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Midlife Seminary

June 21, 2013

As noted in the column on the right side of this blog, my personal mission statement begins “I will use the talents God has given me to learn things of importance and value.” In October 2012, I began an open-ended sabbatical after more than 30 years of consulting for healthcare and human services clients. As chronicled in my parallel blog Midlife Sabbatical, this time has afforded me the opportunity to reflect at length about what “of importance and value” I most need to learn at this stage in my life. Out of this reflection, I have decided to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree at the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker school in Richmond, IN. I will kick things off in August with a two-week on-site intensive, and then begin remote classes in the fall. Balancing remote learning with on-site intensives, I should finish the degree in 4-5 years.

I have always delighted in maintaining a diverse mix of friends, so reactions from those with whom I have shared this decision have ranged from “Makes perfect sense!” to “Dude – WTF?!” Up to now, I have used the term “seminary” selectively, as it is, for many, a hot-button word conjuring up images of monks (shaved heads, burlap robes) or earnest young white men (khakis, plaid shirts, perfect hair) who seclude themselves for years, only to emerge with irrepressible zeal to convert the heathen. Despite this connotation, I have come to like and own the word “seminary,” as its historical usage derives from the Latin seminarium, generally translated as “seed-bed,” and my goal is to plant a lot of seeds and see what flowers.

Still, why this program? At the simplest level, the courses focus on topics that have interested me for years, and studying them in a structured setting is something I feel like treating myself to right now. More practically, during my sabbatical I have been pondering several options for “what comes next” including: consulting with or working for non-profits; re-immersing myself in youth mentoring, perhaps in conjunction with a school serving disadvantaged families; dedicating myself to spiritual writing and speaking; expanding my role as spiritual mentor to those seeking a more authentic faith; and providing comfort to those in hospice and to their families. I have had enough life experience with each of these to sense that I may have some talents and leadings worth exploring, but my skills are largely self-taught or instinctive. The Earlham program has coursework that will bring more substance to my skill base in each of these areas, and should help me in discerning which among these I may be most strongly called to, or in what priority I should seek to pursue them.

But the fundamental answer to “Why seminary?” is personal transformation – mine. With each passing year, I feel drawn ever more deeply into awareness and appreciation of a Reality – call it God if you like, don’t if you don’t – that includes but transcends what my intellect can comprehend or articulate, yet impacts my thoughts and behaviors all the same. Like many others before me, I want to take time out to contemplate this Reality, to pay attention to the places where my powers of reasoning fail to make sense of my experiences, to study the works of others throughout the ages who have done the same, and to see what advances I can make in my own understanding of this Reality.

At the same time, I have also become increasingly attuned to the extent to which others around me desperately want to have conversations that are grounded in this Reality, finding themselves satisfied neither with the limitations of rational thought nor with the shallow platitudes or magical thinking of much of what passes for religion today. I want to develop my skills and abilities to have authentic, Reality-based conversations with people holding a wide range of beliefs – not for purposes of bringing them over to my point on the spectrum, but for the pure and sacred joy of having deeply meaningful connections with other human beings.

Finally, I hope to draw out of all this a deeper sense not just of who I am but who I am created to be, and from that place to discern what I am called to do with the years I have left. It is my blessing to be at a place in life where I have the luxury of options to choose from, but I find the powers of reason alone ill-equipped to address “What should I do?” As I contemplate the options I listed above (and others that may yet come on to the list), I want to draw on a deeper sense of purpose to guide my decisions.

So, yes, not just grad school, but seminary – and with enthusiasm for the distinction! I go seeking personal transformation, but then again I have always done that, so the direction isn’t new, just the intensity of focus. Still, before hitting “Send” on my application, I had a heart-to-heart with Diane and promised that I wouldn’t “go off and become some crazy pastor.” While she made this comment in jest, there was underlying substance to her concern, and I get that. But our experience of almost forty years of relationship has been that each transformational change that one of us makes has only led to more growth for our relationship, and I expect the same will be true again. The person who comes out of this “midlife seminary” will still be authentically me … only hopefully even more so!

I have decided to launch this second blog, Midlife Seminary, to explore more explicitly spiritual and religious topics that arise along this journey. Midlife Sabbatical will continue to cover topics with a broader, more secular focus. I welcome your company on the journey …

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