WHEW. I’m physically and emotionally exhausted, but my entire being still grins from ear to ear after 4 days of celebrating my long-awaited, worked-hard-for graduation from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a Master of Divinity degree. After 7 academic semesters plus the odd occasion or two of summer school grind, CPE chaplaincy at the VA, 2 years of field work in my home congregation, and too many theological reflection papers and academic essays to count, it’s DONE. At least, it’s done at Vandy…I’m still attending Lutheran seminary, but the proverbial light at the end of the ordination tunnel gets brighter, every day.
“Commencement” (what the academy folks who wear those squishy colorful hats call graduation) means “beginning, start, launch…” (Apple online dictionary, 2011). Huh. I thought I was finished…I done done it…my diploma arrived in December, and I’ve moved on to the next round of studies and internship. Commenced? Really? And here I’ve been thinking of graduation as the end of an ordeal, the waking from a terrifying dream, but certainly not as open door to the future. Graduation day has been on my task-oriented radar for so long, it became an end unto itself, I suppose. My professors would not be proud of me with dualistic thinking like this, not one bit…
I’ll admit that the main reason I walked, 5 months after I officially completed my Mdiv studies, was to celebrate my response to God’s call to vocational ministry with my teenage son, who is now in that ‘beginning to investigate college’ phase. At least, that’s what I told myself back in December, when all I cared about was turning in that final thesis, getting my grades and sleeping late. I wanted my son to experience the colorful regalia of academia, the pomp and circumstance that reward the stick-to-itiveness achieved through college and graduate studies. Ever mindful that children watch every move their parents make, even if they comment on our actions or admit to witnessing them less and less as they grow up, I wanted my teenager to know a) it’s never too late to pursue your true calling, and b) everybody looks officially hip and smart in caps and gowns, including your mother.
As graduation day dawned, I grew increasingly apprehensive about participating, concerned about the money required to rent the attire, send announcements and host a big party…it’s been 5 months, I mused…this isn’t really my class…they graduated last year…I’m an outlander, an after-thought, a problem child who has to be inserted into the mix, handed a fake diploma so she’ll go away and move on…
But like the pursuit of the Mdiv itself, I persevered toward commencement, enjoyed it immensely, and whooped it up with my son, my sister and brother-in-law and my very best friends. It dawned on me that just as the 3-1/2 years of my Mdiv journey peaked and valleyed, graduation week is also full of ups and downs, but mostly ups. I experienced frustration: hello, it’s ridiculous to pay $200 to rent a master’s hood and gown for 36 hours that literally falls apart, refuses to smooth out with a steam iron and has to be returned scant moments after the shouting ends. If anyone had seen the number of safety pins under my gown and master’s hood, which refused to ‘drape as illustrated,’ or the number of bobby pins it took to keep my too-large hat from falling off, there would have been ginormous peals of laughter ringing in Benton Chapel. There was also bittersweetness in the realization that I may never see some of these people again; I felt excitement and wonder, and anxiety: would I be able to walk up and down those stone steps with a cane, 4-1/2 months after total foot reconstruction?
You betcha I did! But what I wasn’t prepared for was the shocking announcement that I’d won an award: the John Olin Knott Award for scholarly writing in Biblical studies. My family and friends apparently knew, having had 2 hours of waiting to peruse the program and read my name…but my pew-mate had to tap me on the shoulder and point it out to me, and then my first thought was, “How in the hell did I win that? And how in the hell am I gonna go up those steps twice?”
I needn’t have worried or lapsed into momentary panic, because as usual, God had my back. The sea of black robes parted so I could pass, it took me a little longer than most to walk my cane to the podium, but the Dean, bless her, strode down the steps to meet me, big smile washing over her beautiful face. “I wanted you to save your good footing for the next one,” she whispered, referring to the diploma ceremony, “because we don’t fall well in these big robes.”
That graduation experience reflects the peaks inherent in my entire Mdiv career: seeing my name in print, whether on an admissions letter, a scholarship or grant notification, a dean’s list letter, an award certificate, a list of endorsed ELCA ordination candidates or on a beautifully written card from my son defies all doubts I ever had that I “could do it.” I am blessed with acceptance: by peers, friends and family; professors and mentors; by my congregation and fellow pastors who encourage and pray for me; by my Lutheran seminary, and especially by my son, who has been my greatest cheerleader. We all walked this path together.
But mostly, I’m accepted by God, just as I am. You’d think I might have known and believed that before I ever took one step on this uphill journey to ordination, and perhaps, in my heart of hearts, I did. Yet now I can articulate the specific hows and whys of that grace-filled acceptance, without claiming to have all the answers (or even any of them), but totally convinced that my saying ‘yes’ to God has transformed me from an imperfect control freak who craved attention, authority and power, into an imperfect person who humbly recognizes her own junk while opening her heart and her hands to serve God and neighbor. Not to co-opt the Alcoholics Anonymous saying, but I truly did ‘let go, and let God,’ and it was absolutely the single best decision I never made…God made it for me, and thankfully, at last, I responded, accepting my acceptance.
So to all you peeps out there, known and unknown to me: if you’re miserable in your career, your personal life, or your circumstances, get off your duff, put your brain and imagination to work, take a risk and work to change whatever it is that ails you, because life’s too short to wallow in despair or regret.
Life’s a gift from a loving God, and yes, we make many mistakes in the actual living of it, but the Gospel reminds us that we get as many do-overs as we need, while we navigate safely within the baptismal covenant that God makes with us. It’s never too late, too difficult or impossible to become what God designed you to be…all it takes is to say ‘yes,’ really believe it in your heart, and everything else will fall into place. It may not be easy, brief or lucrative, but it will be joyful, and I believe that you will discover a lightness in your heart because you are truly happy, freed by God’s love to give love of your own to others in the world.
And isn’t that what our lives are for, anyway?
Until next time, peace be with you.