“I say phooey on religious seminary!…There’s no difference between seminary and a cemetery. Both are places of the DEAD.” –David J. Stewart, Independent pastor
The quickest route between the new dorm I live in and the main Asbury campus cuts directly through the heart of the Wilmore Public Cemetery. I felt a little odd walking through it at first, but over time I have really begun to appreciate the peace and beauty of the little graveyard. It seems that every day for the past couple weeks I have walked back and forth between the gravestones on my way to class, the cafeteria, or the gym.
A common joke about seminary runs something like this: “Don’t let your faith die while you are at cemetery…whoops, I mean, seminary.” Multiple people cautioned me with words similar to those before I came to Asbury. For some reason, (probably because people have seen it happen before), seminary has often been viewed in the church at large as somewhere that passionate pastors go to die.
This is the scenario they have in mind: a student may enter seminary excited about Jesus with great plans for how they will serve him and surety they will change the world. The same student then re-enters the world approximately four years later lacking both passion and purpose because their faith has been dulled and destroyed by countless hours reading high-minded theology and writing papers that are way too long and verbose to ever share with a congregation from the pulpit. They no longer have excitement for serving Jesus or any hope of changing the world. They might as well stay in their dead-man’s tomb at cemetery, er… seminary.
I don’t know whether the greater irony is that I now find myself walking through an actual cemetery while my faith continues to be strengthened at seminary, or that the very word “seminary” is a word that means “birth” instead of “death.” The Greek origins of the word speak of something that produces life; it is a seedbed, a garden growing fruit and flowers which nourish and beautify the world. A seminary is supposed to produce ministers who are alive because the Spirit of Christ is alive in them, not a discouraged zombie obligated to going through the motions of filling a pulpit week after week.
I have begun to notice the names on the tombstones as I hurry through the cemetery on my way to class. I see names like Hughes and Morrison, McPheeters and Seamands. I don’t really know who these people were or anything about them other than that their names now grace building fronts and street signs throughout Wilmore. These people were presidents and professors at the seminary or university. These people came to the Seminary and stayed so long that they ended up in the Cemetery next door.
As I walk through the Cemetery and look at their tombstones, I can’t help but notice two things: first, I see more Scripture verses and greater hope for eternity etched on those monuments than any other graveyard I’ve ever been in. The site is like a burial ground for Methodist saints. If nothing else, the tombstones are testaments to the fact that these people didn’t just come to Seminary and die, but instead thrived in the Spirit and in ministry for God.
Second, I notice that, though these men obviously left their mark on Wilmore and Asbury and probably the Methodist movement as a whole, the Seminary is pretty much the extent of their fame. No one outside of Wilmore would have any idea who J.C. McPheeters is. No one outside of Wilmore would name a street after Henry Clay Morrison. These men labored in relative obscurity in their own little seedbed. They were planted here and died here, not in their faith but to their pride and selfishness, and their continuing legacy shows they produced a healthy crop of ministers from their seedbed.
Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” Jesus spoke those words about himself, but they are also a call for his disciples to follow him in his death. God plants his seeds in people, and it is then our turn to die. Nobody ever remembers the seed, but that doesn’t matter if the fruit is good. The professors and students down through the last 90 years at Asbury have been a seedbed, an extra high concentration of seeds that fell to the ground in Wilmore, KY and died. Their faith didn’t die at Cemetery, but they died to themselves at Seminary, and they in turn produced a harvest of many seeds.
I suppose that one could die either way at Seminary. One could come and lose their faith in the midst of homework and theology, or one could come and lose themselves in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Either way, the choice before us is death, but only one of those deaths result in life. The same choice is before each of us, not only the seminarians. We don’t have to come to Seminary to ask ourselves which way we want to die. Wherever we are at, are we willing to die to ourselves, fall to the ground, and become a seed in our own little corner of the world?
And so, Mr. David J. Stewart (who has no idea he has been quoted in my blog), I think I agree with you. Seminary is a Cemetery full of dead people. But what if the dead people are in fact fallen seeds in God’s great seedbed? I want to be one of those seeds.
Grow where God has planted you.
That concludes this edition of Too Many Metaphors. Thanks for playing!