Joy, Sadness, and Success in Vancouver

If you’re a regular reader then you know that in December my family and I packed up our lives, left our church community in Burnaby, BC, and emigrated to Scotland so that I could begin a PhD. It’s been a wild ride, and we’ve been busy! In May we were privileged to return to Vancouver for a wedding. It was a great experience, and it allowed me a special perspective from which to reflect back on my own ministry. I thought I’d share a few of those reflections with you today.

First, leaving a church is never easy. (Or, at least, it never should be easy!) You are leaving relationships, many of them deep, with people for whom you have prayed, laboured, and with whom you have suffered in ministry, people you have married, people whose parents and friends you have buried, and children whom you have dedicated. A minister gets slowly but deeply integrated into the life of a community—you can’t possibly leave without some discomfort!

However—and this was an enormous blessing that I in no way take for granted!—we were able to leave on great terms. From day one, the church knew that further studies were part of my life goals. What is more, God’s provision for our studies had been so evident, and the story of His provision so compelling, that it gave my people (and us with them!) a real sense of God’s call. This made the pain of leaving truly bittersweet—happiness about God’s self-evident work mingled with sadness over the loss of relationships.

What wasn’t so good is that, although we were on good moral and social terms with our church members, we left town badly. We had a firm deadline for when we were to leave Canada (mid-December), and we were leaving both without visas and without a place to live in Scotland. In the midst of that uncertainty, the overwhelming business of packing, saying goodbye, cleaning our house, selling our cars, preparing boxes for storage and shipping, and tying up all our other affairs left our heads spinning. Not only that, many of these things—such as the final packing of our storage facility, the selling of our cars, and the cleaning of our house—happened after we left and were done for us by our church members! Leaving was ugly, but in the midst of it our people were absolutely beautiful!

Originally, in planning our final days in Vancouver, my wife and I had slotted the last two days for eating at some of our favourite restaurants, visiting a few of our favourite locations, and saying goodbye to the various houses we’d lived in. Instead, a snowstorm on those last days (and our own insane busyness) made a mess of that plan. Three days before departure we slept for about four hours. Two days before we slept for about two hours. The day before we left we may have slept for about an hour on the floor of our nearly empty apartment. Rather than an easy departure in the early afternoon we left late at night, exhausted, drained, and almost completely miserable. (Did I mention that throughout this process my wife was in the early months of pregnancy?)

The only consolation, then, was the knowledge that in about six month’s we’d be back for a wedding, and in my mind I lodged the thought that maybe with that trip we could make up for the ugly departure we’d just been through.

Fast forward six months. We’ve moved to Scotland, found a place to live, and settled in to a new life in a new world. May has come, and it’s time to pack up our bags and head back to Canada. We’ve slated 13 days for the trip, have a list of restaurants to visit, people to see, baby clothes to collect, and a few things to buy. What I didn’t—and couldn’t—expect, were the things I would learn visiting my “home” community again, as a former minister. I want to talk for a moment about the following five.

1) I am humbled by the quality of people in our Vancouver life, and honoured to call them friends. The people in our church life—the friends we’d built up over the past 8.5 years—are some of the most amazing people I know. They housed us, and loaned us a car, and fed us, and loved on us and on our kids in an unremitting way for all 13 days we were there. For my part, each and every day I ate at least three meals a day with our church friends, and sometimes more than three. I came back to Scotland with my belly fatter but my heart full. Again and again as I sat with them (and ate!) I couldn’t help but think how much I appreciated each and every person I saw, how much I valued their lives, their faith, their stories, their children, and their parents. I was struck and humbled as well by the sheer excellence and quality each person. For so many of them, six months had passed, and yet it felt as if no time at all had transpired. For me, that only happens with my closest of friends, and yet I felt it with so many of my former members. It was a shock!

2) I succeeded in ministry, but I could never have realized it until I left. On paper and in public I set myself to operate a ministry based on friendship. I didn’t want relationships which were based solely on my office or the power of the pastorate (although I wasn’t shy to utilize that power as appropriate and necessary). Instead, I wanted to highlight the fact that we shared a common faith, a common lord, and that my purpose as pastor was to strengthen their personal relationships with the King in such a way that it would never depend on the pastor. While I was active in ministry, I couldn’t really gauge my success. I was too busy, and had too many relationships to maintain, and not enough time to invest the way I would like in each person. Ironically, it was only leaving the ministry that could reveal its success—so, to return, and then to receive the love of so many people who are friends left me gobsmacked. But this led to a third lesson:

3) The fact that I was too busy to enjoy these friendships is a HUGE problem. On one late afternoon and early evening our kids had a play-date with church friends. I ended up sitting on a couch, casually reading a book, while my wife and the other mom visited. Later, we ate together, walked to the park, and enjoyed a quiet evening in beautiful Vancouver. It struck me in that moment, “Why didn’t we do this before?” Immediately I knew the answer. I would have been too busy. I would have been at my office, or at a meeting, or speaking at an event, or working on some other project, or handling an emergency, or resting in exhaustion from the execution of some combination of each of the above tasks. I would have sent my wife and kids on their own to the play-date and would never have made it to the house of the very friends whose everyday faith would have restored me. It is a deeply ironic situation. I can only conclude, in the future, that if I am in full-time ministry again I must create those spaces simply to be with people. They may be as important to my ministering soul as are times of devotion and rest. They are rest.

4) Preaching again was an experience in discernment. One joy was to preach again after the six month hiatus of moving-to-Scotland. I got to tell the story of our adventures, travels, and things I’d learned so far in Scotland. I got to encourage my members to take risks, to step out in faith by following Jesus. But while I stood in front of their welcoming faces a few key things ran through my head. One was a sense, again, that no time had passed. Preaching remains one of the things I am called and equipped to do, and there was an easy comfort to stepping back into that space. At the same time, as sometimes happens at these moments, there was no hint of nostalgia—no inner sense of, “I could come back and do this again…” In its place was a clear sense of, “Your time here is done.” For what it’s worth, preaching again showed me that I’m supposed to be in Scotland, and supposed to be pursuing this PhD right now. There was a satisfying comfort in that moment of discernment.

5) I’m seriously considering a book about Second Generation Ministry. My 8.5 years in full-time ministry with Vietnamese and Chinese churches has taught me enormously. In the process, I’ve had to reflect (creatively!) on the dynamics that make my churches operate—cultural, structural, interpersonal, and so forth. In the process I’ve tried to share these insights with my members, whether in the big public spaces of preaching or in private conversations. The result is a notebook with quite a few jottings about these issues. Not being Asian myself, I’ve hesitated to write such a book—I don’t want to present myself as another non-Asian telling Asians how to run their lives as Asians. But maybe, just maybe, as a friend who cares deeply for my many friends who happen to be Asian, I can write something that will articulate things going on in their lives, as well as encourage, bless, and enrich their faith.

Of course, such projects might be slightly delayed by the 80,000 word thesis I’m supposed to be writing for the University of St Andrews. Between that, and dinner with my children as often as possible, we’ll see how my spare time shapes up!

An Uncharacteristic, Personal Update

Dear Reader,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We at Pho at a restaurant called Pho Tau Bay nearly every Sunday for all five years. It was amazing.

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.”

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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.

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Illinois forest preserves are pretty nice places.

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