Folks coming to seminary are often advised to resist its educative influence. Quite a few among us were warned against “losing our faith.” That phrase continues to jar my consciousness. Advice that is rooted in the fear that we might become different subverts the gift of a new experience, the value of schooling, of theological education. A story of Paul may help us face this fear. Actually we have two versions—one by Luke, the other by Paul.
Luke tells us that Paul began preaching almost immediately, as if he had a fully developed grasp of the gospel. He began first in Damascus, until his own life was threatened, and then in Jerusalem—the very place from which he had begun his journey. Ah! Isn’t that the stuff of our dreams! We receive the call to ministry and immediately begin to share that experience with others. Then the board of ministry tells us to go to seminary.
Perhaps Paul’s own story is more instructive: “... when God ... was pleased to reveal his son to me, ... I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia. And then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem.”
Friends and colleagues, welcome to Arabia!
We do not know what Paul discovered, but we do know that for the Israelites Arabia was the wilderness—that place between Egypt and the promised land—an alien, often frightening place. But in the wilderness the faith of the Israelites was tested and refined. It was renewed and transformed.
If such was the experience of the Israelites centuries ago, might that not also have been the experience of Paul? And might not that be our own experience of the wilderness that we encounter in contextual ed, in chapel, in discussions in Brooks Commons?
When I was a young man, I left the tree-covered mountains of Oregon for the steel-and-stone canyons of New York City, where I began my seminary career. I received lots of advice, but nothing prepared me for the challenges to my ignorance of God or to the limits of my faith in God.
I first discovered in that place the difference between my call to ministry and my appointment to ministry, between the Egypt of my own bondage to middle-class spirituality and the promised land of freedom in Christ, between Jerusalem and Damascus. I discovered:
that the god I worshiped as a child was a white god.
that the Christ I served as a teenager was a sexist Christ.
that the church that had nurtured my faith and the fellowship of people who had loved me unconditionally did not love many whom Jesus would call neighbor.
that the Bible I read did not and could not contain the fullness of the Word of God.
that my prayer life was really quite self-serving.
But that was only the beginning. I continue to be surprised by new discoveries into the character of God and new challenges to the faith that has brought me to this point in my life.
As we begin this new semester, I would like to balance words of caution and admonition with words of invitation to explore the gifts of the Candler wilderness. Again I turn to Paul, to Romans 12: “Be not conformed to this world.” That conforming is actually what folks ask us to do when they say “Don’t change,” “Don’t lose your faith.” When we follow this advice, we conform our learnings here to the limits of our religious experience in the past. We shield ourselves from the leading of God’s spirit in this and any new place.
Paul suggests another way. Let us be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Paul meant that we should study the Scriptures and explore the gospel traditions through the ages—ever open to the possibility that God may be speaking to us in new and fresh ways through them. He meant that we should listen to the wise ones among the faculty and staff and those we discover among our peers. He meant freely asking our deepest questions to bring to the surface the depths of our own hunger for God. He meant testing and challenging the words we see, read, hear, and do in class; in congregations we attend and serve; and in our discussions with each other, so that our hearing and seeing might begin to discern the truth, the grace, and the power that lie beneath and beyond our immediate apprehension. He meant practicing the consequences of our learning in prayer, worship, and service—that we might prove what is perfect and acceptable in the sight of God.
Was that not the gift of the wilderness? Might that not be the gift of our time at Candler? So welcome to Arabia. Welcome to the quest to discern more fully the presence and power of God.