And the Worst of 4 Years: My Greatest Challenges while Studying and Living in England

[For the more pleasant side of this tale, see the previous post on the greatest joys on life and and study in England]

I took this pic before I knew the word “selfie.” I wanted to remember the particular moment of intense prayer and wrestling experienced on this hike. I was on the Dingle Peninsula. And though the beauty of the place is unwritable, and the opportunity to be there a tremendous privilege, on this day I was charging into fog and gloom.

Charging into fog and gloom… that phrase captures so much of the journey of the past four years.

As evident in the photo, the sun was beginning to show itself. But most of the way was a wet, dark plod into jagged hills with low visibility. That hike sums up the past four years. Sunlight is now creeping in.

But I still get chills remembering the uphill battles through fog.

Here were the toughest challenges:

  1. Vocational Shame

There were mornings when one of my children would clutch my arm as I was walking out the door and beg me to stay home from work (even though my children would all be heading to school moments later). It always tore at my heart.

What I wanted to say was, “Daddy has to go in to work so that I can provide for you all as my family.”

Instead, what came to mind (but remained unspoken) was, “Daddy has to go into his office to study and keep perpetuating the massive amounts of educational debt that may deprive him the opportunity to help you and your siblings attend university yourselves. So goodbye and have a good day.”

For three years I lived in a state of quasi-vocational delight that was marred, overwhelmingly at times, by a sense of vocational shame. I was accruing debt working on a doctoral thesis for the sake of a credential that offers no guarantee of gainful employment.

In doing the very thing I “felt” God had called me to, I simply felt tremendous shame.

It was soul-crushing… often.

2. Vocational Insecurity

And on those days when I did work with a sense of divine affirmation, when I tasted some freedom to enjoy the season, I was rarely free from the nagging blight that sours most doctoral students’ hearts—the blight of academic insecurity. My German, Greek, and Hebrew will never be good enough, whatever “good enough” is. My memory is simply not as retentive as others. My knowledge of New Testament scholarship will never feel adequate. My grasp of the secondary literature always falls short.

Now, Durham’s Dept of Theology never made me feel this way. I have only been affirmed. And I could not have asked for a better supervisor, Prof. Francis Watson. But this sort of inferiority complex seems to come with the academic territory.

Ghosts and demons plague every vocation. Those that come out at night (and during the day) for emerging scholars sing ghoulish songs in our ears with the refrain, “you are a fraud, you are a fraud.”

I hate that song.

3. A House Far, Far Away

Though the academic work was rigorous and challenging, probably the most trying burden of the entire duration has been a house we still own in the States. It has been a nightmare at times… and for some reason the hardest blows often came right when we were trying to take a holiday. I spare of you the ugly details.

4. Stress and Anxiety

Even when I thought I was emotionally and spiritually handling well the difficulties of this intense season, my body was often suffering an odd host of symptoms. Stress hormones have raced constantly throughout my system, and now, post-PhD, I have made regular visits to osteopaths, chiropractors, and a physical therapist trying to untangle all the knots in my muscles from the unrelenting tension, the bad posture.

There have been many costs to pay.


Should’ve, Could’ve…

Had I been more faithful, more trusting, more… well, maybe more spiritually mature, I would likely have endured much less of the shame, insecurity, and physical pain described above. Instead, I lived in the liminal space of Scripture’s lament poetry, barely making the lunge toward hopefulness. The namesake of this blog has meant a lot to me in that act of lunging.

So… was it worth it? (The PhD as Pyrrhic Victory)

Was it worth it…? I am only now beginning to say “maybe, I think, probably… yeah.

In fact, I will venture now a “yes.” I was “called” to this season.

But I have also been called (more importantly) to be trusting, to be more full of faith. Had I been truer to that calling, the other would have come easier.

Closing word: the PhD has been at times like a “Pyrrhic victory,” one in which the triumph of victory is barely outweighed, if at all, by the victory’s costs (I’ve written elsewhere on this). If you ask me advice on whether or not to take the same path, expect a grim (though still open and reflective) tone.

Fog and gloom. But now some warm rays…


The Best of Four Years: A list for 2011–2015

As referenced in the last post, I feel as though my family and I are emerging from a season in such a way that we can look back and recognize the past four years do indeed amount to a particular season. Our lives in England continue, of course, but the strange and wonderful era of completing a PhD and beginning an academic post is now a closing chapter.  A list of the greatest challenges awaits. Here is a list of the greatest delights and blessings…

Meeting new friends

We were warmly welcomed before we ever arrived in England by the incredible leaders, staff, and community of Kings Church Durham. Members of Christ’s body have family all over the world. Fortunately, KCD is used to Americans, so we all have good laughs over the cross-cultural distinctives and stereotypes. And soon after we arrived, Wes Hill was kind enough to take me out for coffee, then welcome me into the elite club (tongue in cheek) of PhD students that met and studied in a crammed, unglamorous study space affectionately called “37a” (taken from its address). A unique bond is forged between fellow students facing their deepest insecurities while piling on massive amounts of debt to prepare for a degree that may or may not secure them a future job with any income, a process also known as studying-theology-overseas. And the relationships I have been able to build with neighbors, colleagues at St Mary’s College and St John’s College… well, I am (relationally) rich beyond measure.

Watching my children thrive

There was an unforgettable moment of despair when Miranda and I arrived in England six weeks before our move. When trying to register our two older kids for school, we were told they would be separated due to a lack of space. After we left the County Council building, we actually burst into tears walking down North Road. Of all the sensitive factors involved in this venture, none were more acute for us than how our decision to move overseas would affect our kids.

Several weeks later I appeared before a panel that granted our appeal, and both kids got to enlist in the same primary school. To our relief and joy, we can report that from their first day in the UK, sleepily watching the North Sea whiz past on the train from Edinburgh to Durham, our children have flourished, rendering vain those tears that fell four years ago on North Road.


Since hiking Slieve Donard in Northern Ireland with Lance Canter in 1997—and even before that when I saw photos from Joel Brooks’ adventures in Ireland—some portion of my soul has been ensnared for the landscape of the British Isles. Public footpaths, some of them dating back to the early Medieval period, etch the vales and hills. Best of all, we can get to places like the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, Northumberland, and (our favorite) the Lake District… all within 2 hours driving. Our vacations have been largely “walking holidays” in places like Ireland, Scotland, France,  Wales, and the Lakes.

An iconic moment for me was sitting in a crowded pub on the Isle of Skye enjoying fish and chips with a pint of ale brewed with springwater  from the Cuillin Hills while sitting at an old table with my family after one of the most glorious hikes of my life.

C&A in the Cuillin Hills
Cavan and Adalyn on Skye, facing the Cuillin Range

I cannot express how important those moments have been for me these past four years. When my wits were outstretched, my heart languishing with doubts and frustrations, it was a handful of scenes like these through which God gave me just enough of a nudge to keep going.


A on Blasket
On the Great Blaskets off the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland


Ministering in a different culture

Churches here have been gracious enough to invite me to preach, and the chaplaincy work at St Mary’s has been so rewarding. Throughout our marriage and beforehand, Miranda and I have wondered if we were called to the amorphous locale of “the mission field.” These past four years have placed us in a cross-cultural context where we have been able to serve in various forms of ministry, whether “official” or not (while also being ministered to by our church and friends, both here and back in the States).

Studying and Writing

I cannot describe the sense of vocational relief that derived from realizing that my daily job as a PhD student was to study and write. (Really? It’s okay to spend an entire day doing that?). Now, studying and writing is not as dreamy as it may sound (for some, of course, such disciplines are “dreamy” only in the form of nightmares)—I was not sitting around in wing-backed leather chairs wearing tweed and sipping lattes beside castles with books in hand (though let it be noted that there are  indeed a few coffee shops near Durham Castle). I was banging my brain everyday with Hebrew, Greek, and German, and shoving hard against the white emptiness of my laptop, trying to produce words grounded in thick, sophisticated research. The work could be brutalizing. But I loved it… in a suffering sort of way. Durham’s Theology Department is an exceptional place to grow academically, and to be free to explore ideas I’ve mused over about John’s Gospel was such a delight (though the costs for that freedom were so high).


There are more delights that can be recorded, of course. But next, a list of the challenges…


It’s been 4 years… (of good and bad, but mostly good)

I essentially abandoned blogging after my PhD viva in October. Something had to give, I suppose, and I am thankful to my co-bloggers Joel and “Brez” for keeping things somewhat alive here at HR. Starting a new job which  has required starting a new academic route for “Free Church” folks at an Anglican seminary has been exciting, but unsurprisingly demanding.  And in February we were slammed with the news that Miranda’s dad was suffering from lung cancer, a scenario complicated by a frightful debacle in getting our visas sorted. The visas finally came through, but we lost Bob Waters in the early part of summer, a loss that will never not hurt. The entire ordeal took Miranda to the US 5 times (we received the visas the day before her 1st trip). It was around 7 weeks or so that I had sole care of 4 kids and a puppy while holding onto two jobs (the other as chaplain at St Mary’s College).

Hence, little blogging.

The dust is settling a bit, which leads to brief reflective moments. And it hit me recently that it was 4 years ago to this month that we moved to England (with 18 pieces of luggage and one swanky double stroller, which, incidentally, did not last long on cobblestone streets and public footpaths).

Photo By Paul Green

(Image from Unsplash. Since I live in Durham, we will presume that the plane is heading to the North East…).

We were hopeful that the most stressful, demanding season of our lives—the spring and summer of 2011—would give way to a new season of peace and restfulness… you know, since we had heroically embraced what we believed to be God’s vocational guidance into a new and different land.

Instead we got a much harder season.

I had just written a book on disillusionment and cynicism. As my friend Chuck said, “Bro, you should’ve seen all this comin’!”

Four years later, though, as prone as I am to general gloominess when it comes to self-reflection, I can say I am so glad we made the move. The relationships gained, the adventures experienced, the opportunities to grow in ministry, the opportunities to grow academically… I am so rich.

But the claim that I am glad we made the move is not lightly shared. It is a hard fought profession. I may bear some scarring till the end of my days from this short but intensive chapter. What I think I have learned, though, is this: Jesus is trustworthy.

Most of my (sometimes nearly pathetic) ramblings on the blog, the pitiful wrestlings etched into my journal, and the burdened prayer requests shared with friends and my church family over here would all have been considerably less taxing for everyone had I followed through with simply beliefs like Jesus is trustworthy.

It was a big laugh when I was assigned to preach at my church from Luke 12, that bit about not being anxious and trusting in Jesus. It was the kind of preaching you do not because you are a role model of the text but because you desperately need the text to shape you in ways it never has. I made the confession: Jesus is actually trustworthy, for crying out loud.

I keep thinking of the scene in Job when he asks his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).

God dispenses both… both good and bad. The idea that he alone offers the former, especially when we are heroically faithful and thus deserving of some kudos from above, is an age old conceptual misstep that the book of Job explodes into shards. Good and bad go together. We have seen that reality as a family over the past several months in losing Bob. The pain and grief, however, have been powerfully punctuated with joy, laughter, and blessing. And we have seen this reality throughout the past 4 years.

It has been quite a painful and joyful journey. The good, I can now say, has outweighed the darkness. It sounds so Sunday-School-simple, but Jesus is trustworthy.




Our Chaos

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Genesis 1:2

The second verse of the Bible is profoundly mysterious. Dark, formless, nothingness was all there was. Scholars have identified this language as the language of “chaos.” Orderless matter was the raw material by which the Spirit began to hover and create all that there is. Cosmos (order) from chaos (disorder) was God’s first work.

I have a version of what seems like formless, orderless chaos, too.

It’s called raising two little boys in the fix and flow of a busy life.

“Is that Leland?”


“What does he want?”

“Gosh I don’t know. Why does he have to get up this early?”

“Should I try to give him his paci?”


“Is that Henry?”


I gather myself out of bed. Stumble toward Henry’s room.

“Morning Henry boy.”

“Hey daddy. I want to go in the living room. I’m thirsty. Can I watch something? Can I get something to eat while I wait for my breakfast?”

“Joel?” Mandy calls from the master bedroom. “Can you come back here and get Leland? I have to pump.”

“And can you take my film by the post office?”

“Is it packed already?”

“Daddy. Why are you dressed? When are you coming back? Are you coming back after my nap? Play for a few minutes first. I want to give you a kiss and a bonk and a hug before you go.”

“I got to go babe, Leland is in here playing and I think he’ll be fine till you’re done.”

“Henry, don’t pull him down. Be kind to him. He’s your brother. Henry.”

Then, the afternoon, I walk into the house, sometimes the reverberations of screams and crying meet me, hit me, at the door.

“I don’t know what Leland’s problem is but he is driving me crazy. Can you deal with him while I pump?”

I grab Leland in my arms. He wails because clearly I’m not Mandy. Three year old Henry runs up, too.

“Daddy, but hold me first.”

“I need to hold Leland right now buddy.”

“Please daddy,” he mewls and whines.

And so on.

Some of you can imagine the scene and others can imagine your own version of this. At times, it  all feels formless, disordered and chaotic. What are we really doing here? It seems that we are just barely squeezing by each day.

But, there is another way of seeing it all.

This everyday formless, chaotic life is the raw material over which God’s spirit is hovering and moving. We have no other life in this world than this one, and it is this one that God is shaping and guiding and breathing his Spirit upon.

It helps to know we have as ours One who entered into the everydayness with human skin on, and these moments of chaos are the very stuff that God is using to make all that there is of our lives. Which means it is grace, beauty, joy and wonder in disguise.

And hard and exhausting and challenging and all the other things too.

There are two options, it seems: a) We can be frustrated all the time or, b) We can receive it with gratitude, even as we continue to long for that better country.

I want to have the courage to do the latter.

Leaving the Chaplaincy at St Mary’s College: Looking back…


I began serving as Chaplain to St Mary’s College at Durham University at the start of 2013. By this summer’s close, my tenure will end. When I began working full-time at St John’s College at the start of this academic year as a lecturer and tutor in theology and ministry, Mary’s allowed me to reduce my hours to a meager 3.5 per week—this is not enough time to do justice to the chaplaincy post. It is time for someone else to rise to the task.

I am tremendously grateful that the leadership at Mary’s has allowed an ordained Baptist minister (from  America of all places!) to provide pastoral support to students and to lead the fortnightly worship services alongside the beloved Chapel Choir. For the entire Mary’s community, I give sincere thanks.

Some of the Challenges…

In reflecting back over the past two and a half years, there are a number of challenges I can recall. Obviously, it was extremely difficult taking on this post while finishing a book that I was (perhaps insanely) writing while simultaneously writing a PhD thesis. And yes, it was quite challenging for a free church minister to lead Evensong and Communion services following a worship guide based loosely on the Book of Common Prayer (though I admit to preaching longer than the standard Anglican expectations!).

I think the greatest challenge, though, was the lack of time for getting to know well a wider range of students.

I have led two other university ministries. I was full-time in both of those posts, and I remember pounding my weekly calendar full of more one-on-one meetings than humanly possible, all for the sake of building genuine relationships with students. Seven hours per week (and the 3.5 hours per week this past year) are just not enough to allow for such an intense schedule of meetings. And here in the UK, a minister has only 3 years—rather than 4 in the US—to reach out to students before they fly off into the “real world.”



Some of the Joys…

The chaplaincy work afforded some unique joys as well as challenges, of course.

Though I am solidly “free church” in my roots and theological persuasions, I am so delighted to have been allowed to minister within a liturgical worship context. The insider perspective has been so enriching for me, theologically and ministerially.

I joke about being long-winded as a preacher, but in fact, the chaplaincy post has made me less so. Though I still preached 15–20 minutes at Mary’s (quite a bit longer than the standard), I prepared those messages acknowledging time constraints that free church folk often do not need to worry about. In doing so, I think I have been forced (happily) into a practice of tightening my homiletical speech. There is an economy of sermonic wording I hope to maintain (though I will still likely gravitate to the 30 minute mark!).

I have also been introduced to an entire new world of music. The European choral tradition (that includes some extraordinary Russian composers as well) is something for which I will always be no more than an auditory novice. I will likely remain more comfortable with the praise choruses and hymns of the British and American Evangelical traditions. But I will from now on search YouTube during Advent for worshipful choral performances in England’s hallowed chamber halls.

Some Memories…

I do not want to forget the camaraderie I have enjoyed with fellow staff at St Mary’s and with the other University Chaplains. I do not want to forget being corrected about how to properly pronounce “Van Gogh” at a high table formal dinner. I do not want to forget preaching in Durham Cathedral for the Carol Service, or the laughter with students over my mishaps in leading a liturgical Eucharist service, or the shared sense of painful grief at a memorial service for a student we lost to tragedy.

So… St Mary’s College: Thank you. This “chaplain” will miss you.

“Room for you to enter into it, stand up and walk around.” A conversation with Sandra McCracken

I’ve long been a fan of Sandra McCracken. Over the years she has developed a really specific voice, through writing songs, playing concerts, house shows and hymn sings, and being part of a grassroots movement to reintroduce and revive old hymn texts to a younger listeners and churches. I have heard her talk about growing up in a home with a dad that loved rock and a mom that loved church music, you can hear that marriage come through loud and clear. In my mind she is also one of the most respectful Christian musicians I know. By that I mean, respectful and aware, careful and caring, of the texts she approaches and the audiences she plays for. On April 14th, she releases her latest album, Psalms, a collection of original songs mostly inspired by the biblical Psalms, many geared towards and able to be sung by a congregation. (Like this one, which our small church plant recently sang on both Palm Sunday and Easter!)

I got the chance to meet Sandra almost two years ago in Philly for Bifrost Arts’ The Cry of the Poor conference where she first met most of band featured on this intimate and at times both triumphant and fragile bunch of songs that was recorded over a few days in a Brooklyn loft (band and loft featured in non-album track video below). Since the conference, she’s become the worship pastor for a new Anglican church plant in Nashville, TN, St. Mary of Bethany Parish. I go the chance to talk with her last month about this new album

Hopeful Realism: Tell me about how this new record came about.

Sandra McCracken: Vocationally I’m making a shift towards church music. I’ll still do the singer-songwriter stuff but I think my job is church music right now. I think that without the artist thing that I’ve been doing for the past 18 years, I wouldn’t be doing the same kind of church music if I didn’t have that. My church music is fueled and shaped by all of that, but right now there is a little bit of electricity around investing my resources into the church catalogue and pulling old hymns and theology from old hymns, the richness of all of that into something that is artistically accessible to people. There is a lot I don’t know about it, but that’s kind of thrilling to me too.

HR: What have you learned from doing retuned hymns stuff and playing with folks like Indelible Grace? What parts of that have informed your new calling as a congregational worship leader?

SM: The richness of the theology in those hymns has helped me be a human being. It helps you through life changes and gives a lot of structure and context for faith. They are singable and they’re still around for a reason: [songs like] It is Well with My Soul & Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Some of these songs and tunes really anchor us to what we believe in a profound way.

There are some new contemporary worship songs that are being written that may have the emotionally quality, which is really important, but they’re “concept-concept concept-concept.” All biblical concepts, that just aren’t linked in a narrative form. which is what the hymns do so well. It’s been interesting to observe that.

I’ve been touring with All Sons and Daughters this last month and really learning a lot from them about sing-ability. Initially I was really trying to find my way in. But I’ve been profoundly affected by singing their songs each night and by being drawn in to a very inviting worship style that is less wordy, but also still theologically rich. I’d like to learn from that, and do more of that. I’ve been trying to figure out, in a local context, “What are the songs that our people need to sing?” Sometimes that may translate to the larger Church as well, often it probably will. But it has to start locally, incarnationally.

HR: What has writing and performing kids music (Rain for Roots) taught you about being worship leader and writing songs for corporate worship?

SM: Kids are really honest critics and there is not any pretense about how they respond to something. Learning and understanding sing-ability by writing for children’s voices is one of the best schools I’ve been to for songwriting. You get to ask: “Can they sing it? Do they want to sing it? Is it fun to sing? Do they want to sing it again? Is it too high?” Kids tend to have higher voices but their ranges are similar to what would be in an old hymnal: C to E. It is very interesting how all those pieces fit together and inform other contexts. That work has been incredibly relevant to how my writing has changed in the last 3-5 years.

HR: I’ve noticed on All Your Works Are Good (Psalm 104), the beginning sounds like one of the Rain for Roots songs, kind of didactic and sing-song-y, profoundly simple, in a good way. That one really stands out to me because it’s surprising how simple it starts and then how it blooms into something really emotive and big. And I think the guitar and instrumentation does that as much as the vocals or lyrics.

SM: I wrote that one at a songwriter retreat with Julie Lee and Jill Phillips. We’ve done some regular writers’ retreats, and that came out of our first one.

HR: Tell me about a song from Psalms that particularly sticks out to you or that you’re most proud of.

SM: Each has a story and an approach. I’ve been pretty regularly been playing My Help, My God at these shows and talking about how the Psalms have been teaching me how to pray. I went through a season where I didn’t feel like singing, that was a valley of sorts, and when I came out of that the only things I wanted to sing were Anne Steele hymns, some of my favorites that felt safe and honest. And then I would sit with the Psalms open at the piano or kitchen table and start making up melodies and singing segments pretty spontaneously and not for an audience or for the sake of being recorded. But realizing that this practice was teaching me how to pray and have an honest conversation with God that has a width of the human experience and even the confusion of the both/and as the Psalms present life: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “How long is this going to be?” and “I put my trust in You.” So Psalm 42, which My Help, My God was written from, is a good example of that range.

Another example of how kids music has informed this music, is that the chorus is kind of high, my daughter would sit next to me at the piano and she would play those high notes and sing that with me. The song wound up be really shaped around her voice and the experience of sitting there singing together. Even the subtle little “T” sound in “trust”…there are so many ways to express your heart with the aid of music and the complexity of all those things coming together.

That was one of the first songs that we recorded in those two days in Brooklyn. In the performance, you can hear that my voice breaks up at the end. We just played it through and that’s how it landed. And then I left the room for a while. It’s intense to enter into these texts and to do that with a band I’ve never played with and to feel the energy of the band and vulnerability of saying those words out loud, even though they’re not my words, and maybe especially so. Because they feel like they’re resounding and enduring words, they give you a profound sense of intimacy with God and the feeling that you’re being seen and honored in whatever your experience is. Whatever you’re going through, there is a place for it within the story of Scripture and the Psalms. And that access point is an enormous gift to us.

HR: That resonates a lot with me, right now. Im writing a Lenten sermon on Jesus reusing the psalmists words My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me? from the cross for this Sunday. I came back to this one passage from Ellie Wiesel’s Night, where hes headed for what he thinks will be his death and the Jewish burial prayer his dad prays May His name be celebrated and sanctified is on his lips even as he cant conceive of God being there to hear. You wonder, where is that coming from? But the psalms somehow build us in with this language we dont even know we have. They did that for Jesus and they do that for us.

SM: [The language of the Psalms] is spacious. There’s room for you to enter into it, stand up and walk around, it will hold us in those moments. I’m grateful for that.

HR: How has being the worship leader at an Anglican church interacted with these psalms and the liturgical song that closes the album?

SM: Working in that context and planning a liturgy every week since August has really helped my creativity, because you have a lot of structure around the liturgy. The passages are already chosen. It’s not like I’m planning a show, I’m trying weave the music into the liturgy and the worship experience in a way that it enhances, and is not a distraction, isn’t abrupt…I’ve learned quite a bit. I don’t have a liturgical background, it’s all really new to me, even the church calendar, there are layers of creativity that you can explore within that structure.

To purchase Psalms go to, iTunes, Amazon.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the day we remember Jesus lived in the land of death.

He was dead. Really dead. In a tomb dead. As in, he was a corpse, dead.

Dead, dead.

There will come a day — if it has not come already — when the fact that Christ has gone ahead of us into death will be a great comfort to you.

When someone has gone somewhere scary first, it makes you not as afraid to go. It makes you not afraid for the ones who have gone, because they are safe.

And Jesus came out on the other side. Alive and well. So will we. So have the ones in him who have gone there already. He has made the way through the darkness of death.

We don’t have to be afraid.

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