Monday, November 9, 2020

"Seminary ruined my life."

Well, here we are again.  In January of last year I wrote what I thought would be my last blog post.  Over the last 11 years, this space has been a safe place for me, one where I could process the thoughts that ran rampant in my mind, and find some sense of balance, some sense of peace, some sense of... well, some sense of me.  

I've learned over the years that when I get that nagging itch to write, I need to just go ahead and do it.  I can put it off for a while, but not forever.  The last few months have given me, along with countless others, much to process.  For me, that processing always goes back to theology.  

For those who know me, they know that I spent 21 years in pastoral ministry, but in what is becoming my autumnal season of life, have gone back to what was evidently, something I never truly walked away from...carpentry.  I've strapped back on my toolbelt and gone back to residential construction.  Even during those years when I was a full time pastor, the smell of sawdust first thing in the morning never left my system.  On the flip side of that same coin, as a full time carpenter now, theology has never left my system.  I have sawdust in my blood, and probably always will, but my first true love is theology.  

Years ago, as I was still in the ordination process, a well meaning church member told me one Sunday morning, "Don't let that seminary change you." In the years since, I have come to realize that change is the very goal of theological education.  We cannot grow unless we change, and education demands that we grow.  

 In 2004, I began that journey.  As a 33 year old, I was still a young pastor.  I had finished my Bachelor degree work, getting a degree in Biology with a minor in chemistry.  I still don't know how I achieved the minor because I couldn't balance a chemical equation now if my soul depended on it.  Still, after having graduated with my BS, I began the journey into theological education.  

I chose a seminary that I knew would challenge me, because I needed to be challenged.  After checking out a few schools, I landed at Memphis Theological Seminary, a relatively small school in midtown Memphis.  The first two years changed me.  

At 33 years old, I had it all figured out.  My theology was conservative, as I'd been taught all my life.  My interpretation of scripture was literal.  Jonah literally spent 3 days in the belly of a whale.  My scientific mind had not yet begun to wrestle with that because there had been no need to.  The creation story was a story about six literal days, six 24 hour periods where all that is...was.  I had not yet discovered C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, nor had I read "The Magician's Nephew," where, as Aslan sang, the land of Narnia burst into being.  I'd had no reason, at that point in my life, to question anything.  

Then I began the classwork.  That first semester I had wonderful instructors.  I'll never forget Dr. Steve Parish walking into my very first seminary class.  I had expected an old white guy in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, but instead, in walks this old hippie with a ponytail, jeans, and flip flops.  I love the guy still.  Then I began to meet my other professors.  Theologians, all, yet not in the sense that I'd expected.  

Then it happened.  Seminary ruined my life.  

That first semester, and for three semesters after, I sat there as the walls of my theological castle came tumbling down.  There was nothing I could do, save try not to inhale the dust and hold on as the ground shook.  One after another, I watched helplessly as my walls crumbled.  Scripture is not literal?  What the hell?  Jonah could not survive three days in a mammalian stomach acid bath?  The creation story as an explanation of how our story as the people of God began?  

Helpless.   That's the only word I can use to describe it.  

Everything I had ever thought to be true was being challenged.  

You see, in my part of the world, good Christian boys and girls don't challenge anything.  I live in a red state.  Most of the folks who are my neighbors, friends, and family, hold to a very traditional, very conservative, very literal understanding of scripture.  It was how I was raised.  It was all I had ever known.  It was all I thought I'd ever need.  Then came seminary.  

I sat there, being taught that scripture was not to be interpreted literally, and was never intended to be.  Paul's letters, and the other epistles, weren't even meant for us to read all these centuries later.  Context was everything, and changed much of the way I read scripture.  When you understand who it was written to, and why, and where, and when, things change.  

Now, I'm at peace with who I am.  My understanding of scripture is no longer so conservative, nor so literal.  In fact, I'm the polar opposite of who I was 15 years ago.  I am comfortable with the reality that Paul was not writing to me, and that we put way more emphasis on Paul than we do Jesus.  My scientific mind and my theological mind are no longer at odds because, whether it was six days or 60 million years, doesn't take away from the fact that God loves us and created a world for us to live in, while at the same time giving us charge to care for it.

Theologically, I'm no longer conservative because I have been taught that the Jesus I had given my life to was a radical, an extreme radical.  He treated women in a way they'd never been treated before.  He showed concern for those no one else cared for.  He opened my eyes to the fact that no one is illegal in God's eye, whether they followed our laws to get here or not.  I saw, in the new Jesus I'd found, a path to live the life that had always been there, albeit just under the surface of what was acceptable.  

The problem came when I began to follow that Jesus.  It's one thing to sing our hymns to Jesus, in four part harmony, yet a totally different thing to actually follow him.  I couldn't sing then, still can't now, but though I may be off key I'll just sing more loudly.  What I can do, though, is follow that Jesus.  That radical, liberal, way too far to the left, Jesus.  I can follow him, has ruined my life.  

And that's ok. 

That Jesus has told me that skin color doesn't matter in God's eye.  That Jesus has asked me which kingdom I intend to serve.  That Jesus, radical Jesus, liberal Jesus, has asked me if I still love my brothers and sisters who march under the rainbow flag.  That Jesus has reminded me, "Jamie, you have prayed every night that my kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Do you really mean that?"  Yes, radical Jesus, I mean that.  

I've lost friends.  I've unfollowed family's social media posts.  I've questioned everything I've ever known to be true because that damn seminary ruined my life.  And...this election season... don't even get me started.

Actually...seminary did not ruin my life.  In fact, seminary was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me other than my marriage and the birth of my daughters.  

No, seminary did not ruin my life.  Seminary just showed me that there's really no place for a guy like me around here. 

My prayer now is that this same radical Jesus that I've given my entire adult life to serving, show me where I belong in God's kingdom plan.