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Good Letters

In the fall of 2006, I enrolled in a class I’d thought about taking for years. This class—a four-year program called Education for Ministry, administered by the graduate theology school at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, and held in Episcopal parishes nationwide—demanded three hours of seminar each week during the academic year, in addition to pages of reading. I looked forward to study, to community, to getting some questions answered.

Year One: Hebrew Bible. Year Two: New Testament. Year Three: Church history. Year Four: Theology. For each, a big maroon binder filled with commentary.

Some of the weekly readings were dense and dull, written by committee to offend no one; others bogged down in context; many made me sit and pay attention. Some editorial choices were perplexing—seven weeks on Genesis, while Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, and all the rest of wisdom literature was packed into one week.

Early in year one, however, I saw the danger of focusing on the limitations of the Sewanee text. Criticizing the writers for their editorial bloopers (Satan misspelled as Santa; “women’s issues” relegated to a paragraph in a survey chapter on the twentieth century) became a way not to look at the more challenging issues raised by scripture itself.

Two creation stories; how had I missed that before? Abram becoming Abraham—and I’d always thought the extra letters a function of translation! God’s choosing favorites, and such choices! And the chapters and chapters of annihilation and bloodshed—God wiping out “every living thing” to give the promised land to his chosen people.

I had a lot of questions, some I didn’t think I could voice. But I did, and as I listened to those around me voice theirs, I began to feel less alone, less barricaded.

Over time, our questions deepened: Can we ever know God? Who decides what is scripture? What gets lost in a “transactional” view of the crucifixion? What does being Christian mean?

As I finished year one and moved into year two, I began to feel less frustrated at the lack of answers. I began to accept the fact I would never remember every story in the Hebrew Bible or remember just which council put forth which definition of the Trinity, never mind find enough time to read all the recommended supplementary readings.

I began to accept that learning, like any kind of growing, is a process.

The night of my first EfM class, back in 2006, I had walked to Grace Cathedral, wondering just what this educational commitment would bring. It would have been a Tuesday in September, and I recall holding the brief thought as I climbed Clay Street that I might meet someone (you know, that kind of someone) and then, as quickly, dismissing the idea as tempting fate.

Fast-forward to a warm June night in 2011. Eleven of us gathered around the table, passing the bread and the cup for our closing Eucharist, celebrated by a visiting priest. The epistle reading, from Corinthians, chapter 12, spoke to the occasion: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.”

I thought about the night H said, “I don’t even know if I’m Christian.” I thought about P’s distress with the myriad ways—in Scripture and in everyday life—we do not follow the simple commandment to love one another. I thought of S, raising the question of just what was going on with God’s treatment of Saul? And of C’s reminding us of the beautiful inclusiveness in the first letter of John only to have the writer, a chapter or two later, calling the Other “the anti-Christ.”

I thought of nights I came to this room tired and cranky, and how I left with love and peace in my heart.

Community, yes. Honesty, absolutely. Trust and listening and safety—not instantly conferred (although, from the beginning, we pledged not to interrupt or try to prove ourselves “right” on any issue or opinion) but developed, grown, nurtured, over months of talking not only about the slaughter of the Canaanites, say, or the Church’s abuses of power, but about the theological implications of Jamba Juice and an old David Niven movie from the 1940s.

And yes, I met someone. Craig and I spent four months around the table, talking about the early church and our own spiritual milestones, sharing prayer and communion and sugar-free Reese’s cups, before we spoke one-on-one.

I learned of his vision of Jesus when he was nine years old, his alcoholism, his obsession with Hegel. He heard about my brother’s murder, my depression, my coming to faith in my thirties. After months of getting to know each other in community, we went on a walk and have been together ever since.

As wonderful as meeting him has been, it wasn’t falling in love that answered that wistful longing four and a half years ago as I climbed Clay Street. It was meeting ten other someones, the whole group around the table, and loving them.

To learn is to stay alive, the final chapter of year four readings says. What will you do now?

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Lindsey Crittenden


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