Category Archives: Moving to England

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.




New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

In spite of the horrific costs of postgraduate study in the UK, I am so pleased that Durham is where I have ended up.  I am biased, of course.  But bias might actually be a criterion for truthfulness—sometimes the only accurate portrayals are not the “objective” views from outsiders, but the subjective view from insiders.

(On that statement one could wax on and on with an exciting theology of hermeneutics, by the way— biased insiders are, for the most part, the “implied readers” of Scripture).

The strengths of Durham’s Dept. of Theology are widely recognized.  From an insider’s perspective, there are some less known elements at play that increase my thankfulness for being here.

For one, there is a sincere and energetic agenda of strengthening the academic skills of us postgrads.  Some serious thinking and evaluation is at work as faculty members wonder how they can make us better scholars and address our potential weaknesses.  This agenda is not enacted in a heavy-handed way.  Instead, the faculty are sacrificially making themselves more available in an array of opportunities which are simply there should we choose to take advantage of the offerings.

Here are examples.  Our NT Seminar meets not fortnightly (every other week) like most in the UK, but weekly.  And Prof. Francis Watson (the seminar convener and my supervisor) has added a skills development dimension.  Every other week we have paper presentations (the standard fare of postgraduate seminars in the UK), but on the alternative weeks there are training sessions in reading primary texts, open only to postgrads and faculty.  This means that every other week we NT doctoral and masters students are reading ancient texts with expert ancient-text-readers.  For this term (Michaelmas), our training sessions are dedicated to textual criticism.  In effect, we will have experienced something akin to a doctoral level seminar on text-critical reading of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to the NT seminar, an impressive host of language reading groups are on offer.  Our faculty have quite a breadth in linguistic competencies, and they are making themselves available so that we can choose to meet them in small groups to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, French, etc.

Also worth mentioning is the new Integrated PhD program, just initiated.  The standard US PhD program is 4-5 years with heavy emphases on doctoral level coursework and language study built into them.  The 3-year UK program, on the other hand, expects the competencies gained from language study and coursework to be developed before entering doctoral level research.

Times are changing, so that expectation has proven to be a bit too optimistic.  Many of us begin with an array of linguistic and research weaknesses, a situation that has at times drawn criticism from Americans who have managed to get one of the rare PhD slots in the elite US schools.  Durham is addressing these perceived weaknesses with vigor.  And this new integrated PhD program (4 years) allows an extra year of work on the front end of doctoral research so that these potential areas of scholarly weakness can be mitigated.

Below is the schedule for this term’s NT Seminar.  I’m glad I have a seat at the conference table.


8 October | Prof Walter Moberly, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility”

*15 October | Prof Francis Watson, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (1): Matthew [selected passages]”

22 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (University of Berne), “John and the Religious Philosophy of his Time”

23 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, “Plutarch’s Religious Philosophy and the New Testament” (DCC Seminar Room, 1.30-3.00)

*29 October | Prof John Barclay, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (2) Luke”

5 November | Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), “Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination”

*12 November Dr Lutz Doering, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (3): John”

19 November | NO SEMINAR

26 November | tba

*3 December | Dr Jane Heath, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (4): Acts”

10 December | Prof Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh), “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins”

On NOT being a Minister

It is Sunday morning, and I have no sermon to preach and no Bible Study to prepare.  I will attend church, but I will not be expected to serve Communion or set up mid-week pastoral appointments.  I have no mailbox to check in the church office.  I have nothing to print out, no copies to make.

I am a layperson.

By virtue of moving to England for the PhD, I find myself no longer working in the capacity of a minister.  Setting out on this new academic vocation is in no way a departure from ministry, in my view.  I have not chosen doctoral work because I wish to be unshackled from churchly annoyances and pastoral messes.  I delayed my entry into a PhD program by taking a 3-year pastoral post right at the time I was about to begin the same program in 2008.

But the reality is that I am not pastoring right now, for the first time in 9 years.

I had hoped to find a part-time ministry post here in England, but Durham’s Department of Theology reasonably expects its full-time students to be full-time students.  And no such post emerged when we were searching all last summer (though one did for my wife).

I have done quite a bit of preaching in my first year here in Durham, but I no longer bear the enormous pastoral burdens that have characterized my vocational life for most of the previous decade.

I miss it.  And yet I am so grateful for the break.

I realized several months into life here in England that I was viewing myself as a minister without a ministry post.  For the most part, I still consider myself a pastor.  So I have wondered—am I clinging to some occupational identity for the sake of feeling personally significant?  Or is “minister” who I am by virtue of divine call?  Either way, I cannot answer that awkward question, “What do you do?” with “I pastor or I minister.”  In this stage of my life, I study… and I do it full-time.

The weight of pastoral ministry can be absolutely crushing.  Another good descriptor is “suffocating.”  There are the painful burdens of parishioners one must bear.  There are the disillusioning secrets one discovers every week.  And uglier than these weights are the pressures one feels to grow the church, to expand the ministry, to increase the numbers.  These “ugly pressures” are the sort that we minister-types like to think we are above or immune to.  In every ministry post I have held, these “ugly pressures” have haunted every meeting, every sermon, every Bible study preparation.  I have hated them and fought tooth and nail to resist them and entrust the growth/size/numbers to God.  But they have always been there, whether within or without.  These pressures are unfortunate realities.

But not for me.  Not right now.

Today, my heaviest burdens are 1) the financial costs of tuition and life in the UK, 2) German, 3) Hebrew, 4) the secondary literature on John’s Gospel, 5) the work of writing a guild-worthy doctoral thesis, 6) the work of writing a theology of media.

Bearing the burden of someone’s disintegrating marriage seems much more noble than bearing the weight of memorizing German vocab or Hebrew verb paradigms.  But the struggle of many a theology student and seminarian is the struggle of faithfulness in small, tedious labors that can discipline us for weightier assignments.  By entering a doctoral program, I have determined that German vocab and Hebrew paradigms are non-negotiable for my vocational work as a minister.  As impractical as they seem to be at first glance, they open up new worlds for the minister of the Gospel—Hebrew more than German, but there are times when it would be nice to get into Barth or Thielicke or Bonhoeffer on their own linguistic grounds.

Will I “return” to ministry after the doctoral program?  Will I chose a professorship over a pastorate, a classroom over a chapel?

I have decided at this point to refuse bifurcating church and seminary and ministry from the discipline of theology.  The vocational fork up ahead of me between pastoring and teaching has loomed almost ominously, because I cannot envision serving in a church post that removes me from serious theological study, nor can I envision working as a professor in a way that compromises my work as a minister.  Assuming someone offers me a job in a couple of years, I will have to choose.

But I am blurring the vocational lines on purpose.

For now, I have an excellent opportunity to learn to be a devoted layperson.  I have the unique privilege of serving the church as a minister without an official title.  Pastoring has helped me learn so much about lay ministry.  Ministers know well how church members can strengthen the church’s ministry  through their volunteer devotions.  Now, I am going to let lay ministry teach me how to better serve as a pastor.  Because sometimes, the folks in the pews are the most erudite professors for that lonely, disgruntled person in the pulpit.



When Salvation Hurts

[For the IVP Authors’ Lenten Blog Tour]

God’s rescue operations can feel like assault operations. At times, it is hard to distinguish between salvation and affliction.

Mark Chagall: "Exodus"

A sea was parted for my family about a year and half ago. After ten years of collecting airline mileage points in hopes of me doing a PhD program in England, my wife was finally on the phone with a ticketing agent. While accumulating mileage points, though, we were also accumulating children. Four of them. We only had half the necessary mileage points, and no real funds to make up the difference. The ticketing agent then mentioned that for the first time in its history, the airline was accepting points for one-way tickets, not just round-trip. “Would one-way work?”

We had 165,768 points. The amount required was 165,000. “Oh, yes, one-way will work.”

The evidence of providence was surely in the close figures. We stepped forward for the exciting trek ahead.

Then came the most distressing season of our adult lives—months of juggling insane schedules while plodding on toward wider, stormier seas left unparted. We were not sure we would board that flight until three weeks before departure. But we did. Another sea was crossed—literally. Thank You, Lord….

….And then an even more difficult season ensued.

All these partings seemed to be leading not to deliverance but to disaster. I complain a lot. I pelt desperate prayers skyward. I just want to follow God’s lead. Why must he complicate and obscure the path at every turn?

I find myself echoing a rather unheroic voice in Scripture: the voice of Israel in the wilderness.

The Exodus out of Egypt is the Old Testament prototype of God’s salvation. It must have seemed an odd way “to save” for the Israelites. In many respects, it was a botched rescue op from the beginning that felt more like oppression. Moses to Pharaoh: Let them go. Pharaoh to Israel: Make more bricks… and get your own straw. Israel to Moses: “You have put a sword in [Egypt’s] hand to kill us” (Ex 5:21).

This was a deliverance marked by a river swollen with blood, by heaps of rotting frog-flesh, by eerie nighttime wails in the homes of unbloodied lintels—

What kind of rescue plan is this? You call this “salvation”?

To be sure, when the sea parted, there was singing and dancing. Worship. Finally, amidst nightmarish plagues, there was the taste of freedom.

But not the taste of food. Or water.

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full… (Ex 16:3).

Egypt’s oppression seemed better than God’s deliverance. Divine rescue felt like divine attack. This “salvation” seemed too painful, too risky, too costly. What kind of salvation is this?

And what kind of Savior is this?

The hope of Canaan seemed pathetic consolation. God advertised the place as flowing with milk and honey… and also with Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites and Amorites. This is a salvation that lands you in a desert, that thrusts you before the spears of unknown enemies.

And yet the Exodus is the paradigmatic portrayal in Israel’s Scriptures of the salvation of God and of God as Savior.

How does that affect our soteriology?

God’s salvation requires intense acculturation. To be extracted from Egypt and acclimated to life before YHWH, intense seasons of painful re-orientation must follow the dramatic ripping of seas. We must be wary of rosy depictions of salvation as the Christianized “good life.” Salvation sometimes hurts.

Lent, however, reminds us that salvation ultimately hurts the Savior more than the saved.

When Jesus talked on the Transfiguration Mount with Moses and Elijah about his upcoming “departure” in Jerusalem, the Greek word used is “exodus” (Lk 9:31).

What kind of salvation is this? One that requires a lot of ripping. The ripping of a sea, of the sky, of a curtain veil. One that requires the death of a lamb… and of a King’s Son. Not Pharaoh’s son this time. The Son of the Saving God. What kind of Savior is this? One who gives blood and water better than milk and honey. It’s not the Nile that turns to blood this time. It’s the wine. This is a Savior who may lead us into barren wastelands… but one who has endured himself the full brunt of salvation’s pain. The wider sea left unparted now has an inaugural gash. The open hole of Jesus’ tomb is a puncture-wound in the sea of Death.

I am not sure what sort of salvation this is. But it is the only kind strongest enough for me. And for you.

[Past installments in this series are written by Rachel Stone, Margot Starbuck, J. Brent Bill, and Logan Mehl-Laituri. The next posts will be from Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young.]

My Last Sermon in America

This blog title sounds a bit “epic,” huh?

Preaching at Mountain Brook Community Church on July 17, 2011, however, was actually quite monumental for me (even though it was probably not very epic for anyone else… and that is okay).

The text I was assigned (The first part of Philippians 3) was providential.  The preceding week was the most furiously difficult several days of my life in terms of vocational wrangling—I was trying to decide whether or not to move my family to England for doctoral work.  The passage in Philippians allowed me to work out in the exegetical task some of the critical issues at stake in the decision-making (in the text, Paul himself describes some of his own vocational struggles).  The homiletical task of presenting the exegetical work to the congregation was also very significant for me.  I did not realize until I was preaching that morning just how desperately I needed to work through—before my faith family—the struggles not only of the text but also of my own soul.

Something happens in preaching, to the faithful preacher and to the faithful hearers alike.  The mystical power of God’s Spirit is at work in a sermon, in ways mostly subtle, but sometimes dramatic.  That Sunday morning, I found my own life on the verge of a sacrificial venture while working through a text written by someone who had crossed the threshold of an even more costly venture.

Exasperated over the unworthiness of the message before the service, I wanted to flee to my truck and drive home before the service began.  But like I wrote above, something happens in preaching.  For me, my plans for England were solidified (just 3 weeks from the scheduled departure).

I was delighted, encouraged, and strengthened by the sermon’s reception.  If any of you want to hear it, you can go to MBCC’s resource page here and click on the sermon entitled “A Christ-Centered Value System.”

E N G L A N D (and witing about “boredom” from an exciting place)

I am having a cappuccino.  The coffee shop is situated on the banks of a river.  A stone-paved pedestrian street is below from my view at the window.  Looking up, I see the parapets of an old castle silhouetting the blue of sky.

Ok, I admit that I just wrote an article warning against serving Jesus for the sake of cool Facebook updates or exciting blog posts.  But allow me just a bit of indulgence.  I’ve struggled ten years to be able to write this post, to write that I am in England.

I am in England.

I live here now.  And I assure you I am the only person in this coffee shop wearing Carrharts and a Samaritan’s Purse t-shirt colored crimson red (for volunteer teams out of Alabama).

I wrote the article in Relevant Magazine not to dissuade the adventurous from adventure… but maybe to call the wandering out of wanderlust.  (Subtle is the difference, I suppose.)  I wrote about faithfulness in the mundane and non-exotic not as a man who begrudges exciting travel but as a man who was packing his bags.  19 of them, to be exact.  My wife and I traveled with 19 pieces of luggage and four children—two of them in diapers.  Let’s see… there were  two cars to the Atlanta airport,  two planes, a bus or two somewhere in the mix, a (large) taxi, a train, and then two more cars.  24 hours.

We are here for me to begin a PhD program in New Testament at Durham University.

I wrote the Relevant article from a rather unique position of sobriety.  That’s saying a lot, coming from a big dreamer.  Over the past months, the enormous costs and sacrifices—financial, logistical, emotional, etc.—ceased to be easily ignored abstractions.  Reality has its shadows… even beautiful reality.  Those shadows were almost too much for me.

But now, thanks to the loving encouragement and help of so many, I am here.  And it truly is glorious… my children gawking at the rose window in a 1000-year old cathedral.  Picking blackberries alongside footpaths that have been trodden for centuries.  Breathing in the fresh, 60-degree breeze.  Sipping an espresso drink from a window with a castle-view.  But as I wrote in the Relevant piece, so much of life in the exciting places lacks luster.  Like when one of your kids tries to crawl over the tomb of a celebrated saint in that 1000-yr old cathedral, or when you are trying to dry clothes without a dryer in a that (quite moist) 60-degree breeze.  Trying to get a bank account set up.  Trying to find dishwashing soap that works….

I am noticing that my greatest challenge, now that I am here, is not writing for the kingdom or doing research in theology for the church, but in striving to rely on God’s strength to be patient in not having a vehicle, to be patient with my kids when they are too loud or too tired, to be patient while we look for proper furniture for storing the clutter of our clothes.  My prayer this morning was not that I might be an extraordinary voice in the cybersphere today, or that I would even be able to share the Gospel with the students populating this coffee shop, but that I would be patient and calm so as not to miss the simple beauty and joy in my kids as they play and eat snacks and process their new daily grind.

So grace and peace… this time–and for a some time to come–from England.