I recently read a blogpost I wrote four years ago right before we left to pick up our youngest three children from Rwanda. Like reading an old journal, I was transported back to another time, to a complex of emotions and reflections that seem far gone but whose power still holds sway as I look back over all that God has done since then.
Over the last five years, as my old Raw Christianity blog was forced into hiatus, I thought that post-PhD blogging would be exclusively academic and ministerial. But as I read that old blogpost, the old fire of open-hearted, meditative reflection returned. And that old fire helped me realize something: If my heart is kindled when I interweave personal narrative with spiritual reflection and meditational theology, it’s best that I keep that genre alive.
I also keep learning what we all keep learning: that life waits for no man. And sadly, I don’t remember what I don’t record — at least not very well. I value details and nuance, pixelated memories and lasting lessons that remind me of specific people and experiences and moments — those sharp edges that reach out and grab at the fabric of your nostalgia as you walk down memory lane. For reasons both human and personal, I care deeply about memories, and when I care about something, I put it into words.
Finally, I love my family, I want to remember our life together, and I want them to have records of what we’ve experienced and what God’s done. My wife is the greatest earthly gift from God I’ve ever received; our children are a constant source of joy, laughter, and hope for the future; and our life and vocation, despite the challenges and weariness they bring, have stability and meaning, tied as they are to the faithfulness and the mission of God.
They say that “memory is fiction” — but not if you write it down. So without further ado, here are some ways I remember — and want to remember — the twelve months of 2015.
January 2015: Selma, Student Leaders, and Racial Reconciliation
Each August and January we set aside a few days to train our student leaders and prepare for the semester. I wanted to make our winter training interactive, participatory, and challenging, so we took an afternoon and evening to think hard about issues of race. It couldn’t have gone better. Our entire staff and student leadership team watched Selma, ate dinner at my church, and held a long panel discussion where three African American friends answered our honest questions about race, reconciliation, contemporary issues, and the gospel. Several students said they had never been part of a conversation like that, and our entire team was deeply affected.
February 2015: Dissertation Madness
In February I disappeared for weeks on end with my dissertation deadline looming. Hovering over my makeshift standing desk day and night, I wore out my laptop, my brain, and an ever-growing heap of books and articles on the Psalms. I am still humbled and amazed at Cindi’s patience and support through the grueling process; she carried me in ways I could not have carried myself. The Student Life staff also led admirably through weeks of student leadership interviews and other ministry tasks. Then God providentially opened the storehouses and sent some of the winter’s worst snow right when I was headed back to work. The seminary closed for days and I kept pounding away until my March submission. I’ll never forget how my doctoral supervisor called me up two days in a row after I submitted my work and invited us to go sledding with him and his kids. So for two days in early March, a prolific Southern Seminary professor and his dissertation-free student sledded the hills of east Louisville with eight children in tow. Not the way I thought I’d celebrate such a milestone, but I don’t think I’ll ever come up with a better one.
March 2015: Coaching, Losing, and Growing
March capped off a losing season for our oldest son’s YMCA basketball team. With a group of 9-year-old’s in the 9-10 age bracket, we won only one game. But we grew noticeably throughout the year, and as the scores got closer, one referee even commented on our team’s crisp and selfless passing (an unusual trait for a team of 9-year-old’s). In the final game of the season, we played the juggernaut who had wiped the floor with us (and everyone else) early in the season, and we got closer to them than any other team had done all year (33-19). The kids were disappointed to lose, but they were shocked that they’d held the lead at times, forced the opposing coach to call a frustrated timeout, and put a scare into the team they’d feared since week one. These little underdogs showed me what it means to grow.
April 2015: The Psalms in Biblical Counseling
In mid-April, for the second time in the spring semester, I delivered a lecture entitled, “How Long, O Lord? The Psalms in Biblical Counseling.” Throughout my adult life, I’ve experienced the relevance of the Psalms for every season of life. Throughout my marriage, I’ve seen Cindi upheld and uplifted by God-sent psalms clearly crafted for her very moment of need (she’s now about to walk through The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms by Tim Keller). Throughout my ministry, I’ve seen the power of the Psalms for those in pain. Now throughout my dissertation research, I’ve encountered the vast reservoir of rich reflections formed from the overflow of academic Psalms study. The Psalms are so powerful that no scholar I read was able to approach them academically without offering meaningful reflections on the life of faith, the suffering of the saints, and the faithfulness of God. I wanted to record my own personal and pastoral reflections on how to serve the saints with the Psalms, and then to weave in the seasoned reflections of others. Later in the fall I would give the same lecture again, this time to an undergraduate counseling class, and I’m hoping to write a book on counseling with the Psalms in the years to come.
May 2015: Dissertation Defense and PhD Graduation
On Wednesday, May 6, at 9am in the Haldeman Room of the Boyce Centennial Library, after a full five years in the PhD program, I began defending my dissertation before my three-member committee. I was fairly sure that I would pass because I had a stellar supervisor who had vetted my work, but I also knew I would be grilled, as any PhD candidate should be. Both predictions were accurate. One member loved my argument, another critiqued it, and the third strongly disagreed, but all accepted my work. I walked away with edits to make, but I was done. I’ll always be grateful for the guidance, scholarship, and friendship of Dr. Jim Hamilton, my Doktorvater, who remains a godly example and influence in my life.
Completing this final stage of formal education was certainly the highlight of the year for our family. On Saturday, August 22, 1998 I had set foot on The Master’s College campus as a homeschooled 17-year-old freshman from Oklahoma. My major was undecided, but I planned to study business or athletic training and play baseball. I ended up majoring in Bible, getting involved in Student Life, and playing a lot of intramurals.
Cindi and I got married, I went on to seminary, and on Thursday, May 14, 2015, I graduated with my PhD in biblical theology as my family looked on and my doctoral supervisor stood to represent the faculty. I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned over these years in formal theological education; I’m so thankful that our family is moving forward out of the schooling season of life; and I happily admit that I still feel like an amateur in the academic world, because I continue to learn how much I don’t know. I have a lot to learn, but I’m excited to learn it, and I have the right tools for all the digging.
June 2015: Speaking and Summer Vacation
In June we barely set foot in our own home. The whole family came along as I spoke at the Cedarmore campus of Crossings Camp where Judah was finally big enough to zipline and bold enough to blob, all after a full year of hoping and planning. Lots of big-hearted students flocked around our kids and made it a special week for them as Cindi and I endured the unabating cacophanies of the cafeteria games and chants (week 1). We then took our summer trip to visit grandparents in northeast Oklahoma, hanging out with the cousins and swimming every day and enjoying free family movies each Tuesday morning at the cavernous new Warren Theatre (weeks 2-3). The family then stayed (why not?) as I returned to speak at Lifeway’s FUGE camp back at Southern (week 4). Meanwhile, on June 26, the Supreme Court decided on the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States.
July 2015: Student Life Growth
In early July, after a months-long process involving several candidates, I called Trevor Komatsu and invited him to serve as the next male Resident Director for Boyce College. I’ve always viewed the RD position as central to the spiritual health and growth of a Christian college community, and our staff had been laboring over the decision. I still remember the release of joy in the room as the confidence we had always felt in Trevor crystallized into the undeniable unity we had been asking God to provide. Trevor and his wife Amber were thrilled to join us, and they’ve been the perfect fit for our team and our campus. Then in late July, with an unpredicted 30% increase in fall enrollment looming, I met with a seminary leader to represent a significant proposal for immediate personnel increases. God was gracious and granted Student Life some additional staffing to help us keep up with the multiplying demands of a discipleship-oriented ministry.
August 2015: Go, Go, Go
“August” has had its own meaning since 2002 when I joined The Master’s College Student Life staff as a full-time Resident Director. Four consecutive weeks of retreats made August exhaustingly legendary from 2002-2010. But I’m just glad we survived August 2015. The student leaders arrived (Aug 3), we went on retreat (Aug 4-6), we oriented the new students (Aug 7-8), we started Boyce classes (Aug 10-14), our own kids started school (Aug 12), we launched our first annual NOW Retreat (Aug 14-15), and I went on cabinet retreat (Aug 21-23). All the while, we learned that whether in L.A. or Louisville, August will always be August in Student Life.
September 2015: Cross Country Begins
The cross-country season began in earnest in September with meets each Saturday and practices during the week, and it continued through November with all-stars and nationals. I enjoyed training with the boys here and there, and the whole family came out each week, with the girls gamely cheering on their brothers. I’ve found that there’s nothing on earth like a father watching his son run, and I’m thankful we discovered this sport early on (Cindi ran in high school; I never did). Plus, Cindi and I agree that there’s no better spectator experience than seeing otherwise sane adults sprinting across open fields (and weaving through the crowds lining the final stretch), dodging each other as they scream their version of encouragement to their weary son or daughter. And I’m absolutely one of these adults.
October 2015: ACBC and Teaching
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the role of biblical counseling and teaching in our lives this year. October began with the ACBC annual conference on homosexuality and a pre-conference on transgender issues, both of which attracted nationwide attention and criticism and earned Southern Seminary an unflattering cartoon appearance in the Louisville Courier-Journal. I still have questions from the conference (everyone probably does; these are complex topics), but one thing I love about Southern Seminary and Boyce College is that we fly our flags high and our colors bold. No one’s trying to be offensive, but everyone’s willing to be convictional. We truly believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the truths of Christian Scripture are the hope of the world, even when that world disagrees as strongly as it can.
Fall 2015 was also filled with teaching as I took on three new undergraduate courses — Theology III, Methods of Biblical Counseling, and Counseling Skills Development I — in addition to my full-time role in Student Life. The students were fantastic — intellectually engaged, academically diligent, and genuinely enjoyable. Creating three classes from scratch proved both overwhelming and rewarding; I learned so much from the process and the students, and once again realized just how much more there is to learn.
November 2015: Birthdays and Travels
Our two daughters’ November birthdays (the 20th and the 26th) always remind me how close our kids are in age. All within a 23-month window, they’re a tight-knit group with no tag-alongs. If you ask me how old our kids are sometime in November or December, it’ll take a minute, because we have three birthdays in those two months. Ember and Brooklyn are absolute treasures — they bring so much joy, laughter, and kindness to our family. Virtually inseparable, they’re the picture of what sisters should be.
But before these birthdays, the fall semester (perhaps the busiest I can remember) culminated earlier in November with a youth retreat in St. Louis, final lectures, exams, and grading for my three classes, and two papers at the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta. As though on cue, my voice was literally going out and my body descending into a month-long sickness as I wrapped up my final lecture of the semester in mid-November.
December 2015: Family, Christmas, and a Debt of Gratitude
This year we celebrated Advent for the first time, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Neither of us grew up with Advent, but our church introduced it last year, and it’s helped our family make the Christmas season focused, meaningful, and anticipatory throughout the month. Several nights a week we lit the candles, sang Christmas songs, and read through Jesus’ birth narratives. We also picked out our first hand-cut Christmas tree at Wethington Nursery, said goodbye to our 2000 Mazda and hello to a 2007 Odyssey, watched our oldest daughter’s first school recital, walked the new Abraham Lincoln Bridge, took a father-son trip to a Pacers-Warriors game (Steph Curry!), celebrated our 13th anniversary and Judah’s 10th birthday, laughed and played with Grandma and Papa Heck for a week, and rejoiced in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ who became poor that we might become rich in him (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The past few days we’ve been taking down Christmas decorations, playing family games and movies, helping the kids learn how to rollerblade, setting up domino trails, talking about new year’s resolutions, listening to podcasts, reading good books, discovering Tim Ferriss, getting a head start on Bible reading plans, and starting our first fires of a so-far mild winter. We know that this is the calm before the storm, which starts in just a few days as I return to work and the spring semester launches.
Perhaps these details seem insignificant now, but I know that in the years to come, it’s these written records that will form those sharp edges of the past that will happily snag the fabric of my mind as I walk down memory lane. Then, like the psalmists who so often looked back in remembrance in order to look forward in faith, like the psalmists whose songs have filled my heart for so much of the year, I’ll have something specific to say about all that God has done, both big and small.
Tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of Yahweh, and his might, and the wonders that he has done . . . that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God. — Psalm 78:4, 6-7