I grew up looking for signs. If you sincerely believe the Fundamentalist worldview, then we are all part of a great, divine dramaturgy in which we have expected roles to fulfill. The script (Holy Scripture) is a little vague on the individual details, but if you know where to look you can find signs. They may be obvious and literal or subtle and ambiguous. The faithful, however, know they must seek them out and take their chances. I grew up in a decidedly blue-collar world. In my head, though, it felt like I was meant for something more. My career ambition was to be a janitor, but my reading and the counsel I received from those who knew more than I did suggested I might have a higher calling. The concept was unfamiliar at first, but compelling. I had to be able to read the signs. I remember hearing about seminary for the first time. If I was going to be a preacher, I had to go to seminary. The summer before starting college, I sat on the dilapidated front porch of my step-father’s house and taught myself to draw the Greek alphabet. Signs were rare, but when spotted, definitive.
Seminary came to define my existence in a way that I couldn’t foresee. I started college with the idea that, all things being equal, I’d end up at seminary. Still, I was drawn to the life of a faculty member in a liberal arts setting. Eventually, I recognized it as my calling. Getting to seminary proved more difficult than I’d imagined. It wasn’t the grades—it was the expenses. I was in debt and I knew that bank barons did not forgive us ours as we forgave others theirs. In seminary, signs came to take on differing interpretations. Maybe I was correct about ministry or maybe not. Looking closely, I could see that the script had marginal notes, and that it wasn’t even the original manuscript after all. I’d learned original languages only to become more confused about the signs. When I left seminary I knew one thing for certain—I didn’t ever want to teach in one.
My first professional job, of course, was teaching in a seminary. It was not a matter of free choice as much as free economy in free-fall. In the early ’90’s recession, jobs were few and signs completely distorted. When impolitely asked to leave my seminary position after a decade and a half, I was type-cast as a bit-player. The washed-up seminary teacher. I began to see signs along the highway for seminaries trying to recruit potential clergy. This was no longer a calling, but a job option. Don’t enjoy the rat race? Why not try opting out? The pay won’t be as good, and society will come to despise the very doctrines you’ll be taught, but at least it’s a living. I still see such signs. And I’m still not sure if I’m reading correctly. And even today, I notice with appreciation when a floor is expertly stripped, cleaned, and waxed.
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