The transition from seminary to pastoral ministry can be quite a jolt. The steady ebband flow of the academic calendar, the immediate gratification of studying, being examined, receiving a grade, the easy collegiality among fellow students: these are hallmarks of seminary life. While in the parish, one hardly ever knows what will come next. True, there’s the reality of Sunday coming round every seven days. Ready or not, here it comes! But, in between, you never know. And the variety of activities that will call upon your skills on any given day can be unnerving and overwhelming. A good pastor must be as flexible as a yoga instructor, ready to move from a budget conference to a hospital call to a liturgical planning session. And I’m only scratching the surface. Combine that with the fact that you generally don’t know how you’re doing till you mess up and the aching loneliness that many pastors feel. Well, it is a big transition.
For me, however, the biggest challenge of the transition was discovering what it means for the mystery of the word to become flesh. I’m not just talking about THE Incarnation, although that figures in. I’m really referring to that discovery a young pastor (especially, but not exclusively a young pastor) makes when he or she finally begins to understand the real meaning of words like grace. It is one thing to know the derivation of the English theological term from its Hebrew and Koine Greek roots and its various usages through theological traditions. It is quite another thing to discover in your own bones what it means to receive mercy when you don’t deserve it or what it means to help someone else receive it.
In this regard, at least, seminary was my grade school and congregational ministry became graduate school. I learned a rich theological vocabulary in seminary, but that vocabulary remained largely theoretical until it came to life in the midst of serving my people as their pastor.
This week I remembered with gratitude one of my coaches or mentors or (maybe better) guardians in that stage of my theological education. And I remembered him because I learned from the obituary in The Economist that he had died on September 5th at the age of 87, a priest, a theologian (of the pastoral sort) and a food writer: Robert Farrar Capon. His death reminded me that some of my most important teachers were people I have only known because of their writing. But, they were still vital to my formation. I suspect that is true for all of us.
I don’t remember now who it was who gave me a copy of Capon’s book, Exit 36 (New York, 1975). It was my introduction to Capon, and I read it in 1979. The novel tells the story of two Episcopal priests, one who has committed suicide, the other who is trying to piece together why. They were in neighboring parishes. They knew one another somewhat, as neighboring pastors sometimes do. As the story unwraps we learn that the priest who committed suicide has had an extramarital affair. In the end we learn that it was not this first infidelity, however, that drove him to suicide, but a second infidelity. And he simply could not allow himself to be forgiven for that. I don’t want to say any more. You may want to read the novel.
The book is a theological mystery. It culminates not so much in a strange twist of plot or a new development of character, though both figure in. The book turns on a theological insight that became so important to me I asked Debbie to calligraphy it and I framed it and for years it hung in my study. The insight is this: “The difference between the saved and the damned is simply that the saved are willing to step out and explore what God remembers, while the damned insist on hanging around inside what God forgets.” As a young pastor, first in a suburban parish next to Dallas, and later in a rural congregation south of Fort Worth, I found this word fleshed out again and again among the people in our communities.
I was hooked on Capon. But I managed to only read a handful of the twenty-seven books he wrote. My favorite was Hunting the Divine Fox (New York, 1974) a book that inspired me to try, as a teacher and a preacher, to entice people to fall in love with God. According to Capon, the theologian should not attempt to argue others into the faith, but should stoke up enthusiasm for a God who is always surprising. I love the passage where he set out the purpose of that book: “What I am about to give you … is a guided tour of selected spots in the bizarre set of answers that I believe God has given us. Then, perhaps, we may inch our way back to a point at which we will be able to ask better questions.”
Theology, Capon said, is fun. Well, I already knew that. But what Capon helped me to learn as a young pastor was that living our theology among a people of faith, listening for God among these people, loving them through life’s difficulties even when we found each other un-lovable, holding one another through life’s joys and tragedies, and allowing ourselves to receive forgiveness even when we have done things to each other that were frankly unforgivable on any human scale: this is the greatest theological adventure of all. I just wish I had written Capon while he was alive to say thanks.