If you have spent any time reading this blog, you’ll have probably noticed that I have not posted anything since mid-January. This is do in part to laziness, in part to having done a good deal of traveling over the last couple of months, and in part to some big life changes that have been happening for me.
First a little bit of backstory. This time last year, I was in the midst of the most stressful period of my life. In late November 2017, I’d very abruptly moved back to my hometown of Tulsa, OK, after living in Kentucky for the prior 3.5 years for seminary. This move was largely precipitated by some medical issues that my father was undergoing (not to worry, he is doing very well now). This was compounded by some mild burnout after having completed my M.Div. and Th.M., as well as being unable to find a decent job after graduation.
Moving in general is jarring and stressful, but moving very abruptly and across the country in the midst of burnout and financial stress amplifies that fivefold. Thankfully, moving back to Oklahoma did afford me the time and space I needed to mentally rest after grad school. I also managed to get a good job working in sports ministry at a local church in Tulsa.
In the middle of all of this, I had been applying for Ph.D. programs in New Testament. Now, in hindsight, maybe applying immediately after finishing two masters degrees and moving halfway across the country to help care for my dad wasn’t the best idea. At the time though, getting into a Ph.D. program was, in my mind, the thing that was going to validate me as a scholar and as a Christian. I had oriented my whole life in this direction since I was a sophomore in college. It was where I had directed all of my time, my energy, and my focus. The thought of what would happen if I did not get into a program didn’t really get entertained because it was largely (again, at the time) unthinkable to me. And so, I applied to five of the best NT PhD programs in the country for the Fall 2018 semester: Notre Dame, Princeton Theological Seminary, Baylor, Duke University, and the Catholic University of America.
And then the worst happened.
I was flat out denied by Princeton, Baylor, Duke, and CUA. There was a ray of hope though. I managed to get an interview at Notre Dame. In hindsight, it was easy to see that I did not perform very well during that interview. The combined weight of moving, of burnout, and of feeling entirely inadequate because denials from the other four schools almost surely made me seem shaky and not ready for ND’s program. To Notre Dame’s credit, the Theology Department staff and faculty were extremely hospitable, and at least helped me to feel a little bit better about my own self-worth during such a tumultuous time.
Soon after the interview in South Bend, I received word that I was waitlisted at Notre Dame. My spirits began to sink. About a month later, in mid-April of 2018, they crashed to the bottom of the proverbial emotional ocean.
I received word that I did not get off of Notre Dame’s waitlist. I was crushed. I know there are bigger things in life to be distraught over. Medical bills, finding a tumor where there previously wasn’t one, the death of a loved one, being laid off from a job. All of these are far worse in their real-world impact than a string of denials from Ph.D. programs.
I know all of that cognitively, but on an existential level I felt like my world had become totally useless. The thing I had oriented the last 7 years of my life toward had been dashed to the rocks in the span of a few short weeks. Needless to say, I felt like a total failure. What was worse than that, however, was that I felt like a gullible rube, a half-wit who had believed he was smart when, in fact, I was just marginally lucky. Just another schmuck who was told all his life he was worth something, only to have the veneer ripped away and find out that, really, I was nothing.
Again, I know that from the outside all of this sounds insignificant. And in the grand scheme of things it is nothing compared to what many go through. I’m aware of that. Indeed, it was that awareness that kept me from telling most people about it. Away from public venues however, I felt like the biggest (pardon the language) piece of shit in the world. I berated myself constantly. Literally called myself a “piece of shit” when I was alone (again, I apologize for the language). Because why else did I fail so miserably if not for the fact that I was worthless?
In spite of all that—the disappointment, the self-berating, the feelings of total worthlessness—God did not see fit to let me languish. I couldn’t see it at the time, but it was the friends and family that God had placed in my life who kept me afloat during that time. It also helped to have an excellent therapist who helped me parse through not only my immediate pain, but also all the things in one’s life that exacerbate emotional pain. By the way, if you are financially able, everyone should try and see a good therapist. We all live in a fallen world and are wounded by it. Having someone who can help you sort through it all is a gift. But I digress.
While all this was happening, Christ was shaping me. As he always does, he brought good out of suffering. As I worked through my pain and baggage, I became more empathetic to the emotional pain of others. Where I once would have said, “Just suck it up and move on” I found myself saying instead, “Yeah, life is hard and often kicks us when we are down. This sucks and I am sorry.” Where I once had no time for tears, I was now learning to feel what it was like to ride the wave of one’s emotion through to its end. The tears tell you something about your world. They tell you that you are mortal and that pain (even relatively minor pain like mine) is a reality and that it is human to feel it. In short, God was softening my heart in the midst of the pain.
I also came to rely on Him more than I had before. When you feel like all that has defined your identity has been stripped from you, you quite quickly find that God Himself is all you have left. To paraphrase the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, when you find that all that you thought was permanent has been taken from you, or turned to smoke in your hands (the Hebrew word hevel is often mistranslated as “meaningless” in many English translations of Ecclesiastes; it really has the connotation more of smoke or vapor, namely something real, but that floats through your grasp), you find that the Eternal One, Who does not wax and wane like the things of this world, is your only true refuge.
Fast forward to a year later. I tried one more time and applied to schools again. This time it paid off. In addition to getting another interview and waitlist at Notre Dame (and again, to their everlasting credit, they were wonderful to me during my time there), I also got an acceptance at one of my other top choices: Baylor University. God taught me what it meant to have most of my external sources of worth and security stripped away from me over the past year. My sense of myself as a scholar, as a student, and as a high achiever were taken away from me. And yet, Christ was with me through it all not only strengthening my resolve, but also reminding me of why I had dedicated my life to the study and teaching of Scripture. It was for the love of Him. The love I have had from when I first heard the story of His rescue of creation from the power of death and evil. The love of Him who providentially led me in my life to this point. It was for the love of Christ and His Kingdom that I am doing what many people would deem to be crazy.
And so, after a few months away conducting interviews at schools and getting admissions procedures I can now gladly tell everyone reading that I will be headed to Baylor University this summer to begin a Ph.D. in New Testament with some of the top biblical and religious scholars in the country. I am humbled and blessed to be able to do so. And I am thankful for God and His gifts. The gifts of family and friends who would not give up supporting me. The gift of a passion for Scripture that continues to seize me. And the gift of a God Who is faithful even when my own trust waivers. God is faithful, even when He seems far off.
I look forward to sharing this new chapter as it unfolds.
Soli Deo Honor et Gloria