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Of unicorns and grandmothers

Most of the students I’ve taught over the years were in their 30s or 40s when they entered seminary, each and every one of them a unicorn. They are unique in 2,000 different ways — which is to say as many ways as there have been students. But the one distinctive most widely shared might be their association with the mainline church.

In California, less than 10% of the population are members of historic denominational churches and more than half of us are AARP eligible. It begs the question: Where do these future leaders of the church come from? How is it that some have found their way into the church while the rest of their cohort (or block or zip code) was sleeping in?

Grandmothers. That’s the number one answer to the question, of course. Those who came to the church as children often have a grandparent to thank. Sometimes a father or mother or both — or someone who was like a father or mother. But so often when my students tell the story of their call it is about a Someone, a familial Someone, who made the difference. Someone who said to them, “Sit by me” or “You belong” or “This is what I see in you …” Or, “Have you ever thought of going to seminary?”

Personally, I would be glad if the influence of Sunday school or youth group got just a bit more play in my students’ stories than it sometimes does (writes the long-time Sunday school teacher and former youth pastor). And certainly, there are plenty of tales of mentors and teachers who went above and beyond. I recall one about a teacher who brought in a model of the Red Sea made of semi-set red Jell-O, carefully separated by cardboard dividers. After the Israelites had safely passed through between the cardboard walls, the teacher lifted them just in time for the gooey red stuff to flood in on Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. There was another story about a youth pastor who set a roll of butcher paper at the top of the sanctuary aisle and kicked it out with her foot. She called the children forward as she squeezed out the contents of a tube of toothpaste in a line. She then gave a fork to the youngest with the instruction that she should try to put the toothpaste back in the tube — all an illustration, of course, of how impossible it is to put words back in our mouths once they’ve been spoken.

Yes, there are certainly tales about the memorable lessons of pastors and teachers. But when push comes to shove, most of the talk is about the person who passed them the peppermints. About a large hand holding the hymnal down in front of their eyes. Ultimately, it’s about that person. Someone they loved. Someone they sat with and sang next to and from whom they caught something.

These days, the image is striking. We remember the days of mask-less people packed into a pew together, singing. Today – in the days that we fervently hope are COVID-19’s last days on the face of the earth – it’s hard not to think of those ominous videos of icky green clouds spreading from one mouth into the airspace of another. But might it be that what is ominous in the days of COVID-19 may be a helpful reminder to us once those days are past? Might those very images make us think of 2 Corinthians 4:13 saying, “We believe and so we speak” and the psalmist encouraging, “Make a joyful noise … come before God’s presence with singing”? They might make us think again of the contagion of faith, and remember all the mysterious ways the Spirit moves and the Word itself passes from one generation to the other.

JANA CHILDERS is dean and professor of homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary and University of Redlands’ Graduate School of Theology.

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