It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2016

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same ol’ same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
Cause I’ve got boats to build

Guy Clark, “Boats to Build”

Last Friday, I turned in my grades for the last time. I gave my last exam last Wednesday. It was about a year ago that I decided that this would be my final year teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and that  I would take an early retirement. Or, as Kathleen and I see it, I will transition from being a full-time college professor who writes on the side to being a full-time writer.

Last Sunday morning in church, I shared about my plans. I mentioned that EMU does not put a lot of pressure on faculty to publish; it’s not really a “publish or perish” place. But now, the pressure will increase. As Kathleen will be taking on a more central role in providing our income, she’s telling me that it will be “publish or perish.” I think she’s kidding (a little, at least), but we both certainly are excited about this transition and have high expectations.

The past year since I “gave my notice” moved quickly, and I am excited for it to be over. It’s been a good year in many ways, but not for a second have I doubted that it is time for this change—even if I am not entirely sure what to expect in these years to come. As Guy Clark sings, “Let the chips fall where they will, ’cause I’ve got boats to build.”

A time of transition like this may be a good time to look back and to look ahead. How did I get here? What clues about what’s to come may be discerned in the trajectory what what has gone before? How have I been prepared for this new stage?

It is a bit unsettling to notice a pattern in my life. Things fit pretty much into 20 year segments. I have my younger years of formal education and a kind of meandering in terms of getting a sense of my life’s vocation and passion. That period ended, it seems to me now, in the Spring of 1976, my last term in college when I took my first philosophy classes (I never did take a religion class in high school or college). I was primed for the classes (“Philosophy of Religion” and “Existentialism”). The previous couple of decades had prepared me, in a way, so those classes turned out to be a gateway to a life of a theologian.

The second segment ended almost exactly 20 years later, Spring and Summer of 1996, when I left pastoral ministry (more on that below) and finally got a position as a college theology professor. Certainly, the previous four decades had prepared me for that new focus—thinking, teaching, talking, writing about things that matter a lot.

Now it’s been twenty years more; must be time for another major transition. I am grateful beyond measure for the opportunity to be a college theology professor. And I am grateful beyond measure now for the opportunity to utilize the six decades of preparation and write like a maniac. Or at least try….

The first quarter (ending March 1976)

I grew up in circumstances that would not seem, on the surface at least, to be ideal preparation for a vocation as a Christian theologian. My hometown was a typical small Pacific Northwest town in that it was not very religious or academically oriented. None of my closest friends was a church-goer; only three out of the 17 kids in my high school graduating class went to a four-year college.

Still, I grew up with a strong curiosity about meaning and truth and the purpose of life. And I always loved to read. Probably the best preparation for my career as a peace theologian, though, was to not learn anything I had to unlearn—at least not in my first 17 years. The main message I got from my parents, I would say, was think for yourself, stand up for what you believe in, and—most importantly—you are loved and it is good for you to take up space in the world.

My mom, especially, modeled a way of life that I think shaped my “embedded theology” (the theology that we absorb from our surroundings early in life, before we are self-conscious and think for ourselves). She was curious and valued all of her fourth-grade students, maybe most of all the eccentrics and misfits. For her, God was love and life was wondrous.

My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus
They say I’m missing a whole world of fun
I live without them and walk in the light
I like the Christian life

The Byrds, “The Christian Life”

When I was 17, my religious life took a sharp turn to the right. My family had been involved in a Methodist congregation during my early childhood. But the church folded and our church-going was greatly reduced. We never really talked about faith, but it was on my mind a lot. For awhile I thought of myself as an atheist—but, you know, one has to be fairly preoccupied with God in order to go to the trouble of denying God’s existence. So, I was vulnerable to just about any coherent account of Christian faith that could satisfy my desire to understand.

I was presented with just such an account by a friend, who was active in the local Baptist congregation—the kind of Baptist congregation that would embrace with pride the label “fundamentalist.” As it turns out, at this point I was taught quite a bit that I would have to unlearn (the impending rapture and second coming of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, substitutionary atonement that saves us from an angry God, among other beliefs). But most of all, I experienced hospitality, life with my fellow believers that confirmed my embedded theology about God being love (even if the theology didn’t quite affirm that conviction in a consistent way). This experience of God pulled me forward.

For a time, though, this new religious faith had kind of a numbing effect on my intellectual interests. I realize now that I entered into Christian faith driven by a desire to understand, to know the truth as best I could. The community I initially joined responded to that desire by conveying to me that indeed I now had found the truth, the whole truth, with no need to keep asking questions. I didn’t really know better at the time and I was content to relax into this certainty.

So, I kind of sleep-walked through college. I went to two state schools in Oregon. I didn’t expect to get any nurture for my faith from these “secular” colleges, and so I didn’t seek it out. My curiosity was not totally repressed, and I took some good classes (mostly history and literature; I was a journalism major). Mostly, though, I’m kind of embarrassed about my undergraduate experience. I was passive and inert; I doubt any of my profs ever got more than a hint that I might have an academic career ahead of me, and probably none of them remembered me after I passed through. I can’t remember ever being excited about ideas, about things I was learning, about the big questions of life.

That all changed just as my undergraduate years came to an end, though. I started going to a new church, a non-denominational house church made up of young adults, mostly college students. Some friends introduced me to the evangelical writer Francis Schaeffer. I quickly left Schaeffer behind, but I credit him as the one who woke me from my fundamentalist slumbers. He challenged me to think; no question was out of line; all truth is God’s truth.

At the same time, more or less on my own, I embraced pacifism. This was at the tale-end of the Vietnam War; I had met numerous returning vets, most of whom had deeply troubling stories to tell of the horrors they had experienced. And I started to think and ask questions and doubt the received story of the American way of life. As I was finishing college, I realized I no longer wanted to be a sports writer. I was so close to finishing my journalism degree that I decided to complete that task. But graduation signaled the end of the vision that had animated my college education. I was ready for a very different post-college life than I had anticipated when I started.

The second quarter (ending July 1996)

My affirmation of pacifism reoriented my life. I began to read everything I could find on the topic, started talking with my friends and discovered that several of them had also come to similar convictions. I began a long and complicated relationship with the Mennonite strand of Christianity. And, crucially, a shared commitment to pacifism characterized my partnership with Kathleen Temple from the beginning of our relationship in 1976.

Will Jesus wash the bloodstains from your hands?
Will He welcome you into that peaceful land?
Will He forgive the killing, the wars you have planned?
Will Jesus wash the bloodstains from your hands?

Hazel Dickens, “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands”

For the first several years after college, I worked at part time jobs, married Kathleen, lived in intentional community, invested a lot of energy in my church, and continued to delve ever deeper into theology. I would say now that from the start the focus of my reading and writing and preaching was peace theology, though I wouldn’t have known the term back then.

I read Mennonite writers such as John Howard Yoder, Norman Kraus, Millard Lind, and Guy Hershberger in the late 1970s, and we discovered a Mennonite congregation not far from where we lived. We continued with our house church, but also began to relate to the Mennonite community. When the opportunity arose, we eagerly took off for Elkhart, Indiana, and a year at the (then named) Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries.

A chance comment from one of my professors got me thinking about further graduate studies. The passivity of my undergraduate days was long gone. I dove into my classes—Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament; New Testament Theology and Ethics; Romans; Revelation; Reformation Era; Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace and Revolution; and Christology and Theological Method. I spent uncounted hours in the library and read far beyond course requirements. We also talked and talked with fellow students, faculty members, and others in the wider community. It was a profound immersion education about peace theology and this tradition that had sustained its peace convictions for hundreds of years.

Now, we realize how remarkable—and unusual—that intense learning experience was. Beyond the classes, readings, and people, we also were blessed with an amazing array of guest speakers (surely the greatest year ever for AMBS guest speakers). Among others, we interacted with James Cone, Krister Stendahl, Phyllis Trible, Tony Campolo, James McClendon, Steven Schwartzschild, Allan Boesak, and Everett Gendler.

We returned home to the west coast convinced we wanted to be Mennonites. Over the next couple of years, I tried to discern my future direction—seeing the options as full-time peace activism (this was at the height of the Nuclear Freeze movement when such a career path seemed imaginable), pastoral ministry, or an academic path. I worked for about a year as an activist and about a year as an interim pastor in two congregations. Clearly my best energies were spent, though, completing work for my masters degree in peace studies. So we decided it would be good for me to move on to more grad studies, and we ended up in Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union.

Our three years in Berkeley actually probably weren’t nearly as formative as that one year in northern Indiana. But we learned a lot. I made what now seems like an interesting choice to pursue a degree in ethics, rather than theology or biblical studies. I think that even though I didn’t study theology directly, the work I did surely fed more directly into the peace theology I have been developing in the years since than explicit and formal academic theological or biblical studies would have. Ethics helped keep my thinking concrete and practical.

The program was centered on our comprehensive exams, not coursework. My exams were on early Christian views on war and peace, a comparative study of philosophical hermeneutics and liberation theology, the analysis of “sectarianism” in sociology of religion, 20th century just war thought, and a general survey of contemporary Christian ethics. I learned after I got on campus that due to a reduced number of faculty members being available the admissions committee had almost decided not to admit any new students the year I applied. However, because my focus on peace themes coincided with the heightened interest in peace due to the Freeze campaign and the American Catholic Bishops’ Letter on Nuclear War, they decided to let me in. It was great timing.

For my dissertation, I wanted to look at something that actually happened and learn from it rather than taking a more theoretical direction. The theory would follow from the practice, not stand as something autonomous. My decision was affected by the recent death of my father, a World War II vet. I thought that that generation was starting to pass, so I took the chance to study conscientious objection to World War II.

I wasn’t very optimistic about finding a teaching job right out of grad school, so I took the opportunity to return to my original Mennonite congregation as a pastor. Over the next nine years I realized that I didn’t love pastoral ministry, I grew a bit more cynical about the Mennonite church, I had many meaningful encounters with congregants, and took a decisive turn toward theology. I loved preaching and teaching in the congregation, and greatly benefited from the discipline of wrestling with biblical texts to find clear and meaningful things to say.

As I was getting more restless as a pastor, two opportunities arose simultaneously to pursue teaching possibilities with Mennonite colleges. After nine years on the outside looking in, I actually had a choice between two options. For reasons I have since second-guessed, I chose Eastern Mennonite University. My era of preparation for the academic life ended with much anticipation of a long dreamed of opportunity.

For one thing, I thought, now I would be rewarded for scholarly work—rather than feeling like I may be stealing time from my churches. Not long after I finished my dissertation, I decided to pursue a new scholarly interest—christology. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to devote very much concentrated attention to that interest during the remaining years of my pastoral career. However, I did become committed to an approach to peace theology that would combine immersion in the biblical story (the gospels, certainly, but the Old Testament and New Testament books such as Romans and Revelation that fed into christology) with engagement with the dynamics of violence and domination in our contemporary world with seeking to articulate the resulting theological reflections with clarity and practical relevance. Nine years of (nearly) weekly preaching proved to be great preparation for constructive peace theology work.

The third quarter (ending April 2016)

There was a time during my tenure at Eastern Mennonite University that I would have felt it would be an accomplishment simply to last long enough voluntarily to retire from my professorship. So making it to today when I do retire voluntarily and in good standing actually is an accomplishment.

It was a challenging transition to move into the classroom without much training or experience. I am pleased with how I grew in comfort and self-possessing over the years. When I started, I would go strictly by a script in my classes, avoiding as much as possible the mischance of having to think on my feet. Up until my final class last week, I would still take extensive notes with me to the lectern, but over time I would refer to them less and less—to better effect.

My desire in teaching was always to have a conversation in class about things that matter most—in theology, in ethics, in peace studies, in biblical theology. Sometimes these happened in quite invigorating ways. On those occasions, I would have said I would pay EMU to let me be in class—and always at the end of a successful class I would feel more energetic than when the class started. But more often igniting such a conversation proved to be elusive. Usually, I would end class feeling pretty tired, like the net energy exchange was pretty decisively me giving much more than I received.

The second of three stated components of my job (#1—teaching; #2—service on campus; #3—scholarship) ended up being the most disappointing for me. Early on, I was optimistic. I remember thinking that I would likely have a significant impact on campus due to my vision for peace-centered Anabaptist higher education and the energy I felt for helping move things in that direction.

I think of a couple of moments where that optimism was greatly diminished. One was during an organized effort to create a new core values statement for the university. I tried very hard to make a constructive contribution and actually played a major role in one faculty meeting in challenging a problematic proposal and presenting an alternative that met with wide approval. However, this effort was seen by leadership as divisive and as undercutting the formal process. The attempt to create a new statement was abandoned (and in fact, as far as I know, was never revisited).

The second moment was when a long-time and highly regarded university employee was summarily fired when she was discovered to be in a committed relationship with another woman. This was followed not long after by the even more summary firing of a new graduate faculty member for the same reason. And then, not long after, a popular undergrad prof was denied an extended contract for reasons never made clear even to him, but seemingly related to his sexual identity. I was actively engaged in resistance activities in face of these actions. I would like to think that those activities contributed to EMU finally taking a more enlightened approach to hiring and retaining faculty and staff. However, the effort led to a sense of mutual alienation between me and many on campus. I returned after a sabbatical during this period with a desire to go on what a friend suggested might be called an “internal exile.” That “exile” never fully ended.

I did investigate other employment options at this time. Also, at one moment, I was directly threatened with disemployment by a high university administrator. As it was, I did stay put. And I’m glad, all things considered, in part because this stressful moment helped serve as a catalyst for my focus on the third of my job’s components, scholarship.

Some take the burden of another’s pain
Some spend forever for a moment’s gain
Everybody’s got to find their own way through
But if you love love, then love loves you too
But if you love love, then love loves you too

Bruce Cockburn, “Love Loves You Too”

I am sure the combination of teaching theology and peace studies with the stresses of trying to resist manifestations of inhospitality on campus and in the broader Mennonite world, all in the context of the continued manifestations of American imperialism in our wider world, pushed me ever more to “think pacifism” (this is when I created my blog, Thinking Pacifism).

My various writing projects (most extensively manifested in four books I wrote during the past 15 years: God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible; Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Core Convictions; Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholenessand The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy) were all ultimately about love. They were indirectly responses to the various ways even Christian communities find it so difficult consistently to be loving environments.

I am grateful for how EMU allowed me the space to pursue these projects. I have wondered about the appreciation of my writing here, but I have felt the freedom to write what I feel led to write. And having the time and space to do so (more release time from teaching than any other undergrad faculty member over the past 15 years and two full-year sabbaticals) has been essential—and much appreciated.

During my more recent sabbatical (2010-1), Kathleen and I decided that that life, of focusing all my energies of reading and writing, was our ideal. So we figured we would try to be in a place where I could take a “permanent sabbatical” as soon as possible. That my teaching and campus involvement have been only inconsistently engaging makes it easier to make the move to retire, but I am certain I would be making this move regardless.

The fourth quarter (ending … ?)

I will be very content if I get another good 20 years for this final segment of my life. Or, it could be, maybe I will get some “stoppage time” after the 20 years are up—with the final end known only to the Clock Keeper. For now, I am bursting with ideas. I am a little anxious about making the transition. I will have no excuses now not to be productive. However, I hope to get into a rhythm—reading widely and deeply, blogging regularly, writing books, and perhaps occasionally speaking and teaching.

I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise
Of ordinary people leading ordinary lives
Filled with love, compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice
Heaven’s in our hearts

In our faith in humankind
In our respect for what is earthly
In our unfaltering belief in peace and love and understanding

Look around
Believe in what you see
The kingdom is at hand
The promised land is at your feet
We can and will become what we aspire to be
If Heaven’s here on earth

Tracy Chapman, “Heaven’s Here on Earth”

My very first project will be to finish pulling together some of my writings from the past 15 years or so on Mennonites and ‘homosexuality’ into a self-published book. I’m nearly done with this and hopefully will have it available by the end of the month. Then over the next several years I want to turn to various biblically-oriented projects I have started—a commentary on Revelation, theology for restorative justice, Jesus in the gospel of Luke, Romans, and (most scholarly) a book on the anarchistic politics of the Bible drawn from my long-running Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice class.

Even though I think of myself as a constructive theologian, not a biblical scholar, I still find the Bible indispensable for my work of writing peace theology. This is not because the Bible works as an authoritarian source of commands and absolute truths and definitive revelation of the direct will of God. Rather, the value of the Bible for my work is that it is concrete, humane, anti-imperial, and peaceable. For the biblical imagination, life is for now, “the kingdom is at hand … Heaven’s here on earth.”

Looking farther ahead, I have dreams of expanding beyond biblical perspectives to scrutinize the history of Christianity—partly to get a clear sense of how and why things have so often gone so wrong for the Christian religion, moving all too many times in ways counter to the healing story of biblical faith. However, I also want to identify and lift up times when Christians have gotten things right. This is, in part, to inspire contemporary Christians to resist domination and to seek to embody the way of Jesus. It has been done and it can be done now.

Should I be given the time and energy I dream of completing the circle and putting together a wide-ranging constructive theology that would be kind of an anti-theology theology that counters the abstractions, inward foci, dualism, and ethical vapidity of much doctrinal theology. But that possibility is a long way away. It seems more likely that I will find a place of rest before I can get that far—or that I will see the folly of such an attempt. For now, I am mainly looking forward to the intrinsic rewards in the pursuit of understanding.

…I am not looking for loose diamonds …
I don’t want for roses or water, I am not looking for God
And I just want to see what’s next

Ray Wylie Hubbard, “The Messenger”

22 thoughts on “It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition

  1. Your blog gives an informative insight into what makes you tick! Thanks for sharing. I hope you have a successful transition and a joyful retirement! Shalom. Roman

    1. Thank you for this narrative, Ted. Its combination of thoughtfulness and candor is what has always drawn me to your writing. I look forward to that writing in the future. And trust you will find it personally rewarding. Best wishes.

  2. I would wish you great joy and excitement in the opportunity to explore, learn, and write— all the while rediscovering the refreshing life of being free to jump enthusiastically into the future.

  3. I enjoyed this, Ted. Was interesting to learn the backstory of your involvement in that Mennonite congregation in Oregon—still remember hearing you preach there (as Karen & I visited Dean & Bonnie after the 1991 Assembly in Oregon).
    Loved your little aside as you talked about your high school years: “For awhile I thought of myself as an atheist—but, you know, one has to be fairly preoccupied with God in order to go to the trouble of denying God’s existence.”

  4. I have truly appreciated your viewpoints and writing skills. Thank you.

    Marcia Parker, Plains Mennonite Church, Hatfield, PA

  5. It was a privilege and delight to have been your student in undergrad, Ted. I always found your classes engaging, largely due to your teaching style. You always seemed to want to know what we had to say, and that is something I will always remember and appreciate. You wanted to learn, too. But there was something more to it than that. It seems to me that your style encouraged connection between student and teacher in a way that was both genuine and warm. You cared about us as people and you treated us all with respect. I know that you and I have not always seen eye to eye. I know that I’ve often been rather acerbic and rancorous in my argumentation. My only excuse is that passion for truth is better than indifference. At any rate, there is no way I would think, and indeed, believe, as I do today. You have pushed me to think and act differently through your example and your writing. I thank you, and I wish you many fruitful years of writing and study.

    1. I see that I have inadvertently left out a phrase. The third to last sentence should read “…as I do today without your influence.”

    2. Thanks, so much, Dan. These comments mean a lot. I was talking to a parent of a former student today and I told him that if I could come up with a list of my five most memorable students, his son would definitely be one of them. You would be too (and that’s “memorable” in the most positive sense).

  6. “Got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” -Bruce Cockburn

    Keep kicking, Ted!

  7. Ted, as you know, I consider you to be a close friend and confidant. Your presence in my life has always been positive, constructive, and appreciated. Same goes for Kathleen.

    I am very sorry about what happened earlier in your career at EMU. I don’t know really what happened, aside from a few things I’ve overheard, but I do know that alienating you was a bad idea. Now that I am facing my own struggles with Mennonites, I often think of you guys and your alienation. It is a sobering thought.

    Let me just say one more thing. Your influence on my thinking has been profound, and I deeply appreciate it. I hope you get another 40 years of hard work out of life: the world needs it, even if they don’t know it yet. Thanks, my friend, and God bless you.

    1. Thanks, Evan. I certainly have and do appreciate our friendship.

      I wouldn’t want to overstate my “alienation” in relation to EMU. What I was trying to convey in blog post was more a sense that not everything was always great—which led to a sense of fulfillment in writing and scholarship that may have been out of proportion to other elements of my job description. But I am actually grateful for that and feel like that is what is propelling me into this exciting next stage of life.

      You still owe me a beer….

  8. Congrats Ted on “retiring” from formal teaching at EMU! This is a significant transition into the fullness of your life gifts and calling. Your powerful personal story has the structure and substance of memoir. Doing theology is a living and lived encounter with the human divine. You will not want from reading and writing and reflecting that is and will continue to be your gift to me and to many, to the Church and to the world. Keep living it. Weldon

  9. In our recent reconnection, this had been posted before I was following your blog, and maybe before our FB connection…. Anyway, just read it today, thoroughly enjoying it! Great to hear your life story summarized so well.

    Just one of several similar aspects to my own, and a specific “overlap” point, besides your mention of the “house church” we briefly shared in: the role of reading Francis Schaeffer. Very similar for me. Although I was in a Christian college (Biola, now “University”), it was his work, more than any other single factor, which got me thinking broader, seeing the flow and interconnections in the “history of ideas” and development of culture, relative to church/theology and vice-versa. I later came to differ significantly with his thinking, but it spurred a growth stage that I remain grateful for. It created new excitement for study, and especially interdisciplinary work that I’d been lacking. I remain SERIOUSLY interdisciplinary.

  10. Hi Ted,

    I’m trying to contact you via email (your address). I presume you are no longer checking that account. I have some questions for you. How may I get in touch with you?


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