Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Confessions of a Seminary Student

Brace yourselves, all you who critique the uneducated masses! Prepare, all you who are suspicious of higher education! Here is the confession of a seminary student...

The thing I don't like about seminary (and when I say seminary what I mean is "some professors, students, and/or rhetoric found in-and-coming-out-of the hallowed seminary halls"), interestingly, is the same thing that I tend to find distasteful in church (and when I say "in church" what I mean is "among some Christians and/or their attitudes").

That is to say, seminary and church are not necessarily equated with this particular pet peeve of mine, but I find it in both places, actually. So, dear readers, this incriminates us all...

We get it in our heads that we know what is best without actually asking God.

Here is the irony: We may know all about God, about his word and his church, about the principles of counseling, the theology of the sacraments, the history of spiritual formation, or even the simple facts of dealing with and caring for people.  We may know a lot about, well, a lot about a lot of things.  But "there is a way that seems good to a person, but in the end, it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12).

In recovery we talk about the notion of powerlessness.  Left to our own devices, we will only ever do what we've only ever done.  In other words, we've come to recognize that the only thing we have in our own power is our own understanding, and leaning on our own understanding is what got us into trouble in the first place; it will get us into trouble every time.  Our understanding is the way we approach the world over and over again, every time expecting different results - or maybe even the same results because, hey, we're right, right?  Without God, we are trapped in our own understanding, our own way of seeing the world, our own way of doing things. This is all there is. Forever.

So in recovery, we recognize that, for any hope of anything different - for new life - we are utterly dependent on God.  We are utterly dependent on God to break in on even our best understanding, to clue us in, to wake us up, to confront us and bring us out of our denial, to acquaint us with the truth, to challenge our preoccupations, and to expose our character defects.  We are utterly dependent on God, as the one who knows what is really going on in the world, in his own heart and mind, in his own plans, purposes, and kingdom, to restore us.

Restore us to what? To right thinking? Yes.  But right thinking isn't going to save us.  Is he restoring us to emotional health, fulfilling our creational function? Sure. But emotional health and the perfection of original creation wasn't enough for Adam and Eve, was it? It isn't going to save us, either, and for the same reason.  Perhaps, then, he is restoring us to right relationship with others? Absolutely!  Interestingly, however, right relationship isn't something we can completely grasp or do on our own, is it?  What is vital, what we need, is for him to restore us to himself.

Things like "right thinking" and even "right relationship" only end up becoming their own forms of bondage apart from God - apart from God's presence, apart from his speaking to us and in us and with us, apart from his constant intervention, apart from his life.

But we have this strange, unshakable tendency to operate in our own understanding, even of God.  We take our understanding and we walk away from God and we start conforming the world to it.

What would have happened if Adam and Eve, when confronted by the snake's question, "Did God say..." had actually gone back to God and asked him?  What if they had brought it up to God when he came to hang out that evening?

"Hey, the serpent said this. What's up with that?"

Heck, what if they had actually approached God about it? Who said they would even have to wait until evening?  We talk about God as if he is far away in this passage.  Maybe he was, but I kinda doubt it.

But they didn't ask or reach out or wait on or approach God.  Wanna know why?  Because they knew.  They had their own understanding to use.  And their sin wasn't that they had their own understanding, it was that they took their own understanding and made it their god instead of bringing it into submission to God.

They took their own understanding and made it their god instead of bringing it into submission to God.

That's what happens at seminary sometimes, and I don't like it.  That's what happens at church sometimes, and I don't like it there, either.  Heck, in recovery, we recognize that this is the very thing we are all battling, constantly, in our everyday lives as individuals.  This is ultimately what we are in recovery from.  So that's what happens in MY LIFE sometimes - okay, a lot - and I HATE it.  Just recently I discovered how even my understanding of addiction had snuck in to preclude all other perspectives until I had reduced a friend to the sum of his depravity.  I praise God for his gift of recovery so that I have the hope of recognizing these things and the practices that bring my understanding into submission to Christ!

Ironically, however, that is what I find, practically, in recovery that I don't find in church: awareness, hope, and the disciplines that put me in a posture of humility and submission before God.  I don't find these so terribly often in the church, and it seems that I find it even less in seminary.  

For example, I attended a forum the other day in which someone was collecting data on why bi-vocational ministry is the shiz-niz.  I didn't think about it at the time but reflecting back, I never once heard anyone say, "Bi-vocational ministry is good when you approach God and he says it is what is best or what he wants or how he wants to work in this situation." No, every single answer was based on our understanding.  I wonder now how many people might be headed out into the world, ready to make the decision to jump into (and potentially drown in) bi-vocational ministry based on - what? Their own understanding?  Our own collective understanding?

Interestingly, as I have been on my own path of seeking God's vision and purpose, bi-vocational ministry has been something that has seemed to match God's calling on (to?) me. With the proper boundaries, provisions, and divine intervention, I think it could be a good thing.  But God-forbid that I do it in my own power, based on my own understanding.  I have done enough of that in my life and I know exactly what it produces: Death.  In fact, I know exactly how to know when I have stepped out in my own understanding because that is the fruit I start to bear in my innermost places and eventually in my world: Death.  Where there is death, there is my own understanding apart from God.  The End.

So, that is what I don't like about seminary.  That is the big disconnect I feel sometimes in cumbersome classwork, the occasionally pretentious rhetoric of fellow students, and the dripping sarcasm of a few key professors.  But that is what I find disconnecting in church, too, and why I have to attend a recovery group in order to follow Jesus.

That is today's confession.