Monday, October 10, 2011

Vintage CC: St. Louis - The First Year

I meant to post this a month or so ago, but better late than never. It's been just over ten years since I first moved onto the campus of Eden Theological Seminary to begin my M.Div studies. I credit my time in St. Louis for an incredible amount of personal growth, but it did not come without a lot of pain and self-honesty. I wrote this entry in 2009--which is among my favorites--to illustrate that._______________

It's 1:00 a.m.
A lone candle flickers on the floor of a living room of modest decor, adding the faint yet distinct scent of pine forest to the room.

Shadows of plastic shelving and milk crates dance on the bare walls. I sit next to the candle, its aroma mixed with the taste of rum and Coke, as I pluck another bass string.

It's my first week on campus. Or maybe the second. Or eighth. I don't know. I did this a lot.

Maybe "Crush" by Dave Matthews was playing. Maybe I sat in silence attempting to create something new with four strings and a modest amount of knowledge about the instrument I'm holding.

But I know one thing. I'm not used to this. I hope that I will be soon. But whether I will be or not, this is the way I talk to God these days. This is the way I cope.


"Life is messy," the professor repeats over and over again. She's in between stories of people in crisis: the couple dealing with a stillbirth or a couple struggling through divorce. She has us recount a passage from
Open Secrets, and admonishes us about the difficult life situations we'll come across as pastors.

This is one of my first tastes of what is to come. I quickly begin to see that life is indeed messy...although I'll grow tired of that particular phrase over three years.

I learn about the importance of hearing others' stories.

Later, with a group of friends, I'll hear a lot of complaints about this professor's stream-of-consciousness lecture style. I'm never aware that it's a problem.


Ken Medema has just led a chapel service.
He's blind, yet quite an accomplished piano player and songwriter. He can be over-the-top during his contributions, but his rendition of "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" during communion hits me square in my soul.

After four years of a healthy mix of praise bands and more traditional chapel services, this is my first worship moment at Eden that massages my spirit.

That evening, I gather with a bunch of people I just met a week earlier. They exchange barbs at how cheesy and awful the morning's service was. My soul wilts after being so uplifted.

Remembering how "Lord Listen to Your Children Praying" struck me that day, I share that I thought it was the most amazing service I'd experienced so far.

People acknowledge my comment in silence. This is probably my first instance of wondering what I'm in for by coming to Eden.

Coffeefiancee had told me to call whenever I got back in from this gathering. I call around 2:00 a.m. after drinking a six-pack of Labatt's. This is a story that she'll tell for years afterward.


I have the music channels on a lot during my afternoon reading sessions. MTV2 regularly loops Alicia Keys, Gorillaz, Kenna, Jennifer Lopez dueting with Ja Rule, Staind, Jurassic5, and a handful of others. These become the soundtrack of my first year.


After an A on my first theology paper, I've received two Bs and a C.
I'd come to Eden thinking that I'd have a leg up on some people with my religion degree, and my intentional seeking out of other ministerial experiences in college.

It does prove to be helpful, but I quickly discover my overconfidence within the first few weeks. I shrivel from in-class discussions for fear of sounding stupid. I try to overcompensate in future theology papers; I think too much while writing them; I try too hard to please the professor. I keep getting Bs.

All of this together causes me to re-consider what I thought I was so sure of in college. There, I was the clear-cut pastor-type with the go-to theological and Biblical knowledge.

Maybe I was a big fish in a small pond, or maybe I just didn't know as much as I think I did. I want to believe the latter.

I don't know how to deal with the fact that I'm not sure what the professor wants. Much later, I figure out that he--and every professor, really--wants us to figure out and express our own theology instead of repeating cold facts back to him as I learned to do in my undergrad Religion program.
When I finally figure out how to do this, I wish I could take his class over again.

I visit a good college friend in DeKalb, Illinois. As we watch a movie, he points out my expanding waistline.

I've taken to eating McDonald's some 3-5 times a week, and have been catching up on all the drinking I "wasn't allowed" to do under the watchful eye of my evangelical friends at Heidelberg.

Along with my late-night candlelight sessions, these are my ways of coping with a large city, the fact that I don't yet really know much of anything about ministry or theology, and the difference in social cultures.

As best as I can tell, I've gone from a more raucous band of irreverent and crude fraternity brothers and delightfully dorky housemates and friends to a group of more cool, culturally-seasoned, cynical hipsters.

They've been through more than me, or so I think. I marvel at the pieces of their stories that I'm privileged to hear, and wonder how I'm able to keep up.

I don't tell my own story--pastor's family run over by a handful of churchpeople, mainly--until my third year. I actually don't venture much of anything, because I'm

1. Reeling at my surroundings,

2. Waiting for someone to ask (I eventually learn that maybe I should venture information myself every once in a while),

3. Grumpy at how little I really know.

But mainly #2.

I eat fast food and I drink, and I sit up in the middle of the night dealing with all of this.

I eventually learn that over the course of 2 1/2 years at Eden, I've gained 35 pounds.


I arrive on Heidelberg's campus. It's mid-fall, and I feel a sense of relief pulling onto Greenfield Street.
I feel it again in late January. I feel it again in the spring.

I'm here to visit Coffeefiancee. I catch up with friends still on campus. I attend a fraternity party at their new house at one point.

The Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" is played, and it strikes me as some sort of sign-of-the-times moment - a reminder that I'm just visiting and that I'll soon need to head back to St. Louis.

Near the end of every visit, I utter the words, "I don't want to go back."


I learn a lot about the city of St. Louis: hotspots such as University City, Ted Drewe's, Tangerine, Kaldi's, Coffee Kartel, Growler's, Blueberry Hill.

I'm treated to a concert by local artist Robynn Ragland by a new friend from Chicago. She later takes me to a Mike Doughty solo show at Blueberry Hill for my birthday.

A big group of us heads to Ted Drewe's the afternoon of 9/11 because we don't know what else to do.

The martinis at Tangerine kick me in the face. In a good way.

I do recognize that I'm slowly settling in and becoming accustomed to the city. It's growing on me, even if I still associate it with my own inadequacy for a while.

The end of my first year finally comes.

I've begun to learn about how much bigger the world is.

I've begun to learn about the incredible limits of my own knowledge.

The seeds have been planted for me to think for myself; to assert my own opinions and my own story. My new group of friends express their desire to see me do just that.

I end my first year, my entire world turned upside-down and wondering where I'm headed. It all seems so up in the air, even if a few things are beginning to take root.

By my first summer, I'm not in such a hurry to leave St. Louis. I become comfortable in my shoebox apartment. I ever-so-slowly become comfortable with the rhythm and culture of my surroundings.

I've gone through a lot of growing pains. I'm in for much more.

A year and a half later, CPE helps me put all of this into proper perspective.

I finally tell my story.
I finally learn how to assert, react, express, discern. Or at least, I'm more conscious of how to do these things.

I come of age as a human being at age 24.
It had to happen sooner or later.

After all of this, I finally begin to work on losing some weight.