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Some thoughts on finishing Seminary

Some thoughts on finishing Seminary

This May I did a thing!

I donned a silly looking hat and robe, made my family come to Portland, walked across a stage, knelt down, and received another weird looking wardrobe item they called a “hood.” And with that, I had graduated! I have a Master of Divinity degree!

(Side note: the man backstage with the big camera where I was directed and ordered to tilt my head just a little more to the right, asked me about my degree. How does one describe a degree in which you have been told that you are now a Master of the Divine, but feel so much further from mastery of God than when you began? I told him it was a theology degree so I could become a pastor, an answer which satisfied him for a moment. Until he asked the follow up, “Did you know that’s what you were going to study when you started?”)

Anyway, I had graduated. But not really.

At Multnomah Falls!
Exploring Downtown Portland

I still had one more class to take. So after gallivanting around Portland with my family all weekend, I sent them home and headed to a retreat center for the first four days of what would be my summer intensive in Spiritual Formation and Discipleship.

I admit it, I was annoyed. Everyone else was done with school and here I was having to take one more class to finish my degree. I didn’t want to take a summer class. I didn’t want to keep telling people that I was walking in graduation in May, but wouldn’t officially be done until July. I was suffering a serious case of senioritis and worried I would not get anything out of the class.

I had done some wrestling with God over this very issue earlier that spring. My spirit had felt in such turmoil over my upcoming graduation. I described it to my friends as “feeling all the feels.” I didn’t know what to do with all those feelings, so I took myself on a solo retreat. I was lucky enough to get to stay at my Aunt and Uncle’s bonus house on the coast where I ate good food, enjoyed incredible rest, and talked to God about all those feelings I was feeling.

Honestly, I was worried about the fact that the graduation ceremony wouldn’t actually be the ritual to mark the ending of this incredible experience. I was worried that when July rolled around and I turned in my final assignment, it would feel so anticlimactic. I wondered about how to make it special, about how to mark the actual completion.

I spent a lot of time on that solo retreat contemplating how the seminary experience had changed me. I read through my notes from orientation and journaled all kinds of thoughts. I tried to put words to the person I had become, the values I now held, the deepest lessons I had learned. I wrote pages and pages of gratitudes, and one page of frustrations/regrets. I walked away from that retreat much, much lighter.

All bundled up to enjoy an afternoon on the Washington coast. Prayer is best for me by the water.
Enjoying some tea, sunshine, and one of my favorite views on my last morning.

But still annoyed that I had to take that summer class.

Turns out, I wish everyone could take a class in Spiritual Formation and Discipleship to end their seminary experience. To begin with, I spent four days on retreat in an amazing setting, with incredible classmates, and a wise and gifted teacher. We studied scripture together, we prayed together, we reminded one another of our belovedness, and we learned hard and good truths of life and spirituality together. I left that place profoundly grateful and ready to tackle the final semester.

Reality hit me hard, however, when I got home. After having a family dinner and tucking the kids into bed, Darin called me over to the couch and told me that he had been let go from his job that day. I will never forget the image of his angst-ridden face as he gave me the news. The next day I, too, was let go. Someday I’ll be able to write about this whole experience, but for now, I’ll just say that our lives were completely turned upside down. We made plans to finish the kids’ school year, then move into our camping trailer for the summer (our housing was a benefit with Darin’s job at camp), putting the majority of our belongings into storage.

It was a hard few weeks of sorting, packing, and job hunting. And I still had classwork to do. There was so much grace from my teacher and my classmates, but I’ll be honest, some days sitting down to read a book or write a forum post was the last thing I wanted to do. And some days it was the thing that kept me alive.

And then we said goodbye to our home and set out on our adventure. I had my computer and books with me, and set about, bit by bit, to finish the major project of the class. I had set my mind to writing a curriculum for women’s spiritual formation. It became a sort of culmination of my learning and my passions developed during the four years of seminary. It took hours of research and writing to complete, and it took one generously given extension to turn in finished.

The morning I turned it in I was all alone in the guest room at my mother-in-law’s house. Darin was finishing a bathroom remodel project he had taken on for some friends, and I was going to be taking Daisy to summer camp that afternoon. When my alarm went off I sat up to read through the project one final time, fixing a few errors and typos. And then I uploaded it and hit submit. I sent an email to my professor letting her know that it had been turned in, and that was it.

I was done with seminary.

I took a selfie to commemorate the occasion.

This selfie – in bed still in my PJs.

In the end that was all I needed. It was rather anticlimactic. There were no hugs, no cake, no ceremony. I didn’t throw a big party. Instead, I simply hit submit and went out to hug my girls good morning.

I am so grateful for the work Holy Spirit did in me that this moment was enough. It was just me and God. It was quiet. It was a whispered, “well done.” It was the knowledge that I had completed what I had set out to do, and in the process had become a different person. Four years ago I had agreed to let God transform me through the experience of seminary, and transformed I had been.

Sometimes quiet and simple and done is all the celebration one needs.

The Pharisees, Jesus, and Drawing Lines in the Sand

The Pharisees, Jesus, and Drawing Lines in the Sand

Hans Schäufelein; Christ and the Pharisees, from Das Plenarium, 1517,

 

Growing up in the church it was always pretty clear to me who the bad guys of Scripture were. I knew that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not down with Jesus and tried repeatedly to fool and shame him. But Jesus was too smart for them, instead skillfully and compassionately evading their traps: refusing to condemn a woman they wanted to stone, challenging them to study what is meant by God’s declaration “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and using a story of a beaten and bloody man cared for by the lowest of low to teach what is meant by love your neighbor. Jesus’ harshest words were always for these “whitewashed tombs” who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4) My childhood world was pretty black and white, divided into good guys and bad guys, and when it came to Jesus and his enemies, all was crystal clear.

 

But it turns out the world isn’t so black and white, and neither is Scripture. The more I learn and lean in, the more I see nuance, both/and, now/not yet and I am not as eager to fit things into neat dichotomous categories. A few years ago when I studied the book of Matthew in Bible Study Fellowship I found myself strangely empathetic to the Pharisees. As I began to put myself in their shoes I started to see how threatening the teaching of Jesus were to their understanding of God, of their holy book Torah, of righteousness, of their fundamental understanding of who they were as God’s chosen people. Jesus was upending everything they thought they understood. Now you can argue that Jesus was simply returning to the original intention, revealing to them who God had always been, showing them how they had missed the mark over the years. But change is hard, especially when the change is predicated on the fact that you were wrong. So often when confronted with our failures and offered a right perspective, instead of accepting new information we double-down, hold tighter and dig in our heels. I am speaking from years of personal experience here; humility is not my strength.

 

I started to get where the Pharisees were coming from. For Jews of the first-century, their framework for self-understanding was found in Torah, in the sacred writings of Israel. Torah gave Jews an identity as God’s chosen people and the responsibilities that came with this election. Jews viewed Torah as the eternal word of God, unchanging and normative in all times and contexts. But since life is ever changing, Pharisaic tradition was created to help Jews “continue to live in the present world but seek to discover in Torah itself the principles that would allow them to maintain its integrity as an absolute norm, yet relate it to the real circumstances of their lives.”[1] The invention of this interpretive practice called midrash kept Torah alive, present, and authoritative.

 

Christians have continued such a practice with our sacred texts found in The Holy Bible (which includes the Jewish texts). We may not call it midrash, but the work of theologians and pastors to interpret these ancient texts in light of our lives and contexts certainly feels like this practice. For example, obviously Scripture doesn’t speak directly to my use/abuse of technology, but I can find principles for caring for others, the wise use of my time, honoring resources, etc. that help me develop a healthy ethic around this modern invention. I have noticed a trend of Evangelicals to happily camp out in the Epistles because these letters of Paul, James, and others tend to spell things out more clearly than a story from the Old Testament or life of Jesus might. And yet we still must wrestle. Was Paul’s admonition against women preaching towards a specific context, or for all time and place? Did Jesus really mean we should turn the other cheek if abused? Like the Jews with Torah, Christians believe our holy text is alive and relevant and has as much to say to us modern people as it did to early believers.

 

You may already assume where I’m headed with these thoughts, but here is where I spell them out for you. A few weeks ago a group of Evangelical leaders, with (what I’m asking God to help me see) the best of intentions, wrote out a sort of midrash on sexuality they called the Nashville Statement. This, they declared, is the proper way to view human sexuality from a scriptural viewpoint, and this, they were clear to note, is the only way for followers of Jesus to do so. A line in the sand was drawn. Insiders and outsiders were declared.

 

As I read and wept in anger and grief, not only at the tone-deaf timing of the statement, but also to the damage it would inevitably cause in the lives of sincere Christ-following LGBTQ people and their friends, family members, and allies, I couldn’t help think of Matthew 23 and the weeping Jesus did over the Pharisees. “Woe to you,” he cried again and again. “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy.” “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of fish.” Jesus’ harshest words were always for these religious leaders and it is no wonder why my childhood-self vilified them too.

 

When Jesus walked the earth he declared that he had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He told us that he was the embodiment of the law, the personification of it. If we wanted to know what God was up to, sure we could look to Scripture, but we should first and foremost look to Jesus. Scripture is an important, living gift. But it is not central, not a fourth member of the Trinity. To understand any of our holy texts, old and new testament alike, they must be filtered through the lens of Jesus. Scripture is not Jesus.

 

And neither is the Nashville Statement.

 

 

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 50.