In August of 2011 my family moved from Los Angeles, California to Jackson, Mississippi. As most of you know, we had good reason to believe that God was behind it.
Now, after five years, we can look back and see that this was more than just a rescue mission from my stressful, financially-challenged, politically-complicated job, or an escape from my upside-down mortgage and credit card debt. It was more than just a way for me to get a free educational upgrade and experience teaching at the college level; more than giving our family a chance to spend time together, learn a new culture and travel around the country.
All these things are true and significant, but assuming that God really did instigate the move, why did he do it? What have we learned? And what is our trajectory?
The transition from LA to Jackson gave our family a rare opportunity to test what we believed. We were the first Californians to ever attend Wesley Biblical Seminary, making us something of a novelty. Some applauded our willingness to come, comparing us to Abraham, saying that God would bless us for our obedience. However, unlike Abraham, we didn’t leave a secure situation for an unknown land. We left LA because we were pretty much desperate, and God seemed to be pointing in that direction.
Laurie and I decided not to ask for help, though plenty of friends and family assumed we needed it and were eager to reach out. We had a scholarship for seminary, but didn’t have a job lined up to cover food or housing, not to mention credit card debt or emergencies.
In a way, we were like turtles with our feet in the air, though we never felt like something was going to eat us. We kept our eyes on the sky, waiting for a giant, invisible hand to flip us back over.
Looking back at all the challenges and the miracles, I can say that our faith has not changed, but our feelings have. There are certain things we will always do differently as a result of these past five years.
- We will never own another credit card. It’s not a Dave Ramsey thing. It’s not something we expect from others. It’s just that we have learned that God can take care of us. And I think he actually likes it when we trust him like that. For me, to carry a credit card in my wallet is to say, “Yeah, I trust you, but . . .”
- We will never move without clear direction. God did not send us out here to set our finances in order and tag on a Master’s degree so I can just turn around and find myself a job. I had no interest in going to seminary before I came. I was the only person in class that didn’t have plans for the pastorate or higher education or missionary work. We have to believe that God sent us here for a reason, and that he knows exactly where he wants us to be.
- We’re open to anything. After graduating, we started thinking about where God might want to move us. I thought it would be nice to live closer to friends and family. We both wanted to live in a more creative environment. But after a number of occupational close encounters, we have thrown our hands in the air. Stay in Mississippi? Sure. Overseas? Sure. Back into education? The church? Walmart? That’s fine. As long as the direction is clear.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I grew up in a home fellowship that shared life together, studying Scripture, spending time in prayer and worship, trying their best to hold to the model of the New Testament church. It wasn’t until college that I began my fascinating (and often frustrating) tour of Christian denominations.
I did not consider myself a Wesleyan when I started at Wesley Biblical Seminary. In fact, I never had an urge to attend seminary. Even now I don’t like to think of myself as a Wesleyan, though I do admire the contributions of the Wesleyan movement, and their mantra: “Sure, you’re saved. Now what?”
Looking back at this period of theological reflection and seven semesters of teaching Old and New Testaments at the college level, I can see how these past five years have affected my thinking in some very significant ways.
- Attending church is not enough. The Bible is a giant book, spinning an epic, evolving storyline that passes through a variety of cultures over many centuries. Do you really think your pastor, who can only give you about a half hour of teaching each week, who has to consider his audience and the business of building a church, and probably teaches through the lens of a specific denomination, is really going to be able to get your brain all the way around it? What about community groups? Sunday school classes? It’s just not enough. If you want to connect with the message of Scripture, you need to make it a daily discipline of study and practice, like learning an instrument.
- The way we approach the Bible is critical to understanding it. Did God write the Bible, or did men? If both, how do we disentangle the human element from the divine? Does the concept of inspiration erase the human element, eliminating the possibility of contradictions? If not, what do we do with the contradictions? Seminary introduced me to this two-thousand year-old conversation, and my faith has only been deepened and strengthened by it.
- To ignore ancient cultures is to misunderstand ancient texts. How can you truly understand the message of Bible without pausing to consider the history, culture and languages behind it? I cannot tell you how many lightbulbs turned on in my head during seminary classes or while touring Israel. It wasn’t that my theology was changing as much as it was being enriched and expanded. I started to connect with the people of the Bible in a way that was more tangible, more believable, less flannelgraphy.
When I flew back to LA after spending a hot August day in Mississippi touring the seminary and talking to administrators, I couldn’t stop from smiling. I had spent the entire day sweating in the August heat, listening to the electric buzz of cicadas, walking beneath the hanging moss, looking at columned houses with rocking chairs on the front porches, eating fried pickles and catfish and hush puppies, feeling like I was living in a Mark Twain novel.
It was just . . . funny. And the thought of moving to Mississippi was even funnier. Even the word Mississippi was funny. So off the radar.
When we decided to pack up and move, I wrote a Facebook Note called: Can I Borrow a Banjo? And I didn’t even blush. I had nothing against anyone. No negative thoughts. It was just that moving to Mississippi was like moving into the pages of a storybook.
My next post will be about what living in Jackson, Mississippi has really been like, giving me a chance to try to process such a fascinating place. For this post, I’d like to highlight how the move has impacted our family:
- Great place to raise a family. Mississippi slowed me waaaay down, giving me a chance to actually be with my family, not just in body, but in mind. My job at Village Christian was so hectic that even when I was home, I wasn’t. Now that my kids were older, it was important for me to really connect with them. Moving out of Los Angeles gave me the perfect opportunity to do that.
- Great place to explore the country. My poor Toyota Highlander. Jackson is not exactly a prime tourist destination, but it’s about three hours from a number of great spots, and seven hours from a couple more, and just twelve hours from Chicago and Disney World. Over the past five years we have checked off every state between here and the West Coast. Watch out East Coast. You’re next!
- Great place to explore history and the human condition. Mississippi is a rich culture with deep roots. Even after all this time, I still find myself struggling to get my head around all of the inherent contradictions and quirks of the place. Laurie and I have watched all the movies, read a ton of books, delved into many conversations with locals, and still haven’t found the bottom lines that make this place tick. Mississippi keeps our learner personalities happy!
What’s next? I really can’t say. Obviously we’ll do whatever the Lord tells us, but we have some indication as to where he’s leading:
Laurie and I think of Jackson as our “cocoon.” Clearly God took us out of one phase of life, where I learned a lot about leadership and administration, exposing my own strengths and weaknesses, and moved us into a place where we could expand our understanding of faith, theology and the human condition, while keeping up my musical chops by playing for churches and local musicals.
Why? Definitely for some kind of ministry. Probably something that would involve my whole family, like a church or a Bible school. I’d definitely be up for mission work, but I would hope for something involving education, like a training center. We would also be fine staying here, as long as the Lord is in it.
That, for us, is the real bottom line.