My second year of seminary was a pivotal year for Leigh Ann and me.
I had a year of classes under my belt and was settling into the church well. She was teaching at a nearby elementary school. Also, kind of a big deal, that fall she got pregnant. Like all first time parents, I imagine, we were nervous and excited and clueless. We told everyone and started the prescribed schedule of doctor’s visits.
Then we miscarried. And all the proverbial shit hit the fan.
There was the initial trauma. Did we do something wrong? Are we healthy? What’s a D&C? Then the relived trauma every time someone asked how the pregnancy is going. We didn’t know to wait until the second trimester to share our news.
Most important were the excruciatingly honest conversations that followed. In the adrenaline high that followed my burning bush moment I forgot Leigh Ann’s fear in undergrad that I might quit engineering for ministry. I didn’t see the unfair position I put her in by theologizing my career path. While using words like “calling” totally substantiated my decisions, it placed on her impossible ones. I didn’t see that my narrative made her, if she disagreed, an adversary to God.
The miscarriage brought that out.
One of the classes I had that fall was a youth ministry class with Helen Musick. If you did any youth ministry in the 90’s you’ve probably heard of her. She and Laurie Polich were the queens. I had a lot of friends in that class. Youth pastors were the cool kids at seminary. But we were all fatigued. It seemed everyone had a story like mine. We were exhausted, burned out, questioning our calls to ministry… similar to what a lot of pastors are going through right now.
Many days Helen would scrap the lesson in favor of talking about easy yokes and light burdens. What kind of load does Jesus really intend for us to carry? And which ones should we put down?
The day of the midterm I was completely unprepared. I hadn’t studied. It was all I could do to show up. Helen passed out the exams face down and asked us not to turn them over until they were all distributed. When I did, I found every question had already been answered. There was a 100% marked at the top and like three pages of scripture quotes stapled to the back. We spent the next hour crying and talking about grace.
It was the most transformative hour of my seminary career.
Of course everyone didn’t like it. Not even all of my classmates. It was a terribly un-academic thing to do. And in those days Asbury was fighting a reputation of insufficient academic rigor. They were in the process of requiring all professors to have their PhD and Helen was among the last of the old guard.
Requiring PhD’s is probably a good idea for a graduate school. But it was sad that, despite having written dozens of books and being on Youth Specialties core leadership team alongside legends like Mike Yaconelli and Duffy Robbins, that year would be Helen’s last in academia.
The irony isn’t lost on me that she was giving grace without receiving it. Maybe that’s why she did it. Maybe she was also wrestling with a hard yoke and heavy burden. If so she never showed it.
Grace has always been a thorn in the side of established religion: always inviting the wrong people to the table, punching holes in our doctrinal divides, giving 100’s to undeserving students, and, at least in my case, giving hope to an absolutely burned out knucklehead trying to salvage a marriage and calling.
I still have that exam as a reminder to twist that thorn.