Well, I had a panic attack this morning. Been awhile. I lay in bed, heart pounding, mind racing, unable to focus my vision. I closed my eyes and waited for the sensations to pass. They always do. Feels like forever, but it’s really only minutes.
Panic Disorder, it’s weird. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is no reason behind the onset of terror. It simply is. The brain’s just like, “You know what would be fun? A lot of adrenaline. A woo hoo!” Stupid brain.
Then there’s that one percent, when I can connect the panic to something I haven’t processed in a healthy way.
Four-and-a-half days until seminary begins.
On the one hand, no shocker. I’ve known for years that this is something I’m supposed to do. On the other, very shocking, because I only applied in mid-May. For someone who likes method, order, and routine, that feels a bit whip-lashy.
I look at the tall stack of books sitting nearby and feel overwhelmed. It’s not the reading. It’s not the writing of papers. The actual academic work itself – okay, fine, no problem. School’s always come easy to me. I enjoy learning. I know it’ll take me a few weeks to get into a routine, to figure out what professors expect of me, but I’ll get there. The assignments are all plotted out on my calendar. I know what I have to do, and the time it will take to do it.
I know. I’ve presented you with a paradox. How is it possible to logically know that I can tackle this work and yet feel afraid to begin? If you can untangle that mystery, you’re far smarter than I am. All I know for sure is that my head and my heart are consistently at odds. The war is ever-raging, humming beneath the surface of my skin, where nobody but God can see.
That’s why it’s strange when people confess to being intimidated by me. Apparently when I walk into a room I do so with an air of calm self-assurance. Let me tell you the truth: I hide the fear behind a face that gives little away, unless you’re really paying attention. I definitely don’t have it “together.” I don’t have all the answers (never will) and any stability others sense in me comes directly from the Holy Spirit’s response to my desperate cries for help.
Also gotta give credit to the little green pill I take every night. Zoloft for the win. Don’t make enough serotonin on your own? Manufactured is fine.
Some of the books are thick and heavy. Commentaries on Genesis. Some are slim volumes, thoughts on Sabbath-keeping and community living. I’m drawn to the commentaries, because in them, I can lose myself. I want to know as much as I can about the Bible, and then learn some more. The books that repel me, the ones on knowing yourself better, especially within the context of ministry where strengths and weaknesses are readily apparent, are probably the ones I need to read the most. I can feel my nose crinkling as I write that.
Because I know myself. Yes, I struggle with self-condemnation, as everyone does to one degree or another, but on a good day, I have a very clear idea what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.
And therein lies the fear of failure.
You see, seminary is not simply graduate school. I was reminded of that the other day as I read something by a pastor that I should have bookmarked but didn’t. Attending seminary is an act of obedience and worship. The goal of this education is not the mere retention of information, but to be transformed in the renewing of my mind, as Paul counsels (Romans 12:1). It is to be equipped to preach and teach, that the Church might be strengthened and the Gospel spread far and wide, to the glory of God and the good of creation. It is to learn to care for others, to sit with them in sorrow, celebrate with them in joy, encourage them to keep moving toward the good even when it’s hard, and to lovingly confront error, that relationships might grow and the world might truly begin to know we are God’s by the love they see displayed among us.
What if I can’t do that? What if, at the end of the day, I am just a nerdy lady who likes to read, and pastoral care and leadership is beyond my reach?
I have wrestled with this question all summer. This is not what I imagined for my life. This is not what anyone imagined for my life. At teen camp, I stood near my cabin one night, out of sight of everyone, and looked to the sky, wondering just why I was there.
It’s that word, “pastor,” that throws me. I have a lot of ideas as to what and who a pastor should be. Didn’t even realize that until recently. And I don’t, you know, fit a lot of those ideas. What kind of pastor often needs to take a nap during the day? What kind of pastor requires significant amounts of solitude in order to re-energize after interacting with people? What kind of pastor is startled, nearly to the point of tears, by sudden loud noises? Aren’t pastors supposed to be charismatic, energetic, tough people?
So I’m annoyed, because I know that this first semester is going to be emotionally stretching, as God breaks down my ideas and replaces them with His own, as He reveals the path to me, step by step. And I really don’t like dealing with my emotions. Other people can cry and rage and whatever else around me, and I’m happy to listen and provide support. But me, letting myself feel what I feel, in the moment I feel it? Ugh.
I easily fall into the trap of believing my value lies in accomplishments. (Silly, because the sense of defeat inevitably follows when discovering that another has accomplished more and greater). So of course my mind jumps years into the future, to graduation day, and the idea of graduating with honors. Imagine my shock, then, to realize that such an end could actually be sinful. Prioritizing the wrong thing. Stick with me. Yes, I believe that everyone should do their best at everything we set out to do. I have no intention of slacking off. But I’ve learned something this summer, in the hustle and bustle (that’s left little time for writing): What God places in front of me, here and now, is the thing that matters.
In short, I will fail seminary if I come out the other side with an excellent knowledge of exegesis and Greek, but without having grown in love for God and people.
Achievement at seminary might mean accepting less than an A+, because that might mean that I’m out there putting what I’m learning into practice, instead of spending every waking hour stressing over getting an assignment just right. However many years I spend in school can’t be just about the schooling itself. This journey has to be about God, from beginning to end and beyond.
Maybe this is all very obvious to you, but it’s a major shift in thinking for me. The academic world is one I’m comfortable in, one I know how to navigate. The pastoral world, not so much. And there’s another shift: Maybe I’m a pastor right now. Maybe that’s who God made me to be. The process and the ordination and all that, it’s good and right and I can go along with no fuss. But maybe that endpoint is just a confirmation of what is already true.
A pastor who takes naps and needs quiet and is quiet and hates loud noises. A pastor who uses slang and wears ripped jeans and is too lazy to dye her white hairs to match the rest of her strands. A pastor who is not and will not be your superhero, but will gladly point you to the Savior you need. A pastor who longs for all to know the grace, love, and truth of God.
Maybe that’s enough.