Five years ago, in 2009, I began to dream about going to Oxford University to continue my graduate education in Religion. I had already obtained my Master of Divinity the year prior, and was finishing up a degree at Harvard in Theology. And, I felt that a degree from an English school would be the perfect complement to my previous education. (Besides this, I was a budding anglophile and watching Brideshead Revisited sealed my infatuation with all things Oxford).
So, I applied…and got in! The Faculty of Theology cordially invited me to take up my further studies at the University beginning in the Fall of 2009. But, alas, I was not granted funding. So, I applied the next year in hopes of being granted funding on the second go-round. Same story: I was admitted in 2010 but was not given the scholarship I needed to take my place.
The handwriting was on the wall: If I was to go to Oxford I would have to find a way to fund myself, apart from scholarships. So, I scrimped and saved – putting away little bits of money month after month, and year after year, in hopes of someday applying again, and this time having the means to go. This was my life from 2010 to 2014.
In the Spring of 2014 I applied to the Faculty of Theology for the third time – this time having the wherewithal to actually move to England to begin my studies. Honestly – I viewed the application process as mostly just a formality. I mean – after all – having been admitted twice before, how could I possibly be rejected this time? I sent in virtually the same application as the one from four and five years earlier. And I waited – eagerly anticipating the day that my postman (actually I have a postwoman) would deliver the letter containing the joyful news that Oxford was welcoming me – one more time – with open arms.
But, it was not to be. In April of 2014 I received a letter informing me that my application had been rejected – and due to the volume of applicants – they could not provide any information as to why. I was crestfallen, and confused. It was as though someone had wadded up the rejection letter and slung it at the forehead of my giant hope. And, that 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper – balled just right – was heavy enough to cause my Goliath of a dream to fall down head first on the ground.
Enter existential angst. Day after day of sitting with my cup of coffee asking age old questions: “Where do I come from?” “What am I?” “Where am I going?” I felt like the subject of a Gauguin painting.
To make matters worse, one of my close friends and I went through a major rift that looked to me as though it may end the friendship. (That relationship is now well again, complications have been worked through, and apologies have been made and granted on all sides. However, for two months, I was not optimistic this would be the case).
On top of this – my formerly fruitful ministries started to wither. The small group I had led for four years decided it was time to disband. And the Discipleship Ministry I had founded was at odds with my vision for its future.
But, what struck me with even more weight than the force of the rejection letter from Oxford, the difficult patch with my close friend, and the end of a long season of ministry, was a deep sense of Jesus and His acceptance. Morning after morning I felt the Lord whisper to me, “Do you trust me?” I remember standing at the vanity in my bathroom brushing my teeth one day and feeling the Lord say this so strongly that I actually had to audibly say, “Yes. Yes I trust you.” And in that trust, there was an abiding sense of peace. Although much had been taken away, I knew that nothing of true and lasting value could possibly be removed from my life.
I began to be flooded with what I can only call a supernatural happiness. Sehnsucht gave way to joy. In fact I had more joy – and more sense of meaning and purpose – than I had felt in...well...perhaps ever. One morning I couldn’t contain the joy any longer. I felt I had to sit down and actually write out exactly what I was feeling. I wrote:
I feel like I want to go out and run a half marathon. I feel like I want to sing the entire score of Handel’s Messiah. I feel like I want to stare into the glass panes of the Cheateau St. Michelle for hours on end. I feel like eating crepes at the Eiffel Tower. I feel like listening to jazz in Shakespeare and Company. I feel like ice skating around Frog Pond in Boston.
I feel as though my soul has been in captivity in Babylon – and our captors there required of us songs and our tormenters mirth. But, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? But now – the exiles are returning. And, they are carrying in their hands gold and silver for the rebuilding of the Temple. And the foundation timbers will surely be laid in Zion not long from now.
I feel as though the Ark of the Covenant has been laid in the temple of Dagon, and has toppled the idol. And it lays weak on the ground with its head and hands cut off, impotent to do either harm or good.
I feel as though the tree that was cut down and fastened with nails and covered with gold has now become the means for lighting the hearth of the fire in God’s Living Room, where I sit and read and drink hot chocolate on a winter’s eve.
I feel as though the Ark of the Covenant is on a wagon and is journeying home to the tabernacle of God at Shiloh, where it will find its place once again.
I feel as though I have gone to the bank and the teller has told me, “Insufficient funds. The account in which you invested $100,000 has been closed. The money is not here. Go home.” And then – an angel from around the corner comes up to me and says, “Let me show you a secret vault – wherein there is stored up for you not $100,000 but 1 Million times 1 Million – in a treasury that is safe and secure from all theft and fraud, and where no man will ever say to you ‘Insufficient Funds’ ever again.”
I feel as though I traded copper and I received silver. I feel as though I gave a few pieces of bronze scraps, and was given in return a million gold coins.
I feel as though my soul has been awake for far too long, many sleepless nights, pining and waiting for sleep, tormented and unable to rest. But, now, it is laying down on pillows and comforters sown and stuffed in Heaven to take its rest in God. And the Lord is giving to His beloved sleep. And He is saying, “Your soul has been restless. Now: Seth, find your rest in Me.”
I feel like a man whose foot has been caught in a bear trap. But, the Park Ranger has at last come and pried open the trap and has said to me “Follow Me.”
I feel as though long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
I feel as though Aslan is on the move, and the ice is melting, and spring has come.
I feel as though I am one of the patients in Awakening, and I’ve taken the medicine, and I’m awake for the first time in a long time. Living again.
I feel as though all things, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all things belong to me, and I belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
I feel as though the rain was only meant to produce a double rainbow.
I feel like to deny the Joy that I have at this moment would be almost like denying Christ. And that His Joy makes all other joys look like gremlins and goblins and little hunch-backed demons in the presence of Michael and Gabriel and the Arch-Angels.
I feel like a man who saw a mirage and thought it was an oasis and filled his mouth with sand. But now he is at Elim, the Oaisis of God, where there are seventy date palm trees and seven springs.
Lord Jesus, I praise you that when you take away the shadows it is only to usher in the substance. When you take away the earthly, it is only to bring us to the platonic form. Sometimes it is necessary to take away the terrestrial lest we begin to think that the poor and pitiful things of earth are the celestial reality that we will forever enjoy in Your presence.
You have shown me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of Joy. At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
And so it was that in April and May the Lord drew me to Himself – in and through crushing my dreams. In those otherwise dark days, He was for me a great light. He reminded me that though He takes away something, He does it so that He can be my Everything; though He takes away a companion, He does it so that He can be my truest Friend; though He kills a dream, He does it so that He can make Himself alive in me and that He may bring His own dreams to pass through me - which is far better still.
-- Seth Johnson