Melinda R. Heppe, associate editor of In Trust, spent six days last November at a human dissection workshop sponsored by Somanautics in St. Louis, Missouri

Illustration from De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem,by Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1555.

Is seminary trusteeship rooted in Bible study? Of course it is, just as it is rooted in prayer. Too often, though, that is taken to mean that meetings should be opened with a perfunctory prayer or a quick peek at scripture. Brevity is not always a bad thing, but here it implies that a nod to the spiritual is something to be gotten out of the way before the real work begins. Better that the “real work” should both inform and be informed by our understanding of scripture. Sometimes that means getting our noses far out of the book—while remembering what’s in there.

For example: Care to turn your thinking about the church as the body of Christ on its ear?

Spend a week at a human dissection lab.

At the very least, you will break your thinking about First Corinthians 12 wide open. An eye, a foot, an ear? The body is more complex than that. Perhaps your function in the body is that of a bit of lymphatic tissue, screening out intruders, or a taste bud designed to recognize sweetness, or a bit of adipose intended for energy storage. And of course the most abundant tissue in the body, as is apparent as soon as you start poking about, is connective tissue, made to provide structure, a safe space for important things to happen.

You’ve read the Psalms, of course. You know that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” But you know it more clearly after you look into a body and start to grasp—literally—the reality of things you already know. Your fingers really are moved by muscles high on your forearm with long iridescent tendons making the connection. There are the things you don’t know, even though you probably should. I must have been daydreaming that day in health class, but I always thought of small intestines as free-floating squiggles until I saw and felt for myself that they run along the edge of a sea-creature-looking structure called the mesentery that nourishes them and connects them to a common root, so they can’t tie themselves in a knot. You can hold them like a bouquet. There are the things inside you that you just don’t think about, like how very large an aorta has to be to do its job.

Well. Wonder follows wonder as you realize how little you know about something that is so much a part of you (and this on the level of gross anatomy, that which you can see!).

And eventually you realize not only that you’ll never know yourself this well this way, but also why you won’t—because what you’re working with in the dissection lab is not a person. It’s a model made from human tissue and embalming fluid. It used to be a person, but it isn’t anymore. And the only way to know yourself like this would be to die—and then you couldn’t do the knowing.

Spirit matters, you see. Life and breath and spirit are connected, and without them, the body is only an inert collection of interesting but useless structures. At the end of its week in the lab, the cadaver is a strange still life of odds and ends ready for the retort at the crematorium.

Trusteeship also presents its practitioners with a large, multilayered, and endlessly fascinating organism full of detail you wouldn’t have guessed, and magnificent in its ordering. 

Illustration from An American Text-book of Surgery for Practitioners and Students,edited by William W. Keen, M.D., LL.D., and J. William White, M.D., Ph.D., 1895.

There’s a difference: your school is alive, and poking around in it too much will damage or kill it. You do have models to work with, though, that will help you understand—In Trust has done the occasional postmortem of a seminary that has died, for example. Budgets and statistical reports monitor your school’s vital signs, and there is an elegant science in their interpretation, a spirituality of order if you will. But spirit matters, too, and assessment of your school’s vitality beyond the numbers is rather more art than science. You need to know your school as a living thing, you need to understand the history that shaped its personality, you need to watch it at work—and at play and at rest.

Care to turn your understanding of stewardship on its ear? Consider your board meeting in light of Jesus’s scary parable of the talents in Matthew 25. What does it mean to be steward of a school? It doesn’t mean keeping it safe! What does it mean to risk your school—which is, after all, more than just a coin; it’s a spirited, living entity—for the sake of the kingdom? You can’t answer that question alone. The school has been entrusted to the board—itself a living, more-or-less spirited entity. And you are called to bring your whole self, all your insight, your unique understanding into the mix, and to do it unsparingly. Annie Dillard was speaking of her own calling when she put this in The Writing Life, but the lesson holds:

Give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

There is a science to the study of scripture, and it is good to honor the gift and those who have it. It is good to learn from them. But there is an art to living a life formed by the word, and part of that art is a willingness to connect text to life, life to text, and to be generous and expansive in the sharing. It’s part of how the Spirit gives life.

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