I remember it like it was yesterday. During the month of December 2017 I received a phone call from a 919 area code and sat down to listen to the speaker on the other end of the line. "Is this Will?" "Yes, it is." "I wanted to call and inform you that you've been accepted into the Doctor of Ministry program at Duke Divinity School, congratulations." I was excited to hear the news, and listened to the representative from admissions tell me what the next several months would look like with respect to residency preparation and other details pertaining to starting the program. When I hung up the phone, the reality sunk in that I would be returning to the classroom, and this time at Duke Divinity School. I didn't know my fellow classmates yet, much less what my responsibilities in the cohort would entail. But I knew that I was ready to learn alongside fellow ministers and pastors eager to experience Christian leadership education.
My journey began with an extended Divinity School Doctor of Ministry orientation in August 2018 which gave me a chance to meet the Program Director and former Bishop of the UMC in northern Alabama, Rev. Dr. Will Willimon and hear about the resources and training we would need in order to begin our time at Duke efficiently. Before we began our classroom instruction, I was introduced to my cohort--the smart, gifted and kind ministers who became brothers and sisters. These compassionate leaders came from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Oregon, California, New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and of course, right here in North Carolina. They came from diverse racial, ethnic, and denominational backgrounds and were ecumenically-minded. And the best part is that they all wanted to celebrate the movement of God's Holy Spirit in their respective vocations. We quickly became fast friends and during our residencies at Duke, we listened to one another's personal struggles, suffered with one another through trials, and celebrated with one another's joys (one of our classmates had a baby and still kept up with the doctoral workload, thanks to help and assistance from the Divinity School and members of our cohort). We worshiped in beautiful Goodson Chapel (see picture below) and took classes throughout the Divinity School buildings from the fall of 2018 through the Spring of 2020.
Over these 2 1/2 years, the academic and spiritual journey has been a blessed one indeed. The phrase, "you get by with a little help from your friends," has been true for me during this time at Duke. My family, my church family, and my friends have supported me through prayer and personal encouragement during this venture, and I am so very grateful and appreciative for all of it! It's hard to believe that I am nearing graduation in May of this year, but it wouldn't be possible without what Hebrews describes as "the great cloud of witnesses." In the midst of all the classes I've taken and through all the papers I've had to write, God has been faithful. I've learned so much thanks to my professors and my cohort, and I am humbled by the Doctor of Ministry experience. It takes a village to share Kingdom love and kindness, and I'm grateful to experience the village of beloved community with all of you, church family! Thank you for your support throughout the pursuit of my doctorate!
When the pandemic began back in March 2020, I was finishing up my academic portion of the Doctoral program and about to begin research and writing for my thesis. Thanks to God's grace and help, I was able to write and complete my thesis on January 2, 2021, send it off to an editor to correct grammatical and content errors, and then submit it to my two readers whose job it is to suggest changes and share advice on any necessary edits. Once those two readers "sign off" on the thesis, it goes before Dr. Willimon, the Doctoral Program Director. Currently, at the time of this writing, I have been given approval by my first reader and waiting to hear back from my second reader. It is such a joy to know that the finish line is in sight! Currently, graduation is scheduled for the 2nd weekend in May (attendance subject to various shiftings based on the pandemic).
The road to my Doctoral degree went through Durham. Five times I made the trek down I-40 and back to attend week-long residencies and classroom lectures. I attended Zoom meetings and made forum posts, wrote class papers, and finalized projects. In essence, I was continuing my walk as a disciple of Christ. As our Wed. night Bible study name denotes, "Mathetes" means learner/student/disciple. All of us, whether we attend seminary or not, are students of the Word! We never stop walking the journey of discipleship, learning from Rabbi Jesus and studying the Bible and the person of Christ. Let's never forget the words of Jesus found in Luke 9:23 (NIV): "Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."
Though your calling might not be to study in Durham, or get a seminary degree, you are called to follow and learn from the Teacher of your soul, Jesus Christ. The classroom is your life and since we are called to participate each day in Kingdom ministry (loving God and loving others), class is always in session. There is never a time when we receive our "discipleship degree" from the Lord until we meet him face to face. The best news is that this discipleship degree is not something we attain alone; instead, Jesus walks alongside us, teaching us God's truth, showing us how to live, and demonstrating how to suffer on behalf of others. Jesus provides the means by which we can graduate that one, sweet day when the Lord returns or we go home to be with the Lord in glory. Either way, our Master, Jesus Christ, allows us to "pass the test" in life and find life eternal. I can't think of a better way to live than to have the God of the universe as our Teacher, our Helper, our Savior, and our Friend.
As I conclude, remember Jesus's final words before ascending to the Father in Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV): "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Our Rabbi, our Professor, our Classmate, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, disciples us in order that we make disciples of others. How are we choosing to serve him each day? Do we remember his words when we speak and when we act? What does our Teacher hope for our lives with respect to sharing what we have with the poor, the needy, the hungry and the excluded? Why is it imperative that we invite others to join us on the journey of discipleship?
Jesus went to the cross because of the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2). He was willing to die in order that humanity might find unending life. We are called to live a life of suffering on behalf of a hurting, dying world, and trust the teachings of the Rabbi who gave us the greatest gift of love the world will ever know--his own life on Calvary's cross. May we follow the Savior, in order to serve the world, so that others may follow the Savior, too. This is our calling. So may we respond to discipleship's call with the same, bold resolve that Martin Luther inhabited when persecuted centuries before: "Here I stand, I can do no other."So let us commit to following Christ, willingly become his student, and learn from the Master. When we do, while inviting others to join us in life's classroom, we will "..find rest for [our[ souls, for [his] yoke is easy and [his] burden is light" (Matt. 11:29b-30, NIV).
Seeking to learn alongside you as lifetime disciples of Jesus Christ,
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