Getting my Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a lot like the video for Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”.
No, really, stay with me here.
If you’ve not seen the video, it features Talking Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne, wearing an ill-fitting suit with a bowtie and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that would make George McFly jealous. He is visibly uncomfortable, sweating, seemingly out of breath, engaging in what could charitably be called dancing against a wavy turquoise background. Byrne spasms arrhythmically, epileptically, twitching and lurching like a marionette trying to avoid enemy fire, all the while talk-singing in a cadence reminiscent of a televangelist. The third verse is the one that always sticks with me long after the song itself has faded:
“And you may ask yourself, ‘What is that beautiful house?’
And you may ask yourself, ‘Where does that highway go to?’
And you may ask yourself, ‘Am I right? Am I wrong?’
And you may say to yourself, ‘My God! What have I done?’”
Insecurity in Answering Your Call
Offhand, that probably doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of the seminary experience. It’s fraught with imagery of the unknown and the ambiguous, vacillation and doubt, strangers and the strange. Those are hardly the creature comforts we seek out.
In this I am heartened by just how few of our biblical role models seemed to have any idea what they were doing when they answered their call. Abraham leaves his country and kindred and father’s house on a wing and a prayer, trusting in a vague promise in which God doesn’t even specify where Abraham and Lot will end up (Gen 12:1-5). He even laughs when God promises he and Sarah a child, a true heir, in their advanced age (Gen 17:15-18). Yet through all this turbulence, Abraham plows forward and believes, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).
Moses, of course, doesn’t see himself fit to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He asks God what he shall tell the Israelites when they ask for the name of the God who sent him, and God replies, “‘I Am who I Am’”—which to me has always sounded remarkably like, “Mind your own business, Moses.” (Ex 3:14) It’s not hard to empathize with the uncertainty Moses must have carried with him, and yet, though he considers himself “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex 4:10), he leaves the lap of luxury to liberate his people into the unknown.
That’s not even to mention the prophets. Before Isaiah says, “‘Here I am; send me!’” (Isa 6:8) he proclaims, “‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Jeremiah protests, “‘Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’” (Jer 1:6). Gideon opines, “‘My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judg 6:15). The young Samuel receives a vision from God but is afraid to tell it to Eli. (1 Sam 3:15) Jonah, of course, lets his boots and boat speak for him. All of them are filled with insecurity and doubt that would make David Byrne dash his bowtie to the ground and slink off in defeat. Nevertheless, in the midst of their reservations, they struggle to their feet and deliver God’s word.
Seminary Will Challenge You
See, here’s the thing. Even though “Once in a Lifetime” conjures up all these uncomfortable, even jarring existential questions, it sticks in your head. The sum total of those troublesome parts is much less than the effect of its magnificent whole. That’s been my experience in the Master of Divinity program at Pittsburgh Seminary. I make no bones about this when talking to prospective students. You will be stretched. You will be challenged. You will hurt. And when you somehow garner the briefest moment of spare time, you will realize that, even though our seminary education might call us into indifferent or hostile parts of the world; even though we might be asked to go down unfamiliar highways into twisted alleyways and sneering cul-de-sacs; even though we might encounter new traditions and ideas and ways of seeing God that force us to reevaluate what we once pigeonholed as right and wrong; even though we might well, in the course of ministry to a world that increasingly needs and yet does not want ministry, whisper to ourselves, “My God, what have I done?”—that very same God is there with us through trial and travail. It is only when we occasionally step back from our dimly-lit mirrors that we can see the grace of God transforming our uncertainties into something beautiful, something marvelous, something glorious.
Same as it ever was.
Michael Ondrick is a second-year Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, originally from Belmont, Ohio. He is currently discerning a call to international mission, specifically that dealing with the addicted and mentally ill. A graduate of The Ohio State University, his hobbies include performing and writing improv and sketch comedy, professional wrestling, music both worshipful and secular, and cryptozoology. His favorite parts of the Bible are the weird parts.