2020 Address by Rev. Brian Combs
Some of you just knew. It was predestined in your vocational DNA. Instead of dawning a superhero cape for Halloween, it was a robe and stole year-round. Before saddling a bike, you were already finding your balance on top of a milk crate preaching to your stuffed animals. The birdbath was your baptistry; the park bench your pew; the neighborhood your parish.
Others tallied summer’s conclusion, counting down the days until the back row of the matinee gave way to the front row of the classroom. School was filled with intellectual vigor, learning the 5th decimal point of Pi’s square root, where to place an Oxford comma, to read in reverse beginning with the conclusion first, how Lincoln’s bipolar disorder informed his presidency, and about the one recirculated breath, a collective inhale and exhale, shared by all of humankind. Since preschool you’ve been preparing for your Ph.D., climbing the steps of the ivory tower even before you could walk.
For those on a straight line to the Church or the Academy, privileged are you. I hope the coming years, after stress testing the certitude of your life’s trajectory, will be further validation of what you already know. But for the rest, myself included nearly 15 years ago, the majority conflicted between MDiv or MTS or ThM, fraught about ordination and serving a denomination publicly at war with itself or who feel apprehensive about the partisanship polarizing higher education and the perils of chasing tenure, I’m especially interested in talking with you.
In the wilderness, Jesus’ temptation included being forced into ratifying his 5-year plan, having to decide if he was to remain the carpenter’s son or become the Christ. But he rebuked the Devil’s false choice, and so can you. It’s only day one. You don’t have to decide now. After all, if Religion’s about provoking more thoughtful questions rather than pontificating on definitive answers, then one of seminary’s greatest strengths is encouraging the holy pursuit of unknowing.
After clocking in at ConEd and being cross-examined in Colloquy, huddling with your advisor and browsing the shelves in Pitts, listening to the lectures and taking notes on the conversations in the hallways, here are a few more recommendations for ongoing discernment:
Be suspicious of compartmentalizing the sacred. Rather than biasing the assignment ahead as a secular distraction of pencil and paper, start blurring the boundary between the desk of scholarship and the Table of communion, believing both are essential pieces of liturgical furniture. Prior to sitting down with the reading list, light a candle; between your first draft and final reader, hum a hymn; arriving at your site placement, enter the gates of heaven; genuflect before approaching the endless altars scattered throughout academia. With intention, your life of study and your life of prayer can be synonymous.
Court older mentors. Emory has intentionally raised its median age with second career students. Many have resigned from career jobs, sold their homes, burdened their future with college debt, commuted from hours away, and forsaken the familiar to arrive in Atlanta. Lean in to hear what it’s like to postpone your calling while working a job you don’t believe in, saluting a flag you didn’t raise. These colleagues are every bit as significant as your professors because they are the academics of life.
David Brooks, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, offered this advice at a commencement address: Talk to dead people. Choose the heroines of history and hang portraits of them in your office. Seek their counsel daily and covet their replies. Seminary is a constant calling to dialogue with the ancestors of Tradition. What bridge would John Lewis have us traverse next for civil rights? How can Dorothy Day circle us back into intentional community in an era of estrangement? What’s the Ethiopian Eunuch’s non-binary witness? Who would James Cone identify as ontologically black today? How does a celibate Carmelite nun, Saint Teresa, achieve erotic mystical union with God? Let the cloud of witnesses speak.
Abandon the ambitions of ego to save the world. That alone is the Almighty’s prerogative. We inflict more harm than healing when we conflate roles. Instead, when a parishioner or pupil is buried in the rubble of life’s collapse, their primal scream likely isn’t for you to start heaving boulders, to fix what’s broken but rather to interrupt the isolation with unflinching relationship, to profoundly be with. Defy the anxious need to tidy up the mess; grow your disdain for platitudes when presence, not words are necessary; learn to raise your threshold of solidary with suffering. Our commission is to allow the pedagogy of pain to be instructive; our Hippocratic oath is to show up empathetically, and stay.
Empower your inner contrarian. While your home congregation might have preserved who they think you are in amber, you are beholden only to the Spirit’s insubordinate swaying. As terrifying as it may be to lose your religion, seminary is a safe place to deconstruct. Pull up the stakes on your fundamental beliefs, reconsider the vows you’ve exchanged with absolute truth, interrupt the unexamined orthodoxy coming out of your mouth, disavow the expectations of sameness, hasten the sanctification of becoming unrecognizable. Give yourself permission to change. Give yourself permission to change. While the name on your diploma will be written in permanent ink, graduation only happens once you walk across the stage as a new creation.
For those ultimately locating behind the pulpit or lectern, and for those who don’t know where they’ll stand professionally, the twin pandemics have forced all of us to sit down in the corner of uncertainty. Before white supremacy is dismantled and a vaccine emerges, blessed are you to be starting seminary, where mystery is core to the curriculum, during a protracted time when no one knows what they’re doing.
As the saying goes, God can only love us where we are, not where we think we ought to be. Where you are, part virtually and part physically, is at Candler and nowhere else. Be encouraged, you are here. Right where you belong. May the fullness of this present moment, filled with serendipity and surprise, be with you always.
The late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn said, “The miracle isn’t that Jesus walked on water. No, the miracle is that Jesus walked on the earth.” Go and do likewise.