Guest Outpost blog by Samuel Son
This week we asked our bloggers to share three things they would have liked to tell themselves before starting seminary. Here are their thoughts.
Dear Sam of some years ago (no need to be exact in our count) ready to become a Master of Divinity,
First of all: relax, you are not there to prove anything. I know, coming from a small-town Christian college, you hear anyone’s comment on college years as questioning the legitimacy of your B.A. Because who ever heard of Nyack?
“Is that a college in Estonia?”
“No, upstate New York. Nestled under the Tappan Zee Bridge. Nyack.”
“Never heard of Kyack.”
At least your B.A. is in English and not in Biblical studies.
Now you are in the big leagues. Princeton Theological Seminary. Even the city, “Princeton” sounds royal. You have somehow gotten to an elite theological school, which is the only reason your father let you go to seminary – because he was set on stopping your from becoming a pauper preacher. But after the giddiness of acceptance, you worried about whether you can prove that you belong there. That’s a familiar plot, isn’t it? You’ve been trying to prove you belong since kindergarten.
So you will mercilessly underline and highlight those textbooks. You will even type out summaries of Norman Gottwald’s “Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction,” smitten by its theory that Exodus was a mythologization of micro-rebellions in Canaan cities because it sounded like what a smart modern seminarian might teach his youth group… and because you desperately need the affirming “A.” You will learn how to namedrop at a drop of a dime, throw in hyphenated words like “socio-political” in every other sentence and stamp any adjective into a noun like “intratextuality.” You will quote Kant – because he is impenetrable so it will make you sound like an intellectual elite – in a homiletics class where you will say that a primary purpose of a “homily” is to declare the “categorical imperative.” This will get you into one of Professor James Kay’s anecdotes of how not to preach.
It will only be in your senior year when you will start relaxing. You will realize that you don’t have to prove you belong, because you don’t need to belong anywhere. You belong to God, and that’s always been enough; you just keep forgetting. And you will realize this simply because you will be tired. Sometimes truth is had when you are too exhausted to go on – like how you float when you stop flapping. You will go out on Mondays and shoot hoops. You will make late-night Manhattan runs to an all-you-can-eat sushi joint. And you will go out to Grad Bar, where beer will be two dollars and you will get into some of the most perspective-stretching theological conversations. Relaxing is a way to lean on grace. But try to do it from your first year.
Second, take your lunch tray all around the tables in McKay Dining Center. If you don’t commit to table-hopping, you will mostly sit with Koreans because at your first non-event lunch you will see people gathered by color. The whites will occupy the tables in the middle and near the entrance. The blacks will carve out their corners. And you and your Korean buddies (your class had at least 20) will occupy the southeast corner, where large windows let the sun in generously. The justification? You will have been in class where you just dialogued with people of foreign perspectives. It’s hard work listening to people with foreign ideas. And who wants to dialogue while digesting? It causes indigestion. When you eat, you don’t want to be explaining yourself. So you will settle into the divide.
And there will be this white dude, Kevin, who will cross that divide and want to sit with you for lunches and dinners. Not that you won’t occasionally eat with whites and blacks. But that white dude will want to be a friend, not just a courteous classmate. He will want to go to library and study with you. So why will you be so afraid? “Acceptance.” Of course. You will be afraid you will not be accepted once he knows that you don’t know anything about Bob Dylan; that is, you don’t have much in common outside of the seminary books you study. You are afraid if he gets any closer, he will see your acne scars and other scars deeper and hidden. Even as a “mature” seminarian, you will act like a teenager, letting fear of rejection make you reject people. It will be hard to accept that maybe he has already accepted you. Why is it so hard to accept grace – friendship being an avatar of grace? When Kevin says, “Let’s study at the library,” go with him, and later listen to his collection of Bob Dylan, even if you think he sounds a bit mousey (not Kevin, but Dylan).
Third, go drinking with your professors. Buy them a Rolling Rock. But you won’t want to take them out because you are afraid that you can impress them in class, but not for a whole evening. You don’t have enough quotes to last a night. Your ideas are still a salad and not a system. You are afraid the professors will find you another boring junior student.
But buy a second round, even a third – on them. You might find the professors still quoting theologians and philosophers, profound in knowledge and insight, even after 9 p.m. But eventually you will find them repetitive and terribly boring. This will not be anyone’s fault. There is just nothing new under the sun – only fresh ways of saying the same thing, and all fresh things dry up, wrinkle and turn cliché. Even more, people are boring. It’s living, being human. “A poet puts aside his wreath, To wash his face and brush his teeth,” says Arthur Guiterman.
Another thing you will find out as the evening wears on: They are as insecure as you because they don’t know how they got their prestigious positions. They are scared stiff they would be found out that they don’t belong there. Then you will get it, the truth that no one really belongs anywhere, and for that reason, everyone belongs to God, the one who adopts orphans. And because everyone belongs to God, everyone belong to each other. Yes seminary is lot like the church – how wonderful would it be if everyone saw the whole world as a church – where no one has an earned seat because everyone is there by the invitation of grace.
SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina, and facilitator in Micah Groups, He is also a columnist for North State Journal. Visit his website.