This week, we have been asked to reflect on how our philosophical/religious convictions have helped us to be prepared for major life transitions and moving into new areas of growth and reflection. Here are some of my reflections upon graduating a few weeks ago with my graduate certificate from seminary.
On Saturday, May 25th, my seminary – Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary graduated 19 students who had been involved in and will continue to be involved in pastoral, teaching, administrative, and Christian counseling ministries. These students included 8 women and 11 men who ranged in ages from early/mid-twenties all the way up to fifties or even sixties, thus showing that ministry is for every age. God never thinks anyone is too old or too young to serve Him. He chooses based on the heart and motivations of the people who have heard His call – sometimes gently in the night, sometimes in loud and clear ways, sometimes in times of uncertainty, and sometimes through the words of a trusted friend or family member who encourages them to keep pursuing Christ.
As I think about the men and women I graduated with, I know that each of them has made important contributions to others whether they have been recognized for it or not. On Saturday, I received my Certificate in Theological Studies (having completed 30 hours at the graduate level), and so I realize that I am just at the very beginning of my journey. I do not have the same education or graduate standing as the other 18 who walked the stage with me, and yet, I know that in so many ways all of us (whether we received the certificate, MA, or MDiv) are still growing and learning in community and in Scripture.
One of our classmates was not present because he already had arrived back to Ethiopia where he continues to lead a church and teach at a local Bible college. Another one of my classmates was originally from Ecuador and had to learn command of a new language (English) while at the same time becoming adjusted to a completely different field. Having done her undergrad in biology, she is a scientist by nature; yet, she has felt the call of God in her life to see how science relates to peace and has a burning passion for immigrant justice and reform. The rest of the students were from Canada or the U.S., and yet, I know that each one had their unique struggles and also unique joys throughout their one, two, or three year stints in seminary. Each one of them obeyed the Lord’s voice to leave whatever they were doing and to move to Indiana.
The most meaningful thing to me about the graduation celebrations was the commissioning that took place on Friday night. Each student who was leaving the community had a blessing written and read by a fellow peer, professor, staff member, or someone else who was a part of the community. Following this time of sharing, all graduates were invited to the stage where a candle was lit and a hymn sung. During the singing of the hymn, one of the graduate’s candles extinguished. There was a slight moment of awkwardness that ensued, but it ended very quickly because another student walked over to her and tipped his candle so that hers would be relighted. When I saw this, I thought to myself, this is what being a graduate and a Christian in general is really all about. God has given each graduate unique skills – some of us have skills in listening well, in being critical thinkers, in engaging with technology, in helping people who have disabilities, in writing, in researching, in teaching, or in learning languages. All of us have improved upon our skills while in seminary as well as learned new ones. Those who are gifted with languages were challenged to learn Greek and Hebrew for the first time, those who were gifted at writing poetry and fiction were challenged to learn how to write graduate level research projects and theses, those who were good at finagling technology had to learn to create sophisticated Powerpoint presentations. While in the classroom, it is a good idea to work hard at writing and reading well, to pour your effort into a paper so that you can receive a good grade. Yet, learning does not stop after one walks the stage. In fact, it is only just beginning.
We are called to take these new skills out into the world and to be stretched and challenged by our ministry opportunities. We are called to put the theory into practice. No amount of research and writing truly prepares a person for handling their first crisis, their first burn-out, or their first sudden illness. Yet, education does prepare their hearts to be open-minded and receptive and to become teachable. As Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier say quite often, our “real” teachers are not so much the people who are in the academy, but the “least of these” – sometimes even the person who is non-verbal and is so childlike.
Our class is not only called to light the candles of those around us, but we are also called to light each other’s candles. We have formed and shaped each other in various ways – through intense conversations at lunch about the meaning of life, through Karl Barth reading groups, through class discussions, through ultimate Frisbee, through games nights, and through going to church together. Now, we are also called on to help each other when we begin to struggle. To be a built in support network when we become burnt out in our ministries and to keep reminding each other of the call we once received when we feel that God chose the wrong person and are ready to give up.
The graduating class of 2012-2013 also donated a Peace Pole to the seminary. The peace pole – which is in various locations around the world, reminds us of Christ’s call for us to be peacemakers in this world and has planks which have many different languages inscribed on them – thus showing a global reality. I have a collection of peace pole pictures – having taken them at Mennonite universities, outside of Mennonite churches, and even a random one I found in downtown Palestine. As Anabaptists, I feel this is an appropriate gift to the seminary, but I also feel it is an appropriate reminder for all Christians. Everyone who walks through the doors of AMBS – whether for Pastor’s week, for continuing education, for a certificate, or for a degree, should be charged with the duty to take what they learned and apply it in their work towards peace and social justice.
I congratulate the class of 2012-2013 for their hard work, their perseverance, their maturity, and their sense of call over the past 2 or 3 years that they have been at the seminary and I continue to pray that God will use them for whatever purposes She has in mind.
I leave you now with a song by Chris Rice (Go Light Your World): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtIIFJIxdUw