When I began at seminary, there were several groups of friends on campus to which I did not belong. The tightest clan consisted of those students who had arrived during the summer for intensive instruction in New Testament Greek. Most of the students who had not gone to a Lutheran college were part of that group, but I had taken classes in Greek in college. Other groups of friends had been formed at the various Lutheran colleges. Those groups did not deliberately exclude me, but I did not have any of the instant connections with other students on campus that many other students enjoyed.
The seminary program, then and now, was a four-year program. In most cases, the third year was spent off-campus in a full-time internship within a congregation. (These interns are called vicars, a word that has different meanings for other Christian groups.) Each crop of students, therefore, was on campus at the same time as two other groups of students each year, but the other two groups would be different from one year to the next. Instead of semesters, the school year was divided into three terms of twelve weeks, as well as a summer term which was mostly set aside for catch-up work should any of the students have fallen behind their schedule.
The campus had been designed to resemble a European fishing village. The chapel stood on the highest part of the campus, with the student union and cafeteria next door. Two classroom buildings were connected by a walkway, making a U-shaped structure. Dormitories were scattered around the campus in various directions from the chapel-union-classroom complex. The dormitories were built to accommodate no more than twenty residents, and each had a lounge/meeting area with couches, chairs, a television set, and a fireplace. The campus also featured wide-open spaces, some of them forested, and an artificial lake below the chapel. One joke about the campus (which I have used productively at several congregations, especially in the south) was that students who arrived at the beginning of September had no hope of being able to walk on the lake, but after four or five months of study, most of us were able to do so easily.
I survived my first term of seminary, but rolling into the winter term, I felt increasingly alienated. Much of the feeling was my own fault—my awareness that I could not continue my college practice of disagreeing with professors and still expecting a good grade, my sense of being outside most of the campus clans and cliques, and the feeling that students and professors seemed always to be looking over their shoulders, cautious about saying anything theological that might be part of one of the synod-wide conflicts. In the midst of winter, I visited with the Dean of Students and asked permission to take a break, to withdraw from spring and summer classes, perhaps returning in the fall, perhaps not. His first question was if my need for a break was finances. He could find help if money was a problem. I told him no, I just needed time to adjust my thinking and to be sure that I wanted to continue what I had started. He granted permission. After completing the winter term, I packed my belongings into my car and headed home.
My parents were worried and frightened about my choice to take time off. They also did not like the fact that I choose not to return to their house. One of my friends had an apartment he was willing to share for a few months. I dropped off my stuff and made a short visit back to the college campus. Then I was ready, for the first time in more than sixteen years, to live a life that was not student life.
The summer between college graduation and the start of seminary, I had worked at a Christian publishing firm, telemarketing one of their magazines. That company was willing to have me back at the same job. The three previous summers, I had worked at Burger King. They were willing to have me back five evenings a week. The money was enough to meet my expenses and also save for the future, whether I would be returning to seminary or striking out in a new direction.
Three people guided my decision those spring and summer months. One was a coworker at the Christian publishing house. Rod came from Hawaii; he was of Japanese ancestry. He had done some amateur sumo wrestling and also had played football (offensive line) for the University of Hawaii. He had not been raised as a Christian. In fact, he had partied hard in college, took drugs, and lived a wild life. But then Rod was born again as a Christian. He became a pastor—and, as a pastor in Hawaii, he left his phone number at half a dozen bars. From time to time a bartender would call him to provide Christian counseling to a customer who was in emotional pain and needed help. Rod was working part-time while taking graduate classes at Wheaton College. He was also receiving medical care for damaged kidneys, a result of his pre-Christian adventures. Rod was excited about the opportunities he saw to serve the Lord. Every week, it seemed, he had a new dream of what he could do for the Church. Then, one week, Rod wasn’t at work any more. His kidney problems had shortened his life. Rod’s enthusiasm for Church work was inspiring. When he was gone, I was given one reason to find my place in the Church.
My boss, George, was also an inspiration. George had served various congregations over the years, Baptist and Mennonite and nondenominational. He also had medical challenges; in fact, he missed some time at work that summer due to a heart attack. But George had advice for me. He said that a ship sitting still in the water cannot be steered; a ship that is moving can be steered. I should ask God to steer, but I shouldn’t be afraid to move, trusting that if I was moving in the wrong direction, God would steer me toward the right direction.
At Burger King, a co-worker my age also provided some help. We did not talk religion with each other. But one day he told me that he wished he had known a pastor like me when he was younger. He had tried to talk with his pastor when he was a high school student, but their conversations had not collected. Paul said that I would be approachable as a pastor; I would be helpful to people like him.
Because of Paul and George and Rod, I ended the summer knowing that I would return to the seminary. No one could tell me where the journey would take me, but the journey was one that I needed to take. J.