example, I am a blunt man. But when writing a review of a book my bluntness may not be received well, especially for those authors I am critiquing. I will always bounce my writing off of someone else to help me express what I want to say in a way that won’t be off-putting. Bluntness between friends is a gift. But between strangers….its usually considered rude.

Write all the time: If we want to manage the anxiety of writing, we’ve got to work it in often. I keep a reading journal now, reviewing everything I’ve read and organizing my reactions to the reading.  It puts me in the habit of writing. It also gives me the chance to write in an atmosphere free from anyone’s evaluation except my own. Placing my thoughts about what I am reading helps my ideas mature and weakens some of the anxiety. When I go to officially write, my ideas have already had some written expression before the first draft. This removes some of the anxiety and speeds up the process of writing (which helps with the pressure of a deadline).

Until next time…

2015-04-Life-of-Pix-free-stock-photos-kid-boy-bubbles-back-leeroy-copie

Christ the Educator: Five Books That Changed My Life–Part 2

This series is contextual in nature. I’m not writing this to highlight my five favorite books. I’m not even sure that any of these would make that list anyways. But, these are five books have affected my life significantly enough over the last several years. Situations in my life magnified their impact. They come in no particular order of importance.

Christ the Educator, by Clement of Alexandria, goes by a few different names. The original title is in Greek and therefore sometimes gets translated differently. Clement’s work focuses on how Christ sanctifies the Christian (though they didn’t use the word “sanctification” the same way we do). The book can be broken up into two main sections. The first, would be a theological explanation of how Christ sanctifies us. The second, would be how to apply it in Clement’s context. So, if you decide to read his work don’t call Clement legalistic when he says, “Don’t salt your food.” Salt was expensive back in those days and it was seen as very luxuriant. We can carry that sentiment over however, just not the ban on salt.

For me, this book has forever changed the way I disciple people (whether formally or informally). Heck, it has become the method for almost every relationship in my life. Why? Because Clement hits on how Christ disciples me. Its a slow process and Christ is pleased every step of the way–even when I fail.

Clement provides three overarching examples of Christians at varying levels in the sanctification process. The first type of Christian is the one who resists sin for a little while and then stumbles. Christ is teaching him and is pleased with his progress. The second, is the one who can resist for some time and then stumbles. Christ is teaching him and is pleased with his progress. The third, can resist temptation for long periods of time. He has learned to depend on Christ for help through temptation (thus, he is not proud). Christ is still teaching him and he is pleased with him. (FYI-his work is not attempting to answer whether Christian can live a sinless life after conversion-lets not go there).

In this understanding of our sanctification condemnation is removed and replaced with Christ’s love. I was sharing this summary with a friend over lunch. We’ll call him Graham. At the time his twin girls had started walking. He related Clement’s view back to me like this:

“You know, when my girls are trying to walk, I don’t count how many times they fall. I count how many steps they take and I’m proud of them for each one.”

I think this picture captures what Clement of Alexandria is getting at perfectly. Christ lovingly teaches us how to walk in his ways. We, like toddlers, may stumble every few steps. But as we grow into mature Christians we begin to stumble less. We don’t do this in our own power, Christ helps us with every step. He’s already walked this path. This idea has changed my relationship with God and with others. That’s why its here.

mouse

No More Christian Nice Guy: Five Books That Changed My Life–Part 1

This series is contextual in nature. I’m not writing this to highlight my five favorite books. I’m not even sure that any of these would make that list anyways. But, these are five books have affected my life significantly enough over the last several years. Situations in my life magnified their impact. They come in no particular order of importance.

One day while visiting the Art of Manliness website I ran across a book list for someone who wanted to read up on contemporary manhood. One of the books that captured my eye on that list was a book entitled No More Christian Nice GuyAside from it conjuring up memories of Alice Cooper, the book drew my interest more because I was transitioning into a managerial position. Little did I know, that adhering to some of the principles in this book would take me down some not so friendly roads years later.

Let me first say, I don’t agree with everything in the book, nor am I prepared to make a scholarly argument on the feminization of Christ by the church, which Coughlin does in his book. I did agree with him that men in the church were asked to be silent door mats far too often, which in turn led to a frustrating and unhealthy life. I felt this pressure for myself and I was eager to apply whatever advice Coughlin offered. If anything, Coughlin’s book was helping me out in my own situation, even if his work was not an accurate description of masculinity in Christendom at that time.

One piece of advice from the book that I kept returning to was to speak my mind, politely, respectfully, and firmly. For Coughlin, not speaking up for himself (or others) led to a lot of frustrating, sleepless nights. I too suffered from sleepless nights over events that I did not feel (important word is feel) the right to speak to, even though I was involved. Because of my frustration in these situations when I did speak up for myself or others I generally did so in a way that was not productive or respectful. This type of behavior would reinforce the idea that I shouldn’t have spoken up at all. I would feel pressure to return to the not so serene internally, but outwardly submissive posture. After reading Coughlin, I decided that I too wanted to sleep better at night. So I set out to start expressing myself respectfully but firmly. There is an old Latin proverb that goes along with this; qui tacet consentire videtur ubi loqui debuit ac potuit. It means, “he who is silent consents when he ought to have spoken and was able.” This became my mantra during this time in my life.

Four to five years later, I still practice speaking my mind when necessary, maybe not always when I ought to. I mentioned earlier it has led me down some interesting roads. I wish I could tell about them here, but I can’t. Some people have not enjoyed when I speak up about certain things. This is mainly because I am offering a contrary opinion and they wish I just submitted without opposition. I’ve found that speaking my mind, especially when I have had to stand up against some inappropriate decisions/events has led me to be able to state things more rationally and not be as frustrated with events…even if what I said didn’t carry the day.

This has also put me in some pretty tense altercations. Sometimes, stating your opinion firmly will frustrate some people who wish to control a situation. Taking a firm stand against certain behaviors has made me lose a few friends. But, I have gained more loyal friends in the process. Because most of the time that I’ve implemented this advice, its been for those in a position of lesser power.

I don’t always deliver my opinion in a right spirit. But, because I speak my mind, I find myself ready to apologize for that type of behavior. You see, speaking my mind, I found, didn’t just deal with things that frustrated me. It spilled over into all areas of my life–at least I hope it does.

I still get frustrated from time to time, but now at least I handle it better than bottling it up. I try to communicate my opposition well. As a result,  I’ve been transformed, I think, from being a mouse to being a man. I enjoy being a man. I get far more beauty sleep!

Apple

Word Play And Irony

I already gave one reflection from my meditation on the first temptation. This new post comes solely from a look at it in Hebrew. Don’t check out yet if you don’t know Hebrew, it is easy to explain. There is no deeper meaning here other than exposing a wordplay. All you need to know is the English word homonym. It means a word that has the same sound as another but has different meanings. In this case, we have words from different roots making similar sounds (one is in the singular and the other is in the plural, but I don’t think the word play is lost).

In Genesis 3:1 the serpent is called “crafty” or “clever.” The word in Hebrew is עָר֔וּם. For English speakers, you would pronounce it something like “a room.” By describing the serpent this way, the author is preparing the reader for a display of the craftiness of the serpent. So, reader, be prepared.

We already know the story so well, we might miss how he does this. The man and the woman both ate the fruit and disobeyed the command of God. That’s the part we already know. But, the real question is, “Why does the text say that they ate the fruit?” The answer may lie in what the serpent said would happen to them and what they desired by eating the fruit. The serpent says,

For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (3:5). (ESV)

The serpent says three things will happen when they eat the fruit. 1) Their eyes (yes, the serpent says “you’s guys eyes”) will be opened. 2) They will be like God. 3) They will know good and evil.

When the woman looks at the fruit, the author tells the reader why she desires to eat the fruit. The narrator says,

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (3:6) (ESV)

There are, then, three things that the woman sees as desirable from the fruit. 1) It is good (same word as the serpent used) to eat. 2) It was a delight to the eyes (eyes would be opened?). 3) It was desirable to make one wise.

But, in the end, when she eats of the fruit only two of the three things that the serpent promised would happen. And, what the woman desired, well, it all came to nought. What happened when she ate of the fruit?

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7) (ESV)

In the synopsis of what happened we see two connections back to the original comments of the serpent. 1) Their eyes were, indeed, opened. 2) They knew something that they did not know before–that they were naked. This was something that they didn’t know was wrong before, but felt it afterwards. This is brought out more with God’s question to them alter later, “Who told you that you were naked?” It had to come from somewhere external. So, in one sense, without getting into it too much, they learned good and evil. Two of the serpents promises came true.

Adam and Eve, however, were not made to be like God in one sense, nor were they able to achieve the wisdom they desired. The third comment from the serpent failed. The irony is that they were made more like the serpent rather than God. At least, if that is the way we understand the word play. You see, they were “naked” is a wordplay built off of the Hebrew word עֵֽירֻמִּ֖ם, or for you English speakers, “eh room im” (“im” is the plural ending). “Er room,” and “a room” sound very similar. So, the author may be connecting the nakedness to the craftiness of the serpent in verse 1. Thus, the man and the woman in seeking to be more like God, through disobedience, became more like the serpent.

But, isn’t that the way all temptation goes? We think we will gain the thing we want but in the end we are left with less.

Apple Tree

Parallell Temptations

Recently I’ve been intrigued by parallels and references in three passages of the Bible. The first, is Matthew 4:1-4, the story of Jesus being led into the wilderness and his first temptation. He quotes from Deuteronomy 8, which I mention here only as a reference. The temptation of Christ, however, mirrors the first temptation in Genesis 3:1-19. The Genesis passage is the first temptation of mankind. All three of these passages seem to connect in various parallel ways. What has become most interesting to me about the two temptations is their similarities or differences.

Similarities

  1. Temptation, obviously, takes place in both passages.
  2. Both passages involve food.
  3. Both have Satan (the serpent) as the tempter.

The differences however, bring a striking contrast.

Differences

  1. In the garden, everything they need for food is available. No mention of hunger. Jesus is hungry and apparently has no food. He is in need. Yet, the serpent is successful in the first temptation despite all its plenty. Satan is not successful with Jesus.
  2. The first temptation happened in paradise. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
  3. The serpent approaches the woman. Jesus enters the wilderness and finds Satan.
  4. Eve knew the word of God and ignored it (i.e. Do not eat of the tree in the midst of the garden). Jesus quoted it and lived by it.
  5. The sin brings about death. The obedience brings about life.

These parallels may not be profound or plentiful in number. However, they are interesting parallels, especially if you look at the full context of Deuteronomy 8. There, living by God’s commands is important–it brings life.

The moral of the story? Circumstances don’t make good excuses for disobeying the word of God. Jesus had more difficult circumstance when he was met with temptation. Yet, he did not fall into temptation. He obeyed the word of God and through it found life.

leerer Hˆrsaal in der Universit‰t / empty auditorium at the university

I’m Back! (Or Why I’m Eating Crow)

There is something to that ole saying, “Never say never.” There was a time when I said that I would never go back into any Ph.D. program. But, due to a curious turn of events, close counsel, and encouragement from many, I decided to look into my options last Fall. Of course, it wouldn’t be as simple as expressing interest in returning to the program. I would have to reapply and sit for the entrance exam. On Wednesday I received my notification that I was accepted into the Ph.D. program for Old Testament Studies.

I feel like I have a second chance on pursuing a Ph.D. I hope to correct some errors, misconceptions, and practices that I had the first go round. Here are some things that I hope will be (or will be) different this time. We’ll start with the most obvious:

  1. I’ll be in a different program…sort of: In the fall of 2015 SEBTS is launching a new program solely dedicated to Old Testament studies. I know, you thought I was doing Old Testament before. However, I was technically in the Biblical Studies program with a concentration in Old Testament. Now, I’m focused on Old Testament studies. I’ll still be studying a similar dissertation topic that I had before (fingers crossed), but I’ll be expanding it to other Semitic languages. That is if my advisers agree, which have changed as well.
  2. I know my writing and research process: The first time around I didn’t have my research and writing process worked out. This was tough for me in the program because every semester I had to write a paper on a different topic that I knew nothing about. I rarely was able to write on a more comfortable topic, like say, something related to my dissertation interests. This was exhausting for me. Mainly because I had no method for research and writing. Full disclosure: most of the time the paper I turned in was my first draft. Those who have heard me speak in library workshops have just gasped! They know I tell them to start their writing early, even if it is just summarizing what they are reading. That’s part of my process now. Starting to write early and often in the process helps my thought to mature. I’m not going to go over my entire process here. All I can say is that I have a streamlined process now that works with my personality. It was put to the test this past summer when Logos contacted me to write four articles for their Lexham Theological Wordbook. They were in a bind and I only had ten days to write all four (I had done previous work for them). Without my process, I would not have been able to do it. It showed me that the process is beneficial for my personality type and it helps me to deliver under a deadline.
  3. I no longer feel like a charlatan: There is only one person who ever heard me call myself this during the program. Why did I think this about myself? I thought this because I was a Ph.D. student focusing on Hebrew and Old Testament studies and I couldn’t read Hebrew that well. While most people would tell you I could read Hebrew equal to (or better) than my peers, I knew that I could only keep this up but for a few verses. But since my time out of the program I’ve been reading a lot of Hebrew. In 2012 I began reading the Old Testament in Hebrew for my scripture reading. I made a plan to read the bible through every two years in the original languages.  I’ve completed it once and I’m working through for my second time. What used to be a time consuming process (1 to 1 & 1/2 hours) now only takes a short time (15-20 minutes) in the OT. The prophets still give me some trouble…but not as much as they used to.
  4. The perfectionist in me must die: While the main reason writing was so exhaustive before was due to the fact that I had no process, it wasn’t helped by my perfectionism. Logos also gave me the chance to put that to death when I did my work for them. Editors have a way of doing that for you, really. I’m not looking to write my magnum opus or be the best Ph.D. student this time around. In truth, that’s what I was trying to do before. Now, I hope to do my best and I know that my best will be flawed. If I seek to be perfect, I’ll never attain it. I’ll be afraid to contribute anything to scholarly world for fear of failure. I don’t want to end up being just a brain trust that never benefits anyone with what he is studying. So this puppy must die.
  5. It is about community, not competition: I probably wouldn’t have admitted this years ago, but I viewed my fellow Ph.D. students, especially those in my field, as my competition. In some regards, they were. They were my competition for jobs. But this time, I want to go in with the right perspective about my peers. The true competition is not between me and them. The true competition is between truth and error. In order to compete against error, you have to have a team concept going in. My peers are my teammates not my competition in this. We work together to seek the truth and then winsomely communicate it. My goal is to encourage their scholarship, gently direct their work if I think it is veering from good scholarship, help them to communicate it well, and be willing to receive the same type of constructive criticism to keep me on course. The success of our futures depends on how well we push and encourage one another, not on who gets the job in the end.
  6. It is not about me: There were many reasons why I began the Ph.d. last time and a lot of them centered around me. I felt that I had worked hard to get there (which I had) and therefore, I deserved to be there. I spent a lot of time trying to prove it. This time around, I feel like I have been charged with a greater responsibility that goes beyond myself. The charge is that my work (whether publication, teaching, or things that I learn) will benefit my family, friends, job, school, peers, and church.
  7. Change comes inside out: One of the reasons that I left the Ph.D program was due to little book entitled, Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and The Eclipse of Scholarship. The ideas in that book were magnified when I attended a conference where everyone seemed to be promoting themselves and stepping on others to do it. It disgusted me a little. Both the  book and the conference made me think that I didn’t want that life for myself. But, in the end I realized three things. The first, is that not everyone in the world of scholarship was like the people I met at the conference (in fact, not everyone I met there was like that). Second, not every institution was like the ones described in the book (e.g. SEBTS). Finally, those who changed the way a sport was played didn’t do it by creating a different sport. They just played their sport differently. Some of them fell flat on their face. Some of them changed the game. I may not change the game, but I’ve resolved to play differently (e.g. #5 in this list).

Well those are seven of the differences I hope to see during my “second chance” Ph.D. Some of them I will have to be the catalyst in order to see those changes. I think SEBTS will be the best place for me to make these changes. The environment among professors, administration, and my peers, will be an excellent place for me to improve my scholastic efforts, and work on the changes mentioned above.