Looking Back to Help Others Look Forward
They say all jokes have a hint of truth in them. That’s what makes them funny. There was a joke I heard when I started seminary three years ago that goes something like this:
Seminary is much like the Easter Story. The first year they’ll crucify you and things you believe in. The second year they’ll bury you in the tomb of major classes, lots of reading and papers. And the third year you’ll finally be resurrected.
It seems like yesterday I was in my first semester of classes at Candler. I can remember the conversations about classes, professors, and all of the work required to pass. If I think about it really hard, I can remember the feeling that three years would be an eternity. Graduation wasn’t even on the horizon—it was nowhere close to conceptualization.
Over that year, I can remember seemingly endless hours of reading and writing. I can remember assignments that made no sense at all and being asked to write papers on matters I could hardly spell, much less articulate with any sort of coherent or precise thought. All the while I was asked to sit through some of the most uncomfortable, and seemingly unending, sessions with people I did not know from Adam’s house cat (I’m from South Georgia so you’ll have to forgive the colloquialism) as we reflected on things we were experiencing at our Contextual Education sites or in the classroom.
I can remember the first time I was asked to critically consider some of the quant Sunday School lessons of my childhood in a classroom setting. It was as though someone had the audacity to walk right up to me and ask for the cloak off my back. How dare they ask me critically examine the stories of my childhood! But engaging in such critical thinking caused me to have a wonderfully scary encounter with foundational beliefs beginning to crack. I intentionally mean that it was both wonderful and scary all at once. It became clear early on that who I was when I came to seminary was not going to identical to who I would be after the rigors of the program. And that was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
By my second year I began to experiment with trying on various voices. Amid the burying underneath mounds of materials and thinkers, one begins to find that some of the thinkers resonate with them. Some have special qualities that tickle the fancy of budding theologians in such a way that often, you try their voice on for size. It’s okay to do that. Some voices fit better than others. Some you will quickly outgrow like a child can outgrow clothes in a single season. Others stay with you, like old friends. Either way, the array of voices has the ability to cause mass confusion in the life of the “in-process” seminarian. But you continue to listen for in the middle of the confusion are sometimes subtle, yet profound moments when they surprise you and sing in a melodious chorus together.
And then comes the glorious possibilities of being in your final year. By this time you have successfully questioned and re-questioned much of what you came to seminary believing and thinking. Some you have kept because, after all, Candler will never take the easy road of simply telling you what to believe. You will form relationships with professors and peers and, dare I say it, you will enjoy classes. As the end of seminary comes closer and closer you will even have days where you’re sad that what seemed like such a distant possibility is slowly, but surely becoming an all-too-close reality. You are, all at once, a bumbling mess of mixed emotions. Job possibilities hang in the balance. Ordination pressures arrive. The end of school means the exciting end to deadlines and never-ending papers. And then it hits you—you will soon no longer be able to hide under a guise of safety at Candler. You will learn that you will soon have to enter the world and do this ministry thing on your own.
You realize a couple of important things after your time at Candler is finished. First, after I realized how scary it will be to finish and “do this ministry thing on my own,” I remembered, “I’m not on my own at all.” God is with us no matter where we go. And we have the opportunity to be a valued member of a division of the “communion of saints” at Candler. And so you are never, ever alone in the world. Secondly, there will come a day that you will speak and it will not be the voice of Barth, Luther, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Carol Newsome, Athanasius, James Cone or Howard Thurman. It will be you. And it might scare you the first time you hear it. It will sound like you, but not the you that you once knew. And it will also sound like those wonderful conversation partners you developed in your studies, but not exactly because none of them will ever be a perfect fit. It will be a you that is not finished developing yet. In fact, you’ll realize that seminary is only the beginning this new you.
But don’t let me spoil the ending too much. Enjoy your ride and know that you have a community of saints, both past and present, lifting you up in prayer through the deadlines, pressures, all-night study sessions, and exams that will ultimately lead toward a transformation that you never thought possible.
Maybe folks are right in that all jokes have a hint of truth in them. Maybe seminary can and will reflect a smaller version of the grand and glorious story of redemption in the lives of each and every student ready to embark on the journey.
Grace and Peace,
- Rev. Ben Gosden, 11T
Ben is a 2011 MDiv graduate from Candler and the Associate Pastor of Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon, GA. He blogs regularly on issues of faith, life, and being a young adult pastor in a postmodern world. You can find his website at www.mastersdust.com.