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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A Few Good Stories

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC.  The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.

 I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan.  So commencement gave me a new story to tell.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven).  What logic would you use?  Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so?  Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story.  A story is a model of reality.  In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model.  Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique.  Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask:  which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world?   Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that:  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).

An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary.  Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context.  They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record.  The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself!  Stories provide context.  Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words.  The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings.  As Mark Twain used to say:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell.  The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released.  Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story.  Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year.  The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical.  Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning.  Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV).  Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story

A Few Good Stories

 

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