Thursday, July 26, 2012

Four Years

I wasn't looking to get married when I was 25. It was barely on my radar screen, to be perfectly honest. My attentions were elsewhere, but as usual, the Lord knew better than I did. I'm still amazed how He brought us together and where He's led us since.

I'm so thankful to have gotten to spend the past four years with my best friend, and to know that, Lord willing, we'll only become better friends as the years go on. It's a humbling thing to be loved so graciously--to hear it and see it demonstrated every day. I have much to learn about being a good helpmeet to him. But I'm really looking forward to it!

Happy anniversary, babe!

Friday, July 13, 2012

the state of the dissertation

About a month ago, I hit a bump in the road regarding my dissertation topic. The bump came in the form of my likely adviser suggesting that my proposed topic was not focused enough and/or had probably been sufficiently researched already. So, whereas I had begun the summer fairly certain of being on a steady track, I have been progressing more in fits and starts since then, at times just spinning my wheels. I have some general ideas, in the same neighborhood as the original (preaching in the early church), but I haven't yet determined their viability or been able to commit to a single one. I've effectively backtracked to a point I should have passed several months ago, and I can't say that's not demoralizing.

Of course, no matter the scale of the project, figuring out what my ideas are, what it is that I want to say, has always been the most agonizing part. I am okay at researching and love actually writing, but getting to the point where I can write is often an anxious process. So it doesn't come as a great surprise that I am sitting in the idea phase and feeling stuck. The same thing happened with my undergraduate thesis and with virtually every paper I have written since professors gave me the freedom to choose my own topics. In the end, most of that has turned out pretty well for me. Still, it's not the most fun place to be sitting. And it could become problematic if I don't get un-stuck within a week or two.

I know it isn't helped by the fact that I've been asking questions about my sense of my vocation, which is probably a healthy thing to do, but might be getting mixed up and conflated with the topic-search in unhelpful ways. I mean, it just doesn't work very well trying to discern a dissertation topic while discerning whether I see myself thriving in academia in the longer term. So I'm trying to lay the latter piece aside, for now, and focus on the task that's given to me right now. (And don't worry. I'm not thinking of dropping this program. That isn't even on the table.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Geekery & Godliness: Some Preliminary Thoughts

The ideas in this post are a work in progress. For almost a year now, questions about the intersection between academic theological study and growth in godliness have been at the back of my mind. (Probably for longer than that, to be honest.) Even though I suspect that these questions are best worked out in a longer writing project, I felt compelled to start getting them on paper, if in abbreviated form.

The topic is definitely in need of refinement. You'll note that the post is titled "Geekery & Godliness," because when I first jotted down the idea for this post, I was thinking in terms of a more catch-all category of "theology geeks," including those who are self-identified nerds about theology, but are not necessarily engaged in formal study of the subject. As I began writing, though, I noticed that my concrete ideas were closely connected to the life of the theology graduate student -- unsurprisingly, as that's the life I know. It's possible that much of this can apply to non-academic geeks as well as grad students, but I am not sure yet.

Also, the cautions I give below arise from my own experience. They are all areas in which I have felt personally convicted. I'm quite certain, however, that not all academics have experienced these precise things, and I would love to hear those other perspectives. And, if there is anything here you'd like to see me expand upon in future posts, please let me know. Like I said, I'm kind of testing the waters to see if this is sustainable as a longer-term project -- something that can be of help to others.

It should go without saying that I think the academic pursuit of theology and/or "theology geekery" is a glorious thing. It is a blessing to have so many wonderful resources at my disposal, as well as a context in which to develop my ideas. But I have become increasingly convicted that geeking out over my Puritan Paperbacks or Popular Patristics collections, or doing theological research as my job, are not, in themselves, signs of a healthy spiritual life.

A Couple Obvious Gifts of Theological Study
  • Theological study should lead us to praise God continually, to desire to pursue Him ever more deeply, and to love the church, Christ's Bride, more and more. It is a sweet privilege to have the opportunity to devote ourselves to an intensive study of these subjects. We should rejoice in that.
  • Theological study should compel us to serve the church with what we've learned, in any variety of ways. It is rightly undertaken with the aim of being at the church's disposal.

Some Cautions
  • Theology geekery is not automatically spiritually beneficial. Just because I am often surrounded by the works of the early church fathers or the Puritans does not mean I am actively seeking the Lord, but it is easy to allow my studies to become a proxy for prayer and time spent in Scripture. There have been seasons when, because I was studying sacred things, I lulled myself into believing I could allow my prayer life to slide. Proximity to godliness is not the same as practicing it.
  • Studying theology for a living is not spiritually superior to any other employment or vocation.
  • A theology student should be firmly anchored in the local church and submitted to its leadership. Listening to lectures and engaging in seminar discussions during the week is not the same as sitting under the preaching of the Word. The latter is one of the ordinary means of grace; the former (mercifully) are not. And while you should certainly bring your God-given intellect to bear on what you are taught in church, that is not an invitation to spend the bulk of the sermon critiquing the pastor's exegesis and thinking how you could do it better.
  • A theology student should regularly soak in the basics of the faith, above all in God's Word. Chances are, a graduate theological education (or, sadly, in my experience, a seminary education) is not going to teach you how to do this, which points again to the importance of being under the shepherding of godly leaders. Don't be too proud to ask elders or mature believers for counsel in this area. (If you have time, take a moment to read the Martin Luther quote in this blog post by Carl Trueman. I believe it's getting at the same idea.) It's important to do this, not in spite of the intricacy of your dissertation topic, but because of it. You probably understand less than you think you do.
  • Take time to be in relationship with non-academics and those who aren't consumed by the student season of life. You need them; and fellowship with your brothers and sisters will far outlast your successes and failures in academia, and will prove far sweeter besides.

I believe it is possible to cultivate a life of both God-glorifying scholarship and vibrant, mature faith. My concern is that theological study, as it is often practiced today, does not always lend itself to ready integration of these areas; at any rate, it sometimes leaves students adrift and scrambling to pick up the pieces. I'm not attempting to lay down guidelines for how to do that, as I am very much caught in the midst of it myself. However, I hope this could be a place to start a conversation.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"A bruised reed He will not break."

Recently I was compelled to read a little book that's been sitting on our shelf for a year or two – The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. First published in 1630, this book is available in a 2008 reprint from The Banner of Truth Trust, in their wonderful Puritan Paperbacks series. Don't let the idea of archaic seventeenth-century language dissuade you; this book is very readable, possibly the easiest Puritan text I've encountered. It is also a deeply comforting book.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was an English Puritan preacher who flourished a century after the Reformation began. According to Beeke & Pederson's Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage, 2006), he was known for his godly lifestyle and for reaching Englishmen of all classes with his plain, Christ-centered preaching. The Bruised Reed, one of his most celebrated works, is an exposition of Isaiah 42:3, "a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench." In Sibbes' own words (p. 72), "The comfort intended in this text is for those that would fain do better, but find their corruptions clog them; that are in such a mist, that often they cannot tell what to think of themselves; that fain would believe, and yet often fear that they do not believe; and that think that it cannot be that God should be so good to such sinful wretches as they are."

My intent isn't to take up any more space with biography or outline, however, but to let you read some Sibbes for yourself. As I read, I kept marking sections and thinking, "These quotations are golden; I must share them with my friends." So here you are:

"Hence we learn that we must not pass too harsh judgment upon ourselves or others when God exercises us with bruising upon bruising. There must be a conformity to our head, Christ, who 'was bruised for us' (Isa. 53:5) that we may know how much we are bound unto him." (p. 5)


"Ungodly spirits, ignorant of God's ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken-hearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is doing a gracious, good work with them. It is no easy matter to bring a man from nature to grace, and from grace to glory, so unyielding and intractable are our hearts." (6)


"If Christ be so merciful as not to break me, I will not break myself by despair." (10)


"A Christian complains he cannot pray. 'Oh, I am troubled with so many distracting thoughts, and never more than now!' But has he put into your heart a desire to pray? Then he will hear the desires of his own Spirit in you...God can pick sense out of a confused prayer. These desires cry louder in his ears than your sins. Sometimes a Christian has such confused thoughts that he can say nothing but, as a child, cries, 'O Father,' not able to express what he needs, like Moses at the Red Sea. These stirrings of spirit touch the heart of God and melt him into compassion towards us, when they come from the Spirit of adoption, and from a striving to be better." (51)


"Weaknesses do not break covenant with God. They do not break the covenant between husband and wife, and shall we make ourselves more pitiful than Christ who makes himself a pattern of love to all other husbands? Weaknesses do not debar us from mercy; rather they incline God to us the more. Mercy is a part of the church's marriage inheritance...The husband is bound to bear with the wife, as being the 'weaker vessel' (1 Pet. 3:7), and shall we think Christ will exempt himself from his own rule, and not bear with his weak spouse?" (58)


"Failings, with conflict, in sanctification should not weaken the peace of our justification and assurance of salvation. It matters not so much what ill is in us, as what good; not what corruptions, but how we regard them; not what our particular failings are so much as what the thread and tenor of our lives are, for Christ's dislike of that which is amiss in us turns not to the hatred of our persons but to the victorious subduing of all our infirmities." (96)


"If we look to the present state of the church of Christ, it is as Daniel in the midst of lions, as a lily amongst thorns, as a ship not only tossed but almost covered with waves. It is so low that the enemies think they have buried Christ, with respect to his gospel, in the grave, and there they think to keep him from rising. But as Christ rose in his person, so he will roll away all stones and rise again in his church." (125)


"Let us make use of this mercy and power of his every day in our daily combats: 'Lord Jesus, thou hast promised not to quench the smoking flax, nor to break the bruised reed. Cherish thy grace in me; leave me not to myself; the glory shall be thine.' Let us not allow Satan to transform Christ to us, to make him other than he is to those that are his. Christ will not leave us till he has made us like himself, all glorious within and without, and presented us blameless before his Father." (123)