There are some things every Presbyterian seminarian knows, like how to toss around words like context, paradigm, kataphatic, and differentiated, how to throw a Frisbee, which they learn to call a disk, and how to win an argument by naming something a ‘false dichotomy.’ Everyone learns how to pronounce Barth. Everyone has been surprised with joy and humbled to tears by the Bible, the tempestuous history of the church, life in community, and mysteries of God.
Princeton Seminary folks in particular know who stole the clapper. We know how to offer the benediction at the end of a worship service without our hands too close to our sides, like penguin hands, or without hands too stiff and upright, a la “touchdown Jesus.” We have all wrestled with God like Jacob at the Jabbok, along the canal or in Stuart, buzzing with coffee or wine, churning over an idea or a relationship.
At the risk of sounding like a Gnostic, those early followers of Jesus who claimed to have secret knowledge about Jesus that no one else had, which landed them on the shameful wall of heresies that seminarians also know about, our class was marked by a particular experience that forever colors our understanding of Jesus, church, life and death, community, basically everything. Knowledge that one never sets out to learn, never wants to learn. Still, it’s hard to envision authentic ministry without such knowledge. Right before our middler year began, one of our classmates and friends died. His name was Scott.
Before that happened, we had learned about resurrection and new life in Christ; after that happened, we saw an empty desk and had to make an instant leap to the hope of an empty tomb. Before that happened, we had studied the elements of a funeral homily. After that happened, we learned what words were not overwrought but were balm for the soul, necessary as water. We learned also what words rang hollow and stung because they were said too soon or sounded too canned. Before that happened, we had sung thousands of hymns. After that happened, hymns like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross or Great is Thy Faithfulness were sung full throated, clung to like life rafts in a sea of emotion and the breaking of hearts.
Some people had lost friends and loved ones before. For others, this was a maiden voyage. For some, the loss felt distant, like reading about a disaster in the newspaper. For others, it was the odd experience of having others drop off lasagna at their apartment while at the same time keeping a distance, as if the grief was so visible, so close to home, that it was both debilitating and contagious. It was a lived clinical pastoral education, with no shortage of places to process, “Say more about that…” It was practical theology. As practical as packing up his belongings into boxes far too soon and sorting through pictures for a farewell website. It was a Biblical interpretation, to consider what the disciples might really have been talking about as they walked the road to Emmaus. It was liturgy, the work of the people, figuring out how to say together what we believe, remember who God is, and live as those who trust in the resurrection.
We learned grace, when a professor said to yet another tear-stained over-achiever, “Instead of asking for an extension, just don’t turn in that paper. Instead, write. Write what this loss is teaching you. Write everyday. Write until what is inside is out. And calm down, I’ll give you an A- no matter what.”
We learned timing and boundaries and family systems theory. For example, it’s not always necessary, although it may be tempting, to ask how someone is “really doing” when they are really getting a sandwich from the cafeteria or really studying. It is not necessary to pour out one’s soul to every caring person who offers freshly minted active listening skills. It is crucial to take note of how the system itself, the seminary family system, quakes and roils under the weight of loss. That knowledge could not be more important for those about to launch into PC(USA) congregations in the throws of decline, loss, and hope for new life.
The other, deeper lessons are written on the soul. They were learned from Scott himself, from his family and from those who loved him. Those lessons and memories are ‘pondered in our hearts,’ sometimes fresh as spring grass on a Frisbee field, sometimes old and solid like stone. And the remembering, which in seminary we learn to call anamnesis – a special kind of remembering that makes something present today – links us to the holy story that called us to seminary in the first place, that, in Christ Jesus, there is new life….
Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers. Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.