Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Seminary Class that Defeated My Soul

So, in yesterday's post, I alluded to a class that just about broke my spirit while I was at Fuller Theological Seminary. But before I do, you need to understand one thing that pretty much summarizes the experience of what we went through. This image defines the class for me:

Aaron Neville. There are about 60 people who already know what class I am talking about and why Aaron Neville is symbolic of that time. For those of you in the class let me remind you of a few things: when we signed up for Systematic Theology 3 the professor was still unassigned. Do you remember that? We, for the most part, were night students who needed ST3 to graduate, so we really didn't care who it was. What we didn't expect was a homiletics professor who had taught systematics earlier in her career. Enter one Dr. Marguerite Shuster.

Dr. Shuster was a good Presbyterian...and before I go any further, a great person. However, you couldn't escape her Presbyterian views as we approached ST3. Before her I had Dr. Ray Anderson for Systematics 1 and Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (you know the purple top hat dude) for Systematics 2. I believe they were Lutheran and Pentecostal, respectively. So, as you can imagine, my Systematics studies were quite broad.

Dr. Shuster was quite stately. She enunciated everything quite well. She was well organized. We finished everything on the syllabus for the day. In other words, things should be have been fine.

Three of these people were probably clinically depressed.
Add to that, some of my favorite people were in this class; unbeknownst to any of us, two of my roommates, Erik and Nate were in this class. John and Sheridan (from yesterday's post) were also in there with us. And I believe I knew about 65-70% of the rest of the room. Even better. Things should have been great.

But somehow everything came unraveling quite quickly. I don't know if it was the first test, or my Facebook status that nearly 80% of the class commented on that finally did me in. Either way, things were not good.

I think part of it had to do with things at home. Above are me with Betsy, TJ and Nate. We were all roommates...c'mon Betsy. We all basically lived together right? And for some reason that particular quarter was about the worst thing since a Nutella-Vegemite Sandwich. I think literally all four of us (uh, this includes Erik, not Betsy) were either in therapy, on anti-depressants or should have been taking part in some combination thereof. In other words. Just a rough time...compounded by the four of us sharing a bedroom with two sets of bunk beds.

So, back to the test. This wasn't just a normal test. If it was, it obviously wouldn't be a story. So, this test should have been straight forward. I did my studying, expected a "B" because I didn't study as hard as I should have. And then...the test landed in front of me. Two things happened at once. I began to panic and everything I knew left my mind.

The test continued, I gave up hope. I answered all the questions and then every fiber of my being thought, "Get out of!" So, I was the first person to turn in the test. Before I had even reached the door, I gasped and the tears started flowing. That's right, the tears started before I even got a grade. I start walking down the stairwell, full on chaos of tears across my face and I hear, "James! Wait up! That was terrible. Are you crying? I feel like crying too." It was my roommate Erik. It was the worst.

We came back probably two classes later and Dr. Shuster informs the class that these were the worst grades she's ever given on a Systematics exam ever. I get the grade and there it is starting at me: 24. Almost on the points of hysterics the whole classroom has this sick look. And then she reminds us, "Oh...this is out of 50." It still doesn't help. The class is just broken at this point, which leads up to my facebook post and a moment, if you want to go scriptural, "The Lord will turn your mourning into dancing," for a lot of people, including myself. But first a brief interlude.

Below me is a class example that explains two things about seminary. First, probably why I am so self-concious. Good night, even with those nasty staches, I just hung around attractive people. And second, the staches. Every year around February it started: Facial hair Februrary leading up to Moustache March. Our campus became a little manlier, or a little more unsightly depending on your viewpoint. These dudes gave me the confidence to support that terrible fu man chu I have going on.

This picture has nothing to do with ST3. But this was Moustache March at Fuller probably a year before the incident.
So, shortly after this test, being frustrated with how everything was going, I got a little more proactive. I started asking questions. But I noticed something. Every time I asked a question Dr. Shuster's speech changed. She slowed everything...and seemed to dumb it down. After this happened a couple of times, I just lost it. I changed my Facebook status to something really close to this:

"Is it just me, or does it seem like Dr. Shuster thinks I am literally mentally handicapped?"

We've all done it. We've all vented on Facebook. This time however, it was like an avalanche. I got something like 70-80 comments...during class. That's right. My classmate's were all commenting. Turns out they had noticed. Comments started with a critique of how she slowed down and gave me a grammar school marm type smile. It was really fantastic. Then, and I believe it had to be John Richards posted the picture of Aaron Neville. And somehow, amidst all of this talk of ecclesiology and pneumatology the things I remember most were, "Aaron Neville will beat The Jesus into you," and what happened next. (Aside, why would Aaron Neville beat The Jesus into you? Did you not notice Jesus on that ridiculously awesome bicep above? Go is awe inspiring!)

Because of our conversation, and because I was feeling angsty, I did what needed to be done...I asked a question. And around the room I watched as friends bowed their heads. They tried to hide laughs. And it was an amazing mix of people on the verge of losing it laughing, and others picking up on something going down, but didn't understand it. It was glorious, and for me the beginning of the rebuilding process.

I ended up getting the worst grade of my seminary career that quarter. Somehow Mumford and Sons was introduced to me and Shauntelle and I worked through my issues in about a month-and-a-half of therapy, all of my roommates seemed to emerge from their stupor and life really did get better.

There was a saying at Fuller that the first couple of years of seminary were about deconstruction, and the next years about reconstructing or giving you the tools to continue reconstructing once you leave. And that really seemed to be the case with this ten week class. Life just broke down. It was a rough, dark time. But what emerged out of my soul being defeated was a re-emergence. And if you want to use the phoenix metaphor, I like what came out of the ashes a little better this go around.

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