It is easy when in Seminary only to spend time with Seminarians or, potentially even worse, only to spend time with Christians. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with “believers,” but there is just something special when a friend looks at you from across a steaming bowl of Udon and says, “So what is the deal with the Trinity?” Honestly, where else can we beef up our apologetics? There are significant problems with cross religious interactions, particularly when in Seminary. I know, I come from what we call a “Non-Christian home.” I did not grow up in Sunday school, I did not watch Veggie Tales with my younger sister and I have no idea what Adventures in Odyssey is. I have overheard friends say that I am studying to become a priest, despite the fact that I am 1) female, and 2) Presbyterian. Similarly, when one of my old bosses learned that I was going to Seminary, she asked if I was going to be a “lady pastor.” My roommate has had study sessions over at our house and people have taken one look at my bookshelf, filled with Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Bell, Pinnock, Wright and replied with a stammer so your roommate is…religious?
Whether meeting someone for the first time or catching up with friends from high school it is always interesting what the reactions are to me being in seminary. I feel like I constantly have to reassure my friends and family that I am still the same person. I also often find myself trying to reassure new people that I am a decent and perhaps even interesting person who is not judgmental. This is what I really think it comes down to fear of judgment: Christians are afraid that we are going to be deemed judgmental, backward, irrelevant or stupid. While Non-Christians are afraid of being judged with something only akin to the fear that habitual speeders must have for police officers.
I was on a plane this summer traveling back from the flat, hot, land of Kansas where I had been visiting friends from college and teaching teenage girls about art. It was about 10:00pm and I was finally on the last leg of my trip, seat 37D, from Colorado to sweet, rainy Seattle. I happened to have the chattiest seatmate that I had ever encountered on a plane. The guy sitting in 37E was as eager to get to Seattle as I was. On planes I read. I do not watch in-flight entertainment (trust me I have already seen that episode of 30 Rock) and I certainly do not talk to those who happen to be sitting next to me. Mr. 37E, sprinkler installer, fisherman and South Park enthusiast could not be deterred by my frequent glances at Your Mouth is Lovely. We ended up talking for the majority of the flight. Nothing I said or did could derail the meaningless small talk that entangled me. That is until he asked what I did.
My response, as usual, was something along the lines of the fact that I do lots of things, but mostly I am in school. After being asked what I was studying, I responded with “M.Div” and after a blank stare supplied that I was going to get a Master of Divinity, which is the degree that you need to be a pastor. This is the moment that 37E started getting quiet. He had previously told me that he was visiting an old girlfriend in Colorado, which involved all kinds of fun (like hiking and going to restaurants) that a pastor in training would likely have to write him a spiritual ticket for having.
I did the only thing that I could think of to make 37E want to talk to me again and to show that I was not some kind of judgmental ticket writing agent for God. I told 37E about the last time that I was in Colorado. I was about 15 and my mom, sister, and I had gone to spend a few weeks with my mom’s friend from high school and her two sons in a small city outside of Denver. We went to Aspen, spelunking in some high mountain caves, Water World and a Mexican restaurant with an entire waterfall inside of it. I do not have brothers, so I was not previously aware of the way that boys tease. At every stop the two boys just kept telling my sister and me to ask for Rocky Mountain oysters. 37E, as a boy in his late 30’s, found this just as funny as the boys in Colorado did and rewarded me by recounting South Park episodes until we touched down into a cool Seattle night.
The moral of the story is this: be honest about faith (even if you don’t want to be), speak in the language of whomever you are talking to (even if you don’t really like South Park), and make a joke (even if it involves Rocky Mountain oysters). I think I may just have made Lesslie Newbigin proud.