The Christmas break after my first semester of seminary brought Olivia and I back to my old stomping grounds, swept up in a strong northward breeze and carried upon it back to my home state of Massachusetts. It blew me into the doors of the church that I had spent in which I spent most of my youth. Much about the place had changed. So had I. The space had a new layer of paint here, a remodeling there, but for the most part, the space had remained familiar.
After the service, I caught up with a few old friends. One person with whom I looked forward to connecting was a man who many in the church have taken to calling Jeep. He stood near the Welcome Center, his head of light gray hair just barely bobbing over most of the crowd that spilled out into the narthex.
After grabbing my coat, I turned to see him a few feet away. I waved him over and introduced Olivia to him before I began asking him about how life had been.
A few minutes later, he paused and asked, “So, how’s seminary been?”
Jeep, from what I can recall, was well-acquainted with the seminary life himself, going to a well-known seminary north of Boston back when I was still in high school. I began rattling off a couple of subjects that I had taken and puffed my chest out when I told him what my grades were.
Olivia rolled her eyes. Jeep laughed before holding up a hand and looking at me with a serious expression on his face.
“Honestly, Tim,” he replied, “I really don’t care what grades you got or what subjects you studied. I trust that you’ll do alright in that department. What I’m concerned with is how you’ve learned to love people more like Christ.”
That memory has stuck with me over the last year. As I find myself out in Kentucky, working for a wonderful church as its pastoral intern, Jeep’s voice just sits there in the back of my head, gently chiding me for focusing on quantifiable results that are summed up in a letter grade instead of listening to God’s voice to see where God is working on me and through me.
This has especially been the case during regular check-ins with my seminary on how I’m doing. There’s a presentation at the end of the summer that I’m supposed to be preparing for, based on our learning objectives and theological questions. That’s all well and good, but it’s been hard to change from an academic mindset to one out in the field. Every time I hear how one of my friends is working on the border advocating for the rights of immigrants and those seeking asylum, or another who is working in hospice care, I sometimes look at my own situation and wonder what quantifiable thing I can bring to the table at the “judgment day” come this August.
Not because there’s nothing to do, but on the contrary, there are so many things going on in the running of the life of the church each week. I find they’ve all been essential and formative.
This past week, for example, I had the privilege to visit two families who had children. I had so many conversations with wonderful people. I have sat with students and processed pain with them. I’ve taught Sunday School and youth group a couple times and watched as something clicked in the minds of one or two of my students. I have broken bread with children. I’ve helped teach a family how to use a washing machine and a dryer. I’ve been covered in grime from diving in a dumpster to fish out an iPad a student threw out.
Perhaps this is what Rilke meant when he advised a young man to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”
My theological questions may not have a direct answer in a way I’m used to finding in order to get a grade. Instead, it might require getting down, into a dumpster from time to time, to find it. A flash of it might happen sitting by someone who is home-bound as we stop by to visit.
I think I heard a glimpse of it in a sermon my supervisor delivered when she observed that it’s not mountaintops or valleys or extraordinary experiences that offer the most formation in us, but the long, slow plod of the everyday -the bread and wine moments, the every day staples, the small somethings in life- which does through the habits we allow to form along the way.
I’m not used to living out uncertainties outside of the letter grade and the textbook, but I think I’m starting to adapt, trying to listen even amid the ordinary tasks of the week. Rilke concludes likewise, stating, “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I’ve discovered my time in Kentucky to be good work. Certainly, strange at times, but worth it at the end of the day.
I can’t wait to tell Jeep.
 To this day, I’m still not sure how people got from John to Jeep, but I’m content letting that mystery remain unsolved.