Twelve Memorial Stones

The changing out of the calendar offers an opportunity to take stock on the significance of the preceding twelve months. I rarely do this, however. Maybe it is the latent runner in me; you are taught as a runner never to look behind you in a race, but to keep pressing onward. In busier times of life, it’s easy to do just that.

There is biblical wisdom in remembering, however. I was reminded of this when reading Joshua 4 the other day, which records how each tribal leader was to place a memorial stone in their camp after they crossed the Jordan river: “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’  then you shall tell them that  the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel  a memorial forever” (Josh 4:6-7).

In honor of this episode in the life of Israel, I offer 12 memorial stones to answer the question posed by a friend, “What did I learn in 2013…?”

(12) Moving overseas is very complicated, even if it is “just” to England.

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Our spreadsheet (yes, we had a spreadsheet, and you should too, if you’re moving overseas) involved over 250 individual tasks that all related to the big projects: sell house, sell cars, store belongings, interim housing, university-related procedures, housing in the UK, identity-related matters (visas, etc.), banking, fund-raising, communication, utilities, and much more. It is far more stressful than I predicted. Getting on the plane was a huge relief, but even then, the logistics don’t stop! On the bright side, two of my classmates at Cambridge messed up the visa applications for their families and literally had to send their wives and kids home for a month to re-apply. So there’s that.

(11) I am incredibly thankful for my seminary professors.

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I am only 3 months into this program, but my respect (which was already high) for my professors has increased exponentially. To have gone through a rigorous, and at times soul-quenching, doctoral program and retain zeal for true, biblical (and, in my case, Reformed) Christianity and a love for the church is no small task. In fact, it is somewhat amazing that the edifice of liberal / critical biblical scholarship that mocks every single one of our presuppositions doesn’t crush us in the end. These scholar-pastors stand as faithful workers whom God has preserved and blessed in ways that most MDiv students will not be able to understand. I feel privileged to gain this additional insight into exactly what they’ve gone through and come out on the other end, not only standing, but thriving in their service of the church. Keep pounding, guys.

(10) PhD work is harder than expected, but for different reasons.

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As one recent Cambridge graduate illustrated to me a few weeks ago, if the (a) knowledge you gained in seminary and (b) the knowledge you gained (or must gain) in a PhD program were put into a Venn diagram, the overlapping portion would be incredibly slender, if visible at all. He was right, and I didn’t expect this (I thought I knew a thing or two in seminary). Transitioning into doctoral work in biblical studies has been harder than I expected (see this post), for a host of reasons: not knowing what you’re talking about, fear of being exposed as an impostor, languages to learn, tea time one-upmanship, pressure to publish/present/teach, the abysmal job market staring you in the face, the challenge of balancing your evangelical convictions with the scholarly requirements imposed upon you, reading German higher criticism (most of which is deadening and boring), feeling isolated from the church, financial pressures, etc.

(9) The body of Christ is capable of surprising you with amazing examples of sacrificial giving.

As of April, we had no idea how we would fund this whole endeavor. By mid June, we had our answer, and the majority of it came in the form of private, non-tax deductible contributions from family members and members of our home church. Time and again Kate and I were amazed that the people of God were getting behind the calling to come here, and all were giving sacrificially to something without immediately obvious upside. It’s not like we’re building latrines or translating the Bible into Chadian Arabic. So we have learned what real stewardship looks like, and it has been immensely humbling but also immensely amazing.

(8) We really are two nations separated by a common language!

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We have thoroughly enjoyed Cambridge; it is a wonderful town, and though we’ve had some transition pains, we have grown already to see it as our home. That said, what they say is true: American English really is different than British English. This would require a much longer post to cover adequately, but it has been fun (and at times embarrassing, especially when you tweet about how your “pants” got wet in the rain, not realizing that “pants” are underwear in the UK) to compare notes with our British friends about all the idioms and words that mean different things on both sides of the Atlantic. My wife has started a list.

(7) Friendships are vital, even for toddlers.

Everyone knows that relationships are crucial to life. Moving away from your home of several years (and your home church, job, etc.) to a foreign country makes this all the more evident. We’ve been blessed already with both (a) the beginnings of several new friendships as well as (b) the love that our friends from back home have shown to us via care packages, Skype calls, letters, and so forth. We knew that friendships would be key to our survival as adults, but this experience so far has also shown us how important it is for us to help our daughters build friendships. Nothing has broken my heart more at times than realizing that our oldest doesn’t (or didn’t, as of a few weeks ago) have any friends here other than her sister (and her parents). So that’s been a tremendous learning experience: how do you shepherd your child through something like this when they know something in their life is absent but cannot really articulate it?

(6) Children are more resilient than you expect.

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That said, I’ve been amazed at how well our children have handled the transition. Sure, it helps that they are relatively young, but they’ve taken to Cambridge with hardly missing a beat. It makes me delighted each day to come home from work and play with them in our pitch-black street by the light of a few dim street lamps – riding bikes, riding scooters, whatever. Our neighbors think we’re vampires. I say, “What else can we do when the sun goes down at 3:47pm?”

(5) In an odd way, it is a blessing to blow up everything and start over.

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My wife had lunch in April with the women’s ministry director at our church in Charlotte, and at that point we had not made the final decision to come here. Melissa (the director) said to Kate, in paraphrase, “Maybe God is calling you to take the risk even if you don’t know how it will all work out. It’s a blessing to put it all on the line, even if it doesn’t seem like it.” She couldn’t have been more correct. While we have gone through endless waves of doubt, we keep coming back to our calling. On worldly terms, there is nothing more irrational than leaving your jobs, family, house, neighborhood, ministry, etc. and spending all your money and a ton of other people’s money to study the Bible with no guarantee of anything coming out of it. But here we are.

(4) The Christian church in America is better (and worse) than we think.

Typically we evangelicals spend our time criticizing everything about the American church: comfort idols, radicalism idols, lack of stewardship, too much missions, too little missions, fighting over doctrinal issues in the blogosphere, decline of preaching, casualness, formalness, denominationalism, non-denominationalism, lack of pastoral training, too much pastoral training, and so on. Stepping out of the American church scene and into the British one has been very instructive for two reasons. First, we have a lot to learn from the English church. The church functions as a much stronger “body” here, on the whole; it is very illuminating to see how conservative Anglicans (for instance) can coexist with very liberal Anglicans without breaking fellowship; and it is very helpful to see how the church works in a vastly post-Christian culture here, since that is largely where the US is headed. Second, we have a lot to be thankful for. As someone told me recently, “America is the Disneyland of Christendom,” and they meant that positively. We do a lot of things very well: expository preaching (when it’s done), adult Sunday school (which, I was surprised to find, is an American phenomenon), liturgy, worship music, the missions enterprise, and much more. To be clear, I’m not at all saying that America does these things better than everyone else (including the UK church), but rather I’m simply listing those as examples of things we should be thankful for. It’s right to be self-critical, but sometimes you have to step away to be able to see the good things with which God has blessed you as well.

(3) This is a weird time of life, but that is okay.

It is hard sometimes to find out from former seminary friends about how they are actually, you know, doing real ministry right now, whether leading campus ministries, serving as assistant pastors, or planting churches (note: many seminarians struggle with whether seminary is real ministry; doctoral work multiplies that by 20). It is hard to watch your wife have to process how her friends back home are doing soccer teams, making their homes beautiful, advancing in their workplace jobs (if applicable), and so forth. It’s fundamentally illogical to press pause on all of that, because it feels like we’re on this weird little island for 3 years. However, we’re not the only ones, and this is what God has for us. It is okay for us to struggle with this tension.

(2) Christ is the only coherent purpose in living.

The Lord has used this period to break us down in countless ways, and we’re still in the middle of it. But he has shown us again and again through this journey that he is sovereign, that he loves us, and that he is working in us to accomplish some greater purpose, even if we do not yet know what that is (and won’t for a while). That is liberating and terrifying, but it draws us closer to him.

(1) My wife is amazing.

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I have never been prouder of my wife. She didn’t know any of this was coming when she married me 7.5 years ago: ministry, church, seminary, PhD – none of it was in view back then. However, she has been the biggest advocate … at great personal sacrifice. She has given up so much of what she held dear, and she has done so willingly. She has taken on Cambridge admirably and conquered driving, home organization, groceries, cooking, play groups, pre-school, finding a part-time job, and much more – all of which is harder when you are removed from your support network and familiar surroundings. She’s been incredibly supportive as I have had my own transition challenges as a student; she’s been willing to be vulnerable to others about what she’s going through; and she has done a fantastic job becoming a stay-at-home mother. So the biggest thing I’ve (re)learned in 2013 is how amazing she is, how much she loves me and our family, and how lucky I am that God brought us together.

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