Have I mentioned before how difficult theological training was for me, how uncomfortable seminary education made me feel pretty much on a daily basis? And I don’t mean the academic work, although that was challenging enough.
Theological training – going to seminary – is often one of the most difficult experiences there is in education, and that’s counterintuitive, I suppose, because most people probably think seminary is like one big Sunday school – with snacks and craft projects and loving moms who teach. In other words, just like Sunday School – only better.
But, curiously, that’s not what I found.
In fact, there were no snacks or craft projects or loving moms anywhere to be found. There were no flannel boards to illustrate Old Testament stories.
What happened instead – and this is probably not what happens in the sciences or business administration – what happened instead was an immediate confrontation, a confrontation with everything I had ever been taught, with everything I had ever believed, with everything I previously thought.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think chemistry does that. Or tax law.
I could give plenty of examples. I don’t think there was a single lecture in “Introduction to the Old Testament,” for example, after which I did not go back to my dormitory room in a cold sweat, sorting out what I believed.
For me the hardest, most difficult, most challenging classes of all were in preaching, so of course that’s what I decided to concentrate in.
I grew up with an outstanding preacher. The preacher in my childhood was like a theologian in residence. He studied all week in his office on the top floor. And on Sunday he appeared and preached brilliant sermons.
And so, not surprisingly, that’s how I imagined myself.
But church life turned out to be so much different from what I expected. Spending all week in my top floor office, keeping my Hebrew and Greek up to date, was not going to work in the church into which I was ordained. I quickly discovered that no one much cared about my biblical language skills.
And preaching, I soon discovered, was not limited to those weekly appearances on Sunday mornings. I soon found myself offering words of comfort and hope in hospital rooms, funeral homes, assisted living facilities, and even the prisons where my church members went to visit each week.
No prison inmate has ever asked me about the meaning of a word in the original language. I was always ready with the answer, but the question was never asked.
The people I found in church (and other places) wanted someone who knew them, someone who understood a little about their lives. They wanted someone who knew what it was like to be tested, to have failed, to have been beaten up a little. Unexpectedly, that’s what the “Introduction to the Old Testament” did for me.
My theological training did exactly what it was supposed to do. It took my Sunday School faith and made it grow up. I will always be grateful.