Stop Smelling the Syllabus

Life is full of surprises. A tired, cliche phrase, I know. But the phrase speaks the truth. With friends and family, we share stories that surprised us. We remember them vividly because the stories are pivotal in shaping our lives.

Seminary life, on the other hand, can become mechanical because of its lack of spontaneity. Conjugating a verb is a norm. Formatting a paper properly is a pain. Approaching a new syllabus with the attitude of ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ crumbles weeks later as we whimper at its overwhelming demand. On the paper are dates of reading assignments and paper deadlines. For the next couple of months, these dates govern our lives, and sometimes, we feel that the syllabus rules with an iron fist. Mercy is not its priority.

Meanwhile, it has another effect—life appears less surprising. Ever since I started seminary, life is defined by how much I can cross off the dates on the syllabus. Done that reading and now I’m ready for the next, I thought. Like Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, in the film ‘Stranger than Fiction,’ my current life is based on the timing marked on the paper, except his was a wristwatch. What eventually colors his gray, mundane life is the moment he realizes how life has more to offer than just following the tick-tock.

Whenever I talk to seminary graduates or read about their experiences, they recount stories that take unexpected turns, whether getting financial aids in a time of need, creating friendships with people you wouldn’t expect, or reading a work you come to love when you wondered why a tree must die to become that book. They remember those surprising events that colored their seminary life.

One of the benefits a seminarian has is getting student discount to theology conferences. To enrich my seminary education, I attended the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference, whereas the academic topic revolved around the works of its main speaker”N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. For two days, Wright gave several messages in a room of 1,100 people, a rather large crowd.

During a break, I chatted with a friend, who is deaf like me, and a Sign Language Interpreter, who was interpreting for the conference. While the audience was stretching their legs and meeting each other, a man approached us. He greeted and asked us if he was speaking too fast for an interpreter to catch his words. At first we were puzzled by his question when only a moment later we realized he was Wright himself. After we informed Wright that the interpreter was doing an excellent job, he smiled, expressed good wishes, and departed to the speaking platform to begin another message.

Dumbstruck we were.

I came to the conference to learn something about his works; however, I left the conference learning something about the man himself. Whenever I read his books now, I could not help but remember that simple event between the four people among 1, 100 people. That meeting became a story that has colored a fraction of my seminary life.

Another cliche phrase I hear is ‘stop and smell the roses.’ Like the previous phrase, this is also true. Harold Crick stopped and smelled the roses. For him, the roses were having a girlfriend and learning to play a guitar. For seminarians, the roses come in various forms”playing with kids, visiting a nursing home, gardening, or even more odd, visiting graves of dead theologians. Seminary doesn’t have to be just crossing off dates on the syllabus; it offers more than that.

Use the syllabus to discipline yourself, but not to define your life.

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Written by nick-ng