by Professor Emeritus Timothy Lomperis
Address by TIMOTHY LOMPERIS, Professor Emeritus, Saint Louis University
Delivered at the Celebrate Recovery Program, First United Methodist Church, Maryville, TN, Mar. 28, 2018
I am accustomed to public speaking, but usually on a topic I know something about: like Korea, Syria, China, even Hinduism. I am not accustomed to what I am going to talk about tonight—a confession of professional failure. In so doing, my intention is for some of you to draw hope, and even inspiration, from how I came out of the addiction that arose from this failure—which was anger, really a deep, smoldering resentment.
Anger arises from something bad that happens, and is not made right. This irresolution festers, grows, and consumes. And, as it consumes, it will destroy your very soul. In fact, I think it is anger that serves as the trigger for other symptomatic addictions—like alcohol and drugs. Further, let me warn you, from experience, that there is no better opening for the Devil to your soul than anger. Thus, it is anger that leads to the three “Ds” of Drink, Drugs, and the Devil.
It reminds me of the old American Indian story of the Grandfather and the Grandson. The Grandfather warns his Grandson that all people are born with two wolves in their bellies: a good wolf, and a bad wolf. Desperate, the Grandson cries out, “Tell me, Grandfather, which one wins?” The Grandfather looks at the boy and replies, “The one you feed, my Son. The one you feed.” Well, by the end of the last century, I had a raging wolf in my belly!
What triggered my anger was the Duke University’s Political Science Department’s close vote in 1992 to deny me tenure as one of its colleagues. So what does this mean? What’s the big deal? Put simply, it is the very abrupt end to a very long road. To become a college professor in a school like Duke, you need to get a Ph.D. degree, which is an arduous academic climb through a B.A. degree from a four-year college to a two year M.A. degree, usually from another school, and finally to a Ph.D. granting institution that can take another four to eight years—and counting, sometimes. Degree in hand, the next task is to land a tenure track job at a college or university in which you compete with at least a hundred other applicants. So, by the time you have landed this job, you usually have come to the conclusion that you are a pretty hot snot!
There, however, remains the minor hiccup of gaining tenure—five or six years later—which, if you do, means lifetime employment. Conversely, if you don’t, you have to leave. In so doing, you have become “damaged goods” on the academic market and further employment is extremely difficult. In fact, it is usually a knock-out punch.
Well, I was not going to go down for the count of ten. I decided to appeal the decision on two fundamental grounds. First, I felt very strongly that I had more than met the criteria for tenure in both my teaching and my research. Second, I knew I had divine justice on my side, and God would not let me down. I am not going to talk about the academic grounds tonight. For me, they are still very painful; and, I realize, for you they are too boring. But permit me to talk about God.
I am a missionary kid from India, so God was everywhere in my life. Up until this moment, I really had no cosmic complaints about the direction of my life. I had tried to be a good boy, and God had basically taken good care of me. So, I felt we had a deal, me and God. I escaped childhood without much damage, got through college fine, served in the Army that included two tours in Vietnam and a few medals. In graduate school, I married a wonderful wife and we had two great kids.
I was in my mid-forties when this hiccup happened, but I was sure of the divine justice of my appeal. Therefore, God would not fail me. As the set-backs to my appeal multiplied over a two-year period, the costs to my family were enormous. Nevertheless, through these appeals, I soldiered on, confident that the ultimate prize of tenure would be mine. Parenthetically, in my appeals, I asked for the remedy of an outside evaluation of my case because of the toxic atmosphere in the department. I won my appeal for this remedy several times, but the university kept refusing to implement it. Finally, the Board of Trustees had had enough, and slammed the door in my face in April, 1994. In my view, a terrible injustice had been done. I was out of a job. And God had, inexplicably, let me down!
Fortunately, my wife and I did land academic jobs at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit Catholic institution that took its religious calling seriously. Despite this good fortune, I was in a deep depression: sullen, resentful—and yes, very angry. This was not easy on my family. It was my wife and the good Lord, not me, that kept us together.
One of the friends I made at Saint Louis University was “JJ,” the chair of the Theology Department and a Jesuit priest. Eventually, I told him my whole story. He became worried by my downward spiral, and told me that I needed to get Duke out of my system, and that only God could do it. (Earlier I had tried Freud, but that didn’t work.) “JJ” set me up with Brother Ralph, a fellow Jesuit priest, to undertake the Jesuit Exercises, which I did in the academic year 1999-2000.
All Jesuits have to undergo the Exercises for three intensive weeks every year. For me, and other laity, there is a year-long version where you set aside an hour a day for the directed exercises and then meet with your Spiritual Director every two weeks. The hourly exercises consist of a set of prayers and scriptures that are designed to pull you in to the narratives of the life of Jesus to the point where you become a companion of Christ and his disciples. Indeed, through the encouragement, monitoring, and focusing of your Spiritual Director, the goal is to actually project yourself into the Biblical Scene to the point where you have a spiritual fantasy of really walking with Jesus, and learning how to follow Christ in the Kingdom of God on Earth.
I had just three of these fantasies, which Brother Ralph told me was not bad for a Lutheran. The first one was at the scene of Christ’s birth at the manger. I was a shepherd, so I was sitting at the back and to the side. I was well behind the Three Wise Men and their servants and the tribal elders. But Mary turned and looked at me and gave me a smile that I thought was just for me. In that instant, that was all I needed. I didn’t need to be at the head of the line. I didn’t need to be jostling at the front with all the Wise Men and other big wigs. I didn’t even need to be at Duke anymore. That smile was all I needed.
However, I have to admit; as the year progressed I started slacking off. Honestly, there was some force holding me back, pulling me away from the daily hour. Obviously, Brother Ralph noticed, but what he said was a shock, “Tim, this is not about any laziness on your part, it is the Devil who is doing this. He does not want you to finish these Exercises. He likes your sullen cynicism souring all your students to the joys of God’s world.” That was as bit of a slap in the face. But he went on. “There is something else you must take to your heart. Tim, God loves Jim Smith [not his real name] just as much as He loves you.”
“NO,” I couldn’t help screaming. “NO, how could God love the biggest El Schmucko in my life, the man who orchestrated that tenure vote, who hounded me at every turn! It just could not be!”
Eventually, it came to me: in that scream I was judging God. And who was I to judge God, to tell Him what to do? But this didn’t just happen with the scream. In the pride I had in the justice of my cause, my prayers throughout this ordeal were not humble requests, they were orders, commands: “God you need to do this, and make that happen to get what I want.” And, in my blind-sided rectitude, I had made my family miserable, and the anger that was festering inside me was an agony of toxic poison. After the scream, I realized that this terrible sin of pride (and oh so righteous anger) had drawn me to the very gates of Hell. In this awful prospect, I recoiled into humility—and all the anger just bled right out of me.
I got back on track with the Exercises, and had one last fantasy. This time it was the day of the Resurrection and I was in the Garden, again way back from the tomb. Jesus was talking to a woman whose back was turned to me. He lifted his hand, as in a benediction, and she ran off. I didn’t see her face. Then Jesus walked towards me. He was a big man, strong, swarthy, with big brown eyes, and an indescribably warm smile. He didn’t say anything, and did not touch me. He just lifted his arms, looked at me, and the fantasy faded. When I related this to Brother Ralph, he, in turn, smiled and said, “Tim, Jesus just welcomed you into His Kingdom.”
So, what is the Kingdom of God? You and I live in three worlds: the Kingdom of Earth, the Kingdom of God, and the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
All of us, believers and non-believers, live in the Kingdom of Earth. It is the rat race of our daily lives. Its watchword is stress because of two dynamics that rule our lives. The first one is the frustration that comes from a world where everyone keeps score. How much money do you make? Who do you know? Where did you go to school? Where are your children going to school? How many people work for you? How many friends do you have on Face Book? How good-looking are you? How pretty? How high up your professional ladder have you climbed? You know what the answer to all these questions ends up being? It is a world where, at some point, we all end up losing. Our accomplishments never match our aspirations.
Further, in this rat race of score-keeping and posturing for position, there will always be in-groups and out-groups, and there will always be an in-group that will shut you out, leaving you mad, hurt, and stressed.
The Good News is that for believers and companions of Jesus Christ, there is the Kingdom of God in which we can live here on Earth. Jesus spelled it out in his Sermon on the Mount and in all his parables. It is the kingdom of the meek inheriting the earth, of walking the extra mile, of turning the other cheek, of empowerment through compassion. The many parables of Jesus sketch the contours: of the widow’s mite equaling the gifts of the wealthiest; of the good Samaritan caring for the beaten traveler; of the father’s love for his prodigal son; of a world where the last is first and the master washes the feet of his disciples; and, yes, where the thief on the cross gains eternal life with Jesus. The Kingdom of God is a world where no one keeps score because it is a world whose currency is love and the only in-group lies in the bosom of Christ.
Won’t you join me in entering God’s Kingdom on Earth? But first you must throw out that angry wolf from your gut. Just
[Singing] “Let it go. Let it go. Don’t hold it back anymore. Let it go. Throw your anger out the door. So Come with me, and Let it go. Let it go.”
If justice for you amounts to revenge, of getting even, then that’s not justice. The path of getting even starts with the hot raw anger of outrage and turns to the sophisticated ice of settling accounts. But this smug satisfaction can turn into the sin of pride, blinding you to the Devil lurking stealthily in the shadows primed to pounce like a panther. Just let it go. Remember, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” Leave the Devil in the lurch, and fall into the loving embrace of Jesus in His Kingdom.
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