This post is the first of six posts about making our way to Birmingham, Alabama to attend Beeson Divinity School.
“Now the Lord had said to Abram: Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1
Time has buried the thousand nuances of God’s word to Abraham. “Now the Lord had said…” Was someone other than Abraham there to hear this word or was it recorded from Abraham’s own testimony? Every saint longs to hear the “audible voice” of God. Are we to believe this man heard it with his own elderly years? Perhaps he was senile or schizophrenic. But it says it right there in the Bible, “Now the Lord had said…” It is as plain as day. If he were with us today, how would he recount the story? How did he tell his friends about it back then? How did he tell Sarah?
“Sarah, my love, you are not going to believe this but I was just sitting at the tent door and I heard this voice say to me, ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.’ I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think I have to do what that voice said.”
“Who was the voice, dear?” she might reply.
At this point, we’d all suppose Abraham knew the voice belonged to God and since we are told that he never wavered at God’s promises, he immediately trusted the voice unto obedience. I find it a bit ironic that we can hold Abraham in such high regard as a hero of the faith, and rightfully so, while simultaneously envying him for supposedly hearing an audible word from the Lord. It is as if we think living by faith would be easy if we, too, heard God’s aural speech. Then it would be easy to do the impossible. It is in this way that Abraham’s faith seems so far from our own. If we could only have the faith of Abraham…
This is exactly why I don’t think Abraham heard God’s audible voice. I think that when his family asked him what God’s voice sounded like, he perhaps sheepishly admitted: “It was as ifGod had spoken to me.” If this were the case, Abraham’s faith would not seem to be superior to our own. On the contrary, it would seem as ordinary as everyone else’s. The irony is that the ordinary, shabby faith I possess is the same faith Abraham possessed, yet I despise mine and envy his.
I suspect us ordinary faith bearers have heard quite a few words from the Lord. If we spend any amount of time in church, someone is sure to relay to us how the Lord told them this or that, which is how they ended up here or there. Certainly, not every word claimed to be spoken by the Lord is actually spoken by the Lord, which is why we are reluctant to make such claims. But it is also why our faith seems so shabby compared to Abraham. In an effort to not look like fools, we doubt any word that may reach us. It’s the words that survive the doubt that we need to pay attention to, the words that return time and again.
Recently, I recorded an internal experience that has echoed over the past 6 years and has survived the doubt:
It was while developing an adult Sunday school series calledDelighting in the Word that I began sensing a call beyond music ministry. I was researching the development of the lectionary…and stumbled upon a brief chapter by author Hughes Oliphant Old regarding Gregory the Great’s sermons on the book of Ezekiel. According to Gregory, Ezekiel’s opening vision of four living creatures represents, among other things, the preachers of the Word (Old, 1998). These preachers receive the authority to speak God’s Word from God Himself, but must do so in humility (Old, 1998). As I contemplated Gregory’s interpretation, my heart began to swell. I continued to read that “The preaching of the Word of God is an act of grace” (Old, 1998, p. 444). The more I read, the more I realized that I had taken for granted the ordinary, weekly preaching of the Word. Before I knew what was happening, my heart began to utter a prayer; it was a dialogue over which I had little control. “The Church must understand this! Christians can no longer take this for granted. Who will tell them, Lord? Who will deliver this message?” It seemed as though the heavens were silent and all of creation awaited me to answer my own question. I thought about Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died seeing the Lord sitting on the throne, and hearing a similar question, to which he replied, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). That summer of 2010 my heart echoed Isaiah’s answer, though the rest of me trembled.
This will be the moment I refer to when I tell you someday that “the Lord said this and that and here I am.” In the months that followed this experience, I entertained the doubt. Perhaps I was being dramatic. Was there an actual interaction with the Divine or have I just been reading too many romantic stories about pastors receiving “the Call?” It continued to burn. Despite the doubt, I took seriously the possibility that the Lord had spoken something to me. I knew that my first response to this word would have to be to attain the best understanding of the whole of Scripture as I could. I had dreamt of attending seminary since I was at the Art Institute of Dallas in the late 90s. The fact that obedience to God might require this dream to become a reality was beyond exciting. I enrolled in Union University’s Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership (BSOL) adult program the following January to complete my bachelors degree. If God had spoken to me and if attending seminary was part of obeying that word, this was a necessary step.
By the time I finally graduated in 2014, church responsibilities at Christ Community Church and a number of personal conflicts pushed my seminary goals to the back burner. The arrival of our fourth child the following spring felt like the final nail in the coffin of that dream. The question of whether I had received a word from the Lord seemed irrelevant. Dreams may die, but the word of the Lord does not. Over the last year and a half, the Lord has been using my dissatisfaction in life and my general anxiety of approaching 40 to take stock of my own emotional, spiritual, and vocational needs. Janie has watched me weave in and out of depression, frustration, and discontentment. We have both known it was time for change. We didn’t need a tweak to life here and there, but some significant changes. We discussed selling our home but had no real direction to justify it. A job change or total career change seemed necessary but what should I do?
We actually knew what to do. We had known the whole time. At least Janie did. I did, too, of course. The word had been spoken. The weeds of the world tried to choke it out. The allure of career advancement tried to outshine it. Doubt and circumstances of life raged like a storm. But the word survived.
“Now the Lord had said to Abram: Get out of your country…”
Like some dusty photo album the memory of my seminary dream crossed my mind in the midst of the summer. It wasn’t the memory that was dusty, but the zeal and excitement. It had been a dashed dream for so long, to consider it now felt a little desperate. Like Abraham might have done a thousand times, I wondered if the word I thought I received was really my own wishful thinking guised in divine justification. Was it a word or a wish? I suppose I was somewhat indifferent to the answer of this question while sitting on the couch, slouched with my laptop open to the Beeson Divinity School web site. I remember beginning an online application with little enthusiasm, not because I was apathetic but because I was filled with doubt. Did I really intend to apply to seminary or was it another pipe dream?
The fall settled in like a fog. Really, more like a steam. It remained hot well into September, which is about the time I resolved to complete the application. By then I knew that I needed to try. Whether seminary would ever be a part of my life, I felt sure I was actively obeying what I believe was a word from the Lord. I only found blessing in joy as an elder ministering at Christ Community Church. We had suffered many difficult trials together and the new semester brought a great many returning college students. There was work to do and I was eager to do it. That was on Sundays. The days between were a different story. The work I was eager to do, the work that gave me joy, would have to wait until the work that supported my family was satisfied, and on certain days of the month, that work was never satisfied. Perhaps it was desperation. Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. As I approach middle age, I am beginning to realize how precious my time is and how wasteful it is to want something so long life has to beg you to go after it. My love affair with stability nearly always opts for inertia assuming it to be the incontestable choice of wisdom. I needed to apply for seminary once and for all. Until I did, the word of the Lord would linger like the West Tennessee summer over the second half of my life. I lacked the courage to discover I was wrong. As long as I held off seminary, there would always be a chance the Lord had spoken to me. At the same time, the sooner I obeyed that word, the longer I’d reap the blessing. I had to apply. I had to know.
Through the month of September, I worked hard to complete Beeson’s application, which was due on October 1st. In addition to filling out the application and paying the application fee, I had to write 2 papers—a personal essay and an academic paper on the Apostle’s Creed—obtain 3 recommendations (academic, pastoral, and church), obtain transcripts from Union and the Art Institute, and schedule an in-person interview in Birmingham. All of this was miraculously completed in time. And so Janie and I waited.
It is funny how much life operates on routine and how dependent routine is on assumptions about the future. The halting effect a potential sharp direction change can have on a family is even more staggering. The question, “will we even be here next semester?” is figured into nearly every consideration not dealing with the immediate present. We take for granted that we will still be where we are when we decide today what we’ll do tomorrow. When we can no longer take that for granted, most of our considerations seem futile. But they aren’t really. Kids still have to go to school. Grownups still have to go to work. This is the tension Janie and I felt for the weeks after I submitted the application. We held our breaths. And tried not to tell the world about what might happen if a thousand particular stars align. The decision not to make our intentions public may not have been the best of decisions. Then again, I think more often than not such decisions are a crap shoot. I just didn’t want to tell folks about something I wouldn’t have the courage to do in the end. So we decided to let our families and pastors know once I submitted the application. We’d only tell others if I was accepted and received a scholarship to make it a remote possibility. No sense in upsetting folks if I don’t get in or can’t afford it. Our families received the news with varying enthusiasm. Some elated and excited, some sad, all understandably concerned. I don’t think the Lord really needs to tell us to do things that make sense to others. We’ll probably do that anyway. It’s when those who love us most and are likely to talk us out of doing something crazy that we need “a word from the Lord.” Still, the coming weeks were saturated in prayer (to the extent that Janie and I are capable of saturating anything in prayer); we vacillated between dreaming of possibilities and doubting that it would be possible. We put our hands back to the plow and waiting on the Lord’s answer.
Old, Hughes O. (1998). The reading and preaching of the Scriptures in the worship of the Christian church: The patristic age(Vol. 2). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.