I began work on an M.Div in 1995 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. I finished it this past weekend at The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A long, circuitous journey this has been, indeed.
Besides my own personal desires to finish the degree two things plagued me that would not allow me to fail. One was a recurring dream, the other a promise. They say that one dreams quite a bit as they sleep; not me. I hear lots of people talk about their dreams. It seems like a lot of fun, sort of like living in a movie, but I just don’t dream with any sort of regularity. I may have one or two dreams in a month that I remember. Yet during the 11 years I was not in seminary I had one particular dream that told the same story in my head, never deviating from the plot, the setting, or the characters. Though I was a thirty something version of me the setting of the dream was always my high school. In my hand was a notebook with a schedule and a week’s worth of assignments. In my mind I knew that I had been to a week or so of classes and that the semester was well underway. The problem was that I could not find my locker and I had no idea where any of my classes were located. I would wonder the halls searching, knowing that if I could not find my classes I would fail. I have not had this dream a single time since going back to seminary in the fall of ’07. I think the dream was my soul was telling me that somehow I had to finish. Now that I have graduated I would like to request of my sub-conscience that in my next recurring dream sequence that I have rock hard abs, a jet ski, a house on a lake, that Morgan is no longer afraid of dogs, that Kiley can pour milk into her cereal without spilling it all over the floor, that Jack Johnson lives next door to us, and that he brings his guitar over when Shannon makes white chicken chili.
The M.Div promise that I made was to two members of the pulpit committee that brought me to Ridgecrest; Thelma Reid and Franklin Jones. Thelma and Franklin made me promise that if I became the pastor of RBC that I would finish. Both of them have passed away. Ms. Thelma died the year before I started back. I know you can’t take anything with you when you die, but if God could give me a waiver on just one item, it would be that I could take my diploma with me so that I could prove to Thelma and Franklin that I finished. I would sure hate to spend an eternity in trouble with the two of them.
Behind my diploma was an almost identical copy with Shannon’s name on it. When I applied for graduation the form asked for the name of the person who supported you the most. I wrote the papers. Shannon proofed them. Never once did she complain about this process. In fact, there has been a sense in which this was “our” degree. We have talked about it so long that Shannon now wonders what else we are going to talk about. As we were walking away from the chapel after graduation Shannon alerted me to this by saying, “You realize we have been talking about this ever since I have known you.” Now we are starting to talk Ph.D. I also want to talk jet ski, but I don’t think she is listening to that conversation. She has confined the jet ski to my dreams.
So in the end what do I take away from this experience? I have a new sense of confidence about what can be done with discipline and determination. The day I started back to class in the fall of ’07 was the day we sold our old church campus. While I sat in a classroom for the first time in 11 years our trustees were sitting in a lawyer’s office signing the deed. This means that I chose the busiest time in my life, and one of the most precarious moments in my pastorate, to go back to school. I also chose to go back at a prime moment in my children’s lives. Mo was 8 and Kiley 4 when daddy went back to school. I resolved that if I were to do this I would not take time away from them. I have done most of my work late at night, early in the morning, and on Fridays while they were at school. With the exception of frequent trips to New Orleans, I tried to do this in a way that they would barely notice. In that regard I feel pretty good about the way it all went. A testimony to my success is that last weekend Mo, who entered Jr. High this year, came home angry that she would not be having a single Christmas party in her classes this year. Instead of parties, 6th graders take finals. In elementary school the semester ended with a class party. I surmise that in Morgan’s mind since she now has 7 classes, she was thinking that Jr. High was even more awesome as she would enjoy 7 class Christmas parties. Instead she has 9 tests. When she was in panic mode about this I tried to explain to her how to study for a final. She was quick to tell me that I did not understand what she was facing and that my system of study would not work. I count this as a victory in that she must not have noticed a single time I prepared for finals during these past 4.5 years. At the end of her rant I looked at her smiling and said, “. . .and since you don’t think I know what I’m talking about, I hope you enjoy MY graduation this weekend.” That felt really good.
So how do you go back to school? You do it the same way that you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. I would like to offer this personal testimony to every other thirty something out there struggling through the process. At some point you really do finish if you just stay with it. Graduating feels great. Every moment of stress and feeling of mass pressure these past few years was worth it. When I sat down after crossing the stage I opened the degree folder and just stared at it, enjoying the process of my mind trying to reconcile that the words Master of Divinity and Anthony Brian Branam were on the same page. It is finished.
In closing I should add a note of thanks to the people of Ridgecrest. Not one time in this entire process did anyone complain. Everyone was supportive and expressed real concern for me. Though I spent three weeks in New Orleans every year, no one ever questioned the time away or penalized me for it. I had a real sense that this was your degree as well. You probably discerned what I also discerned, that for the investment your pastor was growing and that we were all benefiting greatly from the journey.
Thank you Shannon, Morgan, and Kiley. Thanks mom and dad. Thank you Thelma and Franklin. Thank you Nelsons for making the long trip and being there this weekend. Thanks to all my professors for such incredible content. Thank you Ridgecrest for supporting your pastor.