Saturday, December 31, 2022

My Kid's Oral History

 Lately, I've read a few books that deal, at least in part, with the origins of the biblical New Testament.  My favorites include Bart Ehrmann's Jesus, Interrupted and George Lamsa's New Testament Origin.  Ehrmann's work tries to review basic, consensus scholarship on the gospels and New Testament evolution, while Lamsa's work from the mid-20th century argues that the original New Testament was written in Aramaic and that we can still read it in the Peshitta.  What I most love about the relationship between these two books is that they address a common statement made by certain Christians of today: Christians have always agreed/thought the same way and now liberals are changing everything.  First of all, Ehrmann's book, while not dismissing the sentiment, clearly shows that on what Christians may have agreed is vastly different than modern "traditional" Christians like to think.  Secondly, Ehrmann does thoroughly make the case that Christians have not always agreed.  Prior to "orthodoxy," Christianity was all over the place; and since the establishment of orthodoxy, still plenty of Christians have lived outside consensus theology and scholarship.  Including, perhaps, George Lamsa.  Lamsa's argument about the origins of the New Testament falls outside the consensus scholarship Ehrmann describes, not just in the main argument but in smaller streams of thought as well, making a comparison fascinating.  

For me, the most fascinating element of comparing the two works is how they treat oral history.  Ehrmann follows the course that most moderns would: oral history is unreliable.  Therefore, he says, a generation or two between Jesus's life and the writing of the first gospel is like a game of telephone.  We can't rely upon accurate details.  It is generally understood that the gospel writers weren't writing down absolute fact.  Lamsa doesn't contradict the conclusion but, as a necessary part of his argument, suggests that oral history and traditions are reliable.  

I remember back to my seminary days, too, reading a bunch of introductory books and textbooks on the Bible, each with their own take on oral tradition's reliability.  Most of them assume that we all agree that keeping history orally is like playing telephone.  At the end of the telephone line, you get something close, usually, but nonetheless humorously different.  

There's a funny scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm (you can assume it's inappropriate, then) where Larry David is at a party and his friend Susie is playing telephone with some kids.  The first game ends with, "My dog has fleas," but started, "The garden has trees."  Then Larry joins the game and it ends, "I love tits," but started, "I love pigs."  Interestingly, it apparently remained "I love pigs" all the way to Larry, four people down the line, and it was only Larry's perverse mind, while staring at a woman's bosom, that changed it.  In my experience that scene captures how the game often plays out.  Rarely are the words all changed, as in the first game seen, and sometimes none are changed.  If any words are changed, it's probably only one.  If more words than that are changed I usually questioned whether someone did it on purpose to spice up what is normally a lame game, even for kids.

Even supposing oral history is like telephone, then, it doesn't necessarily mean oral history and tradition are unreliable.  The difference by the end, supposing no one has purposely changed the story, will be minimal or non-existent.  Now, Ehrmann does suggest that some scribes, let alone those passing on the story orally, purposely altered the story for it to make more sense to them.  That makes sense to me.  But Ehrmann goes on to say that scholars can generally piece together what the original or consensus version was because of the number of manuscripts we have.  By reading them all together, a good scholar can see what was changed and why.  My question, which is why I've never bought the argument against oral history, is that the same process would surely apply to oral scribes.  Would not one teller of the story, in hearing an altered version, then seek to correct the altered version?  

Indeed, the conception of an oral tradition as a game of telephone is wrong.  It is not.  Rather, it would be like a group of players sitting in a circle and one saying aloud to the second a phrase, asking for the second person to repeat it back, and then only if the first person hears what they said can the second person then say aloud the phrase to the third person, repeating the same process.  Cultures whose stories and traditions have been passed on orally would agree.  Every family or tribe assigns a person to be their storyteller apprentice, whose job it then is to learn the stories from the current storyteller.  The current storyteller ensures that the apprentice learns the stories word for word.

Before I continue, let me disassociate any of what I'm saying from an analysis of Ehrmann's review or Lamsa's argument.  I don't intend to pick one over the other or prove or disprove anything.  Ehrmann is still right that the gospel writers had purposes other than fixing fact.  He's right for all the other reasons he lists other than the "obvious" case of oral tradition's unreliability.  All I want to say is that oral history is, can be, and should be extremely reliable--at least, equally as reliable as written history.

Whether you know it or not, you have personal experience with oral history's reliability and accuracy.  If you don't, I'll share a story that you can claim as your own.  I'm sure, though, that my kid can't be so unique as to be the only one who remembered or remembers stories.  

My oldest son, Sebastian, was in such a hurry to learn how to read that he learned how to fake it.  At the age of three, he had us read one of two stories every night.  Kids have favorites, that's for sure.  Parents have to deal with it.  My coping mechanism was to do voices for characters and to read the story the way I wanted to read it.  What I mean by that is that, in a few places, I reworded the story because obviously I know better than the author.  Week after week, we'd read one of these two stories, oftentimes both.  Eventually, after a couple of months, Sebastian corrected me.  It was a Cars related story and I had read, "Doc was not happy."  Those were and are the actual words on the page.  Funnily enough, those were words I thought should have been changed to, "Doc was furious," so Sebastian had heard me read it that way for a couple of months.  His correcting me, then, was actually incorrect.  He wanted me to say, "Doc was furious."  I must have been tired that night because I then accidentally skipped a page and Sebastian noticed that I had missed something.  When I turned back to the right page, Sebastian then placed his index finger at the beginning of text and said, word for word, the words typed there.  

I went to bed that night praising our son to my wife because he could read.  I didn't even need to teach him!  My wife wondered aloud whether he had just memorized the story.  So the next night I asked Sebastian to read the story to me.  He agreed, opened up, and began to read the way he had read the missed page the night before.  His index finger moved along the page with the words.  A prodigy!  Unfortunately, six or seven pages along, I realized my wife was right.  Sebastian would pause after he turned a page, look at the picture, and then "read."  He was using the pictures as cues.  And the act of moving his finger, I realized, was learned from me.  I was in the habit of reading that way to him to show him that the words coming out of my mouth were printed on the page.  It became evident that he was simply reciting how he learned the story and the act of reading from me because there were parts he got wrong.  In one case he skipped a whole sentence and was a little surprised when he thought he ended the page's text but there were still words left to read.  Occasional words and phrases were changed, even from my version, that could only have been the result of a faulty memory.

Despite my initial disappointment, I was still and remain amazed.  At three years old his memory was incredible.  Sebastian could "read" the other favorite book in the same way.  In terms of length of text, I would guess that each book comprised about one fifth of the gospel according to Mark, if not more.  If a three year old can do that simply because he likes some stories, what about someone whose been tasked with remembering and telling stories about the one who saves us from sin and death?

There's no evidence that I know of that anyone in early Christianity was chosen or tasked to be the community's storyteller.  I don't think that changes anything because oral tradition was ubiquitous.  Besides, we have no problem accepting Homer's epic poems or, closer to modernity, actors' renditions.  From what I remember, Homer lived and composed his poems a good five hundred years prior to either of them being written down.  Perhaps scholars don't care whether the Homer we have was the original Homer--I don't care, either--but literature scholars also know that poetry uses cues to aid oral recitation.  Indeed, poetry may have evolved the way it has because of, first, the need for memorization for oral recitations and, second, the development of the printed word.  Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter for a reason.  Not only was it a style but it also helped actors remember their lines.  If you get stuck with a word or two, you just need to know where you are: if you've ended on an unstressed syllable, your next word must begin with a stressed.  Pictures, like the ones Sebastian used, or like the stained glass adorning most older churches, are the best cues, but poets and storytellers always used cues within the text itself.  While still impressive, Sebastian's memorization is in no way unique.  If he didn't have pictures, he would have found other ways to memorize his favorite stories.

Sebastian needed the story repeated many times over for him to remember.  No doubt the same would have been and is true for oral storytellers.  That doesn't at all limit the breadth of what oral tradition could encompass.  Again, we can look to actors performing in a troupe.  In the days of Shakespeare, especially, and even now for those traveling troupes still operating, actors have a bunch of plays stored away in their memory.  How many depends on the troupe.  What's incredible, though, is that each actor would need multiple parts memorized for each play, in case of illness and also to give the director leeway for creativity.  It's not as if the amount of repetition to memorize all four gospels, for instance, would then be superhuman.

My experience with my son does also prove, one could say, the unreliability of oral tradition and history.  My changing "not happy" to "furious" does affect the meaning.  To not be happy simply means the absence of happiness whereas "furious" states an active emotion.  It's slight but no less important.  Sebastian's skipping and changing words also matters.  With that said, he was three; if I wanted to correct him, I could have; and he had plenty of years ahead of him to get it right, if we cared.

Aside from the fact that I learned we should read more of the Bible to our kids at night if they have such propensity to memorize, what really matters here is that, if you're reading or listening to someone making arguments about biblical history, biblical formation, or other historical developments, don't let them base their conclusions off an unreliability of oral history and tradition.  To do so is to make a conclusion off a poorly thought out bias.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Seminarians Don't Blow Stuff Up: What is Seminary?

One of my previous churches is located across the street from a once shady fish store.   At least, I assume it was a fish store because it had fish-shaped neon lights in the window.  Never did I see anyone walk in or out during the day.  Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought the situation strange.  On a church meeting night, some undercover detectives staked out the place from the narthex of our building.  Our meeting veered into talking what worship hymns the church knew but hadn't sung in awhile, so I offered to run to the sanctuary to pick up a hymnal.  As I did, I turned on the light, and immediately heard, "Hey!  Turn off the light!  They can't know we're here!"  Yikes.  Seminary does not teach you how to assist a stakeout.  Or even whether you should.  Life and being a pastor teaches you how to be a pastor.

If seminary doesn't teach you how to be a pastor beyond the basic knowledge required, then what does seminary do?  What is seminary?  Why do we need it?  Do we need it?  Should our churches demand that clergy be seminary-trained?  I'll conclude this series by answering these questions, sort of.  

I started the Seminarians Don't Blow Stuff Up series with an eye particularly toward prospective seminarians and current clergy, to inform or remind them of what seminary is really like.  Now I will definitively say that seminary should not ever be in the cards simply to learn more about yourself.  You will learn about yourself, certainly, but you won't learn any more about yourself at seminary than by living life, if you're open to how God is teaching you.  Life that happens at seminary is different, sure, which I'll get to, but you don't need to be saddled with debt for it.  

A friend of mine has created and manages 40Form, a forty-day journal exploration into one's life, character, and priorities.  It's a powerful experience.  Maybe this is a shameless plug for 40Form.  Or maybe it's an example of how we can learn about ourselves to the same extent as we would in seminary but in a forty-day course far less expensive.  

What does seminary do for you?  Think of a toolbox.  Imagine that you are like me and don't like working with your hands and don't have any clue what should be in a toolbox or what the tools are for.  Now imagine that someone has gifted you with a fully stocked toolbox so that you can now consider yourself an adult.  Some of the tools in that toolbox you'll recognize and know how to use: hammer, screwdriver, nails.  Other tools, however, you still won't recognize or, if you do, not know how or when to use them.  That is, until you break something that needs a basin wrench or box-end wrench (what?).  Then you might Google a solution to your problem and realize you have the tool already.  It's the same with seminary.  Many of the tools you need to be a good pastor are taught in seminary, even if most of the applications and tips are not covered.  What you'll learn from being a pastor of how to be a pastor are, generally, advanced lessons on how to use the tools you were gifted in seminary.

For instance, during my first appointment, my father-in-law suddenly and tragically died.  In the year I had been that church's pastor, my father-in-law had become a known and respected member of the church.  My family and I were therefore not the only ones grieving.  How could I minister to the members of my church while I, myself, was grieving?  Essentially, I put to good use lessons on appropriate boundaries and the communal nature of grief.  I didn't know that I was putting seminary into practice until afterwards when I reflected on the ordeal.  The same lessons of boundaries, particularly related to self-care, significantly helped when my young family of four were re-appointed, bought a house, and moved to another state in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic--at the height of it, in fact.  

Boundaries and self-care aren't the sexiest learnings from seminary.  For survival and thriving, of pastor and church, they can be among the most important.  But what traditionally expected lessons can one get at seminary?  Personally I think that theological training is the most useful.  

Theological training covers a wide territory.  Exploring various theologies throughout Judaeo-Christian history, understanding how one's belief in x affects one's belief in y, reflecting on one's own experiences theologically, and reading the Bible accordingly.  What will be useful to you, though, is how to live in a space where diverse theologies and understandings of the world are trying to live and associate in unity.  Seminary will teach you how to manage the business and administrative side of effective ministry, but not how intense the pushback can be to even the simplest or apparently righteous decisions.  That's where theological training comes in handy.  Pushback will almost certainly relate back to differing theological positions.  Trying to navigate issues within the church simply by convincing people that you're right, without having any idea why and how it is that others believe how it is they believe, will almost certainly fail.  Or be miserable for everyone involved.

Theological training can also teach you how to guide others to deeper theological questioning and reflecting, to understand God, themselves, and others more meaningfully.  Unfortunately, therein lies a problem.  Too many in the church are not willing to explore.  Often they are of the opinion that theology is unnecessary because the way that they read the Bible, understand God, and live out their faith is the correct way--the God-instructed way.  Perhaps they're right, but those on other ends of the spectrum might believe the same.  How are we supposed to live as the Body of Christ if there is indeed a spectrum?  Clergy are trained in seminary in the very ways we least like to be challenged.  The essence of John Wesley's "Catholic Spirit" is crucial, I think, to living as a unified Christian family serving and worshiping God together, using and empowering all the spiritual gifts of the congregation.  Yet that spirit is often rejected because we don't want our pastor to teach us methods of learning about and knowing God more, we want our pastor to teach us the one right way.  We judge how well the pastor is doing in that regard based on our present conception of what is absolutely right.  

In other words, we're fairly certain we already know God's absolute truth, and that's why we don't see the necessity of a catholic spirit, of allowing or accepting diverse theologies and practices, even if they come from the pastor.  If we reject what the pastor says or does because he or she is wrong, then we are basically saying that we only want our clergy to accumulate life experiences to pepper into the sermons that agree with us.  Maybe that's why young clergy are often judged more harshly than older clergy.  They haven't built up the life experience to compensate for differences of opinion.

All this is to say that the crucial lesson of seminary teaches clergy how necessary it is for churches to discern what role or roles they expect their pastor to fulfill.  And what the role of the pastor should be.  What's the point of having a pastor if we already know all we think we need to know?  If we're already capable of reading the Bible with perfect accuracy on our own?  Of judging the pastor's every word and action because we're so perfectly in the know?  It's entirely possible that, in the last assessment, we don't need a pastor--we just need someone to stand up in Sunday worship and say words.  I say that sarcastically but it is a legitimate ecclesiastical position.

Some basic questions can help us flesh out how we understand the role of clergy and what we expect of them.  They may seem silly but they're serious.  All the questions will be asked as "do..." but could be replaced with "should..."  

Do we call it the pastor's office or study?  Is it off limits when the pastor's not there?

Do we listen to the pastor if they preach or teach something unfamiliar or disagreeable?  Do we reject it?  Do we challenge them?  Do we blindly accept?  Or do we take what they say and pray on it?

Do we prefer an older pastor?  Or a younger pastor?  A pastor the same color, sex, and orientation as us?  From the same socioeconomic strata?

What do we think when a female pastor wears flats, rather than high heels, in the pulpit?  Or when a pastor takes their shoes off?  Or when a pastor dresses down?  

What do we think when a pastor curses?  Or almost curses, with words like, "pissed off" or "crap"?  What do we think when a pastor speaks in a seemingly irreverent way?

What do we think when a pastor lives in a way that we feel is unholy?  Or not to the standard of clergy?

What do we think when a pastor seems to spend all their time preparing sermon and Bible studies and not with people of the church?  Or when the pastor seems to spend all their time out in the community and not with the people of the church?  Or when the pastor does spend all their time with the people of the church, and not out in the community?  And other variations.

Going to seminary doesn't suddenly transform a person into superman/woman.  A pastor can only do so much.  There are a bunch of roles a pastor has, historically, and is now expected to fulfill, and we have to figure out our priorities.  That is true for the pastor and for the church she or he serves.  Not only do we need to discern our priorities, we need to reflect upon our theology and expectations generally.  If our expectations are that a seminarian will meet all our expectations, especially if those expectations are unexamined, we're being a bit silly.

On the other hand, if we learn the reality of seminary more, what actually happens there, what it's all about, what you learn and what you don't learn, we can perhaps better discern what hopes and dreams we'll place on the pastor; we can perhaps better live into our own spiritual gifts for the sake of God and God's church, rather than expecting the pastor to do it all.  Your church's best hope is for each and every person to commit to living their faith no matter who the pastor is and to do so with a loving, catholic spirit.  So best to know that your seminary-trained pastor (if you have one) is still a humorously normal person also doing their best to faithfully live their discipleship with you, with some theological training.

Through all these stories, I hope and pray you've decided, decided to follow Jesus.  Don't put that responsibility on the pastor, and if you're a pastor, don't add responsibility you can't meet.  Reframe the relationship between church and pastor, clergy and lay, so that everyone's gifts and training can best be used to glorify God.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Seminarians Don't Blow Stuff Up: Grace


 There's a lot that seminary doesn't teach you.  That may seem obvious to you.  What may not seem obvious is that seminary doesn't teach you the most important, transformational and challenging elements of being a pastor. 

Seminary doesn't teach you, for instance, that many churches expect their pastor to give them the "answers" to life, but then become offended if your answers aren't the same as the ones they've already developed.  Or that many churches blame the pastor for any and all decisions they don't like, but then become frustrated if they aren't involved in the decision-making process, not realizing that the decisions they don't like were probably also influenced by lay collaboration.  It's a lonely vocation, being a pastor.  Good seminary professors may talk about the inherent struggles of pastoral life but no seminary can possibly teach you to handle it.  You have to experience a person leaving the church for reasons completely out of your control, or a person leaving because they've misunderstood you, or a person leaving because you did what you're certain God wanted you to do, to learn what it's like.  It's one thing I learned on my bike trip across the country that as helped me immensely: you can't train yourself into shape for the tasks God has put before you.  You have to ride yourself into shape.  You have to do it to be able to do it.  You have to trust God knew what He was doing when He called you and spend every moment relying upon God's grace.  You can never learn how to be a pastor.

You can't learn what to do when you find yourself working late at night in a haunted church building.  True story.  My first appointment had an old building re-built on the same spot the previous church building had burned down a hundred years before.  At night, you could hear the cries of the previous building: "Don't forget me!  Don't forget me!"  Either that, or there was a man living in the attic.  Actually, there was a man living in the attic.  He waited for everyone to leave before he himself could safely leave the building.  So maybe all the creepy sounds were of his devising, hoping to force people to leave earlier than planned.  You also can't learn what to do when a community member asks you to help her arrange her home, and you agree to help because she clearly has a mental illness and you're worried no one else will help, but then you find that her home is a trailer that hasn't been properly maintained for at least twenty years and instead simply used as storage for that time period.  You can't learn what to do when your father-in-law becomes a loved and respected member of the church family and then he suddenly passes away, and you're now expected to personally grieve and also offer care to your congregants.  You can't learn what to do when the parsonage the church provides for you is on a major thoroughfare, blessing the house with constant background noise and shaking except for a handful of hours at night.  You can't learn what to do when your church doesn't care what it means to be a (fill in the blank with whatever form of Christian disciple you are, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) because they want to create the church in their own image.  You can't learn what to do when the police take over your church building for a stakeout--true story!  You can't learn what to do when people just plain don't listen, are ready to take offense at every little thing you say, and can't abide any person or group believing or practicing faith differently and mask their self-centeredness as a concern with other people's "faithfulness," as if faithfulness to God's Word can't take a variety of forms through the Spirit (by the way, the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this.  Many churches are finding it impossible to strike a balance between caring for their congregants' physical safety and comfort levels with a theological and emotional need to remain open no matter what).  

Look, you can't be taught how to be a pastor in seminary.  You can, however, be taught the habits and rituals of a humble pastor, seeking God's grace in all things, in one's personal and pastoral life.  Crucially, you can be taught how to form the relationships that will sustain you throughout your fulfilling of your vocation.  Here is one fallacy many lay churchgoers need to be freed from: the pastor can be your friend.  No matter how close the relationships may be between pastor and congregant, they can never be truly a friendship.  Pray for your pastor, offer them support, but most of all encourage them to maintain the solid friendships they already have or should have.  A pastor won't survive without friends because the responsibility to grow a church spiritually, but no one's agreeing how that should be done, can be overwhelming.

The good news is that you or your pastor will almost certainly find lasting and meaningful spiritual friendships at seminary.  I'd like to share four different versions of friendship I experienced to either give hope to prospective seminarians, assure laity that their pastors are okay, remind current pastors of what's important, and perhaps also offer some thought-provoking reflections on the forms all our friendships take and how to best utilize them in our life moving forward.  Pastoral life presents its own particular challenges, but life itself can be a challenge.  The trick is benefitting from the people God has placed on our path to appreciate and enjoy the gift of life.

My grizzly bear roommate, Joel, was a year ahead of me in seminary and so, by being his roommate, I had a built-in set of friends.  One of them, Jo, later traveled to South Africa with me--or I with her would be more grammatically correct, as she was definitely more mature than I.  It was a blessing to have these friends in particular because they fit with my own personality quite well: funny, loved sports (some of them), and most importantly were committed to holy fun and intellectual and spiritual growth.  

At one lunch time, when chicken nuggets were being served, one of those friends declared that a chicken nugget lunch meant an eating contest.  I gleefully joined, to the mock delight of many, given my skinny frame.  I then handily won.  A year later, another friend, even skinnier than I, challenged others to a Chipotle burrito eating contest.  We made it into a "thing," walking down to Chipotle, walking back, and then gathering in the community room for the main event.  Probably H wouldn't want me to tell this story because she recently got married (congratulations!) and might still be in that, "Should I tell him all my life stories?" phase, but it so went that H, the skinniest one, ate both burritos first.  Unfortunately for her, I won the contest, because I was the only other one to have eaten two burritos in one sitting and she, shortly after finishing number two, mysteriously left the room and never returned.  You can guess what happened.  

Yes, there were shenanigans, but we also joined together night after night during Advent to read from The Christmas Chronicles and mark the holy season together.  And we challenged one another on a range of theological and vocational questions.  J and J were particularly insightful regarding economic justice issues, H on the nature of spiritual growth, and Joel on the reality of living life.  When I decided I would not become a pastor, none of them blindly accepted my decision but instead, while still supporting me, asked me why and wanted to ensure that I'd still use my spiritual gifts somehow and some way.  These conversations were not the purpose of our time together but did flesh out the meaningfulness of our friendship.  Together, we could clearly see that God has created us to share in life with Him, which means joyful and peaceful attention on God's self.  Our friendship helped us master the joyful and peaceful part, while always remaining attentive to God.  You need to laugh in life, especially if you are serving in a vocation filled with responsibility.

On what we might call the opposite end of the spectrum, I also participated in a band meeting during seminary.  Originally the Methodist movement, in addition to a theological focus on grace and spiritual perfection through the Holy Spirit, emphasized what were called class meetings and band meetings.  Class meetings met to ask one another how one's discipleship journey was going; band meetings met to confess sins to one another and then forgive them.  While our school required that each student attend a class meeting during an introductory class, mine didn't last, probably because it was merely a class requirement.  Whatever the reason, with the dissolution of my forced class meeting and my growing disillusionment with the qualifications and spirituality of my prospective clergy colleagues, I sought something more meaningful.  A lot of my disillusionment could probably be traced to the fact that I was a theological conservative surrounded by progressives.  All my friends at that time either leaned or were outright progressive, as were all the professors.  Plus, I seemed to daily fall off the pedestal of holiness and purity.  I needed some group of people I could unload my entire self to without fear of being judged.  The band meeting was just what I needed.

What made my band meeting meaningful was that it was only men--all band meetings should consist of one sex--and that we all felt out of place at that school.  Now, I shouldn't call it "my" band meeting because I was invited to an already ongoing band, but it became mine.  Publicly confessing one's sins to others is not great fun but even so I looked forward to that hour or two every week.  It was like a secret enclave where God spoke to us directly from Mt. Sinai, offering grace and mercy in increased measure.  My group of friends were open and accepting, of course, but there are times in life when we need more than friendly support, advice, and prayer.  We need an outward and tangible sign of God's grace.  An outward and tangible sign of God's saying to us, "I know the deepest, darkest parts of your being, and yet I gave my Son to die on the cross for you."  

The relationship I developed with my band members was special.  To this day those three have heard things about my life that no one else knows, not even my wife.  Yet you might not need a band meeting to develop those types of relationships.  It is hard, though, to maintain friendships that are completely and entirely open to everyone's failings and struggles all the time, which is why I often recommend therapy and counseling to anyone, regardless of one's mental health.  Some friendships are able to strike the balance, though.  Either way, as I continue in pastoral ministry, the need for these deeply spiritual relationships has become clearly a necessity to me.  The pressures of life, of sin, and of competing interests within the church that then blame issues on the pastor or church for not being God-focused, can all become too much.  This is true for non-clergy, as well, who might have an equally demanding vocation.  You will feel like a failure.  You will feel lonely.  You will feel out of place.  You will feel that you should give up, that God is not with you, that you can't redeem yourself from past mistakes.  Having friends that support you and make you laugh will often not be enough.  Again, even with our best friends, we often still hide part of our being to protect ourselves from complete exposure.  Yet we need at least one relationship in which we can bear ourselves and become entirely vulnerable so as to know God's mercy in times of trial and tribulation, whether they be spiritual or practical.  These relationships will nurture contentment.  Different from joy and peace and intellectual growth, we sometimes just need to be content in God.

Dating in seminary can be fun, as I've shared before in other pieces.  What I haven't said is that I believe every romantic relationship should serve a purpose.  We don't necessarily need to know what that purpose is in the midst of the relationship but we should internally inquire every so often to discern.  Why?  Because we also need relationships that contribute to emotional and reflective growth.  Sometimes, even in a church, people will seek to intentionally hurt you, either because they are simply mad or they think that doing so will return you to a more "right" path.  And as a clergy friend of mine says, "church hurt is the worst hurt."  Or people around you are not self-aware or considerate enough to acknowledge when they are unintentionally hurting you.  All I know is that you will be hurt, whether in the church or not, by the people you least expect to hurt you.  In those situations we need not only a closeness to God, not only relationships of joy and peace and spiritual growth and contentment, we need to be able to reflect on our own selves well.  We need to know when there's a good reason we've been hurt, when we've been caught in a crossfire, and when our hurt has everything to do with someone else's unresolved issues.  Romantic relationships aren't the only way we do that but they are often the best, as they encourage us to constantly question what we've done and why.

I've mentioned my friend Alex before and how I was attracted to her before becoming friends.  I remember going late to some special, evening chapel event.  Because I was late, I had to sit up in the foyer--foyer?  That's not the right word, I don't think.  Whatever the upper rows of seats/pews in the back of a sanctuary are called.  Up there.  Standing a few feet from me, managing the lighting and sound, was this gorgeous older woman, looking a little sad, who needed me to cheer her up.  Little did I know how much reason she had to be sad.  A few days later, a friend of mine told me that he knew this mystery woman, so I asked if he could investigate her romantic history, as if we were in middle school.  He commented on the fact that we weren't in middle school but I didn't care.  I wanted to know, I wanted to tread carefully.  

From that point forward, I realized that I'd need to grow up if I wanted to nab a mature woman.  I couldn't win her over with middle school tactics and an early twenties' physique.  Who knew?  Alex expertly redirected my interests towards friendship, for some unknown reason, but I didn't give up until I graduated and moved away.  In the meantime, I re-evaluated everything about myself that might have turned Alex off.  Wearing visors upside down and backwards was the first casualty.  Saying, "Whale's balls," as a substitute for cursing, was also a casualty.  Funnily enough, Alex and I actually had a conversation about the size of testicles I could reference that wouldn't be overly obnoxious to her.  If I were going to use male parts instead of curse words, in an attempt to be a funny and flashy young thing, I had to stick to only, "balls," once or twice a day.  She was clear on that.  I also learned from her that babies grow in a woman's ovary, not in their stomach.  Apparently the ovary expands inside the woman's body.  Who knew?  Perhaps the greatest maturation consisted of examining my desires.  Did I want to win over Alex because we'd live happily ever after, or because I wanted victory in a challenging conquest?  

Over time, whether she knew she was doing this or not, Alex guided me to understand myself and what's important in my life.  Not life generally, but my life.  We are each, of course, unique individuals, and what might be good for someone else might not be for us.  If we want to be happy, content, whatever, we need to intensely self-examine.  No one else can do it for us.  However, we can often see ourselves reflected most clearly in the quest for gratification.  If the quest only remains a quest, then we've failed ourselves.  If, on the other hand, we question why we are who we are, why we're seeking what we do, then we might grow up a little bit.  We might develop the emotional and reflective health and maturity that we need to survive years of life, full of crises.  

The title of this essay is "Grace," as you can read.  I assume you can read, anyway, otherwise I should stop writing.  Sometimes I wonder if God's grace is best explained by putting the right people in our paths to develop the relationships we need to grow well into mature, holy people.  I did not choose my roommate, and because I did not choose my roommate, I didn't exactly choose my friends.  Yet they were right for me.  I also didn't sit around asking myself, "How can I find an older, attractive woman to fall in love with that will then help me mature emotionally?"  That happened by accident, or by grace, by providence.  At times, though, we do willfully choose the relationships we want.  That can end badly.  Once, in college, I thought to myself, "Man, I should find a good, intelligent, Christian woman, and base my love for her entirely on respect.  I don't need to be attracted to her at all."  Before I realized how miserable I'd be in that marriage, I had already bought a $3000 engagement ring.  When we have planted and watered the relationships that we need to grow, though, we can then know the persons and character we're looking for to establish a single relationship that might encompass all the other means of edification from the other forms.  Hence, why I became friends with Rob and Maggie.

During one of those awkward icebreaking conversations at the beginning of New Testament class, Rob admitted that he was an aspiring writer.  Hey, so was I!  I caught him after class and said we should start a writers' accountability group.  Just the two of us.  He agreed.  That lasted a month, maybe, before Rob's life caught up to him--a husband and father of two and still working part-time as a youth pastor--and I realized I'd never amount to much.  

So when we dissolved our meetings, he invited me to his apartment for family shabbat.  I accepted the invitation because I was learning how to chase after what I believed God told me was good for me.  Years later I learned that Rob did not expect me to accept the invitation, wasn't even sure he had wanted to make the invitation, and so didn't tell his wife that I may or may not be coming.  My arrival was a surprise to everyone but me.  Looking back on it, the whole experience was awkward, but at the time I assumed it was because I was unfamiliar with the family traditions.  Rob had not learned from his first mistake and, at the end of the evening, extended hospitality again and said I could feel free to join them any Friday in the future.  So the next week I showed up again and we reran the whole charade.  Except that night, Rob and Maggie and the kids decided they did, indeed, enjoy my company.

Friday after Friday for two and a half years, I was part of a family.  The Ulmers weren't friends.  They were brother and sister.  Christians use family language a lot but not often, I think, do the words, "brother" and "sister" actually apply.  Usually we say, "Hey, brother," aspiring that it will be true, but with the Ulmers it was true.  Every week, I stayed later and later.  To that point in my life I had only stayed up beyond midnight, on purpose, a few times.  But for the last year of seminary, I knew that I shouldn't plan to do anything Saturday morning.  We talked, laughed, taught the kids, prayed, worshiped, argued, explored new ideas, held one another accountable, and fast forwarded our maturing process.  Maggie once said to me that I was the first male friend she was entirely comfortable being alone with for an extended period of time.  My response was, "huh, yeah, you're right."  I hadn't thought about it but never did we have to question the status of our relationship: we were family.  

We were family, so I had learn how to deal with a pregnant woman.  Pregnancy and infancy were periods of life I had astutely avoided until then.  Once, in worship class, the professor asked us all to practice how we'd baptize an infant so that the water wouldn't drop down into the baby's eyes.  For me, there was a step prior to that I had to practice: holding a baby.  Everyone glanced at one another as if to ask themselves whether I was joking.  But with little Ulmer, I was thrown into the deep end, and I didn't seem to care.  I learned all sorts of things about infant care, including sleep regressions, when the child wakes up after half an hour and looks around to see if there's anyone to annoy.  Hiding became an essential skill I learned in my final year of seminary.  I also learned how to change a diaper, which side is the front and which is the back; which direction to swipe the poop.  Half an hour after changing my first poopy diaper, we could still smell it.  Rob asked me if I "dug in there" or not.  Little did I know that one must "dig in there" to counteract after-taste.  All these things I had to learn because we were family.  Somehow or another I even became "uncle" to the Ulmer kids, and they wrote out kind little notes in their graduation gift to me, The Giving Tree.  

Family should be unconditionally loving and supportive but not all are.  I mean, not all biological families are.  Many families have their limits.  Many friendships have their limits.  Friendships that transition into chosen family, however, are likely to offer all the elements of God's grace I'm suggesting are necessary for life's challenges, and they're able to do so because chosen families are indeed unconditionally loving and supportive, like God Himself.  This isn't to say that biological families that don't live up to the ideal or friendships that fall short are somehow bad.  My friends in seminary who fit the various molds were and are great.  But this last friendship, my chosen family, was the ultimate.  I acknowledge how lucky I was and am because not all of us are fortunate enough to ever find a chosen family.  Not all of us are fortunate enough to find people who will remain loving and supportive friends to us no matter what we say or do.  That's what the Ulmers were to me.  If ever I angered them, they would not stew but instead share their feelings and hold me accountable by asking why I did or said what I did with the intention of reconciliation and also my own spiritual and mental growth.  We did not need to walk on egg shells because every moment was an opportunity for some sort of life or spiritual improvement.  

I was never embarrassed around them, either.  One time, Rob and I were arguing, and I said, "Well, surely, if you believe x, you must also believe y," and Rob responded with the conclusion, "and don't call me Shirley."  I didn't get it, having never seen the movie Airplane.  I was in a "surely" mood so I said the word again and again, and Rob responded the same way each time, and I could see a growing smirk on him as he tried to keep a straight face but he wasn't sure whether I was pushing his buttons on purpose as a comedic routine or if I actually wasn't cultured in comedy film.  Later that evening I returned home and researched, "Don't call me Shirley," to see if Rob was referencing anything--obviously--and felt stupid for only a moment.  With anyone else, that feeling would have lasted.  Indeed, with anyone else, I probably would have followed up after a few days, "Hey, you know that time I seemed not to know the movie Airplane?  I was so much better than you at delivering dry humor."  

The point is this: if you plan on surviving life, seek out the relationships that can support you in God's grace via intellectual growth, joyful refreshment and peaceful relaxation, forgiveness and mercy, and emotional and spiritual growth.  And if you're lucky, you'll find a relationship, or a chosen family, managing to encapsulate all of God's grace.  Hold on to it.  

It is true, too, that a chosen family can serve for you as a means of all of God's grace.  The religious acts that we call sacraments are such because we believe that somehow, mysteriously but surely (don't call me Shirley), Christ is present in that action regardless of our state of mind or heart.  A chosen family can be that for you all of the time.  Just as it is only through Christ we come to know our true worth, so in human terms it is only through these special relationships that we can be truly assured that we are indeed of worth and value.

Still, at the end of the day, perhaps the most important lesson isn't about the types of relationships you need to survive the challenges of life, but that you need relationships.  Unless you make a covenant, as in marriage, relationships will come and go and that's okay.  No matter how introverted you are, though, please don't ever forget the importance of your relationships, especially if you're going to be a pastor or want to support your pastor.  Pastoral ministry is, again, lonely.  

So do whatever you need to do to nurture and maintain the relationships you need.  Even if that means taking a train trip across the country to revisit with old friends and chosen family.  And even if one of those stops is in Newport News, Virginia, one of the least safe places to be late at night in Virginia, and your best friend has no idea where the train station is and he's driving an old rickety van on its last legs.  Even then, take the trip, because eventually it will be a pretty hilarious story you can all laugh about after the van breaks down and you need to sit around waiting for the wife to put all the kids to sleep so she can pick y'all up.  

These relationships are going to help you be the person God intended you to be.  If you're a pastor, that means being a non-anxious presence at your first funeral in a new appointment hearing and then seeing that an elderly member of the family fainted and is possibly having a heart attack mere minutes before the start of the funeral.  It means having half your church judge you for something you did not say but they think you did say because of mishearing or miscommunication but calmly loving them all anyway.  It means looking someone in the face as they ask, "Why do we need to talk about racism?  We don't have any coloreds in our church," and patiently listening to God's guidance.  Being a pastor means all sorts of things they don't teach you in seminary, but you can survive and thrive through it all because you have God's grace in the form of tangible, living people behind you, supporting you, watering your growth.

And if you're not a pastor or a concerned congregant reading this, I believe most of what I've said here applies to you, too.  If you are a concerned congregant, though, some advice: don't try to be the friend your pastor needs.  99% of the time your pastor can't stop being your pastor around you.  Just check in to ensure they have the network they need... and then do your best not to make them need it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Seminarians Don't Blow Stuff Up: Unintentional Community

Although seminary seems like the place a student should be concerned with growing in holiness, it's often the time and place to grow in other, less holy ways.  Though most of us had lived away from home before, the competitive field at seminary is significantly smaller.  Nearly from day one I knew that, intellectually, I excelled most of my classmates.  That may sound like arrogance, and it may be, but grades and accomplishments would later prove the case.  I knew, too, that I was far and away one of the better looking single men at the seminary.  With those two things combined, I was confident that I could impress and perhaps land a girlfriend.  I've written before about my unhealthy obsession with dating while at seminary that led me down some dark corners.  If I could pinpoint a reason, it was because I had no interest in college--working hard to be holy in an unholy environment--and also no luck surrounded by many more and many handsomer men, and so seminary finally gave me a chance to see what I may have been missing.  Constantly I did battle with desires I convinced myself were harmless with the person I thought I was and wanted to be.

Perhaps no better example exists than the night I found myself alone in a room late at night with a girl, E.  We were studying...

Because of the serious lack of actual studying, and the time of night, the obvious question was whether I was supposed to make a move.  She had invited me to her room.  E had a roommate but, it appeared, had knowingly invited me to her room when her roommate would be out.  The two of us had developed a rapport and it seemed like now she hoped to take things to the next level.  Aside from the fact that I had no experience popping the question, "Hey, should we make out?" or smoothly inching in for the kiss, I questioned all night whether I should bother trying.  What if E just wanted to be friends?  What if I just wanted to be friends?  What if I wanted to be the type of person who had good, close friends of either sex and no one had to worry about my being a creep?  What if that's why E invited me over at night, because she knew I wouldn't make a move?  To make matters worse, near the end of our time together, E sold me hard on joining the new intentional community that the seminary was soon opening in downtown D.C.  Was she inviting me so that we could live together?  Or because she hoped I, too, shared a commitment to deeply biblical and holy principles of living?

The night with E ended without a kiss and without a proposal.  Not long after, I started dating someone else.  Interestingly, E seemed to get jealous when I told her and said, at the last, that she hoped at least we wouldn't spend less time together.  I genuinely hoped we could continue playing ping pong, riding our bikes, and studying late at night, too, although my promise to stay close friends was quickly forgotten.  

Honestly, one of my major regrets in life, not merely from my time in seminary, is that I didn't work on my friendship with E and chose instead to date.  Over time, it became clear she really loved our friendship and wasn't expecting anything else from me.  Together, we pushed and challenged one another intellectually, spiritually, and practically in enjoyable ways.  That's what a good friendship is and does: co-builders and practitioners of virtue and discipleship, and accountability in the process.  

We were unlikely friends, E and I.  She was from the deep South, I from the suburbs of Boston and Worcester.  She held progressive theological positions, I conservative ones.  Later I'd learn how serious that latter divide was when she married a woman.  Yet she saw in me, and I in her, a spirit committed to digging deeper and going further in faithfulness.  Our friendship was the first of many opportunities to capitalize on unintentional community that I let slip away or never appreciated as I should have, and thus never learned or grew from as I should have.  Obviously, I never joined the intentional community living area.

There were other opportunities to experience meaningful relationships, even if not deep or lasting ones.  There always are when we live life.  I think of some of the strongest friendships I know in literature.  Or, at least, the ones I most prefer reading or watching.  Sam and Frodo come first to mind, and then Crowley and Aziraphale from Good Omens.  If you are familiar with LOTR, you'll remember that Sam tags along with Frodo by accident as much as anything else.  He was a gardener who happened to be overhearing the conversation Frodo had with Gandalf about the ring of power and, voile, became part of the Fellowship.  In Good Omens, Crowley is a demon, Aziraphale an angel.  The friendship is funny and complicated but, to the two of them, eventually more important than any Grand Plan.

So often the most meaningful relationships or experiences in life are the ones we didn't expect or didn't seek out.  When people suggest that high school, college, or young adulthood generally is the time to "experience" life, I don't disagree, although what I mean, I think, is slightly different.  We shouldn't bother doing drugs or having sex.  We should instead keep an eye out for the unintentional communities, friendships, and causes that might become a lasting part of our life.  Seminary, and all other similar times and places in our life, is a time and place to keep an eye out for what we don't expect.  My friendship with E could have been, should have been, one of those unexpectedly meaningful delights.

Other unexpected and unintentional communities could have been found all over the place.  I'm going to talk about friendships in the next essay and instead focus here on the unintended and unexpected nature of life's most pleasant offerings.  

Take, for example, the annual phone-a-thon.  Few people on earth, I assume, actually look forward to a phone-a-thon.  Even fewer, I imagine, do so at a seminary, where, if statistics about clergy are also true in the halls of education, most of the students are introverts.  From a small population of students came an even smaller number willing to talk on the phone with complete strangers for the purpose of asking for money.  The only reason I participated was because my roommate more or less guilted me into it.

Yet in the school's conference room that week, something magical happened.  Quite a few things, actually.  First, I came into contact with staff members of the school I'd otherwise never have known and came to see them as persons rather than merely as officials.  That alone gives a worthwhile perspective on the operation of a school or government or any other structured hierarchy as we don't need to, and shouldn't, think of inconveniences or disagreements as "them" versus "us."  More importantly, I discovered a strange part of myself I hadn't realized existed: the "speaks will with older ladies" part of me.  It's true.  For whatever reason, I had a relatively high success rate with older women.  I should note that women were more likely to give back to their alma mater anyway, but even above and beyond that I was like Ken Griffey, Jr. in his prime with the older women on the call list.  High average, oftentimes hitting it out of the park.  Soon, the director of alumni relations, or whatever the title of the phone-a-thon manager, was handing me a specially chosen list of prospective donors.  

Why was I successful with older women?  I don't know, because I stopped helping out with the phone-a-thon after only a couple of sessions.  Over the course of my three years at seminary, I only made calls to support the school for a total of four hours.  Abandoning ship not only hurt the school but also cost me an opportunity to learn more about myself and how and why I interact with people the way that I do.

Or what about World Cup 2012?  Our school had and has a large percentage of South Korean students who, we learned, are passionate about their football/soccer.  Now, before I go any further, I should share with you that I had established a practice of watching my hometown teams alone.  Every New England Patriots game I watched alone, in my bed.  Every Bruins Stanley Cup playoff game I watched alone, in my bed.  Normally I'd also anxiously rock back and forth.  That my team won was the most important part of the sporting event and, somehow, my nervous watching contributed to my team's winning (indeed, for a few years, the Patriots never once lost while I watched alone).  

Compared to me, our South Koreans wouldn't think of watching anything important alone.  Many of them lived in their own family apartments on campus.  Not all of them had a TV set but enough of them did to make the number crammed into our common room in the dormitory surprising.  Why watch with others when you can watch by yourself?  Further, you could hear the screams, groans, cries, cheers, and laughter emanating from the common room wherever you were in the dormitory whenever the South Korean team played.  Soccer fans will know that the South Korean national teams have never been particularly strong.  That apparently didn't matter to anyone.  There they were, having a blast, not because the team they cheered for was winning but because they were watching with beloved friends and compatriots.  I am ashamed that I never joined them to watch with my fellow South Korean students but did sit in silence while watching the Americans nearly disastrously fail to live up to expectations and then nearly faint after Landon Donovan scored a last-second, dignity-tying goal because I held in all my anxiety.  Likewise, I remember being frustrated with my dorm companions for watching a movie part-way through one of the American men's Olympic ice hockey games.  I mean, it was Olympic ice hockey, didn't they know?  

Missed opportunity after missed opportunity to develop meaningful and beneficial relationships.  I thought I was at seminary to learn, get good grades, and prove to my Board of Ordained Ministry that I was a potentially great pastor.  Because of that, I didn't seek out anything else that could have helped me grow.  As a pastor now looking back, I can see that the relationships I ignored could have been the most fruitful part of my time.  

Another good example of a missed opportunity was going to see Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga'Hoole with my roommate's fiancee.  To this day it remains the only time I went to see a movie with a girl I was not romantically interested in.  Of course, it felt weird, and only partly because we were the oldest attendees who were there by choice.  Some of what makes a good pastor, as well as a good person, is the ability to set and protect healthy boundaries.  Learning how to have a deep relationship with a woman whose pants I was not trying to get into could have been good for me.  Probably good for every man, and vice versa for women.  Yet I never again asked my roommate's fiancee to do something just the two of us.  

You may be an introvert.  I certainly am.  Reading my encouraging you to build relationships, especially those you don't seek out, may make you feel exhausted.  Thinking of spending more time with people exhausts me, that's for sure.  Again, though, there are countless unintentional communities, acquaintances, and friendships that we can make and develop that can further our own growth.  Whether we're learning how to passionately cheer for a team even if they're terrible or how to set healthy boundaries for ourselves, with our time, emotions, or otherwise, or learning what makes others tick as well as why we are who we are, the relationships you don't go looking for are probably the ones you'll be most thankful for later.  

Essentially, reflecting on my time at seminary, I think of The Art of Neighboring.  Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon ask a simple question in that book: what if, when Jesus told us to love our neighbors, he meant our actual neighbors?  So often we think of "our neighbors" as the strangers "out there somewhere."  The story of the Good Samaritan is partly to blame insofar as Jesus encourages us to consider everyone our neighbor.  Also to blame is the ease and convenience with which we love people we can't see.  If we do that, we can just throw money at loving strangers by helping various organizations.  You know as well as I do, though, that our actual neighbors have become as much strangers to us as anyone else.  We know their faces, we may even know their names.  Do we actually know our neighbors?  Do we love them?  Often not.  We usually don't know or love our neighbors because, a) we didn't choose them, and b) we think of our homes as private refuges.  Building relationships with those we didn't choose rather than constructing private refuges is exactly what can help us fulfill Jesus's command to love our neighbors as well as learn more about ourselves and grow in any number of ways.  

Besides, what you learn at seminary in classrooms will constitute about 20%, at most, of your life as a pastor.  

If you go to seminary, then, study hard, but don't ignore what's most important: relationships.  If you don't go to seminary and plan on being a lay person all your life, the same advice holds true.  Studying and working hard at school or your job may bring you tangible success but none of it will help you understand yourself or grow.  Place your emotional and spiritual emphasis in life on relationships, particularly the ones you don't choose or go looking for.  Spend time with the people you would never choose to spend time with.  Listen to them, help them, support them, pray for them, learn from them.  They'll teach you a lot.  

Kind of sounds like a church.  As long as you commit to listening and living together as a church, not as a faction.  The ideal of a church is a community that unintentionally finds themselves living together and sticking together, no matter what, learning and growing all the time no matter the challenge.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Seminarians Don't Blow Stuff Up: The Presidency

Even though Wesley Theological Seminary is a rather small school it still boasts a student council.  Students need to feel worthy in some way, you know.  When I first arrived at Wesley, my plan was to study hard, keep my head down, and finish my degree as quickly as possible so that I could get on with the work of being the greatest pastor known to God or man.  Near the end of my second semester, though, I was informed that I somehow would be a replacement council representative for my class year.  From that point forward, I had ambition.

My ambition probably stemmed from admiration for the president at that time.  Mr. Thomas was not only cool and funny, fast becoming a friend, but he also worked for the seminary and had fascinating stories about playing for football for Furman University.  If that school lightly rings a bell for you, it's because they occasionally upset a Division I-A team.  Plus, he played guitar, and so could clearly get any girl he wanted--but he was engaged to be married, surely making him more desirable.  I was in awe.  He was graduating at the end of that year and and, obviously, I'd be the next president.

Mr. Thomas actually convinced me not to run for president.  Though he put an end to my hopes and dreams, even his arguments were amazing.  I had only been on the council for a month and a half.  How in the world would I know what a good president would do?  Some day, he said, I'd make a great president, but I should settle for treasurer in my second year.  That plan worked for me, not least because Mr. Thomas recommended it, but also because the treasurer at the time was and is the son of a bishop in the UMC.  Putting myself next to Bishop's Son in the record books seemed like a good move for my prospects in future evaluations of greatness.  

Serving as treasurer was actually enjoyable.  In retrospect, I made the job harder for the treasurer after me because there was one account controlled by the student council that I never understood.  At the time, however, it seemed obvious that my administrative services to the school and council were incomparable.  We had about fifteen forms that we used for students to ask for reimbursement or budget adjustments and it seemed certain that only a handful were necessary.  For the first time in memory--which, admittedly, only went back three years, as the majority of seminary students graduate in three years--I activated the finance team and we reviewed the forms, updated them, and eliminated a bunch of red tape.  My star was rising.  The presidency was a formality at that point.  The only remaining question is where I'd be ranked against other council presidents.

Before I finish telling my epic, I should let you know that there were two reasons why I chose Wesley Theological Seminary.  First, I wanted to attend Boston University's School of Theology but it was the only Methodist seminary that, at the time, required the GREs.  Why would I bother with another test in my senior year of college if I didn't need to?  Second, Wesley responded to me with a scholarship offer before I finished my application to Duke Divinity School.  Third, it's a liberal, progressive school.  When applying, I was theologically conservative and wanted to challenge myself with new and better ways to convince those liberals why they are tragically misguided.  

Without question, studying at a school in which you are in the minority brings significant challenges, particularly existential and spiritual challenges.  I can't imagine what racial minorities have and do experience.  

Perhaps the most frustrating challenge represented itself in the person of Joe.  Joe is Asian-American and wrote a number of articles for the school's journal arguing that the school needed to work harder at diversifying the curriculum.  We didn't need to learn the theologies and histories of the same old white, European dudes, Joe argued; we needed to learn the theologies, histories, and biblical interpretations of those thinkers that numerically represented the student body and the congregations and communities we would later serve.  In other words, Joe wanted to disregard the canon of accepted Christian thinkers.  Seeing as I planned on being the greatest pastor known to God and man, Joe's ideas seemed toxic.  I needed to learn what the best and brightest thought and believed.  And obviously the canon of seminary curricula would, over time, lift the cream to the top.  It was my godly duty to write counterargument articles against Joe.  

Thanks to Joe's shy but determined courage, the argument never ended.  I didn't seem to be winning.  My only recourse was to speak to him in person and destroy his opinions that way.  Our first conversation, planned to be a ten-minute smackdown, lengthened into the entirety of the lunch hour.  From there, we became friends.  By the end of our seminary careers I'd be talking about how Joe and I should live together in a beautiful glass house with his husky dog.  What began as an attempt to broaden my horizons at a liberal school led to actual appreciation of liberal and progressive thought and belief (and would later result in my shifting on the spectrum).  Not what I had planned.

Inevitably, I did coast to student council presidency.  I won in an actual landslide.  Votes did not need to be recounted.  History awaited.

My first order of business was to call my cabinet together before the end of the prior semester.  We'd start our work in the fall but we all met and discussed our plans on graduation day in the spring before.  No president had ever done that before, as far as we knew.  When we were officially installed as council leaders, I read our constitution.  I imagined that no president had done that before, either, because it mentioned that the student council president was supposed to regularly meet with the seminary president and attend seminary board meetings, and also that council leaders were supposed to hold regular office hours.  When I checked out the room designated as the student council office, it was clear that it had been years since anyone had used it for a purpose other than storage.  Being outgoing has never been among my strong suits but I was determined that by meeting with the school president, the board, and cleaning out our office and holding office hours, I'd be able to secure a larger budget for the council as well as more respect.  Our demands would be met!  Better food in the refectory!  Better pay for the refectory workers!  What else did we want?  I'm not sure, but surely we had demands.

At the annual open house day in the early fall of my presidency, some students from other schools in the D.C. seminary consortium attended and informed us that we had an open invitation to consortium events.  Assuming that if I had never heard of these events, no one else had, either, I made it a point to reintroduce Wesley students to those events.  I'd attract a crowd by plying my stand-up comedy trade.  That went well a couple of times but, as Jesus says, a prophet will never be accepted in his or her hometown, so the only colleague who ever joined me at those events was a girl who was interested in me, and vice versa.  

It was after the second consortium event that I realized something was going terribly wrong with my presidency.  The average Wesley attendance at those events was two.  No one else seemed interested.  The person I had tapped to be council parliamentarian rarely showed up, didn't seem to know what was going on, and generally was disliked.  My VP had to resign.  Office hours were a dismal failure, even when we moved them to the library, a more public place.  The treasurer, the only other cabinet member who bought into my vision, approached me about that account I never understood.  My misunderstanding led to obvious mismanagement that he then had to fix.  The seminary president like me, and I him, but our conversations went nowhere.  Despite all my attempts at creating a legacy, I did nothing but continue the trend, the status quo.  I vividly remember our second-to-last council meeting in my presidential term: the budget setting meeting.  There were no issues to debate.  The budget the treasurer and I had put together was apparently perfect.  I say, "apparently," not to pet my ego but as a sad commentary on my hope to encourage more passion and involvement in the council.  That no one had anything to say seemed, to me, like a final kick in the pants.

From every possible perspective, I was a mediocre student council president.  Maybe I had good ideas but I couldn't implement them.  To this day I have nightmares about becoming an ex-oficio president of the council, the first ever former student to be awarded the honor, and then being unable to make the meetings, unable to gather a quorum, and having to resign early.  There is extra guilt heaped on because, a few years after graduation, I received a notice from the then council president alerting the seminary community to the lack of interest in running for council office as well as the ineffectiveness of the institution, so changes would be made.  Perhaps I actually weakened the office of the president and the council.

If I were to more kindly reflect on my time in office, I'd conclude that, a) everyone else had grown to expect less of ourselves and the council, and therefore student democracy had become destined to fail, and b) I didn't need to carry the weight of being the greatest.  After all, why be a pot stirrer when all is working well?  Of course, not all was working well but there is some truth to these generous conclusions.  A general feeling of smallness and uselessness had pervaded student democracy at the seminary.  In many ways, it could serve as a microcosm for democracy in our country today.  Merely saying so probably, hopefully, sets your mind running with similarities.

As far as I'm concerned, what most deserves page space concerning my presidential disaster is not political comparisons but rather awareness of how often God laughs at our plans and ambitions.  I don't think God laughs in a mean way.  I believe God laughs as a parent would responding to a child who has just declared they are going to fly to the moon on the back of a dragon: "I'd love to see you do that, child of mine... and while you're concentrating on that lovely albeit impossible dream, I'll gently prepare you for other great and meaningful adventures."  

All three years I spent at seminary were saturated in dashing and crushing my plans, hopes, dreams, and visions.  I became more comfortable with progressive theology, I switched my degree from an M.Div. to an M.T.S. because I became certain I wasn't called to be a pastor after all, I sought out the presidency and then failed, I took up riding a rode bike and then rode it across the country to fight human trafficking, and after and during a mental and spiritual crisis I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.  

Speaking of things being crushed, by the way, I had a crush on an older woman who worked in the art center of the seminary.  Alex wasn't old but I had always had a thing for older women, she was beautiful even without the older bias, and she seemed mysterious in a gothic kind of way.  She checked all my boxes.  I wanted to date her in the worst way.  Unfortunately, I was terribly shy.  I had to use the old, find-out-about-her-through-a-friend trick before working up the courage to ask her out.  Then Alex said no, but she'd be happy to meet me for lunch somewhere.  We began chatting and seeing each other in a non-romantic way quite often, and the more I learned about her the more I fell in love, or thought I did anyway.  An artist, her parents had a lot of money so I could sit around writing the rest of my life while she painted, and she actually laughed at my jokes.  One time, as I was sitting with my group of friends eating lunch, Alex actually came over and asked if she could sit with us.  She always sat alone in the refectory so I felt honored and loved.  That same lunchtime, I admitted to everyone that I thought babies grew in the mother's stomach.  I didn't realize the uterus expanded.  All my other friends were shocked and horrified but Alex calmly accepted my ignorance, told me it was okay, and then explained the truth to me.  My heart was on fire.  

Over time, however, it became clear to me that our budding friendship would never translate into romance.  Yet when Alex asked me to host a major art event she and the arts center was putting together, I happily acted as MC.  Afterward, when the night clearly went well and people loved the art and music as well as my event hosting, I looked to the back of the crowd and say Alex smiling.  The next day she thanked me as she couldn't have imagined it would go as well as it did.  I realized then that, a) I was far more pleased offering her my friendship in that way than I would have been if we dated, and she may have felt obligated to ask me to host; and b) I had suddenly an unexpectedly overcome my shyness and awkwardness.  I'm still an introvert, I still incline toward shyness, but I embrace my awkwardness and quirkiness and I'm not afraid to ask people on a date (or for something else, since I'm married now and don't need to date).

The point is, seminary changes us.  If you plan on going to seminary you should be prepared to be different than when you first apply and arrive.  If you don't plan on attending seminary, you should know why seminary changes people: God is always foremost on one's mind.  It is impossible to spend two or three years thinking about, writing about, struggling with, and praying to God and hardly anything else and not be transformed in some way.  Not just transformed from glory into glory, though hopefully that happens, too, but you will absolutely exit with different priorities, practices, beliefs, behaviors, and perhaps even appearances.  What we want isn't always going to happen.  In fact, usually what we want won't happen.  Things change.  Things change because of God, the Living Creator and Sustainer of all that is, including you and me.

God's grace that changes us first affirms us.  God affirms our worth as a child.  Perhaps that is the only affirmation that we need, which is a good thing because God will rarely affirm the opinions and ambitions that we hatch on our own.  Encounters with God will both increase our pride--as a child loved by God--and humble us, because we are so far from understanding God, so behind God's intentions for us and for others.  God's power to change us is so great that He is the only one who has the power, right, and authority to change God's mind.  Whether or not God has ever changed His mind, changed his character, I don't know, but He absolutely could.  If God were to change His mind, it would surely be for the good and betterment of God's children as well as for God's self.  God's changing us is for our good, too.

We thus should be open to the working of God's Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others.  We can't possibly tell God what should or will happen.  If we do, we won't succeed.  Things change.  God has other plans.  God alone knows what is good and right.  God alone knew that my current wife was and is a better fit for me than Alex, and God alone knows who is the best partner for each of us.  Why do we try telling God who each person should marry?  God alone knew that the presidency wasn't the right role for me and I really was called to be a pastor (it would take me an additional two years to confess God was right), and God alone knows what is the good and right and best role and ministry for each and every person.  Why do we try telling God who He should ordain to pastoral ministry, or anything else?

Things change.  God has other plans.  Better plans.  I am thankful.  We should all be thankful.  As a token of gratitude, we should allow God's Spirit to change us, to change others, to change generally, and do what only God's Spirit can do, what only God's Spirit would think to do.  Praise God and the Holy Spirit!

(Long-term readers of this blog might recognize that "Alex" is actually Alexandra N. Sherman, artist extraordinaire.  She, too, is happily married, so I think we--really, she--made the right choice.  More importantly, I invite you to check out her work at

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Seminarians Don't Blow Stuff Up: Let's Pretend

When I was in college, I was often the odd person out.  Not realizing that Catholics are allowed to drink alcohol, I thought that going to a Catholic school for undergrad would mean less partying--I had always tied my faith to a straight-edge lifestyle.  I remember one fellow student of mine confiding in me that she considered transferring because she, too, had expected her fellow classmates to be focused on Christ and study and therefore not on partying.  I told her she could always talk to me because I also felt alone.  Unfortunately, by the end of the year, she had become a party-goer herself, torn between her religious principles and the desire to fit in.  I didn't much mind being alone, focused on learning and writing, during my college days.  Going to seminary, though, I did look forward to sharing the same principles with most, if not all, my classmates.

 Unfortunately, I was sorely mistaken about life at seminary.  Truthfully, it is this fact, and this essay, that most motivated me to write this whole series and provide a behind-the-scenes look at a pastor's life at seminary.  Prospective seminarians and those sitting in the pews need to know that the stereotype you may have life at seminary is probably false.  The revelations of Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s life recently only make my speaking about seminary life and seminarians more relevant and important: Jerry Falwell, Jr. was and is not just one disappointing case.  Whenever we expect rigid holiness of our leaders, far and beyond our own sense of righteousness, we will end disappointed.

 Before I get to my main story, I want to clarify that it is only representative of the whole.  Drinking alcohol is not in itself a sin nor is it, if it is a sin, the only sin imaginable.  We know that.  While at seminary I became a bit of a leader.  One of my roles was welcoming (advertising) the school to prospective students.  The best and the brightest who were considered for scholarships were offered a weekend tour of the school, with interviews being only a small interruption to the planned fun meant to convince those prospective seminarians that our school is the best.   At one of these, I met and talked quite a bit to a young woman who happened to share the same name as the person I was dating at the time.  When I learned that, I said, "Oh, it will be easy to remember your name."  Well, that young woman decided to indeed attend our school and, on her first day, as I helped get her acclimated, I asked her name and she said, "That should be easy for you to remember."  Well, I was no longer dating at the time, so I was completely baffled.  Upon learning why, that new student barely talked to me... for the next two years.  She had her reasons, I'm sure, but I can't help but think that one of those reasons was thinking that I was a jerk for dumping someone she liked.  Maybe I was.  In fact, I'm sure I was a jerk.  But I'm not sure the silent treatment is what you would expect of seminarians.  Indeed, there's a lot you don't know about seminary or seminarians--who later become pastors--so whether you're considering about going to seminary or wondering about the private life of your pastor, read on.

 My seminary colleagues threw themselves with abandon into celebrating International Night.  The basic idea was that each room would represent a different country or culture with music, food, drink, and decoration.  I imagine that the annual observance began as a means of deepening understanding within the student body.  Our school served a number of Koreans, Africans, Pacific Islanders, and Europeans.  Having a night dedicated to sharing and experiencing one another's culture sounds like a great idea.  It sounds that way.

Much of the probable intentions and purpose of International Night fell apart due to one simple fact: most of the Koreans and Europeans at the school lived in the apartment building on campus.  While the apartment building shared a parking lot with the dormitory, it often operated like an impassable barrier, including on International Night.  So what ended up happening on International Night, it seemed to me, was that students played pretend, representing countries and cultures they had no actual connection to.  The room across the hall from me, Mexico, was played by two very white guys.  Now, those two very white guys were some of my favorite people at the seminary but it was no less silly.  You can imagine, then, that International Night devolved quickly from a clever idea to deepen understanding into a thinly veiled opportunity to get drunk testing out all the available fluids.

The first year, my roommate, Joel (the werewolf), and I represented North Korea.  Maybe that was a little insensitive but we thought it was funny.  We didn't want to participate in the self-justifying party so we closed our borders and didn't make our beds.  We thought about fasting that night, too, but fasting as a joke doesn't motivate well.  

Anyway, while International Night wasn't the only time you might encounter a drunk seminarian, it did guarantee such encounters, not of one or a handful of classmates but of nearly everyone.  What is wrong with drinking and getting drunk?  Well, first of all, as I talked about in the "We Blew Stuff Up" essay, Methodists traditionally have been encouraged and taught not to drink.  Historically, drinking often leads to feeling miserable and possibly ruining one's life.  Plus, when we think of a holy person, we don't imagine someone who purposely drinks to the point of drunkenness.  Doing so betrays a lack of self-control or a lack of trust in God to provide peace and joy.  Besides, when I was working as editor of the school journal, I planned an article on International Night.  I set up interviews with fellow seminarians to tell me all about their experience.  One of my fellow seminarians angrily approached me when he found out, saying, "You can't write an article on this!  It's a conflict of interest!  You can't do this!  You're morally corrupt!"  He assumed--incorrectly--that the article would attack the faux festival.  Even if his assumption were correct, however, his response proved how fearful he was of being found out, so to speak.  Whether he or anyone else would admit it, the response displayed an inward sense of his/their own moral corruption, or at least of purposely falling short on holiness.  For if I were to write an attack article, who would care if there was nothing wrong with such a party?  

Herein we discover a crucial failing in the idea of seminary generally.  Before I elucidate that failing, another brief Methodist history is in order.  Back in the day, before seminaries, Methodist pastors (elders) took Jesus's words literally to go out two by two.  Doing so allowed the younger, provisional pastors to receive instruction and guidance from older and more experienced pastors.  We had what we still call Course of Study, but in contrast to today's version the Course was directed by the older pastor.  This format enabled the elder pastor to become personally acquainted with the life, holiness, and spiritual calling of the provisional pastor; and for the provisional pastor to learn how to live a holy life consistent with the calling from God.  I don't mean to suggest that we should expect any pastor to be entirely holy at all times for they are human like the rest of us.  It does seem rather logical, though, that those planning on being or working as a pastor should strive to a certain form of holiness.  What's wrong with our seminaries, then, is that we throw together a bunch of mostly young prospective pastors in training without any personal guiding hands.  Making things worse, these seminarians then graduate from seminary and then move into their first appointment a month later.  

No one is immune, of course.  And, again, as I said, the drunkenness of International Night is only one symptom.  All of us, on some level, go to seminary pretending to be what we are not.  

A friend of mine started using Christian Mingle to find a wife.  He was committed to having a partner when he entered pastoral ministry, perhaps knowing that the stresses of pastoral ministry are nearly impossible to deal with without strong support.  As a side note, the girlfriends he met on Christian Mingle were all a bit crazy.  One of them didn't even look real.  His girlfriends became a running joke to everyone but him.  My friend just didn't see what we saw.  Eventually, his roommate, William, who seemed to get all the girls to love him simply by saying, "Hello," had to stage an intervention.  "Dude, I didn't teach you all my moves for this.  Find a real person."  (I should point out that my friend did eventually find a real, good woman on Christian Mingle.  It does work.  He fell in love, they were about to get married before tragedy struck)

Unfortunately, I took my friend's comical struggles on Christian Mingle as evidence that I could find an on-line sex partner.  I justified my intentions by the fact that I was meeting other Christians, so-called.  If I found anyone equally depraved as me, then it was okay because we were both Christians.  So you see, we can all pretend.  I lived successfully as a Jekyll and Hyde for a few years.

Thankfully, pretending to be what we are not sometimes leads to personal and spiritual growth.  It's like acting.  Speaking of acting, I dreamed the other night that I was Sam Rockwell.  Best dream ever.  When we act, we essentially walk in someone else's shoes and can learn what makes that person tick.  If you ever watch a behind-the-scenes documentary of TV or film production, the actors often talk about how they asked a bunch of questions to understand their character.  When we live as a Jekyll and Hyde, pretending to be what we are not, while we may still be living in our own shoes we are walking in someone else's shoes.  That can be good for us.

I don't recommend purposely living an unholy life as a form of research.  Some friends of mine once were talking about Cosmopolitan.  Originally, honestly, I wanted to know why any woman would read that magazine.  Even after asking, I couldn't quite understand.  So I bought a Cosmo for myself.  I then unfortunately got into the habit of buying Cosmo for all the sexy pictures and stories.  

However, I do recommend analyzing and praying about our moral excesses and failings, to ask the questions any good actor would ask.  Why does my character buy Cosmo magazines?  Why do they use Christian Mingle as a secret release to lust?  Why do they drink so much at International Night?  For the most part I've been speaking about people pretending to be holy without actually being so but the reverse works, too.  We can actually live as holy people and figure out what makes such a person tick, to understand them, and increase the chances of being holy or approximating holiness all our lives.  Either way, if we come to know our excesses, we'll know ourselves better and can then seek to be held accountable by other true disciples of Christ striving to live into Jesus's call to us to be holy.

 For me, the greatest crisis in trying to understand and reconcile my actual self to my pretend self, and work out which was which, came when I developed what William called superhero powers.  A couple of months into my second semester, a serious chest pain prevented me from enjoying my first D.C. cherry blossom festival.  I came home thinking that I pulled a muscle.  After a few nights of struggling to sleep, because I had to sleep in one position and one position only, the pain spread into my neck.  Friends considered the possibility that I had indigestion or heart burn.  I went to the hospital.  No heartburn.  Sleep worsened as I began to feel my heartbeat in my neck and in my wrists.  Those were my superhero powers.  Or at least, the introduction of them.  William was certain that within a day or two I'd either shoot spider webs out of my wrists or have a heart attack.  Perhaps the reason he was so good with women was that he actually cared about people.  He could remember every conversation he ever had with you, it seemed, he was always asking questions about you and your life, and took it all humorously but seriously.  Indeed, he was the only one to really take my condition seriously.  It was because of him that I went to get myself checked out again and was first diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

The diagnosis crushed me.  Jesus tells us to lay our burdens on him, that we have no reason to worry.  Either God isn't real and couldn't take on my burdens, or I wasn't a faithful enough disciple.  I couldn't handle either option.  

Many weeks later, though, the spiritual darkness I experienced helped me see the light.  I came to see, first, that sometimes our chemical dispositions are completely out of our control.  It's the way I was born, created, and there's no shame in the person and being God gave me.  Second, to the extent that I can control or cope with my anxiety, I learned what most triggers my mental and bodily stress and what forms of prayer or exercise that most put me in the presence and position to receive God's grace.  The diagnosis and my journey through the desert wilderness led to my becoming an avid, and not just casual, cyclist.  

Like me, you may be disappointed in the lives of prospective seminarians.  Once we give our lives to Christ, and to lead others to Christ and further along the journey with Christ, we should strive to live accordingly.  The good news, though, is that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were fully aware of his/their strange case.  Some of my fellow seminarians attended "to find themselves," which, at the time, I thought to be a ridiculous waste of money.  In the light of experience and reflection I see they had a good idea.  Where better to learn about oneself than in a place trying to be holy and sacred?  Unless we completely lose ourselves while at seminary, we are fully aware of our inmost souls, our darkest stains, our greatest lights, and our growing edges.  Yes, seminary may be disappointing, but the hope and prayer is that, at the time of graduation, we will have seen the light because we lived in the darkness.  A dark cave needs only a small light to guide us out.

Perhaps the journey to Christian perfection, as we Methodists say, will be longer by attending seminary versus going out in service under the leadership of an older elder, but with the necessary self-reflection and prayer seminary is no less a part of the holy journey.  What I'd say, then, is that we should ask our pastors what embarrassing, sinful, unholy, and dark things they did in seminary.  Most importantly, ask what they have learned from those experiences about themselves and about how they can use those experiences to better relate to and serve their churches.  Current pastors and seminarians should ask the same questions because if we seek to keep our darkness in the dark, then a stain remains on our hearts and we can't drag all of who are towards God's light.  

Indeed, all of us should ask those questions of ourselves.  Do we show the world a holy self when, actually, we are still hiding our sin away in a corner?  Past or present unholiness needs to be addressed and learned from so that we can walk the journey.  Our journey is lifelong.  At some point we need to stop pretending and be the people God has called us to be.  To do that, we need to put our pretending to work.