The Journey Begins
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Paul E. Jackson
University Congregational Church
I say this because I know what I am planning for you,” says the Lord. “I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future.
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The Journey Begins
Good morning. Last fall I stood up here and announced that I was seeking admission to Phillips Theological Seminary. This past spring I stood here and told you I had been accepted into that program and would begin in a few months. This past summer I was again up here to share with you that our National Association of Congregational Christian Churches had seen fit to award me a fellowship and scholarships that would fund most of my first year of seminary. And this past Wednesday I drove to Tulsa for three days of orientation as a new seminarian at Phillips Theological Seminary. What a ride. The journey begins.
So why exactly am I doing this? What possessed me, at 51 years of age, to pursue a Masters of Divinity AND all of the accompanying stuff that will come with this? Why am I subjecting myself to 3 years (hopefully) of rigorous theological scholarship, deliberative examination of my beliefs and what I am sure will amount to hundreds of thousands of words to be put on paper in some sort of cohesive and meaningful way. Why?
I’ll tell you.
First, let’s begin with my “call”. To date, this is the part of ministry that I have had the most difficulty with. Those of you who read my application essay to Phillips know that I risked my admission to seminary because I had such difficulty with the concept of someone being “called” by God into Christian ministry. Forgive me–I feel those words are arrogant. But they are the expected words of the profession of ministry, so I had to come to some sort of reconciliation with myself so that I could use that word in an honest and useful way. So, I just listened to my life. In 2007, I was seriously considering going to seminary—yes, I’ve been on this journey for many years. At that time, it didn’t feel quite right, so I instead enrolled in a doctoral program and completed 2 years of course-work towards a Doctor of Education degree. Then life intervened and I moved to Oklahoma City and my doctoral studies fell by the wayside. So, now fast-forward to July 2013—last year. I had just accepted the position of Director of Christian Life here at UCC leaving a 25-year career in Higher Education and was wrapping my arms around this new position and my new duties and it became quickly evident that I was meant for ministry. That life, or the universe, or God, or whatever we want to call it, had made it so that it was irresistible to me to do what I am doing. That it just made good and right sense to pursue a seminary education. So I listened to the voice and read the signs and the tea leaves and now I am a seminarian. And I have to go back. A lot.
The Hebrew Bible has a book called Jeremiah in which God tells him: “I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future.” I can hold to that. I can hold THAT in my heart.
And this makes me wonder—what are each of you feeling is irresistible? Are you living the life that is good and right for you?
Second, I love this congregation. Let’s face it—I’ve been preaching to you for years. We just called them songs. Songs I chose because of their spiritual meaning to me and I wanted to share them with you and I wanted you to hear the same message that I heard and feel the same things I felt when I sang them. I have always had such peace singing for you. Doing so for almost 20 years has made me a better musician…but it’s also made me a minister in the sense that I was delivering messages of inspiration that I hoped would mean something to you.
Third, I owe my community and my city so much. It’s not enough to just have a job and pay taxes or raise a family and live our lives. Those of us who try to follow the way of Jesus know we have a debt to repay. A debt of life and a debt of grace and a debt of love, that we will spend our lifetimes trying to repay. Our community needs qualified, competent, educated clergy who can promote progressive Christianity in a loving and engaging manner. As we know, in our swimming pool of religion, most of the noise comes from the shallow end.
On the first night of Orientation at Phillips last Wednesday, we had a worship service. The very first thing I did as a seminarian was attend a beautiful and moving worship service. Of particular note was a question found in the message delivered by Phillips Seminary President, Gary Peluso-Verdand. I found myself breathless when he asked us all this simple question: In which century does your faith abide? I’ll say it again. In which century does your faith abide? There is much more to that important question and we’ll revisit it another time—but in the mean-time think about it—in which century does your faith abide? Is it a Middle-Ages faith? Nineteenth century? Are you a 1st century Christian? Or are you imaging co-creating God’s future world? This is a great question. Think about it.
The remainder of orientation was just as useful and just as powerful as the opening worship had set our expectations for. I’ve been in Higher Education for over 25 years as an instructor, manager, dean, and I’ve designed my share of new student orientation experiences. This 3-day, immersive, comprehensive and exhausting series of workshops, worship and welcome provided the perfect entrance into seminary in general and Phillips in particular. I feel connected to the Phillips’ family in a strong and empowering way. And more importantly, I made connections with people—administration, staff, faculty and students—I made connections with the people who will sustain and nurture me as I journey through the forest of their curriculum. I use the metaphor of a forest aptly as I am sure it would be very easy to get lost in all of this scholarship and academitia (I made that up)—BUT, I have guides (professors and instructors) who know a sure and true path through the wilderness of the curriculum. They’ve been there! I trust that they know a way through. I also trust that along the way we might take a side trip over here or someone might get lost over there. There might even be lions or tigers or bears…or other such hazards. But if we keep to the path and follow our guides, we might all get through the woods in one piece.
For the fall semester of 2014 I will be taking 10.5 hours of credit towards an 82 credit hour Master of Divinity degree—the “gold-standard” for ordination in the modern era. I’ll be getting up at 5 AM on Tuesday mornings and driving to Tulsa where I will spend all day in 3 different classes. The last class each Tuesday is a .5 credit hour Theological Reflection Group that will meet from 4:45 to 5:45 and will be how I end my Tuesdays in Tulsa. Then I head back home to be at my desk here bright and early on Wednesday mornings. I’m grateful for the flexibility to be able to pursue this degree! I am taking an addition 4 hour course on-line through-out the week. I will continue to work a 5-day week of at least 40 hours for UCC and I know I have the energy and the enthusiasm to maintain this. (Please remind me I said this next March, ok?).
So, my journey begins. But more appropriately, OUR journey begins. Because I am taking each one of you with me in my heart as I travel to Tulsa this semester. This is our seminary experience, because I am yours. I am a son and brother of this congregation—this group of amazing people who have nurtured me and listened to me sing and welcomed me and mine and helped me grow. I am a son and a brother to each of you. I am proud to walk this journey.
In the student commons on the Phillips Seminary campus there is a plaque with the names of the Distinguished Alums for each year. I smiled as I read Robin Meyers name—he was awarded it in January of 2006. Robin Meyers is the son of our founding minister, Robert Meyers, and Robin is the Senior Pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and remains a good friend of this congregation.
The name immediately below Robin’s, which was awarded in July of 2006, was Gary Cox. We lost Gary in August of 2006; barely a month after he received this award. Gary Cox loved his time at Phillips. And he loved us. He showed us a way to die. He was present in this pulpit—and I mean “present” in every sense of the word–up until 2 weeks before his death. That was such a gift. And I am grateful for that.
Our own Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Robin McGonigle is a proud graduate of Phillips as well with an MDiv and a DMin from that institution. If you need a translation of that alphabet soup, there are a few academicians in the crowd here that can help you out. Robin maintains close ties to the administration and staff and everyone I met at Phillips had wonderful things to say about Robin. We are indeed lucky to have such a respected clergy woman as our Senior Minister—I was reminded of this fact time and time again as I listened to the stories of my fellow new seminarians. We are extremely lucky to have Robin with us.
Every time I talk to a graduate of Phillips and tell them that I am going there; they all, without fail, get a wistful look on their faces. They all look off into the distance, and they all tell me to enjoy every, single minute of my seminary education. They tell me that they wish they could go back and relive the excitement of learning a new idea or treasuring one of the “ah-ha” moments. They all tell me to breathe and enjoy the dialogue with my professors and fellow students. For once, I am going to take everyone’s advice.
Our journey is just beginning.