What I learned in seminary

My friend is a college professor, and he claims that the students who give him the most trouble about grades are the recipients of an A-.

I wince. I was that student.

I recall a conversation with my high school guidance counselor in which she called me a perfectionist. Only years later in seminary did it dawn on me that she did not intend that as a compliment.

In seminary, the expectations were high. The work was demanding. Ten years after graduation, I can still call to mind that overwhelming feeling at the start of the semester: How in the world was I going to get all of this done?

The answer is imperfectly.

My beloved professor of Hebrew taught us the word for “might” – as in Love the Lord with all your might – through a story of his young son’s attempt to stay up past his bedtime. The young child fell asleep on the rug with his outstretched hand not quite grasping a favorite toy. That was a picture of his might, which his father photographed before scooping up his boy and carrying him to bed. I can reach with all my might toward high expectations. But there is grace if I can’t quite grasp the goal.

Another professor shared how she had risen early one morning to grade essays about the catechism question:What is the chief end of man? The assignment was to analyze this statement in terms of Reformed theology and then each student was to respond personally.

As this professor was wearily digging into a heaping stack of papers, her young daughter came downstairs. Full of energy, she plopped on the couch right next to her mom and began asking questions like 4-year-old children do… lots and lots of questions beginning with “Mommy, why?” This refrain grew more and more frustrating as time ticked away.

Finally, her daughter pointed to a graded essay and asked, “Why did you draw a one-eyed smiley face?”

She looked down at the page: her daughter was referring to this grade: C-

One-eyed smiley face? She turned her head to the side… then she saw it!

According to my professor, something else came into focus. She realized was nitpicking things in the essays rather than trying to understand what her students had written. The irony was not lost on her that, while grading papers on the chief end of life, she was overlooking the essentials.

In summary, the lessons from seminary that I value the most are these: perfectionism is not a goal but a stumbling block; children offer the best sermon illustrations; and stories are the best prayers.