“If the church is so great, then why are you here?”

During my first class as a professor at the McAfee School of Theology, I began waxing poetic on my years as a pastor and the glory of preaching: “What could be more wonderful than to imagine your way back into the biblical world, listen for what the Spirit is saying to your congregation—people you love—and stand up on Sunday morning to say, ‘I have been listening carefully and I think this is what God wants us to hear’?”

A student asked, “If the church is so great, then why are you here?”

For eight years I have been working on that good, rude question.  I love teaching, so I am finding it hard to leave McAfee to become the Pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York.  (If the disrespectful student is reading this, I hope you feel bad.)

For three weeks I have been humming Mr. Holland’s Opus.  Do you remember the scene where the student says, “We are your symphony, Mr. Holland.  We are the melodies and the notes.  We are the music of your life.”

I imagine a student saying, “We are your sermons, Dr. Younger.  We are the examples and illustrations.  We are the sermons of your life.”

This has not happened.

One of the ways I am dealing with my grief is to make a list of things I am glad to leave behind.

I will not miss students arguing that they should not be counted absent on the first day of class because they had not yet signed up for the course.

I will not miss students saying, “I am going to be late with my sermon because the internet is down.”

I will not miss this conversation: “Dr. Younger, you can’t give me a C.  The Holy Spirit gave me this sermon.”

“The Spirit gets an A.  You got a C.”

I will not miss multiple choice, true-false, fill in the blank, or wild guesses.

I will not miss grading book reviews that begin, “Anna Carter Florences’s Preaching as Testimony is a nine-year-old book written by Anna Carter Florence in 2007.”

I will not miss students thinking I need to listen to a sermon by Joel Osteen.

I will not miss assessment reports.  I will never again write, “19 out of 21 students in the worship class were able to identify 16 out of 20 worship terms from the 17th and 18th centuries.”

I will not miss faculty meetings that focus on enrollment: “Can we devise an MDiv that doesn’t require reading?  How can we recruit wealthy students?  How can we schedule courses so that students can get a degree while only being on campus from 7-10 p.m. one Friday a month?”

Reading my list of things I won’t miss might suggest that I am glad to leave my present occupation, but the list of things I will miss is much longer.

I will miss faculty meetings when we ask good questions: “How can we take seriously two thousand years of church history as well as the churches that our students need to start? How do we center what we do in the story of Jesus?  What would God have us do?”

I will miss being a member of a faculty that reads scripture with thoughtfulness, believes in the goodness of God, and knows that God is bigger than we think.

I will miss the six weeks of summer when there are no classes.

I will miss being delighted to see students on the first day of class.

I will miss reading book reviews that begin, “Anna Carter Florence needs to visit Second Baptist Church, Lime Sink, Georgia, before she writes another book.”

I will miss students thinking I need to hear a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor.

I will miss moments when it was not about the grade, but about Jesus.  Moments in preaching when a student said something none of us had heard before.  Moments in worship when we felt the presence of the Spirit.

I will miss students changing their mind—and changing my mind.

I will miss students saying: “The Jesus in the Gospels is a lot more complicated than what I learned in Sunday school, but I like this Jesus more.  I want to follow this Jesus.”

I will miss students believing the church can be more like Christ than most churches have ever been.

I will miss students caring for one another, sharing their hopes and dreams, and becoming sisters and brothers.

I will miss arguing over tough questions.

I will miss students overcoming the boundaries of gender, race, and sexual orientation.

I will miss students who are ardent, zealous, fervent, fiery, incensed, and impassioned.

I will miss students who are outliers, nonconformists, mavericks, eccentrics, dissidents, and dissenters.

I will miss the followers of Christ who called me their teacher.

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Your Commute as a Spiritual Discipline

My morning commute reminds me that I am not the Christian I should be.  I drive 9 miles to my job—2 miles of neighborhood, 3 miles of suburban commerce, and 4 miles of houses close enough to Atlanta that we can’t afford them.  The trip takes about 25 minutes, which is considered next door in Atlanta.  (I tried the interstate once.  After an hour I vowed not to make that mistake again.)

I pass train tracks, two tiny cemeteries, and what may be the last full service gas station in America.  Sometimes I drive through McDonald’s.  I have decided that the breakfast burrito is, sadly, the best I can do.  I tried to get them to start offering iced decaf coffee by ordering it five days in a row, but they grew irritated.

I go by four churches.  They have helpful information on their marquees—“Join us for worship at 11 on Sunday”—but I keep hoping for “Choose the Bread of Life or you are toast.”

I have made this trip more than a thousand times.  If I leave home at 7:00, I am in danger of stopping at every other house behind a school bus.  If I leave at 7:15, I may get stuck in front of Tucker High School where the students move slowly across the street.  When I use Waze to avoid traffic, I drive by retirees walking their dogs.  I try to look like I’m not cutting through their neighborhood to take two minutes off my commute.

When two lanes merge into one, I strain to think good things about the drivers who cut to the front of the line.  Perhaps they are all rushing to the hospital to deliver babies.  I find it easier to exercise patience since my horn stopped working two years ago.

Sometimes I listen to sports talk on 680 The Fan:

“Which happens first—the Falcons win the Super Bowl, the Braves win the World Series, or Tyler Perry wins an Academy Award?”

“Could the Oscar be for costume design?”

“Would you rather your child lose a toe or become an Alabama fan?”

“Which toe?”

I have not found the radio station that plays the music I love.  The only singer I recognize on most stations is Adele.  The country stations do not work because I don’t go to honky tonks nearly as often as you might think.  There is no all Bruce Springsteen all the time station.

I drive a 1998 Ford Escort that was totaled a year ago when a driver on a cell phone ran into me.  The CD player hasn’t worked in five years.  Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits is stuck in there.  Early each May I get the air conditioner fixed.  I have cold air until the middle of August.

When I am feeling smart I turn to the news on NPR.  I try to remain interested when they discuss the major exports of Tunisia, but I don’t know where Tunisia is.

The last few years I have been listening to podcasts.  10% Happier is about meditation—which is a challenge when driving in Atlanta.  NPR Politics has been depressing since they started running for president again.  On Being, an amazing discussion of faith, is the podcast most easily quoted in sermons.  I usually love Radiolab, but a recent episode on South Korean pop stars suggests I may not be their target audience.  I listen to Garrison Keillor’s news from Lake Wobegon “where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.”

When I call Carol on my way home, she knows I am killing time and says sweet things like “I’ll be glad to talk when you get home.”  When I call my parents they “don’t want to talk too long because it’s long distance.”

Lately I have been driving in silence.  I notice more when when the car is quiet.  I wave at the walker who goes backward up the hill near our house.  I don’t know the names of the trees, but I look for bright green, dark red, and white flowers.

Sometimes I pray.  On the way to work I pray that I will remember that God will be with me through the day.  I can’t close my eyes, so I pray for the students crossing against the light.  I notice the other drivers—signs that God is as present on Georgia State Highway 29 as at the seminary to which I’m driving.  On the way home I apologize for the ways I have forgotten that God was with me.

We are more ourselves when driving alone than at almost any other time.  Would we want to be friends with the person we are when drive?  Are we following Christ when we are heading to work?

What we do in the car may not sound like a test of faith, but it is an opportunity for faith.  For a long time I didn’t expect much from myself on my commute, but I am learning.

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