This past week, I attended the 217th Commencement of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, along with many of my friends and colleagues. But I was not graduating. It was a strange feeling since those graduating were the very ones I entered Seminary with in 2010. Due to my middling academic abilities and the presence of young children in my family, I chose to complete Seminary in four years, rather than three, and I stand by my decision, but I was reminded of a friend of mine, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph while sitting at the ceremony. She is 88 years old and has six siblings, who all have children and grandchildren. She told me once that she had no regrets about her call to her vocation and that she knew, when she entered ministry, that she would be giving up having children. The one thing she didn’t think about, though, was that she would be giving up grandchildren. She choked up when she told me that and I felt like I understood her loss to a small degree. That is a bit how I felt watching my friends graduate. When I chose to take four years, I never thought how difficult it would be to say farewell after three years were done. I managed to keep myself sort of together during the ceremony and wish my dear friends and colleagues all the best in their post-Seminary life. But it was hard.
One of my favorite lines is from poet Mary Oliver, where she admonishes her readers to “Pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” As I reflect on the past three years, I can fondly remember the solid academic foundation we have been blessed with, the relationships built within student organizations, the recreation had through games of Frisbee and basketball (for those with athletic talent, that is), the ways we have cared for one another during difficult times, the times we have worshiped together in chapel services, the social times we have enjoyed with friends and children, and the meals we shared together in homes, restaurants, and the cafeteria. These were the foundations of our shared life together and were important in forming us as colleagues and leaders. The times, though, that I think were even more important were those moments where eternity unexpectedly entered our midst. There were thousands of these moments, too many to share here, but I would like to share two such moments from my experience at PTS.
The first occurred near the beginning of our time together during our first round of midterms. I discovered early in my time at PTS that the majority of my colleagues were not only competent and intelligent, they were also academically-driven to such a degree that astonished me. I found exam periods to be very anxious as my friends prepared to master the material to perfection. I was quite impressed and found myself unable to relate in many ways, actually. After our first round of exams, most of us had picked up our papers and answer sheets from our mailboxes during our morning break and were examining the comments and grades, trying to figure out which answers we had missed. I always sat in the second row of the lecture hall surrounded by a group of amazing second-career students. These people not only held down full-time jobs, they also were here after being away from academics for what seemed like a lifetime. One of these students asked another, a mild-mannered woman, “How did you do on that exam?” And the student answered, “I got a D.” We both looked at her, waiting for her to elaborate, and she flashed a huge smile, lifted her arms in the air, and shouted, “I PASSED!!!!!!!!!!” For me, eternity snuck into that moment. God calls all of God’s children to participate in the work of the Kingdom and God always honors our best efforts, and what is even better, God honors our not-so-great efforts, too. I felt like, in the midst of the overwhelming urge among my colleagues to earn perfect scores (as great as those are), God reached in at that moment and revealed God’s vision for a ministry that includes all of us, regardless of class rank.
The second instance was just a short time ago and it stands in contrast to the story I just shared. This moment came at an occasion that most of us can hardly imagine: a memorial service for a stillborn baby boy. A dear colleague and friend lost her son about halfway through her pregnancy last year and held a memorial service this year in our chapel. Many of us gathered and shared in grieving this loss for our friend and her family. The entire service was somber and moving, but one moment will stay with me, and others I am sure, forever. In the middle of the service our friend, the mother of the baby boy, along with another friend, offered a stringed duet of “Lullaby” as a praise and tribute to the short life of her son. Eternity snuck in again. The Kingdom of God is truly near when we can offer our best gifts in our times of greatest pain. I felt as if I had been permitted to listen to her private lamentation to God. I was reminded, once again, how Christ suffers with us and redeems our suffering for the glory of God.
One of my favorite authors is Willa Cather, who gained fame by writing stories set primarily in Nebraska. Early in her career, though, she struggled to find her voice. She spent a long time merely copying prominent East Coast writers because she admired them. At some point, though, she decided to write from her experiences. She said of this turning point, “Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” My hope, in sharing these two stories, is to remind us of the art of remembering. I think remembering is at the core of our lives and our ministries. In remembering, we become more and more aware of God’s faithfulness. I started this piece with Mary Oliver’s admonition and I think it goes well with Cather’s observation about her own life. I hope that we will all, whether we are leaving this place or holding down the fort a bit longer, practice the arts of paying attention and being astonished. Miracles happen every single day. When they happen, tell the stories. And then take the time, often, to remember them. These things, I firmly believe, will sustain us all well in life and ministry. Congratulations, graduates! Thanks be to God!
By Shana Hutchings, Senior M.Div. Student