October 03, 2013
Dear Fellow Seminarian,
Why are you at seminary? What is your objective? Are you acting like it or do your actions suggest a different priority? Let me explain.
I was assigned a best friend during my first semester of the music theatre program at Florida State.
No joke. I was assigned a best friend.
Now this isn't like your mom putting together amazing goody bags so kids would come to your birthday party (although...you put together a nice goody bag and miracles do happen). After a few weeks of observation and analysis, my professors paired every student with another from class as "best friends." We were to build a relationship with said best friend over the course of the semester and complete all scene work together until Christmas. I realize now that my best friend was also a pillar of consistency in a class designed to make you feel like a complete failure by finals week, thereby enabling you to start from scratch, without any preconceived notions, in January. My best friend, of course, was Mike the hockey player. Our first task was an "open scene," or, as I like to call it, "actor psychological trench warfare."
The assignment is simple.
"Here's a sheet of paper with 10 lines of arbitrary dialogue,” our prof explained. "You have no back story, no character information. You may create the circumstances as you wish. We'll start scene showings next week."
Mike the hockey player and I began brainstorming immediately. Typical freshman, we were eager to show off and entirely ignorant of just how bad we really were. Our plan was beautiful in its simplicity. "You see most people in this situation panic and swing for the fence" we thought. "They come up with an elaborate story that's entirely too complex." The details of who came up with our golden idea are unclear. So, for the sake of fairness, let's give Mike the credit.
Mike: Dude, I've got it.
Mike: I've got it.
Tim: What is it?
Mike: You have to pee.
Tim: Nah, I'm good man—what are you, my mother? What's your idea?
Mike: No. Dude, you have to pee.
Tim: I have to pee?
Mike: You have to--
Tim (catching on): I HAVE TO PEE!
I'm pretty sure Edison would've been jealous of our genius. I had to pee. It was perfect. Our scene would be set in a typical room, between two friends, one of them leaving to pee, the other preventing him from leaving. I would be the pee-er; Mike would be the preventer. Summon Her Majesty the Queen! Move over Bill Shakespeare! Tim and Mike the hockey player are creating the scene of a lifetime! We basked in our brilliance, imagining the glorious feedback we'd receive from our adoring yet ever so slightly jealous peers. Life was good.
Fast-forward one week, Mike and I are ready for action. I chug a little bit of water before the performance just to get my head in the game. I dazzle the audience with my best pee dance moves while Mike systematically blocks my exit to the bathroom. Everything runs exactly as we had rehearsed. Ready for applause, we walk back to our professor and peers for feedback.
The ever glamorous and even more brilliant professor Jean says, "Tim, what do you normally do when you have to pee?" I stand in silence, nodding slightly as if admiring the profoundness of the question. "Tim, what do you normally do when you have to pee?" Jean repeated. I skillfully reply, “Uh…well, I normally just walk to a bathroom and...ya know...pee." "Good," she said. "Do it again and show me. What do you do when you have to pee?"
We restart the scene. Suddenly, right as I was beginning my meticulously rehearsed pee dance, a voice cried out from the audience, almost reverberating off the black walls of the rehearsal space. "BS," Professor Jean delightedly exclaimed from the audience. She was smiling as she repeated herself, "BS."
...except she didn't use abbreviations.
"Tim, what do you normally do when you have to pee?"
This question again?? I thought we went through this before. I reply, “Well…"
Prof. Jean: "You just go pee, right?"
Prof. Jean: "So go. Right now. Show me what it looks like for you to walk to the bathroom."
I cautiously start walking away, unsure of what is going to happen next.
Prof. Jean: "Good Tim. Now why didn't you do that in the scene?"
Me: "I'm not sure what you..."
Prof. Jean: "Why didn't you walk like that in the scene?"
Me: "Oh, well, I wanted to show that I had to pee."
Prof. Jean: "Ah, you wanted to show me you had to pee."
And there was the problem. My over-rehearsed, overplayed and overacted bathroom dance looked absolutely ridiculous because it was dishonest. Rather than pulling the audience into the world we created, I slapped ‘em all with the reality of a novice actor who is desperate to do the assignment right. You know what the worst part is? I thought I was being honest. I convinced myself that I was truly fighting for my objective of "get to the bathroom at all costs." My actions, on the other hand, suggested that my actual objective was to "get my class and professor to see that I had to pee."
That's the thing with objectives. It's possible tell yourself that you are fighting for Objective A. But until someone comes along and calls BS, you have no clue that what you're actually doing is fighting for Objective B. In other words, instead of "fighting to pee," you are fighting to "make it look like your objective is to pee."
As a seminarian, I find myself fighting a similar battle. I find myself less focused on preparing for future ministry than about my academic success. I get so bogged down in the whirlpool of exegesis, reading logs and theological reflections that I forget this isn’t just graduate school. To be sure, it is school. It is tough! And, it should be. But my primary objective isn’t fulfilled in the classroom. The classroom is a preparation for my future ministry to this world. That changes my approach to learning. If my primary concern is future ministry preparation, it won’t be as difficult to put down the books and spend time with the Lord. If my primary concern is future ministry, healthy living habits (like sleep and exercise) become a priority. If my primary concern is future ministry, character formation will trump academic success in my list of objectives. I am the WORST at forgetting this. My objective at Gordon-Conwell, if I’m honest, has been academic success and it has infected my preaching, my prayer life and my relationships.
What is your objective at seminary? I dare you to take a minute and evaluate if your life implies that objective, or perhaps a different one.
Tim Norton is a born-and-raised, small-town Southerner with the sweet tea addiction to prove it. He comes to Gordon-Conwell as a Kern Pastor-Scholar and plans to pursue pastoral ministry in the U.S. after graduation. Tim is a big personality with a strange affinity for the color orange. Currently, he attends GENESIS Church, an Acts 29 church plant in Woburn, MA.
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