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Category: Failure

Battling demons and finding God on the ash heap

2017 finally comes to a close, and I am ringing in the new year firmly ensconced upon a pile of ashes.

This is definitely not the place others flock to when welcoming in a new year. Dusty, bleak, a place of exile and uncertainty. You don’t count down the final seconds of 2017 on the ash heap; instead, you wrestle with endless questions about how you got there with a God who seems more interested in the annual ball drop in Times Square. You wait, trying to understand the rationale of another who is infinitely above your pay-grade.

Kind of like Job after the Accuser chopped him off at the ankles. As part of what looks like a mysterious cosmic bet, Job loses his children, his livestock, his wealth, and eventually his health over a short period of time. He retreats to the mound of ashes where he sits quietly with friends, saying nothing for a week. Then the characters engage in a misguided debate about the cause of suffering and its relation to sin before God himself finally enters the discussion with one of the most beautiful and frustrating responses to humanity’s suffering in the entire Bible. read more

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Nine years later, the pain remains, but God is still good

Today marks one of the two worse days of my life. Nine years ago this morning, in a span of one hour, my postgraduate dreams and career in academia evaporated and my life cartwheeled into a world that was–and somewhat remains–unclear, unknown, and undefined.

This was the day I sat across from my doctoral examiners and was told in no uncertain terms how much they hated my dissertation. I remember vividly the final walk of humiliation–barely able to breathe–down the path and out of the university, the phone call home telling my wife it didn’t go well, and the day I left England for the last time only to return to word weeks later that a contract for a job I loved would not be renewed. read more

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Giving the devil his due: the art of the lie

As I stood at the top of the staircase in the academic building at my august British university, the voices began: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.”

I had just experienced what was, and remains, the most awkward, humiliating moment of my life. In the final hour of my seven years of effort, my two oral examiners had just rejected my PhD work. After hearing the news, I had to stand up in front of them, cram my useless 400-page paper into my briefcase, and exit the room in heavy silence. One of them had simply stared at me without expression; the other never made eye contact.

Classes were letting out, and the atrium below bustled with throngs of students, chattering and laughing. Their journey of chasing their dreams was just coming to birth, whereas mine had just died. read more

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Can we be sinners but not losers?

Since the release of my book, Losers Like Us, I have argued that the Bible does nothing to hide the sins, flaws, and blemishes of the people within. They are too clueless, too full of themselves, and too ordinary to be considered spiritual giants. So I have used the term “losers” to describe them—and also to describe all the rest of us who, each in our own stumbling way, try to follow the Lord just as they tried.

But many people have objected to the “loser” label by saying: “Yes, I am a sinner—but not a loser!”

Loser-Sinner1This response shows just how much people hate being labeled as “losers.” I think they mean that in Christ, we are winners, and I agree with that. Yet I see the sinner/loser distinction differently. read more

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Life on the altar

Contrary to the popular saying, time does not heal all wounds. Instead, it brings perspective.

February is the month when, seven years ago, I flew to England to defend my final doctoral thesis – only to watch it vaporize in less than an hour.

Since then, for the last seven years, February has always felt dark and heavy. I thought my sadness would dissipate, little by little, with each passing year, but it hasn’t. You don’t get over loss; you come to terms with it. I’m still trying to come to terms with why God led me into that doctoral program, only to let it blow up in my face.

Many people have tried to explain this mystery. Some have suggested that maybe I didn’t hear God correctly, or maybe I didn’t even listen – maybe my prayers for guidance were only a token gesture, seeking a rubber stamp on what I had already decided to do. read more

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Meaningless sunshine

Photo by Daniel HochhalterEver since I first read Ecclesiastes, I have been intrigued by this mysterious book. Though I have always struggled with its meaning, I have also been intrigued by and even drawn to its words. I hope that this has nothing to do with a naturally pessimistic temperament, though it could very well be.

Ecclesiastes a small poem hidden in the shadow of the much larger and more-often-quoted book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers more certainty, is more formulaic in its maxims: Righteousness leads to good results; wickedness leads to bad ones. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is far less certain. It speaks of a teacher who spends his entire life seeking—and achieving—wisdom, and experiencing many of the benefits of Proverbs, but still finds everything “under the sun…meaningless.” read more

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Pile it on, part 1

pile-of-stonesRecently, for the second time this spring, I got The Question again. Knowing my trauma since losing the PhD and my joy at getting a book deal, a close friend asked me: “Dan, standing where you are now and looking back, do you find yourself grateful for the road that brought you here?”

I hesitated.

I didn’t want to look back, didn’t want to remember the times when God really seemed to “pile it on” – the pain, the agony, the humiliation. However, after hearing that question twice within a few weeks, from two different people, I realized God was doing the asking—and he is unrelenting. So I knew I had to answer.

Yet why the hesitation?

After all, I have a book scheduled for publication this summer—and that’s great news. If my dry, narrow-focus doctoral dissertation had passed rather than failed, there’d be no book; instead, there would be only the dissertation, gathering dust on a back shelf in a remote university library, with virtually no chance that anyone would ever read it. In fact, if my dissertation had passed I’d have no hope of redemption—because without pain and failure, there is nothing to redeem. read more

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Falling from towers to trenches

Mad_Men+FallingThe activity of writing, especially writing something longish like a book, requires extended periods of time alone, so it’s a good fit for an introvert. And that’s what I am: an extreme introvert, one who feels happiest and safest when I am alone at my computer. In order of magnitude, think: introvert…hermit…recluse…me.

But recently, this introvert was stopped short by a brief comment in a minor scene in a movie about something else.

The movie was “God’s Not Dead” (yes, I finally got to see it) – which, as I said, is about something else. But in a subplot, a pastor bemoans doing mundane ministry in the U.S. while his visiting friend does real ministry “in the trenches” of Africa. When the two encounter a weeping girl in need of help, cast out by her Muslim family for converting to Christianity, the African tells the American: “Well, you said you wanted to be in the trenches…” read more

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Facing the F-word

fail_stencil2It’s been a couple of weeks since David C Cook went live with the official Losers Like Us webpage. I’ll admit, seeing my book on websites like Amazon is a bit surreal, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

But I also must admit, I cringe every time I read the first sentence of the book’s description: “After permanently failing his PhD…” There it is: the “F” word. I am a failure.

Of course, I can’t complain too much. This is the book description I provided. But it still stings.

I could have sanitized the word choice. I could have softened it to: “After not receiving his Ph.D…” Or I could have played the victim card: “After getting robbed of his Ph.D…” After all, there may be some truth to that. read more

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