Home

A Personal Note about my Spiritual and Personal Growth from my First Year of Ministry (Warning: LONG READ)

3 Comments

      Since leaving Scotland after finishing my Masters of Theology, I had always wondered if I made the right vocational move, switching from the dead, sterile, impersonal, competitive, and isolating field of academia- which nevertheless I was relatively successful in- to the alive, potent, personal, cooperative, and immersive field of ministry- which by my own measures and seemingly the measures of others, I’m not the best suited. In academia, I knew what questions to ask, I knew how to research, compile, making a compelling argument, be direct, and frankly kick some serious behind of others who did not put as much work into their thought as I had mine. when-the-churchgreeters-memesfonjesus-try-being-normal-3859167.pngIn ministry, I have answers to questions no one is asking, am not even sure what are the things I should be looking at, learn how to ‘discern’ (whatever the heck that means), draw people into the ‘presence of God’ (again, whatever the heck that means), be an indirect and gentle guide, and frankly get my ass kicked over and over again by all the messages of what I’m doing wrong, what I don’t have, and what I need to work on to improve it- which for someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a personal nightmare and sometimes even a harmful situation. So, why the hell would I make this switch? At the end of the day, I know Jesus personally in my own life, and I struggled to figure out how to follow Jesus any further in academia when I saw him in the streets, in the hospitals, and in the pews. It is Jesus I’m compelled to follow and emulate, not the western stereotype of the white intellectual straight male whose logic and rationality are impervious to the harms of emotions and humanity.

      But I want to begin this piece about lessons I’ve learned during the course of this year of ministry, with a confession- I have grown up in Evangelical Protestant Churches all of my life, and I still feel like either they or I am missing something because I often feel estranged from this tradition that I was raised in, not only because of their politics but their entire approach to things of late. My estrangement became only all the more clear during this first year of ministry with an Evangelical organization- InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). While I intend to write some things about this estrangement soon, I wanted to highlight all the important places of growth because of the Evangelicalism of IVCF, not in spite of it- to make everyone aware that my estrangement is not a dismissal of its importance or goodness. The following are some brief antidotes and lessons I’ve learn about ministry during this year with IVCF:

“Purposeful Patience”

      At the beginning of our internship, the importance of waiting and patience was continually stressed, drawing upon Jesus’s instruction to the Apostles to “…not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised…” (Acts 1:4). Now, as someone who waited for two years to do ministry- I HATED this emphasis. I was way more with the angels who asked the disciples, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11)- exactly, why the hell were we standing around worshipping Jesus when their was work to do?! I hate apathy, waiting for no reason, and relaxation at the expense of purpose. Frankly, I still feel this way sometimes when I see the urgency of the moment when it comes to our political climate, but it was not the end of the internship when I heard two words that made all the difference- “Purposeful patience.” See, when I normally think of patience and waiting, I think of anticipation for something, and if the Kingdom of God is at hand, then why are we anticipating? Its here! But what I often fail to see is that patience and waiting can be done with the intention of preparation. I wanted to jump into this ministry so fast, without all the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ because I only saw the anticipation, not the preparation. It is also undeniably true that my second semester of ministry was WAY more fruitful than the first, because I knew what was happening and I was prepared by the waiting, in a way that I wasn’t with the first semester. If its a simple thesis it is: We can wait not only in anticipation of what is coming but with the purposeful intent of preparation for what is coming. It is this purposeful intent of preparation in waiting that prevents the waiting from becoming anxious or apathetic.

“Sit Down…Be Humble…”

      Before this internship, to put it lightly, I overestimated by ministry/emotional/people skills. I knew that ministry was not like academia, in that it was people work and not book work. I knew that my skills in research, administration, teaching etc…, which are also important in ministry, were far above my skills in counselling, facilitating, social dynamics and emotional intelligence. But until this internship I really did not know just how far above they were. Before this internship I sought a position at a church, being convinced that because I had done a lot of the hard academic stuff, any and all people skills I needed could be picked up through experience- not another degree (MDiv- cough, cough). God tremendously humbled me through my interactions with students and others by showing me I did not have the people skills needed for ministry- or at least not effective ministry. For instance, indirect leadership- not my preference but often needed. CB-01When it comes to leadership styles, lets make a comparison to dancing. Leadership to me is either the person that choreographs the entire room in a dance, or is the lead dance partner- very direct, very organized, lots of control, and can do a lot if the person is willing. But often what ministry requires is a more indirect style of leadership or a DJ of the dance party, someone who is willing to organize and play a set list, but does not immediately dictate how the crowd will dance, when the crowd will dance, and cannot not just jump in the middle of the dance floor and change things. The DJ sets the tone and wants certain things to happen but has released some control in order to allow the dance partners to have a portion of control themselves and thus create some really magical moments. Many other people skills such as inter-cultural codes, personality tests, mental health, reading emotional faces etc… were all things I came to learn about and be humbled by. If its a simple thesis it is: God can humble us either by jumping on the dance floor directly or us being open to his music, but either way, the humbling is to make us become better dancers. God’s humbling of me, while painful, was what would ultimately make me a better party thrower in ministry life, I can be choreographer when I need to be, but now I’m beginning to have the skills of a DJ too.

“God uses our EROS for other purposes”

      For most of my adult life the assumption that I held about the erotic element in life was that it was for one purpose- to find sexual partners. To be fair to myself, this is what churches and culture teach about this subject. Now, when I began this internship there was a clause about not being allowed to have a romantic relationship during the course of the internship- yes, you read that right, not just a romantic relationship with a student or co-worker which would make sense because of power-dynamics, but not at all. So many of my friends laughed about this because they’ve known about my struggles in this area, while others (I think reasonably too) thought that IVCF was being a bit controlling with their sexual hang-ups (more on that in a later piece). Nevertheless, I’m a good faithful person to a contract that I agreed to but I also know me- a romantic by nature.  I knew that I would be prone to seeking a romance, so I was on the look out.

Students- nothing- check.

Housemates- nothing- check.

Coworkers- nothing- check.

Church people- nothing- check.

As far as I could tell, I was safe! Boy, was I naive. I had intentionally this year made sure I would have one group of non-Christian friends, in this case I made friends with the Fightback Socialist Group at Concordia. I attended one of their events and at the end of the event a woman gets up and announces another event that sounded interesting. Now, I thought she was cute but I was assuming that at a Socialist meeting they would all be atheists, so I thought it unwise to pursue her. Anyways this woman, myself and another guy getting to talking and they ask me what I’m doing in Montreal, and I tell them about doing Christian ministry. Of course, the socialist guy is surprised that a devout Christian would be at their meeting, but then she’s says “I’m a Christian too.” Now, if you could imagine it for a second, my head shook in astonishment very Scooby-Doo like.giphy I found out that she had previous experience with IVCF, had a masters degree and worked at a museum. Holy crap! Cute, Intelligent, Christian, and even Socialist- I wasn’t sure another one of us even existed! We then did a couple of bar trips and casual dinners with good conversation but it didn’t end up becoming anything romantic (she was seeing someone, of course!). But I am still convinced that God wanted me to pursue her because even though I was hoping for a sexual relationship, God was using my erotic drive to draw me into a deeper understanding of what I am attracted to, and what demographic of people I have placed on my heart to minister to- Christians who are intelligent, politically active, leftist and no longer have a spiritual community. If its a simple thesis it is: Sometimes following our erotic desires can lead us into a closer communion with God and can be used for things other than what we expected.  

“God Gives Good Gifts to his Kids, even if we don’t know what they will be” 

      Of all my passions and talents the one I did not expect to be put to any use during this internship was rapping. Hip-Hop is one of those things that is so close and dear to my heart, but its not ever been something I’ve had as a front foot forward. Its a semi-private professional hobby, that always without fail takes people by surprise, especially when I tear it up! In addition to this, I did not expect that my old childhood love of trading card games would emerge either. Now, I knew this internship was gonna be a difficult time of learning, but it turned out to be a lot of fun as well especially in ways I did not expect! For instance I got to perform Ejection, which I have come to see as prophecy about white backlash with the Trump presidency at a worship night for Dawson, as well as two other performances in the first semester. The next semester was crazy too, I got to perform for Jack.org at Concordia’s student bar about mental health awareness, along with three other performances. Seven performances in 8 months is not a pace I am use to, but God rained it down on me for maybe no other purpose than he knew I would enjoy it. I was also introduced to the trading card game, Magic the Gathering, which is of the kind of entertainment that is hours of pointless fun that I use to judge my peers about before but which I am now subsumed in myself. I often speculated about what good things might come out of the internship but the little opportunities of fun joy in rapping and trading card games were not any that I anticipated. If its a simple thesis it is: God loves to give good gifts to his kids, even just when they’re for our pleasure and fun- God wants to see us play! 

“I’m so extroverted! No wonder I was depressed being single in isolation!”

      As much as I believe that God wanted to teach me a lot about himself, about others, and about ministry, I learned equally as much about myself along the way. Just before the internship I took the famous Myers-Briggs personality test and learned that I am apparently an ENTJ. For those of you not in-the-know, the first of the four letters mean stands for ‘E’xtroverted and when it first told me I was an extrovert I was very skeptical. I’m an only child, I’ve always had my own room, and living in a big city like Toronto you often feel isolated from all your closest friends. But what also had me convinced I was introvert was that I was shy and quite as child, and as I became an adolescent I found that I enjoyed reading and writing- two very solitary activities. I thought I was going to hate living in a crowded 6 person household, whom I knew were not going to live up to my standards of cleanliness. But, surprise I actually LOVED IT! All the joy in sharing a table around a meal, spending time in deep conversation, playing board games, praying for each other, laughing, and never feeling like you were alone even when you got space to yourself. The support network was immediate and constant, and it only invited more to join in. So good was this community for me, that I even ended up coming off my anti-depressant medication because I didn’t need it, I wasn’t walking around depressed. What this taught me about my desire for intimacy and a romantic relationship was invaluable. I learned that the loneliness I felt in Toronto fed deeply into my want for a romantic relationship, but when I was surrounded with a close-knit immediate community I may still have wanted a romantic relationship but it didn’t have the same force because I received intimacy and closeness in other ways. I didn’t feel like I needed a romantic relationship the way that I feel I ‘need’ it in Toronto. If its a simple thesis it is: The solution to the problem that “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) does not need to be a sexual partner.

“Learn to live with your thorns, they don’t go away when serving Jesus”

      Now, an immediate preface, suffering is not good. Christianity often has a sadistic element present throughout its tradition and what I am going to say should never be construed as “All suffering is permanent and good and embrace it…blah, blah, blah.” But while suffering is never good, it can often be necessary and is not as easy to tackle as utopians and technocrats would like us to believe it is. During the course of my ministry this year because of a number of factors I had a relapse of my OCD, I thank God however that it was not accompanied by depression, that would have really taken me out of commission. Now, there is so much with regards to my OCD t that I have had the wisdom not to talk or write about and I do ask that you respect my privacy with regards to it. 92087ce9bff56566ae1d8850e7feccddHowever despite some of my wishes for privacy, I don’t try to pretend that its not a major part of my life, and for years now I thought it was all over with- until it reemerged. But in many ways, while it was not good for me to suffer this way, it may have been necessary if only for the things I have received from this recovery that I did not received during my previous experience over five years ago. Five years ago I never received therapy, the medications after a year seemed to do the trick, and I always had the sneaky suspicion that I would need proper therapy one day- I had just not anticipated it being when I was away doing ministry in Montreal! In addition to receiving the therapy that I needed and more awareness of how to deal with OCD aside from ‘take your pills’, I also received an assurance that wherever I was and however I was, God was going to rescue me because I still had a place in his Kingdom and ministry despite my state and capabilities. To have this kind of reassurance is immeasurable when suffering greatly. If its a simple thesis it is: Serving Jesus will still involve suffering, even undeserved suffering, but how one deals with one’s thorns is not simply trying to relieve the pain- though you should- but to have faith in your imminent rescue. 

_______________________

      Now, congratulations are in order if you made it this far! But I am so happy that you did, and I hope your own faith in the goodness of God is reaffirmed by my testimony during this year of ministry!

Blessings, and until next time,

Caleb David Upton

Advertisements

A Personal Note on O.C.D. and Eminem

2 Comments

      Quite recently much to my surprise but also much to my comfort, Eminem A.K.A. Marshall Mathers himself annotated lyrics to his song “Monster (Feat. Rihanna)”, which were

My OCD is conking me in the head, keep knocking
Nobody’s home, I’m sleepwalking
I’m just relaying what the voice in my head is saying
Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just friends with the…”

He writes, “I really do have O.C.D, it’s not funny b*tch.” Whether an official diagnoses (which I truly suspect it is for reasons that will follow) or not this was of extreme comfort to me, because I have always lived with a central contradiction- I’m a devout Christian, and yet…I love Eminem.944193_575152922527799_64881636_n Ever since I heard “The Real Slim Shady” on a radio in Goodwill, I’ve been hooked.  Eminem was my  to the rest of Hip-Hop to be sure, but for a fat white kid in a  predominately non-white school growing up, it was amazing to have THE rapper of our time be a white guy. Slim Shady was no gangster, and yet, no one could deny that he was THE best emcee at that precious moment of the turn of the millennia. I couldn’t connect with many other rappers of the time, whether 50 Cent, or Jay-Z because well…I wasn’t black, I was a moralistic Christian, and I most certainly wasn’t some gangster (nor could I pretend to be, I mean just look at me as a kid). But Slim shady, this white kid who was into cartoons, was a clown, was picked on and teased, continuously got his heart broken, had violet fantasies (that everyone knew he wouldn’t do), and liked fart jokes–here was someone I could relate to. Despite our differences in faith and morality, particularly as it comes to his use of abusive language, we shared ethnicity, musical interest, and childhood experiences of bullying.

      Until he revealed that he has been diagnosed with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) however, this was all I thought my affinity to him amounted to. Sure, I know a lot of Hip-Hop heads, have problems with Eminem, and sure, I know a lot of Christians have problems with Eminem and as members of both groups, so do I… but as Immortal Technique raps in “Crimes of the Heart”

“I can’t give into hatred or pass judgment
Even towards every illusion I’ve been in love with
Cause the heart that betrays itself willingly
Is like a nation that trades freedom for stability
It’s so seductive to be cold and corrupted
And isolated and try to be an independent republic”

Indeed. I can’t pretend like Eminem wasn’t a childhood music obsession of mine, and a rapper whose skills I’m still in awe to this very day. I can’t pretend like he wasn’t the reason I felt like I could rap, I can’t pretend that he didn’t introduced me to Hip-Hop, I can’t deny that I’m an Eminem “Stan“. But when he revealed that he was diagnosed with O.C.D., I realized that my affinity with him reached deeper than ethnicity and childhood experience–it actually came down to our type of intelligence and the way our brains work, for I too suffer from O.C.D.

      Now for those who are unfamiliar, and especially for those who think they are familiar allow me to explain in the best terms I can what O.C.D. is, how it manifests itself, what some of its benefits are,* and most boldly, propose it as the key to explaining Eminem’s entire approach to writing lyrics. Let’s begin with what O.C.D. is effectively not. Even the revered Stephen Fry has misjudged what O.C.D. is according to popular misunderstandings prevalent throughout all of our media. As David Adam rightly says, “It’s not an exaggerated love of order and hygiene. It’s a disorder of thought…” It is also extremely important that O.C.D. like other mental illnesses are understood properly for as Adam points out, “It takes real courage to confront mental distress and seek help. Yet when people with OCD do so, they often find bafflement and hostility…If OCD is simply someone who washes their hands then why is this patient telling me of unwanted thoughts to hurt their children?…Parents with OCD are separated from their families. Workers are suspended from their jobs, but not because they pose any threat…” but because their O.C.D. symptoms are not recognized as such.

      For someone to have O.C.D., it does not mean necessarily that they are a super clean, tidy, or organized person- though it can include those things- rather it means that someone suffers from constant obsessions. Obsessions are not things that we desire and want, which is what the term has come to mean in popular usage, rather obsessions are quite literally those things that our brains cannot stop thinking about. Nor it is that the obsessions are about various subject matter that we are in interested in, no, the obsessions come in a variety of forms, most commonly known are germ related, but could range all the way to violent and sexual anxieties/fears that our brains cannot stop thinking about. The obsessions, far from being desires are anxiety inducing precisely because they are unwanted, and the obsessions are intrusive upon our normal day-to-day thought process, they come out of no-where and suddenly they are all our brains are able to think about. First then, the ‘O’ refers not to interests but to anxieties and fears that our brains obsess about and literally cannot stop thinking about.

      Second then is the ‘C’. Most people think of the ‘C’ as referring to constant hand washing or door checking, and while these are often some sufferers compulsions other compulsions can be wearing socks to bed, washing one’s feet, constantly flossing, organizing all emails (for those who wish you had this compulsion- no you don’t), or even calorie counting. Compulsions don’t necessarily have any correspondence to the obsessions, and often they could even be just mental compulsions (as opposed to physical activities like hand-washing) the only necessary connection between the obsessions and the compulsions is that the compulsions provide some sort of short-term relief from the over-whelming anxiety that the obsessions cause. The key words here are ‘short-term’, because ultimately compulsions, like scratching a mosquito bite, only exasperate the problem in the long term by making the obsessions even stronger- thus a cycle of obsession and compulsion is established, out of which there appears to be no escape. So thus, finally the ‘D’ does not merely refer to that someone who may exhibit extra attention to cleanliness that’s out of portion, the disorder quite literally refers to this cycle of obsession then compulsion taking over your life and severely debilitating one’s quality of life. For myself in my journey, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate enough to read (for those who know me that was just as troubling as not eating), and I couldn’t take care of myself in any meaningful way. It sends our lives completely out of order.

      Now that we got those clarifications and simple definitions out of the way, let’s move to the neurology of O.C.D. for it is here that we can trace even within Eminem’s own lyrics, the neuro-biological root of his O.C.D. O.C.D. by professionals is sometimes called “basal ganglia disease” because the research on the biochemical level is near conclusive that O.C.D. is rooted in this part of the brain. Now the basal ganglia is responsible for involuntary movements like walking, but also for an awareness of our thoughts, which is where the abnormality of O.C.D.  stems from. The basal ganglia is responsible essentially for sorting out all the thobrain3ughts in one’s brain into those that are not needed and those of special concern for survival. People who do not suffer from O.C.D. sort out these thoughts just fine- information that conforms to previous experiences of fears and wishes is dismissed, and those that do not are retained for further consideration. People with O.C.D’s basal ganglia often keep the absurd random thoughts that everyone has every day- like ‘why don’t I just stab that cat?’- that people (in line with their expectations of the world) would normally dismiss, longer and thus those random thoughts stick, and brew a tremendous amount of anxiety as an obsession. The anxiety is obvious, we know that these obsessions are absurd and couldn’t possibly come about, but our brains retain them and send warnings to our brain about our need to further consider such possibilities as genuine fears- rooted in survival. It over retains absurd information, warns of you of as a genuine fear to which you must respond to for your survival, and you create compulsions, which themselves only reenforce your basal ganglia to think of these fears as genuine and in need of attention.

      Damage to the basal ganglia in any form, whether stroke or head injury, can be a root neuro-biological cause of O.C.D. Many O.C.D. sufferers often have such head injuries as a child. When I was about nine or ten years old, my parents and I went to a camp resort. While playing with one of the other kids there, he kept throwing large rocks behind him, and one of them flew and knocked me right in the head and I was out cold- I got stitches and everything. Some worried about me going to sleep because if I did, I might not wake-up- not knowing the extent of the brain damage. Thankfully after a week everything was fine, but, as I now suspect it damaged by basal ganglia leaving me vulnerable to O.C.D. Now those who know Eminem’s catalogue well know that in one of his more master story-telling tracks, Marshall narrates, in his cartoonish way, the brain damage he suffered as a child. Eminem’s writes,

“Way before my baby daughter Hailie
I was harassed daily by this fat kid named D’Angelo Bailey
An eighth grader who acted obnoxious, ‘cause his father boxes, so every day he’d shove me in the lockers
One day he came in the bathroom while I was pissin’
And had me in the position to beat me into submission
He banged my head against the urinal till he broke my nose
Soaked my clothes in blood
Grabbed me and choked my throat
I tried to plead and tell him we shouldn’t beef
But he just wouldn’t leave
He kept choking me and I couldn’t breathe”

While the song is not literal, it is actually based on such a real life encounter that Marshall had as a child. The man D’Angelo Bailey said in an interview that, “There was a bunch of us that used to mess with him. You know, bully-type things…We flipped him right on his head at recess. When we didn’t see him moving, we took off running. We lied and said he slipped on the ice.” Quite traumatic, and when Marshall himself woke up, he recalls, he said “I can spell elephant.” It was there it would seem that his new love of language grew. Traumatic head injuries like this can provoke the basal ganglia resulting in O.C.D.- this was certainly so in Marshall’s case.

      Resulting from O.C.D., and working alongside of it, is a high level of intelligence- as one of my psychiatrist said to me ‘No one who is stupid gets O.C.D.’ Naturally this makes sense given that people with O.C.D. have a higher number of functioning brain cells than the average person, but also that O.C.D. is quite literally a disorder resulting from overthinking. Memory retention and conceptual association are usually off the charts in their exceptionalism for people who suffer from O.C.D. They think more thoroughly than the average person about almost any and everything. Now that we have covered what O.C.D. is, and how it manifests itself, we can move on to its benefits, chief of which are exceptional intelligence, creative thinking, and often, because certain behaviours take on a compulsive nature, an extremely productive work ethic, especially when it comes to writing.

      Certain behaviours that come with O.C.D. like extreme cleanliness and orderliness can seem like things that everybody wishes they had- wouldn’t you like to know where everything is at all times? Or wouldn’t you like to have your email completed sorted and taken care of? But O.C.D. can actually have a variety of benefits, once the activity of your brain is channeled properly into work and not into compulsions. Simply, O.C.D., once its under control and not a disorder that is life debilitating, can lead to some incredible benefits because your brain is running on a completely different and more powerful engine than the average person. As Dr. Ian Osbourne writes, “…there is, quite possibly, a powerfully creative aspect to their [O.C.D. sufferers] cognitive tendencies that we neglect, a creativity fuelled by the unusually vivid real-life quality of certain of their thoughts.” (154) How does this relate to Eminem, a confessed grade 9 dropout? In Anderson Cooper’s famous interview with Eminem there is a beautiful moment when Marshall is showing Anderson his lyric pages kept in a box and Anderson remarks

 “I’ve gotten letters from crazy people and they kind of look like this. Sometimes all in capital letters or scrawled on the page like this.”

“Yeah? Well that’s probably because I’m crazy,” Eminem replied with a smirk.

___

___

      The writing habits of people with O.C.D. may look like compulsively written scribbles, and that’s because…they are. af7b2111d1a5f77e0f02f00ce0df055aBut, no matter how random they appear they are well thought over, and the creativity bursts forth constantly. Whatever Marshall’s obsessions are, which may be difficult for anyone who doesn’t know him personally to discern, it is clear that his compulsion, writing, has become his craft. Eminem, studied the dictionary in order to remember words for any scheme. Eminem’s obsessional-like attention to the technicalities of rhymes and rhyme schemes is so profound that when I teach my Element One classes at Yonge Street Mission I use the first verse of “Lose Yourself” to teach at least 13 different kinds of rhyme. Simply put, Marshall may not have been a scholastic genius, but he has quickly became a modern day literary one.

      But more than vocabulary the creativity of O.C.D. sufferers comes from precisely the thing that creates their anxious obsessions, their ability to retain information and have it associated with the most unlikely of improbabilities. Talib Kweli, another master emcee in an interview with Vlad TV said that the most important thing in understanding how Eminem became so successful was not primarily his skills but

“What he had more than other emcees was vision…so even the Slim Shady EP before he linked up with Dre, the idea that there’s Eminem and there’s Slim Shady, the was genius. The idea that all his songs like ‘Just the two of us’…all his songs were super conceptual, super visual…its was him being a visionary and an artist to take chances.”

Kweli is absolutely on point with these observations because Eminem’s success, while due in part to his white privilege and his skill, was primarily propelled by his creativity of associations- that he wasn’t the gangster that so many other rappers were when I was a kid.

      To conclude as to why this personal affinity to Eminem that I have (O.C.D. sufferer to O.C.D. sufferer) is so important for my personal understanding is because it is important to note that though we share this in common- our differences are so vast that it should be clear that no one is defined by their afflictions. O.C.D. does not define me or Marshall. But more importantly what I want to impart to others is that mental illness, while debilitating at times, can also be an opportunity to recognize your kinship with other people who are totally unlike you but who suffer from the same, and for you to discover your own gifts, like Eminem did with his love of language. It may be best to leave with some of Marshall’s own lyrics from his song “Legacy”, which is worthy to listen to in full as a story of Marshall coming to terms with the inner workings of his own brain and is itself a testament to his own writing genius as he maintain a singular pair of syllables rhyming throughout the entire song, a lyrical acrobatic feat.

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Why am I so differently wired in my noggin?
Cause sporadic as my thoughts come, it’s mind-bogglin’
Cause I obsess on everything in my mind
Small sh*t…

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired’s awesome
Cause if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work words like this
And connect lines like crosswords…

The most high exalting and I ain’t haltin’
’til I die of exhaustion, inhale my exhaust fumes
The best part about me is I am not you
I’m me, I’m the Fire Marshall and this is my Legacy”

______________

*All information regarding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is from the following work that helped me immensely through my own journey: Osborn, Ian Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? A Psychiatrist Explores the Role of Faith in Treatment (Bravos Press: 2008). 

 

A Flashlight Over My Shoulder- Faith as a Student: A Letter (2nd Version)

Leave a comment

Authorial Note: The following is the published second version of a piece, the first version of which will be posted on this blog shortly. This second version was published in the September 2014 issue of The Newspaper, the University of Toronto’s Independent Paper but due to layout complications it did not turn out as planned. However both myself and The Newspaper look forward to publishing more together. The following was written for the new undergraduates at the University of Toronto who identify with a faith tradition. 

             The Psalmist says of the Hebrew Scriptures, ‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119:105). Now while one cannot necessarily reflect the rays of divine light unto your path, one can hope to illumine your divine light with reflections upon one’s own path. It is with this endeavor that a former undergraduate can hope to shine a flashlight over his shoulder to illumine your future by his past. Coming fresh out of high school, I had one goal—get the best education possible. To give you a noble reason for why I wanted to get the best education I possibly could get, would be a masterpiece of deception I hope I will never be capable of. Being raised in Christian apologetic material, scholarship, books, movies etc… that sought to ‘defend’ the Christian faith on historical grounds against the perceived onslaught of secularism, Islam, and post-modernism I had begun to notice that those who were talked about the most, and were taken most seriously in the public court of opinion, were those with high degrees from top universities. They had proven themselves more than capable in the scholarly realm and had wished to make a public defense of the Christian faith, and their status as elite academics only helped the cause. In a rather cynical manner, as I perceive it now, coming out of high-school with the same desire, I sought to get the best education at the top university in Canada, the University of Toronto. If I exposed myself to the harshest criticisms of the Christian faith, studied the New Testament under the ‘liberal’ scholars, and engage at the highest levels of academic debate—I would come out with my Christian faith all the stronger, and a mark of status so that people would have to listen to my opinion.

             As cynical as this endeavor originally began, it did instill a virtue in me that I would now trade for nothing else in the world—the courage to pursue the truth, for the truth has nothing to fear. Throwing my faith in the ‘deep waters’ as it were, while originally beginning as a pursuit of a mark of status, was also a sign in the deep trust that I had in the truth of the Christian faith—reading about the Qu’ran, Karl Marx, New Testament textual criticism, and atheism, did not frighten me in the least, nor should have they. First and foremost then, while I may not know why you wish to pursue your education as you are so doing—be prepared to be transformed, and in the process possibly value your education in a different light. Second, truth has nothing to fear, do not view ‘faith’ as a set of propositions that must be defended at all costs, rather, view ‘faith’ as trust, as a verb, that invites you to throw yourself in, knowing that after all the transformation has been gone through, no matter how painful, that it is worth it.

            Speaking of painful transformation, let me tell you a story from my first year that should reassure you in two respects—one, your education will be challenging, and two, your professors are not your enemies, despite all appearances. My program was a specialization in Christian Origins, so I was required to take two years of classical Greek—if you’ve ever studied another language you know how difficult it is, let alone how difficult it is when the language is considered as dead as you feel after you’ve learned it!!! During our first day of class, our professor, invited us to read a passage of Homer’s The Odyssey…in Greek. Most of us were not sure we knew the entire alphabet of the Greek language. Needless to say, near the end of the first semester the class had dwindled from 40 people to 12, and before our first exam I was considering to be numbered among the 28 that dropped out. I had never struggled so much learning anything as I had classical Greek, I had come out of high-school with a 92% average with little to no difficulty—to be unable to grasp the complex grammar of classical Greek was an embarrassment to whatever ego I had, and brought me to tears, as I was failing the class miserably for nearly four months. I asked our professor repeatedly how I could do better, she gave the same answer each time—‘memorize, everyday’, ‘memorize, everyday’ almost like a mantra. I decided that I would take her up on her challenge and prove her wrong that even with such studying, the class was far too difficult. Sure enough however, my pride went before the fall (Prov. 16:18), and she was right. I memorized and studied everyday, and ended the course with an A.

            However, this does not mean that your professors are always right about everything that they may advise or teach. It is here where we must come to the straight-forward reality of the campus of the University of Toronto, that will you meet people not only with different beliefs but conflicting beliefs to your own. The question then is how will one interact with the ‘other’. When it comes to your professors, the first thing that I can advise you, for I had seen it in many of my friends throughout my undergrad, is that when you encounter a professor who appears to be challenging your particular beliefs about something is- do not panic. Many Christian friends had continually asked throughout the course of my study—‘how has studying under liberal professors affected your faith?’, ‘how did you manage to keep your faith in the midst of all the criticism of the Bible you had learned?’ While, these questions were greatly appreciated, it is important to note that they came from a place of timidity and fear and what I always reminded them was, the professors were not out to destroy my faith. To be quite honest, most professors could probably care less about what you actually ‘believe’, what is important for them is that you understand the teaching material, not that you yourself subscribe to their point of view. I myself most assuredly changed some of my beliefs because of what I had been taught by professors, but, as equally important, I was all the more enriched and confirmed in some of my beliefs because of what professors had taught. The key was that at the end of the day I had to trust that I could engage 100% with the thoughts and worldviews presented to me, without my entire world falling apart. You may study something, and come out believing exactly as you did before, or you may study something and be utterly transformed, as all good education would do. But either of those outcomes must come from a willingness and courage to step out of your comfort zone.

            The question and challenge of the ‘other’, when it comes to your peers, can be best exemplified by my interaction with a Yugoslavian acquaintance of mine. In my pursuit of understanding science (and fulfilling my science distribution requirement, of course) I took a history and philosophy of science course. Unexpectedly, I had seen another guy who I knew from my middle school days in the same class—we were not on the best of terms. Whenever the topic of ‘religion’ came up amongst our mutual friends on Facebook or whatnot, inevitably we’d get caught up in those utterly time-consuming and ineffective internet-debates. He would accuse me of being an idiot, a Biblical literalist, and what not, where as I had overtly made the point that I was much more well-read than him and that because I felt that I was smarter than him, he should back-down. Well, this course in the history and philosophy of science could not have been a better situation to put an angry atheist and a proud Christian together in to see what would happen. Throughout our conversations and studying, I don’t think either of us actually persuaded one another about the truth of our particular stances but we did manage to laugh, interact, and even become friends. He became convinced that I was not a ‘religious’ idiot to be ignored, and I became convinced that his anger came from a real anguish over the conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. I learned not to use an intellectual status to clobber people into agreeing with me, and I’m sure that he learned that insults were not arguments.

            The reason that I relate this story to you is because in your new environment, if you walk, live, and study with your peers with a posture of trust towards that with which you have been brought to trust in, you can treat those ‘others’ in: (1) a hostile manner, imagining them your enemy, (2) an indifferent manner, imagining them as other objects essentially in your world to be tolerated, or (3) in love toward them, imagining them as, while fully being the mysterious ‘other’ as, nevertheless, like you—fragile, scared, anxious, and a whole other host of issues that afflict students today. The interaction between my Yugoslavian friend and myself, is a great example of the third. We were enemies, at first we tolerated each other, but the more that we saw that though we were an ‘other’ to each other, that if we did really trust our beliefs, trust in that which we believed to be the ground of our being—then there was no fear needed to be had.

            Lastly, however, I must tell you about my extremely traumatic encounter with an issue every student faces, anxiety. During the summer after the third year of my undergrad, I had a GPA of 3.6 and I had been awarded a student award of excellence scholarship, for which I would work on a research project with my one of favorite professors, Dr. John S. Kloppenborg, throughout this summer. During the summer however, I had a very unexpected onset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a result of guilt over sexual-related anxieties, and isolation due to the research project. The aspect of myself that I had most trust in, and had relied upon for my entire university career, my brain, had begun to fail me. In OCD the brain alerts you of your worst fears, no matter how irrational and the more one tries to get rid of those fears with every little practice the worse it gets because you have now alerted and taught your brain that there really is something to fear. My fearful obsessions had me hospitalized for a week due to sleep and food deprivation to the point of thoughts of suicide. In a matter of weeks I had went from viewing myself as a top scholar to the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph’s hospital, in the company of those who were much more mentally afflicted than I. During my time in the ward, my grades, my scholarship, my learning meant nothing, for at the end of the day I was as fragile and weak as anyone else there who I may have considered myself as having an advantage over before. Through a process of medication, therapy, and an understanding of the deep love of God that I could trust no matter what, I recovered in time to bring the research to a close and start my final year of university, not knowing whether I would be able to handle it. The most important lesson then that I have to offer you is, that as a student of a particular ‘religious’ faith, you can boldly trust that while you may not always have it together, there is a love in the universe that cares for you. That may sound sentimental to anyone that has not had their ‘life’s-breakdown’ moment yet, but, to those who are keenly aware of their own fragility and anxiety ridden nature, the news that one can trust that there is a love greater than you and whatever broken things you may have relied upon, is good.

            Hopefully, now having helped you initially navigate what it means to be a student of faith, and how you should interact with your peers and professors in how you hold your beliefs, I’d like to leave you with some helpful tips to take full advantage of the resources available to you at the University of Toronto, as you grow, learn new things, possibly change some of your beliefs, while holding others in even a more trustful manner than before. One of the most wonderful attributes about the campus (and, not to mention, something which McGill has nothing like, haha) is the Multi-Faith centre (https://www.multifaith.utoronto.ca) , located at the Koffler House (569 Spadina Ave), which hold various events and conversations intentionally so that students from different faith traditions can meet, interact, and grow. On their website you can find the Campus Chaplains Association to find leaders of various faith traditions, as well as lists of the various faith communities on campus, with whom you can feel at home with. Another tremendous resource available to you at the University of Toronto for students of faith, is the immense library catalogue that the university is home to (http://onesearch.library.utoronto.ca). If you encounter an issue with which you have had not dealt with before, i.e. the textual history of the Qu’ran, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of religion, transgender people, chances are there is someone from one’s particular tradition that has written on the subject that can help you react to that as you navigate and enjoy your life as a student.  While much more could have been said or advised, it is the hope of this writer that you will have enough trust to take the next steps yourself, and to share the light you encounter with others as I have endeavor to do so here. May you be blessed by the reading of this reflection. May you trust that the ground of your being can handle any question or trouble you may encounter. May you treat others as sites of love and not battle-grounds. Finally, may you find home in community as you engage, explore, endure, ponder, question, and live life as the gift that it is at the University of Toronto.

Sincerely,

Caleb Upton

MTh

sacred imperfections

the cracks are how the light gets in

ORTHODOXY IN DIALOGUE

Published and Edited by Doctoral Students in the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto

Broken Believers

For Rascals, Failures, Clumsy Disciples, the Addicted, and the Physically and Mentally Ill Believer

Dating God

Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century