Yesterday I graduated from seminary. This wasn't part of the plan; at least the timing of it was not.
Nine and a half years ago, I graduated Furman, got married, and we moved to Atlanta so that I could attend seminary. But an intended three year stay evaporated to nine months. EA and I didn't really take to Atlanta and I got restless. I had majored in religion in college and much of my first year studies in seminary were retread. Studying religion, something that I relished throughout college, was now becoming a chore. This change wasn't this seminary's fault. I was just burning out. I needed to take a break. I didn't want to plow through for a degree and end up hating something that I used to love. So we moved back to South Carolina.
A handful of years later, EA started talking with me about returning to school. It was around the time that Jim was born and we realized that if I was going back then it would be best before there were t-ball games and school plays that I would have to miss. Two members of our church, including one of our pastors, were on faculty at the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. Classes met once a week and if I could get my schedule right then I would only have to be up there one day a week. That is how I ended back up there: it was the best option.
Leaving after four years is weird because I don't really have anything with which to compare it. Leaving college was a big deal because for four years it was my job, my home, and my community. Leaving my previous seminary was the opposite. I was there two semesters and the got then heck out of Dodge. I remember turning in my Greek final, getting in my car loaded with stuff from our apartment, and leaving town.
Gardner-Webb? It is not home. I have a full life, a community including a wife and two sons, and a job (well, had a job) outside of that campus. I was only there one or two days a week. The school started as this little place over the North Carolina border where I intended to finish what I started. That has changed. It has become more than just a detachable appendage to my life. Yet it's still hard to say what it has become. There has been a turnover in classmates. There have been semesters when I felt close-knit community and others when I felt almost like a ghost. My feelings fluctuate from semester to semester, class to class.
Yet I have met some incredible people during my time there. Individuals who are and will continue to be incredible ministers or biblical scholars. Women and men who have encouraged me and been my friends. I am going to miss them. The best part of this community is that they are people from a diverse array of backgrounds, ages, life situations, beliefs, and the list could go on. I think it is ridiculously important in religious education to attend a place where there are many differences. You do not want everyone to be the same. You want to be pushed, challenged, and have your world opened up in all of the best ways. Gardner-Webb provided that in abundance.
I rediscovered my love for the classroom; a love for teaching and learning. The school has helped me reclaim with seriousness the idea of loving God with my mind. I have gotten the opportunity to think critically about faith and yet still be comfortable with mystery. It has reminded me that there is still and always will be so much that I do not know. Yet I have learned a great deal both in the classroom and out. One of the things that I appreciated is the way that professors have see their subject matters as parts of a whole. They care a great deal for theology or the New Testament or missiology but realize that they are facets to what it takes for their students to be complete ministers. I have fallen in love with the rhythms of more traditional aspects of church like the lectionary while challenging me to see what ways we can infuse the life of creativity in those elements. And in these four years the conversations, the reflecting, the debates, the frustration, the insights, and everything else made me realize that, yeah, I do believe that I want to serve God with my vocation; whatever that looks like.
I am grateful and I realize as I finish this part of my journey that I am indebted to so many people. First and foremost is EA. There is absolutely no way that I would have done this in the first place without her encouragement and there is no way that I would have finished without her help in ways too numerous to name. I am thankful for my parents who supported me and never stopped telling me how proud they are of me. I am thankful for the love of my larger family: our sons, my in-laws, my siblings (including an awesome sister with whom I finally got to attend school), and others. I could not have done this without teachers, professors, and others who taught me throughout my education before I got to Gardner-Webb. I am thankful for a church that supported me and all the various people that asked how school was going.
Obviously, I could not have done this without the people at the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. From the start, with Kheresa Harmon rightfully being the most beloved Admissions Director known to humanity, the faculty, staff, and students have been pretty awesome. So thank you to professors (I would start naming them but I am terrified I would leave someone out) for your guidance both in and out of the classroom. Thanks to Dr. Steibel for her advising me these last several years. Thank you to my friends who taught me, challenged me, made me laugh, and kept me sane. I am excited to see what all of you are going to do on down the road. Thank you even to the classmates that frustrated me to no end and broke me in conversations, because you helped me realize that I do indeed care about matters of faith to the point where I get upset. That sounds odd, but it made sense in my head.
And I know it's cliche, but this would literally not be possible without God. I mean, we were studying the Christian faith. That enterprise sort of falls apart without God. But seriously I am thankful for a God that wants us to love with all of our being; including our mind. I am thankful for a God that reveals aspects of who God is yet at the same time leaves parts where we can search and explore. I am thankful that God loves me in spite of how messed up and bumbling I can be.
All of this has probably been a rambling mess. So let me finish up by saying that wherever I go from here, it is going to have the fingerprints of the people at Gardner-Webb on it. This place wasn't part of the plan, but I am grateful that it became part of my story.