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.
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.
If the idea of “hopeful realism,” the namesake of this blog, has been of any interest to you, please check out this video. My dear friend and poet, John Castling, has written a poem that captures the essence of a faith realistic enough to accommodate the horrors of a world stricken with death, disease, and violence, yet hopeful enough to accommodate the emptied tomb of Jesus through which New Creation and the eschatological age to come are penetrating our world. This is a poem about praying to God while grounded in the mesmerizing, complex world of of his self-revelation in Scripture, a revelation that is honest about pain, war, disillusionment, yet also about miracles, wonders, and divine rescues.
John is accompanied by my other unusually talented friends Hannah Bayley and Seymour Jacklin. The video editing and directing is done behind the scenes by Crystal Sherbondy. So proud of this piece of work, and so happy to be able to worship with these folks at Kings Church Durham.
For all of the well-documented or potential problems with our social media-saturated lives, I find it helpful at the end of the year to retrace my timeline (Instagram happens to be my drug of choice) to remember, to figure out my own trends and tendencies, and to reflect on the Lord’s faithfulness and movement, sometimes in imperceptible ways, through the span of twelve months. Out of that reflection I give you my 2014 in review:
Isaiah 61 & the birth of Oak Church
This year has been the year of Isaiah 61’s sprawling vision of renewal and hope for me and my family. Not that we’ve necessarily experienced it every day and in every way, but that we’ve had our imaginations enlivened by it. This time last year, I could not have anticipated the Lord calling my family to go and plant a church. In early spring, through a sovereign tangle of circumstances the Lord orchestrated an opportunity to start another church in an emerging, diverse neighborhood in Durham, NC to which the Gathering Church was courageous and faithful.
My family and several others from the Gathering Church were commissioned at the end of the summer to form a new worshipping body at an old Baptist church whose congregation dissolved on Easter Sunday 2014. We set out with the start of a vision and a call but without much else, not even a name. Throughout the summer and even now, the Lord has begun to animate our imaginations and ambitions with Isaiah’s words of hope, healing, & hospitality. Our inchoate little congregation hopes to embody and experience all of these things as “oaks of righteousness for the display of His splendor” (Isaiah 61:3).
The first thing we did, even before settling on a name, Oak Church, was to plant a garden, with future hopes of involving and blessing our neighbors.
Our “kickoff event” in October was a Fall Block Party and Pig Pickin’ which saw more than 300 people from the Lakewood neighborhood join in to pick a whole hog clean (you’ll know what this is if you’re in the American South, not sure this has an European analog).
And we collaborated with the Hispanic Pentecostal congregation and Burmese refugee Baptist mission church that meet in our building for a lovely and hilarious Kids Christmas Pageant.
As you can imagine an endeavor like this, especially one with such a condensed timeline and intense amount of change, has occupied much of our time, thought, and prayer. It has been simultaneously the most gratifying and daunting task I’ve ever been involved in and has forced me to prayer and reliance on God and the folks the Lord has put around me more than I could have anticipated. It has reminded me that God really does make things new, and that faith amidst that sort of transfiguration requires patience, obedience, and the willingness to be surprised.
A year of great music
I was especially thrilled and privileged to get to see a couple of great shows at my favorite venue, Haw River Ballroom, a reclaimed mill just outside of town. Early in the year, a friend invited me to Jason Isbell and Holly Williams, both put our great records in 2013, but were actually able to deliver their songs live with more craftsmanship and personality than their great recordings. Later in the year Rach surprised me for my birthday with a rare midweek show to see the Lone Bellow. If you’ve never seen or heard them, make it a priority. I can only describe their stage presence as joyful. We stood close enough to see all of the small, almost undetectable little smiles, knowing nods, and slight gestures that come from a trio that knows each other, loves each other, and can flat-our sing together, and in so doing, draw a crowd into their joy.
I’ll hesitantly divide my favorite music releases into two categories. My hesitation comes lest I reinforce a sacred/secular divide I’m not too keen to endorse. My first category would be listening music and my second would be music for the Church. They are not mutually exclusive, and their content doesn’t necessarily fit tidily in Saturday night/Sunday morning hermetically sealed containers. Because life just never does.
Some of my favorite Listening Music this year comes from Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger (think Van Morrison meets Tom Petty), Damien Jurado (I’ll admit it’s kinda cult-y, but I think that was the 70’s Jesus People-fueled intent), Ryan Adams (I’m so glad he seems to have gotten an editor in his life, maybe Mandy Moore?), Beck (gorgeous, wall of sound type stuff. For all the different ways Beck has sounded over the years, I’m not sure he’s ever made a bad album), Blake Mills (so underrated, some of my favorite tones on any record for the last several years. Soulful and innovative, but not too weird.), Floating Action (Groovy, as always. Perhaps Seth Kauffman’s most accessible album to date), Ray Lamontagne (A definite new direction, I think for the better. You can hear the help from Dan Auerbach, Richard Swift, and FA’s Seth Kauffman).
Here is a Spotify playlist of some samples of these tunes:
2014 was also a really good year for lower profile (meaning not the million-selling, CCM variety) Music for the Church. I’ve come to greatly admire what Door of Hope church in Portland, OR (check out a conversation I had last year with Evan Way) is doing using some great indigenous talent and being unbelievably generous with what they produce. This year they released two of perhaps their finest releases in Liz Vice’s There’s A Light, and Evan Thomas Way’s Only Light.
Rain for Roots, a Nashville-based mom-folk collective, also released their second volume of children’s songs called the Kingdom of Heaven is Like This, an edifying and non-insulting singsong take on some of the gospel parables about the coming Kingdom. Sandra McCracken and Co. have managed to achieve the remarkable feat of writing imaginative, simple (not in a pejorative way, ask any songwriter about trying to write simple songs), kingdom-oriented, and abundantly scriptural tunes for parents and kids. I can’t stress how much I love these, not least because of how much I normally dislike some of Sunday School songs.
A minor subplot of 2014 was Donuts vs. Scones.
Judging exclusively from my Instagram feed, some have wondered whether our kids subsist exclusively on donuts. The answer: disproportionately, but not exclusively. With a developing donut culture like Durham has, it’s difficult not to celebrate life’s greatest joys, like birthdays, out of town guests, or…Tuesdays, with sprinkles. I’ve also taken up scone-baking for our Wednesday morning Common Prayer group. This quest for the perfect buttery coffee companion is the labora to my ora. The kids seem to prefer donuts.
Getting to know these little strangers that I call my kids
It’s been strange and satisfying to realize that perhaps the most prevalent and challenging call to love my neighbor as myself in 2014 happened within the perimeter of my own home. These little neighbors, as they grow and learn and develop are largely strangers even to themselves. This year has been the year that I’ve gotten to see Noa, our 3 year old, become the extroverted, outgoing little pink-loving, gibberish-song-singing girl she is.
This year has also being the year for my 1 year old son, Titus, and I to become friends. I’m incredibly thankful to the Lord for the ways that we’ve grown together over the course of these 12 months. I don’t know that I ever would have anticipated the challenge of connecting and caring for someone you unequivocally love, but have to work for intimacy and ease. Perhaps another post at another time will allow me to process what this was like more fully, all I know is that I’ve closed the year feeling like I have two little friends who I know better, love more, and who teach me more than I knew about all sorts of things before this year started.
Finally, the Lord gave me the great privilege of partnering (a little) and spectating (a lot) on my wife’s little kids’ apparel business. It’s been incredibly gratifying to see Rach get an idea, teach herself a craft, hone that craft, and then come up with strategies and goals to execute and meet. Her little Etsy shop, Bullpin Apparel, came about after seeing how most kids clothes and baby apparel we were being given or buying for our kidswas poorly made, generic, overly merchandized and strangely/extremely gendered (Little Princess in pink/Little Slugger in blue, etc).
Rach started screen-printing on some of the best onesies and tees tied to the city that we love (the Bull City), as an expression of care and attention, wit and creativity. I’ve been awed at how generative this little enterprise has been for her, for us, and for others. I’ve loved seeing her love of others come out in the way she creates and meticulously fulfills orders by hand (including one custom order that she received from a mom-in-labor for their kid to come home in). I’ve been inspired by how generous she’s been, including donating a portion of every sale to our friends who are starting a local hospitality home for young men. And all of this not even in the past year, but since June!
2014 has been a monumental year. It was one of the most trying years of my life, and there were a number of low points (like the passing away of my dearly loved Grandmother, who would have been 97 today).
But the year has also been full of wonders and joys. Here is a list…
Completing the PhD. I began entertaining an academic vocation in the year 2000. It was my final year in the MDiv program at Beeson Divinity School. A handful of close friends were contemplating the same path with greater seriousness. I lacked strong enough conviction that I was on the right track to begin applying to doctoral programs. The road that eventually led to a finished PhD over the span of the past 14 years has been crooked, notched, forked, potholed, at times closed down, and often riddled with detours. Even after finally beginning a full-time PhD program in Durham, England, I came close to pulling the plug. The costs were so great; the circumstantial stress too overpowering. Cutting my losses and heading Stateside often seemed the best course. My wife nobly urged me on.
And I finished. The viva went as well as any viva could go. I graduate next week.
Beginning an Academic Post. Each year the Society of Biblical Literature issues a jobs report. It is sobering reading material for those already wondering if they should cut their losses and flee PhD programs in biblical studies. As church participation wanes and the economy constricts, academic institutions are disinclined to keep offering full-time posts to people who have spent the past 3–5 years studying covenantal nomism in Deutero-Pauline letters or early Jewish apocalyptic literature.
So a job offer is an enormous blessing. And since the post is in Durham, the Byers family did not have to endure another sudden move. My job title is a mouthful—I work at Cranmer Hall at St John’s College, Durham University as Free Church Tutor and Teaching Fellow. My task is to develop and administer a new ministerial training program for prospective church leaders in the North East of England.
The UK Release of TheoMedia. I was pleasantly surprised and to receive news from The Lutterworth Press that they wanted to publish a UK version of my latest book. (The only difference between this newer version of TheoMedia and the US original is an index). I am hoping to plan a book release party soon.
Multiple Adventures in Europe and the Lake District. The completion of the PhD and the job offer were events that together signaled the end of what may have been the most anxious and intensely challenging season of my life. It is tremendously satisfying to report the two events above because for most of the year they seemed to be impossibilities. A PhD thesis never feels finished. An academic job hunt in the current climate seems so futile. The futility and unending nature of these stressful enterprises darkened every week of 2014 until some relief began to emerge in August.
But punctuating this season—a culmination of so many long years of such hard work—were some travel opportunities I still struggle to believe actually happened. Miranda and I went to Florence and Rome for a quick getaway to celebrate our anniversary. There was a jaunt to York and the Lake District with Dave and Dacia Nelson, a wonderful visit to the States for a family wedding, plus a quick journey with my oldest son to Nottingham and Sherwood Forest. Over the summer we took a road trip through England and France, the likes of which could almost rival the imagination of the National Lampoon screenwriters.
The most meaningful getaway, however, was a week long stay in the Lake District. I had just submitted my doctoral thesis and received word that we had found renters for our house in the States. Miranda gave me a couple of days free for hiking before she brought the kids over to join me. That was the most cathartic, freeing week I can remember since finishing the ThM at Duke seven years ago. A chunk of heart will always be lodged somewhere between the Langdale Pikes and the River Brathay.
My wife is wrapping Christmas presents for the kids while I sit on the sofa nursing a pulled muscle in my back. We are listening to Chuck Hooten’s latest album. A new puppy is interrupting the gift-wrapping enterprise. I watch helplessly.
My temporary immobility has afforded the opportunity to read fiction.
Reading fiction is a sabbatical exercise for me. I used to only read highfalutin fiction—you know, like Dostoyevsky and Dickens. I read some Thomas Hardy over the summer, finding myself lost in the pastoral countryside of Wessex. I love these classics. But Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is helping me get over the need to only read “the greats.”
So is my need for non-productivity.
The novel on the sofa next to me is unlikely to enrich my life. And I will never cite this novel in a blog, in a paper, or in a book. It is a “sabbatical exercise” because no productivity is attached to the turning of those pages.
I need to read something without my trusty .38 black uni-ball gel pen in my hand.
I need books that do not beckon my careful practices of annotation.
Over the past 3 years I’ve read thousands of pages. I’ve written two books clocking in at 170,000 words. I have preached and lectured my heart out. These are facts.
NOTE: This is a post I wrote some time ago, but since Thanksgiving is upon us once more, and since I really love Isa 25:6–10, a text I taught on in a lecture earlier in the week, I want to re-post.
Enjoy the feasting…
For Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of grateful feasting, a day when there is a greater ceremonial significance for the table, a day of solemn yet joyful reflection on divine goodness with fork and glass in hand.
Feasting can be holy. We see Jesus regularly “at table,” as if affirming the dinner gathering as sacred time and sacred space. For remembering and honoring Him, He gave us a meal—the grinding of unleavened bread with our teeth, the sweet touch of wine on our lips… “do this in remembrance of me.”
The holy feast has a long tradition for God’s people. In Isaiah, we read about a special, eschatological feast:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. [Isa 25:6]
But while the mortal myriads sup such luxurious wine and munch on such a lavish, meaty spread, God Himself will be eating…
And He will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces. [Isa 25:7]
While the redeemed and rescued are sitting at a sumptuous table celebrating salvation, God will be having His own meal. Served at the feast of God is Death itself. The massive jowels of the cosmic Lord will be grinding up the squirming, dying enemy of all flesh, that age-old foe so ruefully welcomed into a fresh, teeming world through another meal, a forbidden meal of fruit from an Eden-tree. Splayed out on a platter and set before the hungry eyes of the Almighty, Death will be digested, perhaps singed to well-done by a consuming, holy fire.
Thanksgiving is a day to eat, drink, and be merry. Christians ultimately do so not because they have a nice country in the U.S., but because a better country awaits, one in which the oppressive “covering” of Death will be crunched up and obliterated in the eschatological feasting of God.
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!]