I want you to know that it is time for me to write.
This month marks a year since I completed seminary. I was good at seminary–good at reading, good at writing, good at speaking. If seminary was a sport then I was a first string lettered athlete. At the completion of seminary I was showered with commendation and affirmation: Jesse, you did “higher theological education” with style (Summa Cum Laude style). Where others failed or struggled, you easily conquered. You were special, set apart, unique. And boy it was nice to hear.
But now it’s gone. It’s gone, and it’s not coming back. And I am left to wonder what good I achieved? The diploma frame already supports a thick coating of dust. The diploma inside the frame asserts that I am worthy of the Master of Divinity degree (an admittedly portentous title). What good is a title? It doesn’t get me a discount at my favorite bookstores. It doesn’t guarantee me a good hair cut. It doesn’t make my kids turn out right.
The Master of Divinity degree did claim to give me a certain skill-set to engage a particular task. But I often wonder what skills I mastered, and even more pressing what is the task at hand?
For all who study theology there are certain existential questions that remain when we matriculate with our lofty sounding degrees. Who am I (we)? What is my purpose? What is the good life? Where do I begin? In more ‘practical’ fields, the sciences perhaps, people learn to do things: how to run equipment, balance equations, navigate a lab, conduct field research. The companies that employ science graduates assign specific tasks, and are able to articulate their goals: develop a razor that shaves closer to the face, design an engine that can move a midsized Toyota 100 miles using one gallon of gas, create a telescope that can map distant solar systems. In theology people learn to think things–seldom to do things (save writing)–and the things people learn to think about are rarely things that have a definable end. There is no moment of arrival. There is always more thinking, more reading, more writing. Theologians can never write a definitive theology or history, and you can never plan and predict a perfect future (the present, of course, is woefully indiscernible [i.e. we are far too close to it to know what the hell is going on]).
What theologians try to be is a presence on the sandy beaches of life working hard to help the other beach combers see the beauty that lay before their eyes. When we are at our best, theologians (who often can’t swim, are deathly afraid of sharks, and don’t own a serviceable surf board) leave the safety of the beach and venture into the powerful waters to ‘hang ten’ and ride the tsunami wave of cultural trends hoping to influence people toward some kind of positive change or new way of thinking. Theologians accomplish things by seeing a vision (a new way to view the past and God, a new parallel between time gone by and time present or future, a new nuance on a classic theme of human existence) and passing it along.
In my life the two steps–acquiring a vision and passing it along–are drastically unique and different steps, with the latter often far harder than the former. I am naturally attracted to human expression (art), ideas, and the great mysteries of life. I seldom settle for easy answers and I warm to the status quo in the same way a runner warms to a pebble in her shoe. Acquiring vision (or perhaps gaining in wisdom) is the brew on tap at my favorite bar (what can I say, the analogy just came to me). Passing it along however is a foreign import that when served at that same bar lands strange and bitter on my pallet. I have always preferred books to people, and the cold refreshment found in the depths of a good idea to the stagnant tepid puddle of small talk and complaint. In my opinion the most dreaded of all buzzwords is ‘networking.’ Ick! I work a room like an obese man works a stair climber. I know that I know stuff–I know I have visions–but I have little hope of reproducing those visions in others if my audience consists of those I regularly invite to dinner (I don’t regularly invite anyone to dinner). Passing it along is not my strong suite. I don’t want to be the center of attention, I hate the phone, crowds make me claustrophobic, and a goose egg best resembles the shape of the number of Christmas cards I sent out this past year.
But what if there was another way? What if I could pass it along–if I could be public–and still be private. What if I could still do what came easy to me? What if I could harness what God gave me because God loved me–the word. Jesus was the logos (the Word) of God made flesh. In the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel the Word of God was able to do things (not just say things)–the Word of God had efficacy. The Bible itself is a testament to the power contained in words. With words nations rise and empires fall. With words we mortally wound, or faithfully heal. An artful string of words can live forever, and a well reasoned argument can save us from folly. And best of all, words can be written anywhere (the bar?), at any time (happy hour?), about anything (the beer on tap?) and the phone is not required.
The ministry of writing is a sacred profession. I don’t enter it lightly. I was good at seminary–I was good at reading, good at writing, good at speaking. But this isn’t seminary. Seminary is gone. The kid gloves are off. I no longer write as a student. Mistakes no longer lose me a letter grade. When I make a mistake now–when the words are wrong, and the idea comes out muddled–we both lose, and we lose big. This isn’t a battle that is easily conquered. I am not fighting for academic honors, I am fighting for life–the abundant life (yours and mine).
I could have been a scientist (I almost was). But I am not. God called me, and I chose a different skill-set. What good is it? I’m about to find out. This month marks a year since I completed seminary. But seminary is gone. It’s gone, and it’s not coming back. I am prepared. I see the vision. God is with me. It’s time to write.
“Write the vision, and make it plain…” Hab. 2:2