I have a Job…

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I report with trembling and gratitude that I will soon begin serving as the “Free Church Tutor and Teaching Fellow” at Cranmer Hall theological college, an historically Anglican seminary housed within St John’s College at Durham University. The job will be part-time as the application process begins for a full-time work visa in the UK, a process that can take several weeks.

The creation of this post signifies Cranmer Hall’s new initiative in offering theological education and ministerial training to non-Anglican churches here in the North East of England. In this “Free Church” tradition, aspiring ministers here in a spiritually impoverished region of the UK often go to “the South” (of England) for their seminary education. As “Tutor” (a lecturer with pastoral responsibilities over a handful of assigned students), I will be working alongside other faculty and staff at Cranmer Hall (particularly with the Wesley Study Centre) to teach theology and biblical studies both at St Johns and hopefully out and about within partner churches. As “Teaching Fellow,” I will be available on behalf of Cranmer Hall as a preacher and teacher for area churches with the hopes of building lasting partnerships for addressing ministerial development needs.

A number of details remain to be sorted (the nature of my work as chaplain at St Mary’s, our housing situation, and the imminent event of my viva, et. al.). But for now, I report that the Byers family is very excited.

And so honored.

[If you are in the Free Church tradition here in the North East of England, and interested in theological education, give me shout!]

 

Submitting the PhD thesis

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[NOTE: Having returned to the blog after a long hiatus, I found some quirks in the blog theme I had been using. We will probably be trying a few other designs over the next couple of weeks, so please forgive the aesthetic shifts!]

 

On 15 August I handed over a 105,328-word document to someone behind a welcome desk in Durham University’s Palatine Centre. It was a rather unceremonious act  in form.

Not in reality. And the good folks at Flat White Coffee supplied a memorable scene that was ceremonious enough (note the “receipt” of my submission next to the espresso drink).

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As my wife pointed out—with a bound copy of the PhD thesis sitting between us on the dining table—that PDF is the most expensive thing we own… at least in a sense. Our lives have been hinged to the conviction that my vocational service to the church includes an academic slant. Multiple moves and costly degree programs have defined our past decade… along with the adventure of rearing 4 precious children amidst the pressures.

A “viva”(oral exam) still awaits. And yes, I am nervous about it. But for now, a few brief thoughts…

The Bio of the Book

I will post more on the topic and arguments of the thesis later. For fun, though I would just like to point out that 17 years ago I was sitting at a desk in the O’Callaghan house reading John’s Gospel and noticing a few threads that seemed worthy of further exploration.

14 years ago I started checking out PhD programs from the computer lab at Beeson Divinity School.

8 years ago I made my first (of two) exploratory trips to Durham.

And then a few weeks ago I turned in my third “book.” (Thanks for indulging the historical sketch).

 

A PhD is often a Pyrrhic Victory

I wrote once here at HR that the Christian vocation can often feel like a Pyrrhic victory. This is from that earlier post :

Pyrrhus was a Greek king who soldiered valiantly into the might and muscle of Rome in the 2nd century BC. After a brutalizing series of particular engagements, the battle dust began to settle and someone gave him the news that he was the victor.

Pyrrhus did not feel very victorious.

In fact, he felt messed up, broken down, and demoralized. To gain this “victory” he had sustained massive losses. Though most of the 15,000 corpses lying across the outskirts of Asculum belonged to the Romans, the Greek body count was grievously high (and the Romans had been much better resourced).

A Pyrrhic victory is one in which the gains are roughly commensurate with the losses. From the annals:

“Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders….” (see here for Plutarch’s biographical sketch).

I have been a bit of a drama queen over the difficulties of pursuing the PhD. (Please forgive me). But to be absolutely clear: it is miserably hard (though the academic stuff was often less difficult than the circumstantial).

A “Victory,” Nonetheless…

Though a keen sense of the sacrifice in writing that these certainly accompanies its submission, I am delighted to report that over the following days it gradually occurred to me that breathing was a bit easier (figuratively), as if I had been sucking in air for years with a boulder on my chest only recently lifted. The increased oxygen supply has been wonderful. Unburdened by the thesis, my lungs have been able to expand a bit.

And next…

Amidst sleeping a bit extra and reading fiction mostly guilt-free, I am now in quest for a job. And the viva looms nearer each day, for which I feel I must have John’s Gospel memorized in the Greek, along with all the writings of Alexandrian theologians in the first few centuries of the church. These scholarly endeavors are impossible feats, of course (at least for me).

But overall I am pleased to report a general sense of relief, and possibly an increased degree of sanity.

I feel almost 105,328 words lighter.

A Few Thoughts on Ferguson, MO

I do not prefer to write publicly about things that I do not understand. Especially over the internet. (Though I make attempts to write about the unfathomable grace of God, so there’s that).

The more emotionally and politically charged, the more I want to avoid commentary. When you write something for a more public reading, you are saying that your voice needs to be heard. Maybe that is pretentious. May the reader judge.

I’ll be honest. I have no idea how to make sense of the Ferguson situation other than we live in a world that has a compound fracture deep at its core. I believe Christian theology makes great sense of this in the doctrine of what we call “sin”, but I do not pretend to understand the complexity of the situation. I have no idea. I have never attended a protest or policed streets in the midst of one. I have never tried to captain a police force. Mayor a city or govern a state or president a country.

I am not African American so I have no earthly idea what that is like and the tensions that it creates to live as such in our society. I have never personally experienced anything in the US that would make me mistrust the intentions of the police (Haiti is a different story on that, by the way). I happen to know that there are lots of complicated reasons — racial, demographic, socioeconomic, geographic — that has shielded me from such an experience. Call it what you will.

I think the Ferguson situation reveals some realities about our culture any way you slice it. It reveals a lot about humanity. I say this not because I’m some sort of expert on any of it. I do, however, trust the voices of people whom I know, who understand the situation better than me and have experienced it different from me. If nothing else, they are troubled. And that troubles me.

I also want to be a person who can always empathize with those who are not like me, so I try to listen.

In all this, I’m just saying that I have no freaking idea.

But it makes me very sad.

Yesterday, a woman — who at least outwardly seemed like she lived at a different socioeconomic strata than me and her skin color was different — walked up to my place of work. She knocked on the door and asked for a ride to her job. I’ve grown up in a culture that has implicitly trained me to nurse subtle assumptions and judgments — not only in regard to skin color but socioeconomic too — in that moment. More caught than taught. I mean, I’ve grown up in Birmingham, AL. To claim otherwise is to kid myself.

But she had a name and a story. Heck, once in the 70s she was a guest at a military ball.

She had missed the connecting bus and would be arriving late to work without help. She needed a simple practical gesture of kindness. One that my workmates and me were able to give.

In the process, we made a new friend.

We aren’t heroes. Please. But yesterday, in light of the news from Missouri, it felt like we were able to participate in something bigger and higher. It seemed that in a small way we chipped away at something.


I cannot solve the world’s problems. But I can live thoughtfully, reflectively and, in general, pay attention. Lift my voice when need be. Support those who are working at a systemic level.

Maybe try a few small things too.

Help this neighbor who comes across my path. And Ezra — adopted son of my close friends whose skin color is different than my boy’s — can come over to play. And we can love him and see to it that we encourage him to be the man God would have him be. And I can listen to Calvin, from my doctoral cohort, and let him teach me something of what it means to serve Jesus in his neighborhood. And I can pray for JD, Liz and fam as they put the nose to the plow in a more direct way in Memphis.

And all along the way I can think about, talk about and honor the one whose cross broke down dividing walls of hostility and who has, by the way, been raised from the dead.

So I can hope too.

And that is not nothing.

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On the House Remodel & the Pastoral Ministry

My wife and I bought a house about a year ago.

We embarked on this adventure with a lot of plans to refurbish and remodel.

It’s been fun. And hard. And expensive.

Because of our budget, we’ve done nearly 100% of the work ourselves. We did pay someone to do something with our gas lines, which seems reasonable enough to me. I have zero desire to blow our house up. We’re at the age where not blowing our house up is worth more to us than the pride of knowing we did it 100% ourselves — but only barely.

Here’s an invaluable something I’ve learned: House projects are significantly easier if one uses the right tools.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve busted my knuckles, wasted materials, and botched a project because I wasn’t using the right tools. I’ve worked on things and had the conscious thought, “Dang. They really should make something that does this, makes this kind of cut, fits there, etc.”

Only later do I find out that “they” have indeed made a tool for just that. “They” also have a thing called a Dremel, which does everything. I saw one of these at a friend’s house and it blew my mind. I digress.

Interestingly, in my remodel projects sometimes I had the tools. But, I didn’t feel like going to my storage to rummage around for the right one. This was almost always foolish. It caused more work and strain and time and trouble. Ironically, I didn’t go through these steps because I thought something else would do the trick. That it would work better or faster or quicker. It almost never worked out this way.

Remodeling a house is like Christian ministry.

As a pastor, there are things you are trying to accomplish, cultivate, remodel, fashion, and shape. To put is succinctly, your endeavors are to the end that Christ would be formed in people. To see them grow up into Him.

Turns out, there are tools for this.

Historically, we’ve called them “means of grace.” In the tradition from which I hail (somewhat loosely, I’m an eclectic mess), it is Word and Sacrament.

Whenever and wherever the Word is preached, declared, proclaimed, announced, read aloud, taught, heard, thought about, wrestled with, discussed, studied, struggled with, batted around, obeyed, embodied, etc., the Spirit of God is at work to form and create and re-create and shape and remodel the hearts of people.

Every time.

I honestly believe this.

Further, whenever baptism and Communion are enacted and administered and shared, God is doing something to us and for us. There is a holy participation in something grand and inexplicable. This one is, perhaps, harder to understand and explain and elaborate upon, but something is happening nonetheless. Some tools are fully functional, even though perplexing.

I certainly believe there are other aspects of the pastoral ministry. Care and counsel, spiritual direction, hospitality/table fellowship all comes to mind. I practice these passionately and believe in them sincerely.

However, Word and Sacrament — this is the core. The essential tools. The sine qua non of the work.

We have the tools. We should use them because they really help — like A LOT.

The PhD: Nearing Completion

Dear readers…

My blog writing has dwindled from irregular posts to blankness. I am in the final throes of writing my PhD thesis, so my energies are getting channeled to the end of submitting 100,000 of what I hope is solid work. My sporadic use of social media has mostly been tabled (and to be honest, that has been rather nice).

For those of you interested (and don’t feel bad if you are not), here is the thesis title:

“Johannine Theosis: The Fourth Gospel’s Narrative Ecclesiology of Participation and Deification”

I will explain more eventually. For now, I am pleased to report that I just finished the introductory chapter. After I finish combing through the 100,000 words, revising here and there, I will submit a draft to my supervisor (within a few days). After taking his final suggestions into account, I will then print this massive Word doc, bind it, and mail it to the yet to be confirmed examiners. A “viva” (oral defense) awaits later in the summer.

Regular writing here at Hopeful Realism will resume eventually. But probably after this exciting and grueling season comes to an end.

Thanks to those of you who have kept checking in!

~Andy

An Eastertide Reading from ‘TheoMedia’

The themes of Resurrection and New Creation are central to the ideas behind both TheoMedia and Faith Without Illusions. I found myself grappling with language sufficient for expressing the unimaginable—that the finality of death was checked by the emptying of a sealed tomb. And, of course, I fell quite short in finding such sufficient language. But may favorite sections of both books are probably those lines and paragraphs about Life’s mutiny against Death that we celebrate now at Eastertide. So I will be offering a few readings from the books over the next few weeks. This one is from the chapter on Resurrection and Ascension in TheoMedia…

There is no media silence like the silence of death. Nothing is quieter. No communicative breach is more definitive. Death is the ultimate act of relational closure… No relational distance is wider than that which is symbolized by a dirt-filled grave.

Or a sealed up tomb.

And that is precisely why no sound is more disruptive in a sin-plagued cosmos than the voice of a man once dead. No sound is more volatile in a death-governed world than the sound of man recently buried and now speaking. No sound is more eucatastrophic than the living speech of a death-silenced loved one…

Then I discuss baptism as a “focal media practice”[1] for the church:

Though a ritual practice, the act of baptism is also a media form, a highly visual and public depiction of our participation not only in Jesus’s death, but also in his resurrected life.

Like the Eucharist, there is a rich, multimedia quality to baptism. Consider the sound of water displaced and dripping (or perhaps pouring, depending on the mode of baptism practiced). Think of the sound of liturgical confession and ministerial pronouncement, the touch of soaked robes and wet floors, the sight of a saint dripping wet with the watery glory of a life yanked out of a spiritual grave. All of these elements convey together that Christ has penetrated that ultimate boundary wall of death itself and pulled us through the rent veil into the realm of life.

Though we live in a much lamented world of “media-saturation,” we should take note that the divine media of Easter and new creation are also out there. The difficulty is developing ears to hear and eyes to see…

[1] This phrase is an adaptation of “focal practice,” a phrase used by philosopher Albert Borgmann and recently discussed in Arthur Boers’ Living into Focus.

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Ashes, and yet Crawfish

This Lenten Reflection originally appears at allgather.org.

I had the strangest Saturday.  To be clear, it was strange, but not bad.  You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day.  Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination.  I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.

I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.”  While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations.  The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….

I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.

I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task.  You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion.  That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.

You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction.  That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish.

Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.

Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).

As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

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