The Journey to Seminary

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him,
They have no wine. And Jesus said to her,
Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
(John 2:3-4)

Roughly a month after my departure from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in January 2004, I attended an inquirer’s weekend held at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in Princeton, New Jersey, which I immediately fell in love with. The seminary put me up in their guest house and the program included faculty talks, meetings with admissions counselors, and visits to classes. Because I became aware of my own calling in part through preaching, I attended a preaching class. Before the weekend was over, my hair was on fire for the Lord and to attend PTS. Still, red flags were unavoidable which arose primarily in my interactions with the students.

During lunch on Friday in the cafeteria, for example, it became abundantly clear that not all the students were comfortable hanging out with someone twice their age—out of an inquiry group of sixty, only a handful of prospective students were second career. The vast majority of students could not have been more than 25 years of age and many of the faculty that we visited with were younger than I. Given a choice between attending a play called the Vagina Monologues[1] and a film, The Passion of the Christ,[2] all but one inquirer (other than myself) opted to attend the former, highlighting not only an age difference in interests but also a less-obvious theological distinction that became more obvious as the weekend wore on.

In Friday chapel, for example, a senior preached about his experience with evangelism on the New York subway—his evangelism consisted of wearing a PTS tie shirt so that everyone could see. He then proceeded to ridicule apologetics—which I had identified on my PTS application as my primary interest. I later learned that PTS offered no classes in apologetics and that the seminary’s commitment to theological diversity consisted primarily of hiring faculty who self-identified as liberal or evangelical. It was unlikely to find faculty with experience or interest in missions or evangelism.

PTS offered a wonderful sendoff dinner Friday evening where each inquirer was asked to talk about themselves and their experience. The typical student responded that they enjoyed their young group experience in high school and wanted to continue that experience by working for the church. When my turn came, I opined that I felt called to ministry but did not know if I could enter seminary because I still needed to work to support my family and PTS did not offer part-time studies. I later completed my application to PTS, but withdrew it after finding work at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) and seeing Maryam’s relief to see me working again.

Over the next several years, I despaired of being able to being able to attend seminary full-time as I visited other schools, studied Greek and Hebrew, and continued to lead adult Bible studies at Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC).

When my sister, Diane, developed a second round of breast cancer in 2006, I made a special effort to visit her in Philadelphia after Christmas. She had started chemo-therapy unsuccessfully in the fall and planned a new round of chemo after the holidays. To cheer her up, I bought her a DVD film, Last Holiday,[3] which starred Queen Latifah. The film featured a plot where a woman was diagnosed with a fatal disease, blew her life savings on a final holiday to visit a European hotel employing her favorite celebrity chef, and, then, learned that she had been misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, Diane was not misdiagnosed and she died unexpectedly on Monday, February 12th due to complications accompanying her treatment.

Diane’s expected death left the family gasping.

When Mom called called me at 6:30 a.m. that morning, a friend, Ming, and I were commuting east down route 66 just before the Beltway. I called my brother, John, and returned to Centreville to drop off Ming and pick him up. John and I then traveled to a hospital near Springfield where she was being treated and my parents were waiting. They traveled there earlier that weekend to visit, Diane, at the end of her week under care for a reaction to the chemo. On Sunday night, however, blood clots developed, she had a heart attack, a stoke, and, then, lost consciousness—among her last words were to ask for her brothers.

When John and I arrived at the hospital mid-morning, she was in the intensive care unit on life-support; nothing more could be done. The person I saw lying there no longer looked like my sister; she had departed. I consoled Hugo while we waited for their pastor to arrive. At that point, scripture was read; prayers were offered; and Diane was removed from life support.

Funeral services were planned that week for Thursday in Philadelphia and Saturday in McLean where Diane would be interned in the family plot at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church. I planned to attend the Saturday service locally, but my dad put the arm on me to eulogize Diane at both services so I changed my plans. Other than family, the only one that I knew attending the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield service was my best friend from high school, Rev. Jonathan Jenkins; yet, I drew comfort from the company of the many strangers as I mourned my sister that evening. At the service in McLean, many of my colleagues from OFHEO attended and began looking at me differently after that point forward.

Over the following year, I began to think differently about the idea of part-time seminary studies and in March of 2008 I drove to Charlotte, North Carolina with a friend, Jeff Snell, to attend an open house at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS). From the moment we walked in the door, it was obvious to me that GCTS was a different kind of seminary. Many of the inquirers were older and obviously considering a second career in ministry; many more of the inquirers were African Americans; and the entire curriculum was available to part-time students taking classes over long weekend visits. I applied; I was accepted; and I began classes the following August.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vagina_Monologues.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passion_of_the_Christ.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Holiday_(2006_film).

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