As you may or may not have noticed, this is not a blog where I talk about me very often, if at all. Today, however, I wanted to break that convention in order to let you in on some significant life changes in the near future. Long story short, in January I’m beginning PhD studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I’d like to take today’s post to tell you about how I’ve been led to this decision.
Years ago, when my faith was first truly coming into its own, it did so under the influence of two men who taught me to love Jesus. Those two men were Lyle Dorsett and Jerry Root—both were C.S. Lewis scholars, both were committed to the Church and the Academy, and both exhibited a pastoral faith that had been deeply enriched by their respective PhD studies. It was a model that appealed to me.
When I graduated from Wheaton with a degree in Ancient Languages (Greek and Latin), and my wife with hers in Art, we were well situated to be highly educated but unemployable. I knew that further education would be necessary for me to advance in a career. One option I considered was Classics (further Greek studies), potentially at Oxford. Another option was a program in Patristic Studies (early Church history) at Notre Dame. Neither seemed quite right.
In the meantime, worshipping one Sunday at Church, our minister put out a call for volunteers to preach at a local retirement home. I felt like I ought to give it a go, prayed it through with my wife, and before I knew it I was preaching to a group of 80 year old women. To my astonishment, I found that I loved it. Once a month I wrote a fifteen minute sermon and delivered it, and I was energized after each visit. I was so energized that, while walking with my wife and discussing further education, we came to the conclusion that seminary was the best option for us. Our provisional plan was that I would pursue a seminary degree, then move on to complete a PhD immediately following. We began to look at schools.
The events that brought us to Regent College in Vancouver, BC, are outside the scope of this post—but suffice it to say that we went in a very brief time from being unable to identify Vancouver on a map to deciding to emigrate there. Regent especially appealed to us because of the sense we had that Regent offered a kind of “liberal arts” version of the seminary experience (they even advertized themselves as the “un-seminary” at that time). Because of this, it felt like an ideal place to pursue an MDiv on the way to a PhD.
The next four years involved an enormous amount of discernment as to the nature of my call, and in the process I experienced a curious vacillation. One month I would be encouraged in pursuing pastoral ministry, but it would be accompanied by some measure of discouragement about pursuing a PhD. Another month I would be actively encouraged in PhD studies but discouraged in pastoral ministry. As part of my MDiv requirements I was placed in a small group where we mutually discerned our calls and attempted to speak truth to one another. At the close of that group, after more than a year together, that group firmly and clearly affirmed my call to both pastoral ministry and the academy.
However, at graduation my PhD prospects were not clear at all. I had received a fairly devastating criticism in one of my last classes, and that criticism cast real doubt on the topic for study that I was then considering. In the meantime, I had been preaching on a monthly basis at a local Vietnamese church and greatly enjoying their fellowship and company. Once again, the cycle of discouragement and encouragement was in full swing, and when they asked me that summer to serve as their pastor, with no clear PhD prospects on the horizon, I said yes. I made it clear, however, that I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay with them. I ended up serving as their pastor for five years.
At the end of my service with them, I transitioned to a Chinese church, and I’ve been ministering to them for the past three years. Over the past eight years I have continue to nurse, in prayer, the call to a PhD. I’ve had a lingering sense that it was something I am still supposed to do, but I could imagine no way to accomplish it—whether logistically or financially. And so when I prayed about it I would always offer it to the Lord as a thing He could give me or take; the refrain of my prayers at this time was simply this, “Lord, give me no desires you don’t intend to fulfill Yourself.” I didn’t want to desire the PhD if God didn’t want me to have it. Occasionally I would discuss this sense of call with my Church members, and one time a smirking member told me that maybe the PhD God wanted me to get was my, “Preach Here, Dummy.” I laughed heartily at the joke, but also took it to heart. Maybe that door was closed.
In fact, I was very near to giving up on the dream altogether when, in December, I learned of a new program at St. Andrews. It would focus on Analytical and Exegetical Theology—that is, on philosophy and Bible—and everything about the program felt right up my alley. The subject was right, the instructors managing the program are some of the best in the world, and I had wanted a UK degree in part because they are shorter (three years) and focus chiefly on writing. For the first time in a long time I became excited about the possibility of further studies. I consulted with my wife and some key friends, and each counseled me to apply.
Over a two-week holiday in January I completed the application. Several professors with whom I had kept in touch encouraged me unreservedly (and wrote recommendations). My mentors in faith, Jerry and Lyle, were equally encouraging. And so with confidence I clicked submit and began to wait. I would wait a lot longer than I expected.
January passed, then February without news. This was not terribly surprising, but in March I was notified that I had been wait-listed. I still felt that this was manageable, but some uncertainty began to settle in. In many ways I felt that if this program didn’t work out, the PhD was not going to be a thing for me, and I was even then resigning myself to this possibility. In April I attended the Wheaton Theology Conference and, unsolicited, a large number of people (more than ten over a four day period) affirmed not only my writing but specifically encouraged me to pursue a PhD. When I shared that I had applied for a program, they expressed their excitement. I came back to Vancouver encouraged, but still waiting with bated breath. In May I spent a monthly retreat day at a Benedictine Monastery. While praying on a park bench for some encouragement from the Lord a couple walked up to the lookout. They began speaking in English accents, and I, wonderingly, asked the Lord, “Would you speak to me, Lord, through an accent?” Feeling uncertain, I continued my prayer, “You’ll have to give me more than that.” Moments later, another group walked up to the lookout, unrelated to the first—and would you know it, they also had English accents? Now my eyes and ears were open, but I’m not sure I was convinced. Ten or so minutes later one of the monks came to the bench and sat next to me. He was smoking a pipe and listening to music. On top of his pipe’s bowl was a curious metal contraption, and I interrupted him to ask what it was. Being hard of hearing, and misunderstanding me, he said, quite loudly, describing the pipe itself, “IT’S ENGLISH.” In my heart I said to God, “I will only be able to tell this story, Lord, if you send me to Scotland.”
It was late June when I finally heard from the school—I was admitted to the program but without any offer of funding. One of the key prayers throughout the intervening months had been that if God wanted me to pursue this program, He would need to provide the funding. No funding, and I wouldn’t go. Acceptance from the school was then not enough to confirm my sense of call. My wife and I began to pray. She secured the word “miracle” on the wall of our home as a reminder of our prayers. And in two weeks’ time two things happened—first, the school offered me a 50% tuition scholarship, and second, I contacted a friend who offered significant support toward the program. In two weeks we had gone from no resources to more than 60% of the total cost of the program—living expenses and tuition. We felt that God had clearly showed us His intention to provide the rest, and so in faith we have agreed to go, and in prayer we are continuing to await the remainder of His provision. I have formally resigned from my church work, and in January we will sell many of our things and my family of five will change countries and spend the next three years at St. Andrews in Scotland. While we are there I will be writing about the Trinity, and Family Systems Theory, and the Incarnation, and Suffering. It promises to be an exciting set of years.
One friend asked me, “Did you choose Scotland, or did Scotland choose you?” The answer is “Yes.” But the overarching sense is that, indeed, Scotland has chosen us, and I can say that because the process of being led to this course of study has been of a piece with all of the previous ones. By God’s guidance I have applied to only one University (Wheaton), and only one Seminary (Regent), and now only one PhD Program (St. Andrews). He has been the one arranging my education, not me, and I am more than content to continue to submit to His guidance in these matters.
When my wife and I were walking that Illinois forest preserve all those years ago and discussing seminary and doctoral studies, we certainly did not anticipate eight years of intervening pastoral ministry. And yet these years have been good. We have been enriched by our time in Vancouver, and we have made lifelong friends in the two churches in which I’ve served. I’ve been able to develop as a writer, and my pastoral call is a confirmed and entrenched reality. I remain called to serve the Church, and moreover I love the Church! I have wanted to stress to my members the fact that transitioning to PhD studies is in no way a departure from the Church. Rather, this is the completion and augmentation of my call. What career I pursue at the close of the next three years is yet to be seen, but we can await it with anticipation and not fear, because the One who is ordering our steps has ordered those events as well. We have only to keep our eyes open, and to obey when the time is right.
Thanks for Reading!
P. Jeremy Rios