On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

So You Think You Want to Go to Seminary

Oh! Hello! I didn’t see you there.

Occasionally on this blog I’ve offered advice to current seminarians, advice to new pastors, and the odd Open Letter to a Seminarian, which may or may not have opened with the words, “I hate your stinking guts.”

But you… you are a bird I’d not tweeted at in the past.  You, the Prospective Minister. The Prospective Seminarian. The Thinking About It But Not 100% Sure But Feels Called gal/fella.  You, my dear, are about to get an earful.

So you think you want to go to seminary?

Let me guess, my little Popsicle:
You knew more Bible verses than your Sunday School teachers growing up.
You taught your mom things about theology at lunch after a particularly bad sermon from your senior pastor.  
You grew up in one denomination (Baptist? Methodist? Presbyterian?) but are now pretty convinced you want to be Anglican.

(It’s cool.  No judgment here.  We’ve all been there.  The Anglican urge is a part of most of our calls to ministry.)

You wanted to be a doctor but you failed college biology.
Your favorite book is Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, well, the first chapter because that’s all you read.
You really like Rob Bell but are willing to burn a copy of Love Wins in front of the admissions committee at your seminary of choice if that’s what it takes to get in.

 

Well, let me just say:

I am so proud of you! Discerning a call to ministry or at least seminary is the bomb! Do a little dance. Call your grandmother (she’ll be thrilled).  Now, buckle up.

 

Some things seminary is not:

1. Filled with perfect people.
I’d say that I knew more party animals, was invited to more ragers, and heard more swearing in seminary than in high school and college combined.  Sometimes I think people take seminary as their last opportunity to party hearty, before they get out in the world and have to be Perfect Pastors.  Also, there were people who ditched class, put Bailey’s in their morning coffee, and gave themselves (ourselves) a “B” on the self-graded assignments that they (we) knew deserved Fs. (Confession is good for the soul.)

2. Easy.
Just because your teachers mostly love Jesus doesn’t mean they’re going to give you an A for ending every paper, “So, that’s why Jesus is pretty sweet.”  Also, don’t ever write that in a paper. Take my word for it.

3. Horrible.
Just because it’s grad school and it’s harder than undergrad and there’s a lot of pressure and people freak out a little bit, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.  I can’t tell you how many night I laughed uncontrollably and was almost kicked out of the library while studying. “Studying,” I should say. And I can’t tell you how many biscuits and gravy I consumed with great girlfriends and bottomless cups of coffee.  And I can’t tell you how much I miss it.  I miss it like a death in the family.  I miss it like my heart got cut in half when I graduated.  I miss it like missing that thing you forgot that you were going to say for your third example on a list of things you miss seminary like.  Gah.

 

Some things seminary is:

1. Breeding grounds for like-minded conservatives. And liberals.  Everyone, really, except probably you.
By the end of your first year, roughly 5 weddings will have occurred between people you know. Roughly 46 more couples will be engaged. 2 couples will be preggers.  You will want to defriend them on facebook in protest, but, you know… that loving Jesus stuff.

2. Interesting!
Did you know that Karl Barth cheated on his wife for the majority of their marriage? I didn’t, until I took a class on him.  Did you know that John Wesley was never an ordained Methodist minister? SEMANTICS ARE FUN! Did you know that if you drink 8 cups of coffee before noon, your heart will flutter for a full two days? These are the things you learn in seminary. GOOD STUFF!

3. Filled with the Spirit of the Living God.
Sometimes you’ve got to search for Her. Sometimes She’s disguised as professors who are adamant religious pluralists, or preceptors who give you a B for not having a “clear thesis” when your first paragraph clearly ends with the words “IN THIS PAPER I WILL ARGUE.”  [Breathe, Erin… Breathe…]  Sometimes She’s front and center, at chapel and in the library and in the book you’re reading for your spirituality class. Sometimes She’s in the tears of a friend who has discerned the call to leave seminary.  Sometimes She’s in the criticism that will make you a better pastor.  Sometimes She’s in the bed, snuggling up with you and keeping your heart strangely warmed when all that Church History reading just makes you want to go cold.  The Spirit of the Living God is there, present and active.

 

So, with that being said, here is some random advice for you, Prospective Seminarian:

1. Always assume a noontime guest speaker, panel, or lecture will include lunch.
2. Do not ever eat pizza three days in a row at these free lunches. Trust me.
3. Study in bars, restaurants, museums, and parks, not just in the library.
4. Think about prayer and devotion as a tithe of your time: Spend at least 10% of your day with God.
5. Go to chapel.
6. Don’t dress like an undergrad.
7. Hydrate– just always do this.
8. Don’t develop a competition among your friends to see who can wait the longest to start a paper and then make the best grade. This will backfire on both your friendships and your GPA.
9. You know what? Just don’t talk about grades ever.  Don’t compare.  Seminary is not a competition.  It’s a collaboration.  Cheerlead, don’t compete.
10. Seek out mentors. I know this is easier said than done, but find a professor who seems relatively approachable or compatible with your personality and pop into their office. You’d be surprised how much most of them LOVE this.  And if they don’t have time for you, they’ll reschedule.  The worst that can happen is they ask you to leave.
11. Journal.  Talk about how your views are changing, or not changing; what you’re struggling with and what you’re learning a lot from; what you love and what you hate; what makes you weep and what makes you laugh.
12. Write down all the ministry advice your professors give out. They are endless wells of valuable information.  These notes, four years down the road, will save your little life in a ministerial crisis.
13. Keep in touch with your old pastor.  But, well, don’t tell him what a liberal you’re becoming and how you’re starting to think he’s crazypants and how Barth would disagree with everything about his theology and how he should switch roles with his female associate to make a point.  Just keep that to yourself and tell him you enjoyed the sermon he posted online Sunday.
14. Do as much reading as you can.
15. Do not berate yourself for not doing all the reading. Unless you’re a wunderkind, you’re not going to be able to do it all. But you have the rest of your life to catch up on that reading. Do not feel bad about it.
16. Take advantage of the counseling and psychiatric services available through your institution.  Go cry on their couches about how overwhelmed you feel and how you’re doubting your call and how you’re afraid you’re never going to pass your Board of Ordained Ministry because they’re going to find your dog-eared copy of The Purpose-Driven Life that you read with your parents in high school and then you’ll be shunned forever.  They are the voices who can reasonably say, “You are being ridiculous.”
17. Don’t play the Most Likely to Be a Future Bishop/Get the Best Appointment game with your friends about people in your class. Leave it up to Jesus. And the Cabinet.
18. Go to all the optional seminars about weddings, funerals, and other practical stuff. You will thank yourself later.
19. Over all the vacations, read as many personal, non-religious, funny, soul-soothing books you can. Also, watch all the reality television you can.
20. Make time to go swimming in lakes, road-trip to the beach, have a movie marathon, sleep over on a friend’s floor, and go dancing.  

21. Don’t take it too seriously. If you felt called, you were probably called.  God will bring you through the tough times and will put plenty of wonderful things along the way to keep you going.  Believe me.

 

Godspeed, and buy decaf.