A first semester report card…
Not that kind of report card. Well, a little bit that-kind-of-report-card.
I’ve had the chance to learn a lot about what it means to be part of a liturgically-based denomination in my first months at seminary and I must admit that I’m intrigued by some of the traditions,how they developed over the years and how they manifest themselves in the 21st century. One of these practices refers to something called Ember days. Mostly, I hear people talking about Ember days because those are the days that, by tradition, the students are expected to communicate in some way (the format often depends on the technology-savvy nature of their individual bishops) with their sponsoring bishop about their progress and growth during the seminary experience to date. There is a lot of debate over the origin and tradition of the Ember day, but the the explanation that most appeals to me is the idea that these are four days set aside in the liturgical calendar each year for remembrance, specifically for our quiet reflection on the death and the resurrection. In our modern world (and this is so American), they have become a day to reflect and report on one’s progress.
Sometimes my writing here focuses on explaining pieces of the Baptist identity to my fellow students, and sometimes I take a moment to talk about linkages or differences between the two traditions in which I live at the moment. I obviously have no bishop to report to, but I do have a close community of people who have loved me and supported me and cheered me on through this first semester, and I think you all deserve a report as much (or more) than any bishop ever could.
So now that I have had some sleep and that some of my end-of-term ailments are starting to fade, I humbly offer this to you: my Baptist version of an Ember letter. I call it my Baptist version, because obviously I have no respect for authority. It is a little late; I’ll be more careful of the dates next time now that I understand, because it is a tradition that appeals to me. I hope that you will kindly accept this little essay about what my first semester in seminary has been like as my report to you, the friends and colleagues who have gathered around me, prayed for and with me, and who offer to me such an amazing flow of kindness and support.
Here are some of the lessons that I have learned in these first few months:
Lesson 1: Going to seminary is not the same as going to school.
I had a lot of worries during the summer about going “back to school”. I’ve spent a lot of time in school in my life, but I had thought that I might have lost my ability to be good at being a student in a classroom. What I did not understand is that I was not going “back to school”, although sometimes it might look like it with books to read and papers to write and tests to take. I in fact signed up for a kind of spiritual boot-camp that gives you a certificate at the end. At no time is anything I am doing about a pile of information that I must learn; at every moment what I am doing has to do with the process of growing in faith and acquiring the tools and the skills necessary for a lifetime of growth and a lifetime of helping others grow.
Lesson 2: For most of us, freedom and personal responsibility are frightening concepts
Because each and every teacher I have met is more invested in my development as a disciple than in how well I master their particular subject matter, with the exception of the more technical disciplines that are about skills formation, each and every class so far has been, well, boundary-less in many ways. The look on the faces of the members of one of my classes as the teacher described the assignment for the final paper was priceless — total fear, as she described an assignment with only two small requirements, an assignment that you could take wherever your God called you. That kind of freedom in an “academic” setting is, well, more than unusual. And the responsibility to use that freedom wisely (not wisely in that you please the teacher and get an “A”, but wisely in that you use the gift of being there to support and refine your call) is immense.
Lesson 3: There are so many books.
Yes, there is a lot of reading involved in these studies, but that is not what I mean. There are so many books published each year, devoted to faith and Christian development. And each “flavor” of Christianity has its own. On any given topic, you can find 20, 30, 50 books — all written from the perspective of a specific denomination or a specific person. Someone once said to me that creating a reading list for a class was like a jobs bill for one’s friends: that you tended to teach from the books of people you know. But in fact, the first thing I did when I visited this seminary (before I became a part of it) was to visit the book store and look at the reading lists for the classes. Unlike other places, each course list included the most basic, most orthodox texts first — they teach foundations (and not just Episcopal foundations — they have special classes for that). But I continue to be overwhelmed by the amount of books out there and the lack of time I have to read everything I need to (and want to) read.
Lesson 4: We are One in the Spirit
As I think about this last and most important lesson, I can’t help but thing of that song from the 60’s…We are One in the Spirit. I was concerned about what it would be like to be the lone Baptist student; I was worried about how I would fit in; I was worried about the kinds of adjustments I would have to make to get along. My concerns were useful questions, but my fears were unnecessary. True, I do not participate in everything…I do not worship all the time at the school, there are many activities that I forgo. But that is okay; I have my community of faith, I have my relationship with God, and I am on my own path. And I’m comfortable with that for the first time in my life — I do not need to be at the center of every activity. I may have, in fact, chosen a school in which I would NOT throw myself into each and every activity and community opportunity so that I could learn some valuable lessons (lessons not applicable to this report card).
But what I have learned is that denominations and liturgies and worship formats and apostolic succession and collars and incense and adult baptism — these things do not separate people of faith who all agree and embrace the knowledge of a Divine presence, who long for a better, kinder, and more faith-filled world, and who share a respect for the sacred nature of all that surrounds us in this creation and accept our responsibility to honor this sacred space that is God’s creation. An orientation toward the sacred in life will unite us all, if we just let it.
I learned a lot of other things this semester — I learned how to work and take tests while having the flu, I’m guessing I’ve learned hundreds of words in Hebrew and memorized verb paradigms, and more…but the four lessons above have changed who I am and how I will approach the next three semesters on this journey. Thank you all for the part you play in keeping me on the path.