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Nearly thirteen years ago as I was completing my final year as an MDiv student at Princeton Seminary, a friend from Grand Rapids, MI quipped, “You know, maybe you’ll end up teaching at one of the Reformed seminaries in western Michigan.” She went on to become an ordained Christian Reformed pastor. I knew about as much about the RCA and CRC as I knew about Presbyterianism when I first found myself in a PCUSA congregation—but that’s another story. I think my response was something like, “You never know.” Five years later, I began teaching pastoral and congregational care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI.
Having spent my life in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, I had much to learn about the RCA and CRC, to say nothing of Dutch Niceness, Dutch Bingo, and a western Michigan idealization of marriage—still balking against the latter. I teased my RCA and CRC friends, even as they somehow claimed me as one of their own. (It must have been all the Barth and Calvin lined up on my shelves.) I learned to teach in one of the best distance learning MDiv programs in the country and thus learned a lot about formation and transformation in the classroom.
Two-and-a-half years into my teaching experience at Western Seminary, another good friend from Princeton Seminary—this time the PhD program—called me out of the blue and asked if I’d be interested in teaching at Luther Seminary. I was less familiar with MN than MI and never imagined myself in the Twin Cities. Dutch Niceness did prepare me for Minnesota Niceness though—and I’m still balking against that, too! I had as much to learn about and from the ELCA, my Lutheran colleagues, and students from around the world as I did from the RCA—and it’s been a real joy. Beautiful pieces of Lutheran theology have seeped into my own thinking and interpretation of God’s ongoing ministry in the world. I’m probably a bit more skeptical about human action, though not entirely. And I finally read and came to appreciate Tillich and the Finnish Lutherans among others—didn’t get much of them at Princeton.
Two weeks ago I accepted an appointment (still to be approved by the board of directors in October) as Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at Western Theological Seminary. This turn in my vocational road is as much (if not more) unexpected than the previous ones. I thought I was settled at Luther and in the Twin Cities, and then I remembered one of those Bible passages that sunk into my soul many years ago.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:57-62)
Here Jesus makes it clear that discipleship can take the form of a spiritually nomadic life. Commenting on this passage for workingpreacher.org, Michael Rogness (emeritus professor of homiletics at Luther Seminary) quotes Philip Scharper, editor of Orbis Books: “A popular church metaphor is that of the people of God on pilgrimage. But a more apt metaphor should be that of the people of God as nomads. Pilgrims know where their journey is headed … Nomads are called to go by uncertain paths to a place that shall be made holy at some indefinite time by something God shall say or do. And there is no guide, no guide except a pillar of fire by night and a wind-driven cloud by day—sounds and symbols of the Holy Spirit.”
Of course, most of us would prefer the indisputable guidance of a pillar of fire and wind-driven cloud—though I suspect that the ancient Hebrews might disagree with me on the clear meaning of such appearances. What we have instead are the nudgings of the Spirit, which over a lifetime we hopefully become more attuned to. We learn that impermanence may be more apt than permanence in this life, and following Christ often means taking a lot of unexpected turns in the road. I’ll have more to say about this–and the many unexpected lessons of my recent sabbatical–but for this moment, I’m simply marveling at the mysterious work of the Spirit.