This post is the third of six posts about making our way to Birmingham, Alabama to attend Beeson Divinity School.
Before sharing the details about the email that changed my family’s trajectory, I need to share something about Beeson Divinity School. As I’ve already mentioned, I had received what preachers refer to as a “call.” That is, by faith I am convinced that the Lord has called me to the ministry of preaching. I have also already mentioned that with this call came a sense of responsibility to learn the Scriptures as best as I possibly could. The obvious first step here was to attend seminary. Because my Art Institute degree was an associates degree, I knew I’d need to complete my bachelors. The plan was to get as much experience in preaching and teaching I could until I was able to begin studies for a Masters of Divinity degree (M.Div.). This was going to be a long road but as I saw it then, I see it now: if God wanted it to happen sooner or quicker, he would have led me otherwise. That fall I enrolled in Union University’s adult learners program to earn a Bachelors of Science in Organizational Leadership (BSOL) degree. Classes began in January of 2011 and I worked hard to complete the 18-month program while being a husband, father, elder, worship leader, and self-employed graphic designer. It was a hard year and a half.
In the meantime, I began researching seminaries. I had dreamed of attending seminary since I was at the Art Institute in the late 90s. I guess it just became an impractical goal after my brief animation career. In all honesty, my time in Jackson had become so nourishing and important, the idea of leaving for seminary was nowhere close to my radar. As Janie and I kept having children, any practicality remaining in this prospect understandably vanished. With a renewed sense of calling and feeling somewhat of an urgency, I had to begin thinking of my criteria. Geography was important but not as important as a commitment to historical Christianity. I knew I did not want to be indoctrinated with a particular denomination’s theological distinctives. This did not rule out such schools as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Reformed Theological Seminary, it just moved them to the bottom of a short list. I considered Calvin Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and other Bible Colleges. However, there were three schools that floated to the top of my list: Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell, and Beeson Divinity School. Fuller’s offerings were exciting and they had some distance programs that would keep me in Jackson. Gordon-Conwell also had some attractive options. I’m not sure why Beeson won out between the three unless it was simply because of geography. Be that as it may, Janie and I visited Birmingham on Memorial Day weekend of 2012 for a wedding. School was not in session but I was able to meet with the Associate Dean and take a tour of the campus during that visit. I also attended a worship service that Sunday morning with Christ the King Anglican Church that met in the chapel. I had fallen in love.
Beeson describes itself as evangelical, confessional, and interdenominational. These three distinctives resonated with me greatly because they articulate who I had become over the course of my tenure at Christ Community Church. Having come from a loose Southern Baptist background, CCC opened the world of church history to me. Through the teaching of Brian Denker, our resident church historian, I came to understand that the church was a rich treasury of Christ followers who had struggled through controversies and tribulations that I had taken for granted. Through my denominational commitment, as loose as it was, I had only been exposed to a small slice of this history. I had learned that I was a product of the Reformation and that the Reformers were a product of Roman Catholicism and that Roman Catholicism was a product of Christendom and that we would not even have a history if it weren’t for the Church Fathers who led the charge after the Apostles. The concept of being interdenominational was appealing because I had learned that as splintered as the church is today, much of this history continues today through the ministries of various churches. The truths Luther and the Reformers fought for are still held dear by most Protestant churches but especially in the reformed denominations: Presbyterians, Reformed Churches of America, Lutheran, and even some Southern Baptist churches. The ancient worship practices rooted in Jewish history are still performed by the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican church today. The spiritual vibrancy we see in the book of Acts continues in the Pentecostal and charismatic churches throughout the globe. I had become intoxicated by the vast beauty of Christ’s church. Even if I were to join a denomination, I would not be able to do so by rejecting such beauty.
Of course the colorful interdenominational nature of these observations––which I often call “ecumenical”––can lead to a great mess. For every highlight in this mosaic is a dark shadow. What makes aligning with a denomination difficult is that there are always blemishes to contend with (it helps to maintain a healthy sense of humor). These blemishes range from disagreement on secondary theological matters to heretical teaching. This is why Beeson’s commitment to being confessional has resonated with me. To worship in the context of such an ecumenical community as Christ Community Church is to pursue theological clarity from within this range of shadows and highlights. The answer to this has been the adoption, recitation, and memorization of the great creeds, or confessions, of the Church. CCC’s statement of faith is made up primarily of the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. These historical documents have operated as theological fenceposts past which we dare not venture. By maintaining these confessions I have been able to stand with the historical Church and simultaneously explore the wide-open pastures of orthodoxy. In retrospect, this has been largely a wonderful freedom and experience. However, there are important questions these creeds do not address. That is why the Reformation resulted in additional confessions regarding church government and man’s salvation. While none of these confessions have been adopted by CCC, I am becoming more aware of their importance and relevance. Beeson’s commitment to being confessional resonates with me because I have benefited from the confessions of the church and still have a great deal to learn about them as well.
Beeson’s commitment to being evangelical is also attractive to me because I have never seen myself as anything other than evangelical. The word evangelical has caused a great amount of anxiety in me over the last fifteen years. I can remember studying reformed theology many years ago and resenting my evangelical upbringing for withholding such rich truth from me. It seemed the more I was involved in recovering the historical worship of the church, the more I read the Church Fathers, the more exposed I became to the universal church, the less I identified as an evangelical. This became even more complicated when I realized how elusive the term evangelical actually was. However, over the years, I somehow drew closer to this designation. I think Thomas Howard is right by saying evangelical is not enough but I’m not sure what can be gained by abandoning it. Whether we define it by Bebbington’s description (biblical, crucicentric, conversional, and activist) or even more generally (of or concerning the gospel), it is hard for me to imagine being a Christian and not being evangelical. The reality is that to most people evangelical merely refers to a Christian subculture that is theologically conservative, politically Republican, and spiritually pious. I suppose part of the reason I embrace this title is that evangelical Christians have become less cut off from historical Christianity than was the case when I was growing up. At least that is my hope and if God is bringing this about I want to get in on that work. Beeson is committed to not straying from the evangelical designation and as the contemporary Church continues to face substantial challenges to its eternal purposes, this commitment has become essential to me.
I suppose these distinctives are best embodied in Beeson’s dean, Dr. Timothy George. As part of the application process, I had to interview with a faculty member on campus. I chose to do this during a preview day in September. Our itinerary that day included a visit to Dr. George’s office where he introduced himself, gave a little pitch for the school, and gave us a tour of the artwork on his office walls. Dr. George is a committed Baptist. His walls contained the likes of Augustin, Tyndale, and a fascinated print of an icon of sorts that includes Christian martyrs from Catholics to Baptists. He writes for many publications including First Things which is an ecumenical journal. He was heavily involved in Evangelicals and Catholics together and from what I can tell has suffered no small amount of criticism from fellow evangelicals, especially Baptists. In an article I recently read called “Is Jesus a Baptist?” he wrote,
Being a Baptist is a blessing but also sometimes a burden. From time to time I have considered the possibility of becoming something else. I once prepared a talk called “The Confessions of a Catholic-friendly, Pentecostal-admiring, Reformed Baptist with a Hankering after Lutheranism and a Strong Affinity for the Book of Common Prayer .” Each of these ecclesial traditions, among others, has enriched my life and calling to serve the Body of Christ. Each brings distinctive treasures to our common labors” pro Christo et ecclesia. Being a Baptist gives me all the freedom I need to appropriate as fully as I can the gifts they offer without abandoning the Baptist principles and ways that I cherish.
In contrast to Dr. George, I am coming from fifteen years of no church affiliation. However, his words here sum up my own thoughts and feelings. Part of the draw of Beeson Divinity School is its size. One of their selling points is the access students have to their professors. I have no idea how accessible Dr. George is; my understanding is that he is a busy guy. At any rate, if the school of which he is dean resembles his own interests and journey then I am confident that it also resembles my own. This is yet another reason Beeson has been my primary school of choice.
Finally, I should probably mention the chapel. I’m pretty sure buildings are poor criteria for deciding where to go to school. But Samford University’s campus is absolutely gorgeous. It is large, hilly, and has great big trees. There are statues, a football field, old buildings, and a spire or two. In the midst of it all, though, is Hodges Chapel. Built specifically for Beeson Divinity School, Hodges Chapel is topped with a dome. What lies within it surprises every Protestant that walks through its great doors. The chapel resembles a medieval cathedral, though small in scale. Its walls and ceilings are full of statuary, symbols, paintings, and icons. For the iconoclastic puritan, it may be the most unsettling sight on earth. But for the rest of us, it is a delightful shock because it reopens the Protestant imagination to the possibility that beauty might actually be a good thing. That’s the kind of seminary I want to attend. One that does not restrict the goodness of God’s creation to theological systems alone but can expand it to allow the senses access as well.
As I approach my 39th birthday and continue to raise four rambunctious boys, the dream of attending Beeson Divinity School had become distant at best. Had I missed my window? Was it irresponsible of me to try at this point? All of these doubts flooded my mind as I stared at the application. I took great comfort in the thought that I did not have to answer these questions, however heavy they may have laid my heart. I knew that a constellation of circumstances would have to align for this pipe dream to become a reality. First I’d have to be accepted. Then there was the question of how to pay for it. Then came the realities of relocation: selling a home, packing up a house, having a moving sale, finding a new place to live, and paying for all of it. Then came the question of how to provide for my family while being enrolled as a full-time student at this stage in life. Would I have to work full-time or part-time, or at all? What would Janie do? Teach full-time again? If so, she’d have to be re-certified in Tennessee and then have her license transferred to Alabama. Then what about the baby? For the first time, we had to consider putting a child in daycare. Could we afford that once we got to Alabama? And then there was the question of timing. I wanted to apply for the spring semester which begins January 24th. Yup. This sounded about as insane as an old woman giving birth to a baby. I was beginning to get a sense of the enormity and impossibility of the thing. Yet I felt a duty and responsibility to apply if only to cross it off my list. The way I figured, I’d apply and either not be accepted or not have a way to pay for it. That would be the end of the matter and I could put the whole prospect of seminary out of my mind once and for all. Then I could dedicate myself to the ministry at CCC without reservation. This would never be possible unless I applied. I think this is what I imagined would happen. Deep down, I desperately wanted to go to seminary, but at this stage in life, it was too daunting to want it too much. At the same time, I knew that I had to want it to work out if I was going to apply. Otherwise, it would be a half-hearted attempt and that was unacceptable. So I set out to complete the application.
The application itself was fairly simple and quick. Basic information about who I was, where I lived, and my educational history were given. Next, I had to seek three recommendations: academic, pastoral and church. I sent out my requests and began to write the two essays required. I ordered my transcripts and scheduled my interview. I tried to be as prompt and proactive as possible. I applied my perfectionism to my essays and thought very little about the outcome at this point. I received my first recommendation back from a professor in the BSOL program. I doubted whether she remembered me and expected a generic recommendation at best. What she sent was a glowing endorsement that embarrassed me a bit. This was perhaps the first indicator that I really had no idea what God had in store for the process. With the exception of receiving my Art Institute transcripts, I was able to complete the application and pay the fees by the October 1st deadline. Then we waited. And waited. What did God have in store for us? Was it Birmingham or would we continue to call Jackson home? Clients continued to come to my business. Life went on as usual. I confess that between the brief stints of hope that this dream might actually become a reality, I spent most of my thoughts imagining that I wouldn’t be accepted. That would be an easy answer. This was not our prayer, though. We prayed for it. We asked that I would be accepted. I knew the only way it would be possible is if I received the top scholarship Beeson offered. Each accepted student receives a base scholarship. The school had two other tiers of scholarships they offered to students. The top scholarship, the Dean’s Scholarship, would pay for the majority of tuition. I needed that scholarship. If Beeson was going to work out, I needed to be accepted and I needed that scholarship. It was competitive and I was no spring chicken. There are younger, brighter kids entering seminary than me. I had a good GPA, ministry experience, and track record, but I am no academic. If I could get that scholarship, it would be a pure act of God. So that is what we prayed for. Anything short of it would indicate that this may not be as possible as we were hoping.
I probably spend most of my days in doubt and second-guessing. I am prone to depression so it is not uncommon for me to indulge in no small amount of pessimism. On October 20th, when the weather should be cooling off, I was sitting in the warm autumn sun on the back deck. It was somewhat overcast and I was having one of my melancholic mid-life existential moments when I heard a message drop into my inbox. The admissions office at Samford University had a message for me to read. As I logged into my application account, my heart began to beat. One way or another, my trajectory was about to be established. We were either going to Birmingham or we were going to settle into Jackson once and for all. I clicked on the new message. The message began: Congratulations! You have been recommended for the Spring 2017 admission to Beeson’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program as a full-time student (9-16 credit hours per semester). We are also pleased to award you the Dean’s Scholarship…
I wept. I wept for a long time. I wept, not because I received something I’ve always wanted. I wept because I had prayed and God had heard. I wept because the painful process of being conformed to God’s image, the process of refining my sinful and egotistical desires, the dashed hopes in favor of some greater purpose that remained hidden for so long had come to fulfillment. I had groped in the dark for a long time. I had groped so long that I had lost interest in it. I only continued in the interest of persistence. I had lost heart. I had nearly given up. At that moment, as I read those words, it was as if God broke a long sustained silence and said, “I have heard every whimper of your heart. You had no idea what you were asking for but I did. I have been here every step of the way. Take up your mat and walk.”
I immediately called Janie who had just picked the boys up from school. Through my tears, she was able to piece it together and she joined me in my weeping. Dillon, our eldest son, could be heard rejoicing from the back seat. Indeed, that email would surely change the course of my whole family’s life. Let the panic begin.