(A Piece of) Our Story


IMG_2268It’s hard to know where to begin this story, but the point in time that stands out the most was about five years ago now. I can take you back to the spot where I got the phone call, even though they’ve changed the parking lot now and moved all the lines. Maggie and I had already suffered one miscarriage, just over a month prior. So when I got the call that she was bleeding, I knew what it meant.

Things weren’t supposed to go this way. Just over a year before, in January of ’09, we’d bought a house. She was working full time, I was still a grad-student at Wake, working on a Masters in Physics. Later on that summer I was offered a full-time job as the facilities manager for the lab I was working in. That was how things were supposed to go. Graduate college, get full time jobs, buy a car, buy a house.

The next thing on the list was to have kids. We’d been married a couple of years, so the questions had already started about when we’d start trying. Well, we did, and in the summer of 2010 Maggie was pregnant and we were about to take the next step in life. It was time to become parents.

I remember the horrible waiting during the first miscarriage. We were both up all night wondering what was going on and hoping and praying that nothing was wrong and all the time both too afraid to admit that we knew something terrible was happening. I remember the phone call the second time. To be honest, there’s not a lot more I remember from August to December of 2010. Just the time I threw up in the parking lot of her work when I tried to talk through some of it with her one afternoon and couldn’t get out the words. And the loneliness of the waiting room where I prayed her way through surgery with the second. Two years later I wrote what are the two most heartfelt sentences I’ll ever write: “The halls of heaven are filled with the pitter-patter of little feet. At least, I hope so.” I still do. Just like the rose petals from the condolence flowers are still sitting on the bookshelf in our bedroom.

At the time I couldn’t even think such things though. We were both mad at God. Maggie could at least express it. I couldn’t. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. We’d talked about having kids somewhere way back when we were dating – knowing us, probably only a few weeks into our relationship. Yet here we were, two babies gone, wondering if we could ever have kids at all. We were shattered.

God was working in us, though all we could hear was silence. We kept going to church. I took some time off from playing in the worship band. After a few weeks I grabbed my guitar again and headed to church. The third song of the first set I played my first week back was David Crowder’s version of “How He Loves.” We started that song with me playing acoustic for several bars before the rest of the band came in. I’d played that song dozens of times before, but that day it was like my fingers were made of stone. Those first three notes were the hardest I’ve ever played on a guitar, and I couldn’t sing at all. “He loves like a hurricane.”

Somewhere, somehow, in the midst of the maelstrom that was two miscarriages in three months, God put it in both our heads that it was time for me to go to seminary. It wasn’t really a new idea. I was called to ministry in high school, and I played with the idea of getting around to seminary while I was in college (hence the minor in Greek). But the “plan” was that I’d get my Masters first, and then my Ph.D., both in physics. Then maybe, one day, in the far distant future, I’d go to seminary.

The feeling that God was calling me in to ministry waxed and waned and waxed again, especially as we came to Center Grove in 2009. At one point, before the miscarriages, I felt like God was moving me in that direction and I brought it up for prayer at a worship team practice. I expected everyone to be surprised that I was thinking about going into ministry. Instead everyone just nodded, and the two guys I was closest to on the team at the time said “Yeah, we just assumed that’s what you were going to do.”

But we were making some money. Our jobs were falling into place. Then we were pregnant. So even though God was calling we just kept bumping along in our nice little lives, minding our own business, and I kept ignoring the call and the fact that the more I tried to like what I was doing the more I hated it.

I still like physics, don’t get me wrong. It’s the reality of being employed in it that was killing me. I was even surrounded by warnings I simply didn’t heed. I had watched one of the new professors at Wake come in and start up his lab. I remember telling Maggie that I never wanted to be like him. He had 6 kids at the time, had to be at his office by 6 am on weekdays and didn’t leave until well after 8 pm, did the same on Saturdays, and came in on Sunday afternoons. He was stressed, graying, and he seemed to love his job. I couldn’t imagine doing it. But maybe my job wouldn’t be like that, I kept telling myself. I’d do it differently.

It would be nice to say that I eventually wised up and decided that it was God’s will I go to seminary and get into ministry, but that wasn’t what happened. Too many Christians worry about what God’s will is for their lives. Some think that if they don’t find out what God’s will for them is, and then do that, that they’ll be miserable. That isn’t what they should worry about. What should terrify us all is that we might follow our will for our lives, reject God’s will, and be happy with it. That’s exactly where I was, and where I was headed. I was making money, had some success, and was headed toward exactly what I thought I wanted: a Ph.D. in physics, maybe being a professor down the road. I could have been happy with it. The money. The prestige. The fame. You may laugh, rightfully, because a physicist really doesn’t have any of those. But they do have some, and the promise of it was enough to make me want it.

I know that someday I may look back and see more reasons for those two miscarriages, but God used them to get my attention.

In March of 2011 we went to Disney World for a week. We were still reeling, and we thought a vacation would help us put the miscarriages behind us. It did, sort of, enough that by the time we got back we were ready to start trying again. The doctor that Maggie saw during the second miscarriage had noticed that one of her hormone levels was low during the pregnancy. He told us that the next time we got pregnant, she needed to come in and have those levels checked. So we did, and she did, and he did, and she started taking a supplement to get her levels up.

Then we waited.

It was pins and needles for the first few weeks. Then we were on knives and pitchforks for a few more weeks, as we passed the stretch where the first miscarriages had happened. Then week ten came, then eleven, then twelve, and then we were into trimester number two. It seemed surreal after the experience of our first two pregnancies, to go into an ultrasound where we got to see a face and hands and a beating heart. I don’t think either of us accepted it until we got our first look at our son’s face and beating heart.

It was around that time that Maggie named him. I’d had a name I wanted to use for a long, long time, long before I even met Maggie. But one night, a few months pregnant, she came walking into our bedroom, looked at me sitting on the bed, and said “His name is Samuel.” She’d been reading 1 Samuel 1 and 2. “His name is Samuel. Because I have prayed so hard for this child, and I know God is going to answer my prayer.” God heard us. And He answered.

It was somewhere during that time as well that it dawned on me: I couldn’t look my son in the eyes one day and tell him to follow God wherever He led if I had refused to do the same. The call to ministry had been awakened in the depths of the soul searching that happened in late 2010, but I hadn’t made a move yet by mid-2011. It was the reality of Samuel that really got me moving. He was born in December of that year. Meanwhile we debated when I should start school, and debated, and debated.

Then we debated where. We thought Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was where I should go. I knew more of the names of the professors there. So we went and toured; Maggie, myself, and a four month old baby Samuel. Eight hours to Louisville, KY, then overnight at the hotel on campus. I was like a kid in a candy shop as we toured the classrooms and library the next day. I loved the chapel message, by Andy Davis on Isaiah 2 and the streaming of the nations to the mountain of God. I sat in on Dr. Moore’s systematic theology class that afternoon, and loved it. There wasn’t anything about the school I didn’t like. We were ready to pick up and move to Louisville. So much so that while Maggie sat in the backseat with Samuel on the eight hour ride home I drove and made mental lists of what needed to happen for us to get to Louisville by August. In my mind, we were as good as gone.

So it was strange over the next week or so at home that something started to seem wrong about it all. I talked to Maggie, and she had the same sensation. We both loved Winston-Salem, and felt like it was home. But this was more than just some resistance to uprooting our lives and moving eight hours away. We began to feel that Winston wasn’t just a home, but a calling. We kept wrestling and debating, but eventually that summer we decided Louisville and Southern wasn’t for us. I needed to go somewhere closer, so that we could stay in Winston. So mid-summer, sight-unseen, I applied to Southeastern instead.

I got my acceptance letter on a Wednesday. Thursday was the beginning of orientation – I didn’t make it. We dropped Samuel off that evening with my parents, and drove out first thing Friday morning to register for classes – that I would be sitting in on Monday morning. Before registration though, we went to chapel. Well, first we went to pick up a packet and a map and figure out where chapel was. We got to the service late.

The first song Maggie and I sang in Binkley Chapel was “How He Loves.” Yeah.

I sat in class that Monday in awe of the whole experience. Dr. Kellum prayed to open my first class that morning, and I was in shock. I had never prayed to open a class before. The very idea would be laughed at in a Wake Forest classroom. The entire day, from beginning to end, was incredible. I was beaming that night when I got home, and I think I probably regurgitated about ¾ of my lectures, verbatim, to Maggie after dinner.

But that whole weekend and all day that Monday, I had been worried. You see, I had taken off from work Thursday and Friday. Mondays I had off from work every week. So in the back of my mind was this fear that although I knew I’d be in class on Monday, I didn’t know if I’d have a job left on Tuesday or not. My boss wasn’t the most understanding individual, and seminary was going to take me away from some work. I went in Tuesday morning sure that as soon as I told him my job was done. So I chickened out.

It was about a week later that I finally caught my boss on a good day and told him that I was starting seminary, and that I was willing to do whatever it took to keep the job, but that if it wouldn’t work for him I understood and appreciated the time I’d spent there. He couldn’t have been nicer about the whole thing; he was even encouraging me by the end of that meeting. That relationship would sour over time, and eventually I lost the job, but for two and a half years God used it to provide for our family and give me time for class and study. I was able to manage a full course load and a full time job.

Then it got crazy. A friend of mine had been interim pastor of a church near Hickory, NC for several months, and the church was in need of someone to come in and lead worship. I had been rejecting the idea for as long as he had been telling us about it. But one Sunday that August he brought it up again, and I had the bright idea that maybe worship ministry was what God wanted me to do, and that if He didn’t, I wouldn’t get the job. I got the job.

For that whole semester I had a full time job, four masters-level courses, and a part time job. All happening in three different cities. Monday morning I woke up at 6 am and drove to Wake Forest for my 8:00 class; I got home  a little after 6:30 in the evening. On Tuesday I went to work at my day job, came home, and studied. Wednesday morning I went to work, swung by the house and ate dinner, drove an hour and a half to Hickory, practiced with the choir there, then got home by about 10. Thursdays I went to work, then swung by the house around 4 to pick up Maggie and head to Wake Forest again, where we both had class at 6:30, and got home around 11pm. Fridays I just had my day job. Saturday I studied. Sunday I had set aside for worship and rest, so we got up early, put Samuel in the car, and drove past Hickory for worship and Sunday School. Then we came home, and I slept. Monday it started all over again.

I didn’t know when to say no. It was hard. We did it. We didn’t enjoy it much – except for the seminary part. I loved that. I was sleep-walking through pretty much everything else. Looking back I have no idea how we made it. If we had to do that now we’d make it maybe two weeks and keel over. But God was putting us through our paces. Not to see whether or not we could do it, but to show us we could. I would never do it again, but I can’t count the number of times we’ve been able to say “if we could make it through that first semester…”

That was just a taste of what was to come. It would take pages and pages to write it all out. Some years were harder than others. That first semester might have been the toughest schedule. The second semester was the roughest academically – it’s hard to take three three-hour courses on one day and remember anything that happens in the last lecture. Then there were sweet times, like the summer we led the Young Professionals small group at Center Grove. Some of my favorite nights were spent with that group, hanging out in our hot living room until nearly midnight, talking about life and theology and how they went together. I wish we’d kept up with those kids much better than we did when we moved on to Union Hill.

Life moved along too. Samuel got bigger. Elijah was born. I honestly don’t think God could give parents two sweeter boys than those two. Granted, things were tougher with two kids and all the coursework than it would have been otherwise. There were more late nights, more screaming (theirs) and angry tantrums (mine) than there may have been without children. But it was more than worth it. These were the kids we were meant to have. Jesus gets to hang out with the first two.

It’s strange that so many people want to know God’s will because they think that if they could just figure it out they wouldn’t feel so lost anymore. We knew as well as anyone could know that I was called to go into ministry, and that I was to study at Southeastern. But that doesn’t mean that we were always confident. I thought about quitting several times. A few of times I was serious. Fall of last year was one, when Elijah was only a month and a half old and I was going back to class again. I forgot a forum post at the end of the first week, and it cost me an A in the course right out of the gate. I don’t like not getting As. I considered very hard withdrawing from the semester, but something kept me from going through with it.

I lost my day job not long after that. Things hadn’t gone well at work for some time, and I knew something in life had to give. I couldn’t have a new baby, take four courses, be a youth pastor, and have so much stress at work. But you can’t return a kid, and going to seminary and following a call to be in ministry were non-negotiable. Some things at work would have to give.

I sent my boss an email saying I wanted to talk about my future there. I planned to go in and say I needed to take some stuff that had slowly crept into my job description back off my plate, or that I needed to drop back to part time. Instead, I walked in the door to an HR rep handing me my severance papers.

For a little while the severance package paid the bills. Then Maggie went back to an old employer and found a part-time job waiting for her. I picked up a part-time job landscaping with a good friend. God provided – we managed to piece together just enough income so that, with some help, we could live and I could stay in school. Time was becoming a factor though, so I took a summer course and then five courses this past semester.

Three and a half years, four jobs, two ministry positions, ninety hours of classes, and two kids later, and we were done with seminary.

It felt, it still feels, surreal to be done. Maggie kept asking me Thursday and Friday how it felt to be finished. I still don’t know that I’ve fully realized it. I’m telling this story not because I think it’s so hard or so incredible that people will be amazed or cry or laugh along with us, I’m telling it for what I’ll say in a few minutes. But it was hard, and we were pretty beaten up along the way. Life isn’t easy, ministry isn’t either. It’s no harder than anyone else’s, this isn’t a pity party. It’s just a messed up world we live in, and one that doesn’t take kindly to those trying to follow God’s calling.

I thought at the beginning of graduation week that I’d lose it at some point and become an emotional wreck. Which is saying a lot, because I don’t cry much. I held it together pretty well all week though. I only cried twice during all the graduation events Thursday and Friday.

When I got into the chapel during the processional, just as I started to walk down the aisle, I caught sight of Samuel. He was hard to miss. My parents had gotten there with the kids, and Maggie had saved seats along the center aisle. As I started to head toward my seat with the other graduates down front, there was Samuel. Hanging out of the pew, farther than just about everyone else, peering around the elbows and looking for daddy, with that huge smile and those bright eyes. I got to ruffle my son’s hair as I walked down the aisle to go get my degree. He told me “that’s cool, Daddy!” I think he was talking about the cap and tassel. It wasn’t until I passed him and got to my seat that I started crying the first time. It’s pretty cool to have your sons at your graduation, especially when they were such a huge part of God getting you there.

The second time I started tearing up was after receiving the degree, during the final hymn. It wasn’t “How He Loves.” God knows when to break repetition. Here I was, having gone through the last five years of so much heartbreak, so many successes and failures, through so much struggle, and we sang this:

In Christ alone my hope is found

He is my light, my strength, my song

This cornerstone, this solid ground

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease

My comforter, my all in all –

 here in the love of Christ I stand.

I couldn’t get any words out past “hope.”

I wish people wouldn’t congratulate me. I held off saying much about graduation, about posting anything regarding it, until I wrote this story. If you could only know all the faults, the flaws, the sins, the struggles, the failures, the moments of doubt, the lack of faith, the complete and utter inability to make it this far that was present in me, you’d pause before patting me on the back and telling me what a great job I did and make sure you gave thanks to God. I didn’t accomplish this. He did.

It turns out Maggie had a divine appointment Thursday, as she waited on me at the back of the chapel and struck up a conversation with another seminary wife. They swapped stories, and Maggie wound up being encouraged by this woman’s experiences. But one sentence she said stood out as a great summary of what we went through to get to and through seminary, and it put all the challenges in perspective. “How horrible it would be to go through life getting everything you want, never having things go wrong, and never having to face the fact that you were not in control, never looking beyond yourself to something greater.”

How horrible it would have been if we hadn’t had those two miscarriages, if God hadn’t used something like that to get my attention, to break my complacency, to show me that I was not in control. How awful it would have been if he hadn’t used Samuel even before he was born to get me moving toward seminary and ministry. How terrible it would have been if God had allowed the last few years to be easy, so that I came to Friday thinking I had somehow pulled this off on my own, and that the congratulations being offered were more for me than for Him.

I sat tonight reflecting on the past five years and thinking how terrifying it is that I could have been happy doing something else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the adage about ministry: “If you can do anything other than ministry, do it.” I could have. I could have been satisfied doing something else. I could have been happy. There is no doubt in my mind that I could have been successful doing any number of things, and I would have been happy with money and family and people looking at me and being envious of my life. As Dr. Black prayed on Friday to close the ceremony, “faithfulness is not success.”

God was not satisfied, nor was he happy, with a young man wasting his life in pursuit of a few dollars, a couple plaques on a wall, some papers in a journal, and a few letters after his name. It’s not that God doesn’t call some people to do great things with money, or with journal articles, or with doctorates. I may pull off the latter two, just in a different field. No, the path I was on was one I was happy with, but not God. And I could not be more thankful that He loved me enough to pull me out.

That’s why I cried during “In Christ Alone.” It wasn’t just cathartic. In that moment I could see that all of this, all these past five years and more, were caught up in the grand scheme of God’s plan. I was, with all the saints gathered in that room, standing in the midst of hundreds of examples of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. In that moment in that chapel all my difficulties of the past few years, all my vain struggles, all my successes and accomplishments, all of it was put in perspective: a speck in the great plan of God, standing alongside other specks. That doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of graduation, neither mine nor anyone else’s. In fact it magnifies it. To be a massive accomplishment of my own is nothing; to be a small piece of the grand plan of His victory is something.

I said tonight, as Maggie and I were reflecting and crying tears of joy over the last five years, that Friday was a little taste of heaven. Oh, how that puts it all in perspective. To one day walk up not to a seminary president but to the King of Kings and hear “Congratulations, well done, good and faithful servant.” To walk into that meeting knowing that the Father loves us with a love far beyond the one that caused me to cry tears of joy that my sons got to watch me graduate.  And to one day stand around after the ceremony and spend time telling stories of what God has done in our lives, and to never, ever, have to leave. To be able to shake hands and give hugs and laugh and cry with brothers and sisters who toiled not just for a few years but for a lifetime, and to always have one more hand to grasp and one more shoulder to cry on. I didn’t want Friday to end; that day never will.

In the meantime, there’s work to be done.