Seminary Survival Kit

Phyllis Anderson—September 3, 2008
PLTS Chapel
Opening of the 2008–09 School Year

Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Ephesians 4:1–7,11–16; Matthew 11:25–30

This is a wonderful day to see each of you, to begin to hear the stories of where you have been, and to welcome you into this reconstituted community for the 2008–2009 school year!

We hope you will notice some improvements on campus—like Sawyer dining hall is freshly painted, the kitchen in the dorm is completely remodeled. We’ve added Moses Penumaka to the faculty. Steed Davidson, beginning his second year, will also be new to the returning interns. We’ve set aside a coffee room in Giesy and a study lounge in Sawyer Hall. Bit by bit we’re renewing the place and making things better.

Orientation for new students was better than ever this year. But I realize that for each of the classes represented here, we’ve let you down. Until now we have never offered you the basic Seminary Survival Kit. If you are in the dorm, Michael Maloney has provided you with a flashlight for the inevitable points where we lose power. But who knew that you’d need a Frisbee to survive seminary at PLTS? That will go in the kit for next year. And a hooded sweatshirt for when the fog rolls in. High energy drink for those all-nighters. And a coupon for brake repairs for your car. You get the idea.

For this year, the Seminary Survival Kit is comprised of the three readings assigned for this day, for the opening of the school year. And they will be enough. If you cling to these three texts, you will survive this academic year.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. The great schema of the Jewish people is the first tool in our survival kit. It is the reminder for us to keep first things first. Maybe you think this should go without saying at a place like this—at a seminary of the church. But seminaries are notoriously places where people feel distant from God, even estranged from God. Maybe you experienced the joy of preaching and leading a Christian community on internship last year, and now it all feels passive. The excitement and the power are gone. Or maybe you spoke the faith heart-to-heart with a woman on her deathbed in CPE, and now it all feels like so much talk with no juice.

When God is what you study all day long, you are in danger of losing the God of praise, the God of comfort, the God that you fell in love with, the God who brought you here in the first place. If you don’t think so, you must be one of the first year students. Soon your days will be very full. It will be hard to find time to pray. You won’t be the first one to experience a dryness of the spirit—even surrounded by all this God talk.

Maybe the love of God should be something we can take for granted here, but it is not. Not here or at any seminary. That is why we make it the first of our Eight Dimensions of Ministerial Excellence: To love God and the People of God. That means practicing personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. And I submit to you that gathering with this community for worship on Wednesdays is one of those spiritual disciplines that will see you though this year. It is a survival skill. Don’t let other gods fill your days so there is no time to worship the one God, the one you love with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. You need to be here on Wednesdays, and the community needs to see you here, to hear your voice raised in song, to share the bread, to be one body.

You will find other ways to connect with God. We are curious about all the places where you find God—or where God finds you. Where is your faith fueled here in this community and beyond? What are the touch points for you? We are going to spend an entire day with the entire community on November 19 asking that question together and discovering ways that we can enrich the love of God on our campus as we are continually formed for ministry.

The next survival tool is the second reading from Ephesians, where you hear that you are gifted, where you hear that you are called. You have a place in God’s plan. You have work to do and the power to do it. You were called for a purpose: to build up the body of Christ. This sure knowledge is a wellspring that will see you through. You will turn to it again and again—even as you wonder whether you gift is to be a pastor or a teacher or prophet or an evangelist, whether your calling is to do work within the church or as an ambassador in world. Your wondering about your vocation is not a question about whether you are called; it is a question about where you are called.

Your vocation is the basis of your identity and your sense of confidence and competence for surviving seminary and ministry beyond. It began in your baptism as we recalled in the opening of this service today. You were claimed, called, singled out by name as a child of God with work to do in the kingdom. You belong. You are needed.

But you are not the only one gifted and called. You are one part in a body that works together, each part dependent on the rest. The whole body joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, each part working properly promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. We need each other.

You are specifically invited to practice this interdependence, this life in community: the body building itself up in love. All faculty and students are invited to meet regularly this year in Formation for Ministry groups. If you haven’t signed up yet, do it today—before lunch. The whole point of our meeting in small groups throughout the year will be to reflect on our sense of call, to celebrate our gifts and discern how we can grow more fully into our callings, to walk with one another through this journey of faith and doubt, to ask the deep questions, to pray, to listen, to survive, to more than survive.

And finally, the third tool in your survival kit is Jesus’ gracious word of welcome: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Some of you are carrying burdens none of us know. Some of you are worried about people back home or how you are going to pay for all this. Some of you are wondering if you will be able to do graduate level work. But for most of you on this first week of school, spirits are high. Your pencils all sharpened. You are excited about being back or starting something new. I suggest you put this word from Jesus in your survival kit and pull it out on a cold November evening. When you are wondering how you’ll ever get it all done, when you feel like you’ll never get it all together, when it all seems to much, open your Bible to the 11th chapter of St. Matthew. Hear the voice of Jesus speak to your heart: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

You are not just here to learn a bunch of stuff, however important that stuff is. You are here to learn from Jesus, to learn his way of being, to be formed into his cruciform pattern of living. And he wants you to know that it is not the demanding, competitive, nit-picking style of the Pharisees. No, Jesus way of being is gentle and humble of heart. He invites you into a life with him that is easy and natural and free. He invites you into a place where you will find deep joy and rest for your souls. He invites you to participate in his own lightness of being.

Throughout last year I prayed for my friend Connie in this chapel. She died of inflammatory breast cancer on August 21. She suffered terribly. She lost everything. But it was awesome to be in her presence at the end, because of her own lightness of being, because the yoke fit so lightly on her, because she so surely anticipated rest for her soul.

Maybe this is not about survival at all. Maybe it won’t be so hard. Or maybe even the hard parts will be easy. Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden his light. Take time to love God. Enter deeply into a community made of people who are gifted and called like you, who have one another to depend upon. Take his yoke upon you. Bow your heads and feel how lightly it rests. Maybe this will be fun. By God’s good grace, we can yet hope to thrive.