Have you noticed how ‘seminary’ and ‘cemetery’ sound similar?
They say that seminary is where faith comes to die. If you can think of a worthy mortuary where the corpse of faith can be kept safely, the cemetery, rather, the seminary is your answer.
This is a strange thing to say, especially concerning a place where faithful people go to be prepared for a lifetime of faithful ministry. It is strange for a faith-based education institution to be the killer of what it is supposed to fan.
As a seminary student, I have lived to see how this works itself out, especially in my seminary context.
For the last seven months, I have found myself plugged in to an extremely demanding academic life. While it is important to care for the wellbeing of my soul, the demands in the classroom can, without much effort, take centre stage.
And that has been my story.
Any student would say that it is normal to feel guilty when they are not studying enough (depending on how that ‘enough’ is determined). The drive to spend more time in the library, read a couple of extra pages of the required material, memorise more Hebrew vocabulary, start on the paper early enough, etcetera, can be prominent. That is normal. I feel like that all the time, and everyone should feel the same way if they are not putting in that much effort.
I struggle with this guilt every day. However, the alarm bells went off this past week when I noticed something else. No, it was not some new guilt I had discovered. Rather, it was the absence of it.
On Thursday, I did more studying than I normally do. The evidence was the awful headache I took to my three-hour Hebrew class in Boston, later that evening. Yet, amidst the dreadful pounding in my head, I felt relieved. I felt fulfilled, enough, and finally worthy. It was an exciting day until I sat down to question this feeling.
It is then that I realised how my feel-good moment was because I had done more studying than usual. The feeling of guilt had been replaced by the enormous feeling of enoughness.
The, on Friday evening while attending a retreat on the Prayer of Examen, I was led into a period of quiet reflection. For an hour I thought through my struggles with guilt and the newly found feel-good moment of the previous day. It was then that my heart was ripped open to reveal sin that I have been living in.
I saw how I had crafted an idol out of my academics and how my justification was dependant on whether, or not I studied enough.
During that period of reflection, I wrote this in my journal:
Why am I doing this? Why am I going to school? Why did I come here, anyway? Was it that I could feel good about myself? Was it to please anyone? Was I running away from something, perhaps a situation, a condition, people?
I remember the drive was a call on my life—this desire to proclaim the One who saved me—this longing to see the church set free. A church that loves, gives, takes risks, goes against the status quo. I longed to see a God of the Resistance, water flowing uphill, people loving other people, begging that they would do more. I longed to see a people who were free to be foolish, weak, poor, dead and incognito in a world which proclaims the opposite.
I longed to see a resistance that proclaimed freedom and liberty by giving up rather than holding on to stuff; people who are honest and loving before they judge; open and welcoming and asking questions later. I saw a God who put on flesh and came down—in divine rebellion against the grain of god-like splendour, to pull off a victory by being what everyone despised: weak, poor, quiet, suffering, and dead.
I longed to see how that God would transform a community, a family and an individual.
When, then, did I turn inward? When did I start focusing on myself—my gratification, justification, and enoughness? When did I turn this glorious gift into something I can sacrifice for—an idol I can bow down to—a divinity that demands my devotion? When did it stop being about God and his work among his people to become about my gratification in the now?
As I asked myself these questions, I opened my bible to Exodus 32 and I slowly read through all the 35 verses. In that moment, I did not feel the usual need to be hasty. Boy, did I enjoy the scriptures! These verses were like fresh water flowing down my dry throat in the middle a spiritual desert. Slowly, like an eternal meal I had all along desired, I devoured the passage.
I am not saying that I have not been read my bible in a long time. Far from it. However, I now realise that I had made the mistake of thinking that I could do devotions, while at the same time racing through my bible for class credit (some of my classes require me to read through the entire bible, as with the other books on the course reading list).
This time, it was special. Instead of feeling satisfied that I had gotten through a passage this long (as if it was for class credit), I felt a profound sense of awe, an honour that I get to pick up my bible and listen to the Creator of the universe speak to his people, even me.
I also realised something else: I had lost the art of sitting down, quiet, bible-in-hand to listen to God speak to me. I had done a good job blocking out the divine tongue, God’s voice no longer made contact with the eardrum of my soul. I no longer listened to the one who bought me with a price, the one who called me out of darkness to be a witness to his glorious move in this world.
It is such a tragedy that I got to listen to so many things, so many voices and noises every day, but not God’s voice. In doing so, like the Israelites I had taken the gifts God had given me for my enrichment and curved an idol out of them. The opportunity to train at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is an enormous one, but it can easily be turned into a golden calf.
One just needs to shut out God’s voice and they will earn themselves a trip to the cemetery.