Road to Seminary | Work

This post is the sixth of six posts about making our way to Birmingham, Alabama to attend Beeson Divinity School. 

A job is work but work is not always a job. That is true for anyone who does something that requires discipline. Artists work, even if they aren’t paid. For my kids, playing is work. When you think about it, you only get paid for a fraction of the work you do. If you don’t count mowing lawns, I took my first job making pizza at fifteen. I sold fried chicken at sixteen. I rented movies at seventeen and eighteen. I sold CDs at nineteen and books at twenty-two. I taught Photoshop after art school and entered the cartoon world a few months later. From that point on, I’ve been an independent contractor.

The Jimmy Neutron animation crew. I’m the goofball in the cowboy hat on the second row from the top, second from the left.

At first, this didn’t mean much to me. I made a great deal of money working on the Jimmy Neutron film in Dallas, Texas, so filing self-employment taxes with H&R Block was a walk in the park. When I entered the magazine publishing world at twenty-six, I was still single and had minimal expenses. It was when I got married and started a family that self-employment became a bad idea. Janie quit her job and I went from supplying half of a two-person budget to providing for all of a three-person household. I didn’t do this by getting a better job. I did it by starting my own business. That means you work but have no job.

By God’s grace, we have survived for the last decade. We rounded a major corner five or six years ago when the magazine I had been freelancing for (4Memphis) offered to retain my services full-time. We were still on 1099s but could finally breathe. Those years brought great stability. No job, but a lot of work. The company had changed hands just before this happened, and Jim had other investments to underwrite the struggling publication. Jim was a client, but I thought of him as my boss. He was a good boss. As far as bosses go, he was great. We rarely butted heads, and although we disagreed on direction at times, we got along well. I knew our arrangement was taxing the publication’s budget so I tried to be as accommodating as possible. That is until the call came.

To be honest, I knew it was coming. Sales had been in decline for months and things were getting tight. Employees would move on and either be replaced by part-time help or not replaced at all. The 2016 holiday season had not yielded the usual harvest nor did the following spring. Summers are notoriously slow so when I saw Jim’s name ringing on my phone that evening, I had a feeling what was about to happen.

I had another month of my regular salary and then I’d have to decide if I’d work with a 25% pay cut. 25%! I had just moved my family to Birmingham. This contract allowed Janie to stay at home with our toddler and afforded a modest lifestyle at a higher cost-of-living. 25% would do us in. 25%! I knew this would change things, I just didn’t know how much it would change. We traveled to the beach, Oklahoma, and Jackson as soon as the semester ended. I tried not to panic, but honestly, I panicked. We both did. Despair is a better word. In memory, it is difficult to make sense of the details, but I think it happened something like this.

We met dad and Merri at the beach and tried to relax. The previous posts recall the amazing ways God had led us to where we were. I had brought several books I would have to read for the next semester and tried to focus. God will surely provide as he had up to now. Scrolling on Facebook one evening, I saw a post that a Birmingham church we had visited before moving was hiring a full-time children’s pastor. At this point, we were not committed to Christ the King Anglican Church. We still had reservations about Anglicanism despite the relationships we were beginning to forge. Janie and I both liked Redeemer Community Church and since she had experience in children’s ministry, we decided she would apply. This possibility began to confirm that there was no reason to panic. If it worked out, Janie could make up for our shortfall and then some. Not only that, but our denominational unrest would be settled, at least for now. She applied for the job and we visited Redeemer the next Sunday. We were welcomed and felt right at home. They interviewed Janie quickly after she applied. We attended Redeemer a few more Sundays unsure whether it was a good idea or not. We waited for a second interview or at least call. Nothing. We felt it best to hold off our visits.

Redeemer is one of those churches that met our criteria in the beginning. They were a fairly young church with liturgical elements. While they did not observe the Lord’s Supper on Sundays, we learned that they take Communion in their weekly home groups. That sounded interesting to me so I felt our family could have a future there. We had already met several people from Redeemer and I had been listening to the pastor, Joel Brooks (Beeson alumn) since I started researching Birmingham in 2012. We had visited a service in 2016 on our first trip in search of rental property. They commissioned 150 people to begin another church, Grace Fellowship, that morning. We decided to visit Grace next.

I think visiting Redeemer took a lot of pressure off of us. As I’ve said before, the church is my home, no matter where it is, so we felt right at home in nearly every church we’ve visited. It’s just that we didn’t have the tough questions to deal with at churches like Redeemer. There was plenty of ministry and opportunity. We didn’t have to conform to a tradition with its own long history and polity. Redeemer and Grace were both autonomous baptistic churches. We’d only need a little time to be oriented to a local church culture. By this point, that was very appealing to me. I was studying infant baptism, trying to understand it. It was a burden. Was I trying too hard? Why was I trying at all? I prayed for Janie to get this job so I didn’t have to ask these questions anymore.

Grace Fellowship was another great church. They meet in the evenings and we were welcomed to a catered fellowship meal after the service. I knew many Beeson students who planted Grace so, again, we felt right at home. We took communion together, too (with the Words of Institution). The preaching was great and so was the music. If we had not grown so fond of liturgy, we may have stayed. We visited a couple more churches over the course of the summer. The kids grew weary. Janie grew weary. So did I. How many Sunday school classes would we ask the kids to try? How many potential relationships would we have to pass up before committing?

Janie didn’t get the job. Our countenance fell. It was the middle of the summer and my pay cut was in full swing. The inevitable happened: I lost morale. It is hard to care about something when you think you’re worth more than you’re being paid. It’s even harder when you know you’re worth more. I began to resent the work. I think we all did. Maybe if I had more clients I’d be able to weather the dry spell. There were no more clients. I was in seminary. Should I build a clientele? Would I be able to keep a business going during the semester? My best efforts not to panic failed. I had to accept that seminary could not take precedence over my family. I began filling out applications and sending out resumés. My strategy was to 1) pray, 2) apply for part-time work, and 3) apply for full-time work in graphic design. If part-time work emerged, I’d keep the magazine and stay in seminary if I could. If a full-time position emerged, I’d take it and withdraw from Beeson. I had to take care of my family. This strategy yielded both outcomes. Great.

Bob called me first. Bob was a pastor for a small Southern Baptist Church in a rural suburb of Birmingham. I had applied for two part-time positions at his church. They were looking for a music minister and an administrator. He drove an hour to meet me for coffee. I liked Bob. We had a kinship as ministers. We had both suffered through difficult ministry situations in recent years. We were like two soldiers from the trenches meeting for the first time. He scheduled me to lead music at his church on a trial basis.

The other reply was for an art director position at a publishing company in Birmingham. We had a couple of phone interviews before I interviewed in person. I was qualified for the job. With my pay cut in full force, the promise of steady income revived my soul. The team seemed great, the benefits were great, the job seemed great. The problem is, I didn’t want it. To take the job would be to forfeit seminary, which would mean that I moved my family for nothing. This thought slayed me.

Janie and Ellis, August 21, 2017

Meanwhile, Janie continued to look for a part-time job. This thought was slaying her as well. We had managed for her to stay at home with our first three boys through the toddler years. A part-time job for her would mean finding daycare for our two-year-old. We were both willing to do what we needed to do. She contacted every elementary and preschool who was hiring (as well as a few who weren’t). She quickly landed an interview with a large Birmingham church who needed a teacher for their preschool.

That all fits neatly into a few paragraphs, but it took a summer to unfold. My days were spent in helpless waiting. For me, this is a very bad thing. Men need to work and without work, I get depressed. Helpless waiting and depression is a recipe for despair. The situation as I saw it went like this: God had tricked me. He had filled me with a desire for full-time ministry. He had dangled the carrot of seminary before my face. He had led me through the impossible. I thought I had heard the promise. “Get out of your country and go to a land I will show you, a land flowing with milk and honey,” I thought I heard him say. Now I was here. A semester under my belt. It had all paid off. I’m on my way. And now this! Did God do all of that to bring me to this plush rug only to pull it out from under me? As the summer drug on, I became more convinced that this was the case. I felt that God had deceived me.

The degree to which I can deny the goodness of God is astounding. God had parted the seas for me. I panicked because Pharoah ordered bricks without straw. He punished the enemy with plagues. When he led me into the desert by a pillar of cloud and fire, I panicked because the Egyptians were right behind. When he parted the seas, I complained of thirst. When he provided manna from the sky, I pined for bondage to Pharoah. Where was my great faith? Where was the faith of Abraham I have been talking about? Where was my faith?

The Sunday came for me to lead music at Bob’s church. It went well. The folks were great and it was a blessing. But I knew that if I were to accept a part-time job, it would need to pay enough to make up our shortfall so I could continue at Beeson. This opportunity did not afford that and if they were to offer me the admin position, I’d essentially be working full time and need to maintain the magazine as a client (essentially, three jobs). Bob offered me the music ministry position. Because it is difficult for me to say no, it took a lot of energy to turn him down. Bob’s not one to take no for an answer, so I agreed to lead for four more Sundays to help him out with the understanding that I wasn’t a permanent solution. Bob’s church was a traditional Baptist church. It was far removed from the baptistic church plants we had visited over the summer and about as opposite from Anglicanism as you could get. Still, I was confused by my time there. It was surprising how easily I settle into any of these churches, as different as they all were. While I enjoy leading music, I came to Birmingham for a different call. I remember thinking how I could pastor and preach in any of these situations, too. This didn’t really help in our search for a church, but I suppose it was encouraging. Not only was I at home as a visitor in other churches, I was at home as a minister in all kinds of churches.

By mid-August, a week or two before the semester began is when the peace came.

Janie was offered a part-time job at the preschool. Our two-year-old would have to go to daycare, but he could attend the same preschool for a discounted rate. This brought some relief, but after paying Ellis’ tuition it did not compensate for the shortfall. Then the most troubling event of the summer occurred: I was offered the full-time art director position. This was the decision that caused the most agony. To accept it would mean I’d have to withdraw from Beeson. To turn it down would mean back to square one. They didn’t offer me enough to tempt me with money. I’m thankful for that because otherwise, I was likely to sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I needed a few days to think about it.

I knew the Lord was caring for my family. At the end of the day, I could come to no other conclusion. It was his interest in my heart’s desire that I doubted. If I had to take this job, I thought it meant that my only worth and meaning in this life was as a provider for my wife and children. I thought my desire for full-time ministry, for preaching and teaching the Word, were worthless to the Lord. This is what was going through my head as Janie and I sat on the couch discussing what I should do. Then the phone rang. It was Michael.

Father Michael was the new rector (pastor) at Christ the King Anglican Church. Since we had last visited CTK, Fr. Lyle and his wife Mary had retired as the founding pastor and deacon. Mary had been battling cancer and they both needed the break. They founded the church ten years ago and tirelessly served there over the years. Michael was a Beeson grad and was elected by the vestry, which is sort of like a standing committee, to succeed Fr. Lyle. We had missed the transition, which took place sometime in late June or early July. By the time August had rolled around, each of us was tired of visiting churches. We had been to many good churches, but we kept coming back around to Christ the King. For Janie and the boys, I think they missed the Breedloves. They were getting to know others before we began the summer so a return to CTK meant a return to fellowship. For me, though, I think the reason was that all of the churches we had visited felt like a step backward. This sounds more pejorative than I intend. I just mean that they felt like Christ Community Church around 2002. They are all at the beginning of something. Some of them may have been updated Southern Baptist Churches, others may have been evolving into something more sacramental and liturgical. In either case, I would be joining a church on a journey I’ve already been on. Of course, there is nothing wrong or bad about this, but I’m not sure I’m willing to do it. I’m not talking about the kind of beginning that all church plants must go through. That is actually pretty exciting to me. It’s more of beginning a theological journey. CCC was an experiment in communal paradigm shifts. That is, we shifted from an Arminian theology to a Reformed theology…as a community. We shifted from a non-sacramental theology to a sacramental theology…as a community. We shifted from a congregational polity to an eldership…as a community. Grape juice to wine. Topical to expositional. Extemporaneous to liturgical. It was formative and exciting. Christ the King represented something different. It felt like a step forward, a continuation. Anglicanism posed more questions to explore, invited me to something more. It was a scary prospect. Redeemer seemed safe. Grace seemed safe. Anglicanism seemed dangerous. What would happen if I keep going down this road? What if I leave my father’s house and go to another land? Will I find milk and honey? If only the Lord would lead me. If only he would make things clear.

I answered the phone. Father Michael began asking me questions about my situation. We had met for lunch one day after he became rector and I had told him about the art director position. We had returned to CTK and he wanted to get to know me. I updated him on the job and let him know an offer was on the table, but that I was reluctant to accept it because I wanted to stay in school. The approaching fall semester would be Steven Breedlove’s final semester at Beeson. Father Michael had called to ask if I might be interested in taking Steven’s position as the administrator at the church after he graduates. He laid out an informal job description and said it wouldn’t start until January of 2018. Janie sat next to me on the couch as I listened. I tried to rework the puzzle in my head. With Janie working part-time, I might still be able to return to Beeson in the fall. I’d still have to work for the magazine until January, but by this time, we had already survived a couple of months on my reduced salary. It was tough, but it was possible. Also by this time, Janie had secured a handful of piano students that supplemented our income. Come January, we could make this thing work and I wouldn’t have to quit school. My eyes welled with tears as I thanked Father Michael and ended the call. Janie’s jaw was on the floor so we picked it up and went straight to our budget. Nothing was final, but in that single phone call, my countenance was lifted and my hope was restored.

There was no trickery involved. God had not deceived me. Just as I wept on my back deck staring at an acceptance letter from Beeson, I stood in no less awe before the Lord. It wasn’t at all what I feared. Why had I doubted? Will I ever learn to trust? Being in seminary, I’m used to quipping things like “God is infinite.” I realize that all this might sound like silliness to some people, but if it is true that God is infinite and that he is as involved in our lives as the Scriptures indicate, then this leads to the perpetual agitation of the soil of our lives. He’s constantly overturning our expectations, breaking up the hard clay of our hearts, filling us with the nutrients of His Word, pulling out weeds, planting seeds, churning, churning, churning, and then Sabbath rest. There is no end to his wisdom. There is no end to his character. Just when you think you understand, you misunderstand. Then you misunderstand your misunderstanding and that leads you to understand things differently. Then your ready for another churning. I have learned that God will lead you through darkness and it feels like silence. I have learned that he’ll burn you with fire and it seems like he just watches. I have learned these things and assume the next lesson will be the same as the last, but it isn’t. Jesus told Nicodemus:

The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8).

When the darkness rolls over me, I think I know where it is coming from and where it is going. I think I know why it is coming and what the likely outcome will be. When I’m told I will take a 25% pay cut, I think I know what will result. I think it is always my fault and I deserve what is coming. But God’s infinite character surprises me. He takes pleasure in the prosperity of his servant, not in his destruction (Psalm 35:27). The Lord is not out to get me. Perpetual discipline is not the end goal. My obedience is not exactly what he is after, though it is important. He desires his children to drink from the river of his pleasures (Psalm 36:8). Not a single one of my blunders can nullify his purposes. Sometimes his tilling hurts, but once the soil is good and loose, it bends to his gentle will.

That afternoon peace came. Not as you’d expect and not before a long, dark summer. The job was part of the peace but only cleared away the brush and weeds. The greater peace was that I didn’t have to second guess our church commitment. Out of all the scenarios that presented themselves over the summer, Father Michael’s phone call presented the solution. God had made it clear. It didn’t come through the Baptist church. It didn’t come through any other church plants. It could have. If God wanted it to, He certainly could. But God used Christ the King Anglican Church to provide the way forward.

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