What I’m Doing: Seven Reflections After One Year of PhD Studies

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[why yes, that is the Colosseum in the background. Thanks for asking!]

1) There is very little prestige in doing a PhD in Theology, even if it is funded. People’s responses range from moderate apathy to thinking you may handle snakes. The usual exchange: “I’m doing a PhD…” (impressed eyebrow raise; “he’s a genius!”) “… in Theology.” (furrowed brow; “that’s… interesting.”). I get more traction telling people I’m a youth pastor. That way you get questions more like, “so do you ever want to be a real pastor?”

2) Prospects of finding a teaching job after the PhD tend to be bleak. There are conversations about whether it is ethical for PhD programs to accept so many students knowing that the job market is so flooded with qualified candidates. Thus PhD candidates are invested in an enterprise that will only in a few instances translate into a teaching job. Someone sent me a funny line: PhD students choose to be poor now so that they can be poor later.

3) My concentration, Theology and Culture, gets quizzical responses even from other PhD students. Culture is apparently the second-hardest word to define (nature is the first, and no I don’t know how they made this ranking system). Thus, as I was told tonight, Theology and Culture is “wide enough to drive a truck through”. Often I say, “I am getting a PhD in Theology and Culture, whatever the heck that means.”*

4) On that note, asking a PhD student about his or her research can be an ill-advised enterprise. You may die of boredom if you’re a non-academic (i.e. normal). But this question is especially stressful when a first-year PhD student is asked about their research by, say, a fifth year PhD student. Mainly because you can’t bluff a fifth year. They know when you are name-dropping and spouting catch phrases but in reality you only have a vain inclination of what you’re talking about.

5) Being a PhD student in general means constantly going back and forth between hope and despair. You read dense, abstruse books and maybe they make it into the footnotes of a paper. Are there truly original ideas anymore? What can you write that has not been written about before? And if you write it, will anyone read it? The average academic journal article is read by 1.5 people once it is published (again, not sure where the .5 comes from. Maybe one person fell asleep halfway through).

“O God, Thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” – Winfred Ernest Garrison

6) Because of all this, the only way you make it through with joy as a PhD student in Theology is if you are, in some sense, called to it. Certain questions have gripped your imagination, and you are willing to spend months sifting through mountains of material, being constantly humbled by how much you don’t know, in search of better answers, or at least better questions. Hope wins over despair if you believe that God’s calling to study is not a guarantee of success but is at least the promise that your character will be challenged and formed in the crucible of academic contemplation. Very few are truly called to this; even fewer pastors should seek PhDs. But some are called to do this, and for those who are, no hour of study is wasted. When offered to the Lord, it is holy, it is worship.

7) Thus, all of the above notwithstanding, being a PhD student in Theology can be an exhilarating, joyful, and grace-filled endeavor. Not just because of the occasional funded, completely over-the-top trips to Europe (though it has been amazing). It is because there are moments of such profound humility, moments of unexpected illumination, moments of un-looked-for awe, moments of deep gratitude when you realize that you have been afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think and wrestle and then maybe to teach the Church that Jesus loved and gave his life for.

And so I will go back to my books
Back to the places where rumors of You abound
My books like small boats that launch out onto the ocean of your immensity
(the boats are so small)
But they may float, and I will row like Reepicheep in his coracle
Paddling towards I know not what,
I pick up the pen and pray
that you will take my paper bills and give me gold.

Amen.

* For nerd-types: A good working definition of culture is “what humans make of God’s creation” (Dyrness). What culture actually means for my research is something like, “the imaginative universe that people inhabit on a pre-theoretical level, focusing on the conditions of belief prior to the beliefs themselves.” The Theology and Culture concentration is engaged in understanding the meaning making taking place in the surrounding culture, discerning the presence and work of God, and learning how to articulate the gospel in an intelligible way. As my mentor says, no culture is so fallen that the Gospel cannot be spoken on its own terms. I have colleagues working on Theology and Fashion, Theology and Literature, Theology and Film, Theology and Work, Theology and the Visual Arts, Theology and Kitsch, Theology and Sport. I’m working on Theology and the Imagination. Because I’m meta like that.

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Fifty Things I Will Miss About Antioch

Today is my last Sunday and my last day as pastor at Antioch Bible Church. The last 7.5 years have been the best of my life. I sat down and made a rather stream-of-consciousness list of 50 things that I will miss about Antioch. More things could be added, but these are the things that have been on my mind during the last couple days.

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Getting to morning prayer at 5:25 am and wondering if anyone else was going to come then being surprised and blessed by the people who come.

Watching students start their own prayer meetings and consistently meet to pray on their own.

Listening to students pray, and hearing how their vocabulary of prayer changes over time

Laying hands on students to pray for them

Hearing students pray for me

Prayer times when we surround people to send them off to college, to marriage, to missions, etc.

Trying to think of songs that everyone knows that I haven’t played in awhile for prayer meetings. The list seems so small.

Watching the awkward yet genuine attempts of students to love and welcome new visitors

Setting up chairs before Sunday service in an OCD way. (There are lines on the floor for a reason, people!)

Giving the opening pastoral prayer at each service

Being led in worship by students that I’ve seen grow and mature (Kevin Oh, David Choi, David Park, Paul Yang, David Yoon, Brian Lee, Shawn Kim, Grace Nam, the list could keep going…)

The five-minute-long extended greeting and welcoming time prior to the sermon. I’ve never been in a church with such a long and genuine greeting time. It is a blessing to experience and raises the energy up for the sermon.

The moments in sermons when it is so still and focused in the room and it feels like God is speaking to his people.

Seeing students take notes during sermons

Giving this benediction at the end of every service: “Go now in the strong name of the Godhead, three-in-one. Go in the name of God the Father, who (application from the sermon), go in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, who came, lived, died and rose again for you, who (application from the sermon). Go in the name of God the Holy Spirit, who goes with you, who (application from the sermon), who opens your eyes to see more of Christ, who opens your heart to receive his love, who opens your hands so that you can embody him to a hurting and broken world. Go in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The excitement when we announce our mission trips or summer plans

The nervousness of students during mission interviews

How the first person to complete the workout during missions training goes to get water for everyone else

The intensive discipleship that occurs in preparation for and during mission trips

The last night of the mission trip when everyone receives their “word”

When the plan lands in America after the mission trip and everyone is on it.

When students contact me about wanting to be student leaders

Trying countless ministry experiments with the full support of student and leaders.(Remember when we had everyone bring their instruments and play during worship?!)

Driving the church van while everyone else falls asleep, especially the person next to me who is supposed to talk to me to keep me awake

“My soul / longs for / you Lord / in a / dry and / weary land” I never get tired of that song.

Hearing the basketball bouncing in the parking lot behind my house at all times of the day (especially back when it was Tony Pak vs. Peter Pak)

People stopping by my house (the parsonage) almost every day for the last six years to say hi, to get keys to the church, to work out, or to see the kids

How everyone hangs out at the church until late at night during the summer

Having everyone pack into our house for worship and fellowship

When a student (usually Jess) asks me a “quick question” that actually takes several hours to answer.

Mafia (Jenny Lee is always the mafia, Josh Hwang is always the cop, Paul Yang is always a troll. All should be eliminated as soon as possible)

When Jean Kim always pretends that I’ve caught her doing something wrong

How students always awkwardly say hi to me every single time they see me because they’re not sure of what else to say

EM feasts where we bring our own meat

Teaching students how to eat Oreos the “correct” way

Talent show on the last night of the Winter Retreat

ABC crew

XYZ crew

Waiting for photographers (usually Peter) to post the pictures after big events like the Winter Retreat, summer missions, senior banquet, etc.

Watching people limp across the finish line at the end of the Amazing Race

Cheering for the KACY basketball team

Watching students minister to each other

The unthanked and unseen service of our teachers over the years

The way that Sandy takes care of everything.

Feeling slightly annoyed when people crack the Communion cups after drinking the juice

The way everyone loves Ben and Sophia

How everyone crowds around the baptismal and then cheers after each baptism

When students return from college after being away and seeing how much they’ve grown

Preparing, praying and preaching. I have loved preaching to Antioch so much.

Each and every person that God has brought into our ministry. Thanks for letting me be your pastor. The best is yet to come!

Why Pursue a PhD? Or, “Why I Need New Eyes”

I read a fantastic piece today on Fuller’s website written by Katherine Lee (a recent Fuller graduate). I found it profoundly moving, in that it encapsulated so much of why I have chosen to continue my education at a doctoral level as well as the tensions that attend such a decision.

Lee’s narrative centers around a Christopher Slatoff’s sculpture “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross”, which sits prominently outside the prayer garden across from the library on Fuller campus.

sculpture

When I visited the campus, I found it impossible to walk by the sculpture without being drawn in. (In many ways, my decision to attend Fuller specifically could be symbolized by the presence of this sculpture and other works of art throughout the campus: it signified an artistic and imaginative ethos absent at other schools.)

Lee writes of watching “outsiders” to the Fuller community walking through campus and interacting with the sculpture. She tells stories of three such outsiders: a culinary student who stopped to consider the sculpture, a woman who knelt to weave flowers around Jesus’ head, and a day laborer who stopped to touch Jesus’ feet.

I encourage you to go here and read the whole thing, and then watch Christopher Min’s short film (only 6 minutes) that was made to tell the story. The film powerfully captures some of the drudgery, isolation, and mental fatigue that can attend the academic enterprise. Given such conditions, it is easy to lose sight of God as a “Thou” and start treating him as an “It”, a subject to be studied rather than a person to be known, loved and worshipped.

In any case, here is Lee’s concluding paragraph.

“Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross” is situated between the lush, tranquil prayer garden and the clean, commanding architecture of the David Allan Hubbard Library. Though it is intentionally placed between worship and scholarship, it is not equidistant to them. It is, as it should be, decidedly closer to the garden. The “outsiders,” and their acts of worship, taught me something about my alma mater. As is often portrayed in biblical narratives, those who are considered least qualified to grasp the gospel often understand before the learned do. It is the Magi, the Syrophoenecian woman, and the Centurion who grasp the meaning of Christ more intuitively than the earnest seminarian. At graduation, I realized that the outsiders knew the primacy of worship, that it takes pausing to cross oneself, to weave flowers in his metal thorns, or to touch his feet in faith, in order to be made whole. Devotion has its many forms, and I came to Fuller because I sensed that scholarship could be one of them. But it was never meant to eclipse praise, wonder, or recognition of need. Like the sculpture, Fuller was my sacred place, my place to offer up my mind and its heartfelt questions for his glory. I came to become an outsider again.

Amen! I fear lest I lose my capacity to be stunned by the immensity of life and the depth of grace. I fear lest the good news about God’s action in Christ becomes too familiar to me. I fear lest I keep doing ministry out of memory rather than imagination. And so my hope in doctoral studies is not so much to become an expert but “to become an outsider again”.

So why am I pursuing a PhD? Because I have need of new eyes.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot

Ecclesiastes 12.12: A Spoken Word Piece

The following is a spoken word piece I did for our recent Antioch Poetry Slam. It is my wrestling with the fact that so much of my life is composed of words: reading, writing, speaking, etc. I hope you enjoy it!

“Of the making of books there is no end,
And much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
So says the Preacher, and I say amen.
What is the value of sitting before books
Sifting through words on the page; arranged and rearranged
to rage, to wrestle, to war with other words?
Like “ignorant armies that clash at night”
To fight the good fight of rhetoric
To finish the course (to get the grade)
To keep the faith, at least to keep it in my pocket
As if it was mine to hide, hold and have;
To halve, to cut it into parts that are more manageable
As if the mind could wrap around immensity.

I gesture and gesticulate wildly, “there’s something out there”
I stare into the darkness daring that I am not deluding myself.
Are these sentences, that I read, write, rehearse, structure and speak
(So easily now, once it was not so)
Are they real? I mean, is there “real presence” here
Or are they mere sophistry: the art of ornamenting ordinary language
To perpetuate the persuasion that I am talking about something real?
“I have a fever, and the only prescription” is on the printed page?
I paint pictures of things that I have never seen but have only felt in moments that have left me breathless
(On such breathless moments hang so many sermons).
My words like paper bills – rags, really – strips of cloth
Their value derived from that to which they point.
But You – like gold, your value does not move with the market of whether I mean it or not.
And so I will go back to my books
Back to the places where rumors of You abound
My books like small boats that launch out onto the ocean (the boats are so small)
But they may float, and I will row like Reepicheep in his coracle
Paddling towards I know not what,
I pick up the pen and pray
that you will take my paper bills and give me gold.

Why Study Philosophy and Theology? A Gem from John Caputo

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Now that I am knee-deep in a second masters degree in theology, I sometimes ask myself why. Why not study something more pragmatic, more practical, something with more “cash value” than systematics? Does all of this matter? Does anyone else even care?

And then I stumbled across this quote from John Caputo’s Philosophy and Theology (which I devoured today in one sitting):

Philosophy and theology are for wounded souls. Indeed those of us who take up the study of any of the humanities, of language and literature, history and art, philosophy and theology, or any of the natural sciences, have been pierced to the heart by something precious, beautiful, deep, and enigmatic that leaves us reeling. We know that the doctors are not telling us everything, the the wound will not heal, that we are not going to recover.We have suffered a blow that has destroyed our equilibrium; we have been shaken by a provocation, by something that has left us breathless, pursued by questions that we cannot still. We have been visited by some affliction that results in tremors… but also has this other oddity about it— this disorder induces an affection for our affliction, that the patients have no wish to be healed, to close this wound over, to arrest the tremors. For we live and breathe in the tremulousness of our lives, exposed to the questionability of things, made vulnerable to love’s wounds, visited in the night by questions of elemental power, shaken to the core by voices that will not be stilled.

Indeed. There is a deeper layer of reality beyond sense and science, and it haunts us. I plunge in, because I cannot do otherwise.

Thank God for Facebook

I know that it is probably one of the greatest sources of distraction for many of us, diverting our attention from more important responsibilities.

And I know that they are a shrewd company bent on increasing their market share, and perhaps the death of privacy on the Internet.

But today I was thankful that Facebook connects me to friends who are far away.  Let me explain.

We have a saying in our ministry that people tend to fall in the fall.  What we mean by that is that when the weather changes, and particularly when it is overcast, rainy and gloomy, our attitudes and outlooks begin to follow suit.  All of a sudden, the confidence we had in God, the security we felt in who we are, and the sense that there is a deeper meaning to this world begins to fade in the thick fog that surrounds us.

As a pastor, I am not immune to this phenomenon.  Sometimes I think I am more at risk.  The slowness of growth in the people I love and lead is disheartening.  It’s hard watching people lose faith. It’s hard watching people give in to temptation and despair and to feel helpless to do anything about it.  It’s hard to hope.

As hard as that is, the slowness of transformation in my own life is even more dis-heartening.  If pastors are supposed to be the poster boys for passion, then I have a problem. (Sorry about the alliteration, I’ve been listening to rap).

When I went to sleep Sunday night, I lay awake wrestling with some deep questions about my faith and vocation.  I felt lost, wandering: doing ministry from memory rather than leading out of overflow and imagination.

I woke up on Monday in the same fog.  But over the last 24 hours, the fog has begun to lift.  And I have Facebook to thank for that.  Well, really, my Facebook friends.  Well, really, the words of hope coming through them.

Four separate posts had the cumulative effect of energizing my faith.  I thought I’d share them, just to pass the blessing along:

1) John In, a former student of mine who is now studying in Jordan posted an article by Paul Tripp on Waiting.  The article spoke of all the people throughout the Scriptures who were called to wait.  And then it said this:

“In ministry, it is vital to understand that waiting is not an interruption of God’s plan. It is his plan.”

I needed to hear that.

2) Joel Malm, who led our expedition to Machu Picchu last year, wrote a short blog post tackling “location sickness”, the idea that “if you were just somewhere else everything would be going well for you”.

3) Kerri Walker, a friend from high school, wrote a massively encouraging piece on “battle fatigue” that contained these words:

“healthy marriages and families. children who are taken care of. communities that are restored. lives made whole. people coming together. people knowing who they are and being brave and vulnerable enough to share their stories. people coming to know who Jesus really is…. these are definitely battles worth fighting.”

4) Nathan Williams, my cousin, posted this testimony from recording artist Lecrae.

These people live in Jordan, Texas, Kansas and Indiana.  And God used them today to give me back some heart.

I almost literally felt God breathing the life back into me.

Wherever you are on the journey of life, may it be so for you as well.

May you hear God say what I heard him say today:

You are not alone.  You have never been alone.