I have been talking to people about seminaries recently, some young, some older. Some want to be pastors, others counselors and non-profit workers, and lots of people who simply want to go deeper in their faith through study.
But where to go? Discussing this, I was reminded of an experience I had in the Wesley Theological Seminary chapel the week after Easter. Here you should understand that the week after Easter is a wonderful time for a pastor to sit in worship and avoid, at all costs, any sort of leadership. During Holy Week and Easter I had been a part of eight worship services that recalled the last week of Jesus’ life and the joy of his resurrection. While it was all meaningful, I was in need of some new life myself the Tuesday following. It was worth the drive to Washington, D.C., to enter a sanctuary, quietly take a seat, bow my head and pray I blend into the woodwork.
The crowd was mostly students, and they obviously knew and enjoyed each other. The greetings were warm. The singing was enthusiastic. The prayers were sincere. Then Kendall Soulen, the Professor of Systematic Theology, stood up to preach. If you have not been to seminary, you should know that Systematic Theology is a required class that many know they need and yet long to avoid. Think of it as the Organic Chemistry of the seminary. Or Intermediate Accounting. Or whatever that course was in your field. I know Kendall, and I had good expectations, but I just could not do anything particularly heavy that night. Kendall shared a remarkable sermon about the meeting between the disciples and the resurrected Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. He talked about the importance of our knowing the big words of our faith, like the words you wrestle with in systematic theology. Equally important, he said, is that you know that Christ knows the small words, like our names. As Kendall talked about the conversation between Peter and Jesus, I took in a sermon that was biblical, theologically insightful and one that spoke a personal word that was a blessing to the listeners. It was so great to see a man who knows all the big words of the faith speak plainly and openly about what it means to be known by Christ.
Then Professor Sathi Clarke stood up to share Holy Communion with us. I am not sure I have ever seen the liturgy of the church shared with such ease and joy. The way he spoke these ancient words, which I have said more times than I can count, gave me the sense that Christ was at the table, that the Spirit really was with us and that the Creator remembered us. I know that is the point. Really, I do. Drafting off of Dr. Clarke’s elation, I experienced the sacrament in such a fresh way that it surprised me. When I received communion, I was renewed, which again, I know is the point. It’s just nice when that actually happens.
Then, the musicians and vocalists stood up to close the service. They had prearranged for Kendall to play his banjo, Sathi to play his guitar and the President of the Seminary, David McAllister-Wilson to come play the piano. I serve on the Board of Governors at Wesley and have experienced David to be a visionary, insightful and well-organized leader. He always has his act together. However, from a conversation earlier in the day, I knew that Dave had not practiced the piano recently. He was out of his comfort zone. Despite his reluctance, he began to play. What impressed me was not the quality of his music, but that he was willing to be uncomfortable for one reason: the students had asked. The effect was immediate. The singing got louder. The words became more joyful. When the President of the seminary took a risk, was just a little bit vulnerable, everyone experienced a greater sense of community with each other. Because the Christian life is not about being perfect, but being available, and seeking God’s help and blessing in the midst of our imperfections.
That, I think, is what you should look for in a seminary. It should be a place where the Bible and theology combine and reach the boiling point of relevance for our society and our lives. It should be a place where the Christian faith, while equipping us with a discerning gaze and candid speech in the arena of ethics and justice, is also experienced as foundational joy. And it should be a place where people have an experience of community that includes risk, vulnerability and occasional unpracticed piano playing. That is renewing worship, no matter what the week.