My seminary education began through an extension program Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary offered in Houston. I was serving as a pastoral care associate at the time and I would work during the day and take classes two nights a week. It was a way of following the path I felt called to follow, getting my feet wet, without completely uprooting my and my family’s life. Or so I thought.
The reality was it had been thirty years since I had been in school. A fact I didn’t fully appreciate until the first exam. It felt like running full speed, head on, into a brick wall. To say I failed the exam is putting it mildly. I bombed the exam! I didn’t understand the questions, much less have any idea what the answers might be. Even though the professor was kind and thorough in all explanations, it seemed to me he was speaking a foreign language about a book I only thought I had understood and now was certain I would never comprehend at all. It was above my mental capabilities, leaving me frustrated and discouraged.
After the first exam I thought seriously about quitting. I figured I must have misunderstood my sense of call and that I should just slither back to my office and be thankful I had a job in ministry at all. Thankfully, the professor would not let me indulge too long in my self given pity party. He was not only a great professor but he was a pastor to the core. He simply told me to keep going. That I would get the hang of it. He may have even said to get back on the horse.
The second exam came around and I was certain that I had failed it as miserably as the first. Without a doubt in my mind about it, I came to class ready to accept the humiliating truth that I was a failure at this seminary thing. When the professor began class that night he announced that he had mailed our graded exams to us and that we should have all received them by now. I and a few others raised our hands that we did not receive any graded exam in the mail. He spoke to each one of us separately, looking in his grade book and told us our grade. He informed me that I had made a B on the exam. When I questioned him incredulously he remained unruffled and told me his grade book was clear and that one could never depend on or explain the postal system.
I’ll never know what happened to that mysterious exam that I never received in the mail. All I do know is that something opened up in me upon hearing of my passing grade. Some little window of hope that allowed me to consider the possibility that I might be able to continue, at least for another day. And, continue I did.
Eventually this educational process would turn my world completely upside down and I matriculated to Austin for two and a half years, commuting back and forth on the weekends. Eventually I would receive a Masters of Divinity. Eventually I was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). Eventually I would end up fourteen years later where I am now, as the pastor of a First Presbyterian Church in Kingsville, Texas. All because someone saw something in me I couldn’t see in myself, until I could. All because someone wouldn’t allow my attitude of failure to get the last word.
Friends, this is the good news of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness there is this prevailing voice of Love that speaks hope into our failures and life into our death.There is Someone who sees something in you that you cannot always see yourself.
There are so many challenges in life. So many ways in which the system of our society and the distortions of our own minds can tear us down and keep us from fulfilling our true purposes in life. So many ways we can convince ourselves we will never be able to do “it” (whatever the “it” is). It could be something bold like changing your career or making a move. Or something terrifying like facing cancer treatment. Or something simple, yet difficult, like sticking to your budget. Or something that stretches your heart, like forgiving someone for hurting you.
And yet, there is available to us in ways far beyond what we could ever imagine or hope for, a divine Grace that prevails through all of our trials. One who comes along side us, sometimes in the form of a professor, or friend, or prayer to remind us we already have everything we need to be able to do what we are called to do. The question is, are we awake to the possibilities God is bringing us through our connectedness to that Grace and to one another?
Over and over again in the the Christian scriptures Jesus was constantly reaching across boundaries to tell and show people, people who had been told by the systems of the world that they were unacceptable, that they were not only acceptable but beloved. That their failures were not the end of their story. That they had a purpose. A place. Something to do. They they belonged. This is good news indeed for all of us!
You may be in need of encouragement this week. Or someone may be in need of your encouragement. My prayer for you, in either case, is that you are open to the movement of the Spirit of Hope made possible for us through the amazing love of God.
Something to chew on…