Side Effects of a Seminary Semester

img_3414I’ve been drafting this one for about 4 months. It’s a chronicle of the “side effects” experienced over the course of my first semester of seminary – those unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes meaningful things that start happening and keep happening whether you like it or not.

So, if you ever start seminary, maybe watch out for the following:

1. Humility. (Actually, this one often starts as impostor syndrome or self-doubt. But, by the time symptoms 7 and 8 set in, this can manifest as humility.) As early as orientation, I would look at the course catalog and think: I can’t possibly learn even 1% of the things taught here. I used to think I was smart, used to be accustomed to friends looking to me as something of a miniature “expert” on religious matters. Now, the thought of expertise – the thought of “mastering divinity” as my Master of Divinity degree implies I’m doing – makes me laugh. Now, I marvel at the expanse of theology, biblical studies, ethics, history, languages, spirituality, and pastoral care that exists and suppose I’m the smallest speck compared to that expanse. Now, I think maybe it would be smart to be humble about how little of the expanse I will actually “master” (even while working to master what meager portion I can).

2. Anger. By this, I mean a sometimes-righteous, sometimes-raging anger at the way churches, communities, and individuals have engaged narrowly and unjustly (often in the name of religion) throughout the world and throughout history with issues of gender, sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, mental illness, disabilities, politics, war, slavery, mass incarceration, biblical interpretation (clobber verses, anyone?), missiology (crusades, anyone?), and more. Yes, those are all topics I have crossed paths with just in my first semester – nay, first month – of seminary. Yes, it can be overwhelming. This quotation gives me hope: 

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” – St. Augustine

3. Questions. Why? What for? What does that word mean? Better yet, what does that word mean in Greek? My favorite is when I bump into a friend and they say “Hey, quick question: What do Episcopalians believe about Eucharist?” In most of life, these are not “quick questions.” In seminary, apparently these are normal.

4. The inability to answer questions simply. I increasingly hear questions in gray rather than black-and-white, thinking quickly of at least two ways to approach the question (maybe an Old Covenant approach and New Covenant approach, Protestant approach and Catholic approach, literal and metaphorical, critical and devotional). I don’t even mean to, but I’m getting trained to. For instance, a few weeks into the semester, a friend asked casually “How’s life?” I contemplated his query for a second and said, “Hmm how’s life? That’s a deep question. Can we clarify our definition of the meaning and scope of the term ‘life’? Do we mean my life right now or life in general?”

5. The inability to listen to religious music in the same way ever again. I hear songs on Christian radio or in worship services and little sirens go off in my head screaming of patriarchal language, out-of-context biblical references, or downright heresy.

6. Speaking in tongues. By this, I mean using Greek, Hebrew, and Latin right and left (but, yes, if you also wind up speaking in tongues in other ways I suppose I can analyze the history, theology, and spirituality of that). I’m not even taking a biblical language this semester, and I wrote a paper including terms like imago dei, facere quod in se est, oikonomia, kenosis, and epectasy as if that was perfectly normal.

7. Prayer. For me, every day begins with morning prayer with the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies. Most days close with evening prayer. Most classes open with prayer – whether moments of silence, psalms, prayers of the saints, or the prayers of Professor Smith. During finals, I stopped in the hall to pray with an anxious friend one day, and then my housemate and I stopped in a parking lot to talk and pray with a homeless woman another day.

“Study that does not finally result in prayer is a dishonesty for us.” – St. Benedict   

8. Friendship. Truly, when dealing with all the above side effects, I couldn’t possibly do it alone. The people with whom I’ve been studying, praying, conversing, and eating become inherently connected to me and I to them. It is beautiful.

“We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

 

 

 

 

By Prayer and Petition

I started a petition once. Just once.

It started on a Sunday in 2010, shortly after I had entered a very stressful season. The preacher at church that morning talked about a portion of Philippians 4 that says this:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Do not be anxious about anything? Seriously? How?

I paid half-attention to the preacher and pondered practical ways to possibly “not be anxious about anything.” I needed God, but I also needed something I could see, touch, experience. And I believe in a God, who in the incarnation of Christ, offers hope we can see, touch, experience. So I thought about the rest of the verse — the part after the simplistic snippet about how we should “not be anxious about anything.”

Prayer. Petition. Thanksgiving.

I pictured a petition and the parts it involves: a statement of current conditions, a proposal for change, a list of signatures.

So, strange as it sounds, a petition emerged saying something like this: “I’m stressed. I propose a change in my commitment to self-care and pursuit of social support.”

Then, came the list of signatures. It was a slightly awkward but ultimately empowering process (as petitioning perhaps tends to be) seeking signatures on this thing from anyone who had expressed support of this issue in their various ways — anyone from my therapist to the pastor who had referred me to the therapist to the college classmate who had run into me at a coffee shop and lent a listening ear.

The signatures lent power to the petition. They pushed me to pray, to give thanks, to believe that perhaps with all that help clearly available I actually could “not be anxious about anything.” So, in time, the petition came to pass.

I’ve been thinking about the petition lately, even thinking about making a new one or adding signatures to the old one. Because, a commitment to self-care is something I believe in. And, it’s taken me a long time to learn this, but it’s something that many people believe in.

Many people believe in the value of my life and health and vitality. And many people believe in the value of your life and health and vitality.

I wonder: If you made a petition proposing a change to your personal wellbeing…who would sign? Who would your supporters be? If you’re not sure, it’s something worth working on. Because, with support, in time, your petition for peace can come to pass. I’m sure of it — so sure that I’d sign a statement to that effect.

 

Jesus Heals a (Sort Of) Paralytic

Paralysis by analysis: the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.

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I used to be paralyzed. In the paralysis by analysis sense, I mean.

While wrapping up my undergraduate degree and for several months thereafter, I had a variety of options — too many options. I cringe at this confession, but within one year’s time I considered pursuing vocational paths toward writing, academia, ministry, counseling, and higher education student affairs. Whew. Just recalling all that makes my blood pressure rise with anxiety.

Unable to choose, I thought a lot and acted a little. Very little. Paralysis little.

I worked part-time at a small restaurant for some months, job-searched in my free time, wondered about the purpose of life, waited for answers, and worried myself to sleep. So, actually, there was a lot happening internally (the wondering, the waiting, the worrying), and that took so much mental and emotional energy that it hindered much from happening externally.

I remember humming often the song “Jesus I Am Resting, Resting” and hearing a sermon on Isaiah 30 (“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength”) and wishing it were true — wishing that rest was real and that it could somehow save me.  

But here’s the thing I realize now: Rest is real. And, somehow, it saved me. Resting in Jesus’ goodness and guidance saved me.

There’s a passage in Mark 2 that often gets the heading “Jesus Heals a Paralytic.” And I’d like to say Jesus healed my paralytic-like self too.

Mark 2 goes like this:

Then some people came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” … “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

A couple things I notice about how this happened for the paralytic:

  1. It took friendship. The paralytic’s friends brought him to Jesus. When he couldn’t move, others could move him. In the case of paralysis by analysis, this can look like friends reminding us who we are, what we love, where we’ve been, where we’re headed. For instance, when paralyzed, I’ve tentatively suggested a possibility to a mentor and they’ve been able to affirm “Yes, that’s you! You’ve wanted that for years!”
  2. It took faith. The paralytic and his friends had faith that Jesus had healing power or else they wouldn’t have broken through a roof to get to him. Indeed, we’re told “when Jesus saw their faith” he responded. When paralyzed, I’ve been unable to see any single action as the best action to choose. Faith says to act anyway.
  3. It took forgiveness. Jesus addressed the internal (sin and forgiveness) before and while addressing the external (paralysis and movement). Paralysis by analysis can come with the guilt and shame of feeling lazy if we don’t act, crazy if we act indecisively, or wrong if we act incorrectly. Jesus addresses that internal experience by saying “your sins are forgiven,” thus addressing our external experience by drawing us out from stuck to standing.


I only realize this in hindsight. But, somehow, after a year or so of paralysis, I began to rest from figuring things out on my own and to let good friendships guide me. Began to rest from worrying so much about the future and let faith guide me. Began to rest from guilt over my paralysis and let forgiveness grace me.

It’s counter-intuitive. But the more I rested my mind, the more I took action in my life.  

I still have choices to make. We all do. Every day. And, this time, I’m making the choices. Because, accompanied by friendship, I can take a faithful action and trust that even if it’s not perfect it’s forgiven. Thanks be to God. 

We Need To Talk

“We need to talk.”

What do you think of when you hear those words?

I’ve been realizing over the last several months that, when I hear something like that, I immediately assume the worst. I worry, sometimes for days, that either a) I’m in trouble or b) someone close to me is in trouble. But usually that I’m in trouble.

Why? Probably because I have a somewhat neurotic personality and have experience, unfortunately, with unhealthy workplaces led by unpredictable supervisors. Sometimes, the supervisor would call me in to his office to praise my job performance, other times to threaten my job security. The praise and the threats may have happened 50/50; I’m not sure. But, as I learned in a psychology class once, there’s this thing called the negativity bias that makes negative experiences impact us more than neutral or positive experiences. For example, if my supervisor criticized me 5 times a week (true story), he might need to affirm me, say, 10 times a week in order for me to come away with an unbiased perception of our interactions. And I don’t think that’s asking too much; it’s what we call “constructive criticism” or maybe “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But my supervisor didn’t seem to go that route.

So, I became scared of his office. Scared of the desk phone that so often summoned me into his office. Scared, sometimes, of just waking up in the morning and driving into work. Long after shaking off that situation (with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing as I drove away; no joke), it seems I’m scared of someone saying “we need to talk.”

But here’s the thing: sometimes we just need to talk.

A few days ago, someone in a supervisory position over me suggested that we go to lunch. I swear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Lunch time came around, we ordered salads, and after several minutes of small talk and sipping sweet teas, I asked her, “So, did you want to discuss something in particular?”

“No,” she said with the simplest smile. “I just thought we hadn’t touched base in a while, just the two of us.”

I sat down my fork and breathed in deep (note to self: do this more often).

Hours of anxiety released like a deflating balloon.

Suddenly, the small talk seemed sufficient rather than suspenseful, as if maybe we’re meant to just be together rather than just be together until some ticking time bomb goes off. Suddenly, I wasn’t so scared. I was just there — fully, freely there. I cared more genuinely about her toddler’s antics and approaching anniversary, and I could accept that she cared quite genuinely about my roommates and writing.

We need to talk. We really do. And I’m resolved to redeem that phrase.  

Life Is Like a Novel

I used to think life was like an anthology. Now I think it’s more like a novel.

Anthologies present one unrelated story at a time. You read a chapter, close it, and don’t need to return to it. Because the next chapter introduces new characters, new scenes, new story. We’re talking realistic fiction in one chapter, sci-fi the next.

Life can seem that way, especially for those of us who move with any sort of regularity.

Here’s how it goes: Move a couple times during grade school. Maintain a pen pal for a while. Maybe move off to college. Write in your classmates’ yearbooks that you’re best friends forever. Graduate college. Maybe take a job in another city. And so on. It’s exhausting.

Novels, however, provide continuity. There can — and should — be motifs that run throughout the novel, foreshadowing in chapter 2 of something yet to happen, a flashback in chapter 7 of something that already happened.

Life, too, connects one season, one segment, one chapter, to the next — and the next and the next and the next.

Yes, it takes effort to maintain novel-like continuity in our lives – to keep in touch with old friends, call on their birthdays, send cards at Christmas. To keep in touch with old parts of our selves even, to reflect, journal, go to therapy. But, I’m thinking the consistent effort of keeping in touch with our past is less than the concerted effort of periodically starting over from scratch.

Cost-benefit analysis aside, the novel life is rewarding. It can be surprising and adventuresome. A college friend calls you up to say she’s in your town visiting cousins and can you get together. Surprise: an adventure. Or you bump into a high school classmate who you had little in common with back-in-the-day, and find that the years have constructed quite the common ground. Surprise: a friend. An old friend turned new friend. A not-bound-by-time friend.

The novel life, too, is psychologically healthy. Instead of being angry by a chapter of life and closing it in a huff (as I’ve too often tried to do), you learn from it. You at least acknowledge that the old chapter’s part of your story and something about it influences something about you today.

The story of life says we sometimes have to flip back a few chapters to understand where we’re at now. And we have to read on expectantly to understand where we’re headed.

Flip back, flip back. Learn.

Read on, read on. Live.