It's official: I am done with grad school. I am finished with my seminary education...
On Friday, my classmates and I gathered at First United Methodist in Evanston, not far from the campus where we've spent the last several years receiving our education, to receive our degrees and mark the end of an era. Many, if not most, will go on to be parish pastors. Some are continuing on to additional degrees. Some will be in the nonprofit sector. And some, like me, are going on to vocations in chaplaincy of various kinds. I thought my primary emotion would be happiness, and while the feeling is there, it cohabits a space with another distinct emotion: loss.
Seminary is not like other degree programs. It's not an easy in and out. You don't leave the same person. In fact, seminary, in my experience, is meant to change you. Or at least, it's meant to bring you to a better understanding of who you really are inside, to bring you closer to your center. This process can feel painful to many. It means chipping away at already existing assumptions and presuppositions. It means wrestling with one's privilege and power. It means making oneself vulnerable to critique and deep examination, sometimes by people who struggle to practice grace intentionally.
When I started seminary, I thought I wanted to be a parish pastor working in a local congregation. I wanted to be a United Methodist. I wanted to be a better Christian (whatever that means). Yet now, four years later, I feel sometimes less Christian and more heretic, less inside and more outside, less privileged and more marginalized. Sometimes, this leads to feeling isolated and segregated. But when I go to the hospital and hear stories from so many people who find themselves in the same position, existing outside the walls of the church, struggling to find their place in community, I'm suddenly more okay with this. I might not belong to a local body of faith like I used to, but I'm still a part of a broader body, the truly global people of God.
My seminary friends and I joked about how some friends and family remarked, "You'll lose your Jesus," if one came to seminary.
...the fact of the matter is this: I didn't lose my Jesus, but I may have lost yours...
I lost the Jesus who is overly concerned with how people identify themselves, with labels or monikers, with inside or outside. I lost the Jesus who thinks that holiness is black and white with clear cut answers and definite rights and wrongs. I lost the Jesus who demands to be white and handsome and flawless. I lost the Jesus who is obsessed with being involved in politics when politics are more concerned with my rights than they are with your needs. I lost the Jesus who has little grace for those who, for one reason or another, find His story less compelling than that of someone else, say Buddha or Mohammed. I could say more, but I think you get where I'm headed.
But I think I found my Jesus, the one I know and understand and trust. I found the Jesus that breaks bread over by the lake just as often as he does around the altar table at church. I found the Jesus who is black and ashy and maybe even a little nappy headed (or bald if I really wanted a personal Jesus). I found the Jesus who claims the moniker of queer as a token of pride. He doesn't mind being presumed strange in the eyes of those with power. I found the Jesus who gets filled with an irrepressible rage when anyone is taken for granted, abused, exploited, or dehumanized, even those guilty of the most heinous crimes. I found the Jesus who is more concerned with hearing your story than he is with you hearing his. I found the Jesus who isn't afraid when he doesn't have an answer to a difficult, gut-wrenching question, but who is willing to sit in silence with the one asking it and share their pain.
This is the Jesus I've found, and I've found him thanks to my friends, colleagues, and professors over the past four years. I found him amidst grief and suffering, joy and celebration. Weddings and funerals, something Jesus and I have in common. I didn't find him alone. There are others, I think, whose Jesus is similar to my own. Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians about being all things to all people, so also is the Jesus I've come to know. He takes on many faces, all of which bear the visage of untamable love. It took me a long time to find this Jesus, but the more I read the stories about him, the more this man makes sense to me, and the more I want to be like him.
Being finished with seminary feels good. It feels like an accomplishment. But it also reminds me that there is always work to be done, both within myself and in the world outside. I'm glad to know some amazing people with whom I can share the burden of that work, and the joy of seeing bits and pieces of it coming to fruition. Some friends have called me brave or courageous for the challenges I've faced on my journey thus far. Maybe they're right, but even then, my bravery is fueled by their love and encouragement, by their tenacity and willingness to journey with and alongside me.
I leave you with the blessing that we received on graduation day (in duplicate)...
May God bless you with discomfort. Discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. Amen
May God bless you with anger. Anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. Amen
May God bless you with tears. Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy. Amen
May God bless you with foolishness. Enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen