On One’s Last Year of Seminary

Seminary has been a lesson in all that I have not learned.

It has been a preparation in identifying my own unpreparedness.

It has been worthwhile if for no other reason than to realize how unworthy I am.

For I am now convinced that a seminary education in the hands of one who has not tasted the Spirit of God, who has not known the love of God that can only be found where it has become incarnate in the cries of the most desperate and the most heavy-laden, is a dangerous, dangerous, human being.

“Those who come close to people in pain, naturally draw near to God, because God is always by the side of His children who are in pain.” -Elder Paisios.

Seminary has made me dangerous. And not in a sexy way, in a real and true edge of hell way. I now have the lingo and the head knowledge, and soon the degree, that will make me (whether I like it or not), (whether people consciously think this way or not), an assumed representation of Jesus Christ. All of us are called to be imitators of Christ, and I am quite Protestant in my commitment to the sanctity of all believers and vocations, but no amount of Protestant egalitarian ideals can shake the responsibility that lies on one’s shoulders when one is put in a pulpit, at least in the eyes of the public. This responsibility lies on all the Church, but I think it lays particularly heavy on me. On us.

If I have memorized all of Mounce’s Greek paradigms, and can recite an outline of Barth’s systematic theology, but have not love…. That is, the love of God which runs first into the pain of the abused,

and the confused

and the tired

and the angry

and the hated

and the slave

and the battered woman

and the boy bullied because he prefers flowers to cars,

then I am a clanging gong. I am of more good silent in the back pew, despite all my catchy sermon titles and vivid illustrations. Nay, the pulpit should belong to the single parent who has been at Jesus’ hem begging for daily bread, because that woman or man knows a lot more about Jesus than I ever could from my worn armchair leather and my church-growth-conference ticket stubs.

If our theological ducks are all in a row but we have no idea how to respond to the abused woman in our office (or worse, Lord have mercy, we assume such women do not exist in our pews – no, not in my quaint and white and suburban church), the Gospel will fall flat at the foot of my ‘very Biblical sermons’ and will stay right there ne’er to be picked up by any sick soul (save by the grace of our Lord Jesus, thank Father, Son and Holy Ghost).

More people are led astray by an abusive youth group leader, than an undereducated pastor.

Anyone who knows me should recognize that I would be the last to put down intellectual rigor, or deny the deep importance of ideas. I have been an advocate for making seminary education even more intellectually rigorous (but less busy). I’m currently applying, with near-giddiness, to doctoral programs. I can, and will, identify problematic theologies where appropriate (and often when not appropriate). I minister in a tradition that requires the M.Div for pastoral ministry, a requirement I largely agree with.

That’s not what this is about.

The Word-preached is often a hard and harsh word, which scares away the weak of fortitude. Yet, I often find we use that as an excuse to scare away the people we are supposed to be inviting inside. If my preaching sends away the hungry, the brokenhearted, the meek and the downcast, the lonely – no amount of self-acclamation over the rightness of my words or any whining about being ‘persecuted,’ when broken and hungry human beings walk, can remove the irresponsibility that I am guilty of. If I am seen and heard, but the thirsty do not hear the words of Jesus ‘come all who are thirsty,’ what have I done? What have I accomplished? I have made myself feel important, but little else.

If I have the whole town mad at me, and if I rest assured that this anger is certainly because I’m just too Biblical for them – I’m such a good martyr, like those poor souls in Syria – I should think twice. Prophets are regularly sawn in two by the ungodly, and we must be ready to die at a moment’s notice…. but I am also charged with being a peacemaker (Matthew 5), of being a place of refuge for the needy, and of being of ‘good repute with outsiders’ (I Timothy 3:7). When was the last time I was reminded to seek the esteem of my Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, neighbors? This is a clear Biblical requirement for ministerial leadership. If I am to be persecuted, I better be persecuted with sweet grace dripping from my lips or else I am just a pawn in a pointless political game, not an icon of the crucified Christ.

Human beings are not, fundamentally, collections of ideas to be critiqued and edited with a red pen. Those are the solutions to the problems of the ivory tower. People are complex creatures, with dimensions that textbooks can never explain. They are beings with sins, desires, hurts, histories, and feelings. They are people desperately needing to be reminded that they have a Creator who loves them just the way they are, no matter how deeply they’ve fallen. And the Church is where that love continues to find tangible hands and tangible feet… but when those hands or feet patronize, shut out, condemn, criticize, and (God-forbid) abuse, the very reputation of God has been put to the test, He himself has been called into question.

People do have real and substantial intellectual struggles and doubts that should be responded to on an intellectual level, but I remain convinced that the hypocrisies and moral failures and utter lovelessness of those charged with representing the Gospel are much more dangerous to the Gospel than Christopher Hitchens.

And, oh my, this is not about giving and giving and giving; being a ‘doormat,’ as it were. If you have not been loved…. If you have not let your guard down to be held and nurtured in your darkest places, and have not received grace from others, have you truly known the grace of God that you are preaching? What would I be without those who have picked me up when I fell down? Who would I be without the grace that was poured on me just this very weekend, this birthday weekend, when friends showed me such undeserved kindness…. the sweet grace of Jesus became ever more something I could talk about with some sense of authority.

“M.Div.” after my name does not make me ready to preach the Gospel.

This is not about moral perfection. Perfection is not in our grasp, certainly not in mine. I will, likely always, be quite far from perfection. But humility and repentance and the shower of Christ’s infinite forgiveness are but a breath and a prayer away, and that is what befits a pastor (or whatever sort of minister).

That is, indeed, the essence of faith – sola gratia. 

Lord have mercy on all of us who dare to take some sort of level of responsibility in the Church. We are the chiefs of sinners.

(photo credit, Moyan Brenn on Flickr). 

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