Letter to ABSW Students at the end of the Semester
by President Jim Brenneman
Dear ABSW Students,
Greetings to you, my beloved students and soon-to-be graduates.
You are at that peculiar time of the semester when the 2P’s of life are in mortal combat: Procrastination and Perseverance. For some of you, the outcome of this battle means the difference between graduating on time or not! The stakes are high.
I would encourage you to listen to the TEDTalk by Tim Urban in which he takes you inside the mind of a super procrastinator. I, for one, am writing to say to you, “You can do this!” Likewise, the Apostle Paul gives words of encouragement in his letter to the Romans (12:9-13): “to hold fast, be ardent, be patient, and persevere!” Or, as President Roosevelt once said at the height of WWII, “Tie a knot to the end of the rope and hold on.” Whatever you do: Hold on! Don’t quit!
The emerging churches in Rome felt beleaguered, under siege, persecuted externally, and fighting each other internally. It was a “perfect storm” of immense pressure from all sides that threatened the very survival of the church and its mission. Think COVID-19 pressures on steroids! Fires had destroyed three-fourths of Rome. From his resolute desk, the Emperor Nero scapegoated Christians who preached about and worshipped a god other than the emperor himself. He accused them of being rapists, gang-members, murderers, refugees, pagans, even cannibals, unworthy of Roman citizenship even though many were. He made verbal and literal blood sport of them, gave them nicknames, rounded them up in detention centers and threw them in with wild beasts in the Roman Coliseum. They were mocked by the crowds, goaded on by the emperor himself. Hmmmm!
Inside the five house churches of Rome, in apartments and tenement buildings, a mix of men and women gathered together. These were believers from different ethnic groups, some refugees, some former slaves, some wealthy, and others homeless. Still others were immigrants of one kind or another, some undocumented laborers, many poor and underprivileged, dockworkers, tradesmen, tanners, porters, and craft-workers. They, too, cried out like the Psalmist before them, “How long, O, Lord? How long?” The Apostle Paul tries in his letter to them to encourage them to hang in there, to stay unified as a church, to persevere no matter what.
COVID-19 is a different kind of siege on us in our cities, country, and world. It too ravages from without and from within. It is the preeminent threat and roadblock these days to reaching our goals. Even with the extra-mile help and blessing of faculty and the Dean, even with the extension of deadlines due to the disruption COVID-19, you may be tempted to quit just as we get to the finish line. Don’t!
What with all the self-help books on bookstore shelves and blog posts telling us to “hang in there,” the alternative voices like those of writer Evan Harris tempt us to quit. Indeed, his book is entitled, The Art of Quitting,” offering fifteen techniques on how to be a great quitter. To name a few: make a scene, change horses midstream, quit bit by bit, fail and disappear, sulk, burn-your-bridges, (add here, COVID-19), or just plain give up. He quotes W.C. Fields to make his point: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a d— fool about it.”
There is the very real temptation in the era of COVID-19 to consider your theological education less weighty to the more pressing needs of the community around you, especially those more vulnerable, poorer, sicker, oppressed, homeless, and less privileged than you. You are not alone living with this tension. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recalls that in the midst of the most virulent times of oppression of his people, he was tempted to call off his education for the more immediate call of those in need around him. He did not! He persevered! Had he not, it is likely he would not have been rightly prepared for the grand call of God to lead his people to “the promised land.” The parallels with Moses, studying under the finest education system of Egypt, cannot be underestimated, nor can the educations of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall or activist Dolores Huerta or “Hidden Figures” NASA-mathematician Katherine Johnson. They all had semesters to finish, goals to reach in the midst of real, even noble, pressures to quit.
So, graduates and students and others listening in—on the cusp of finishing another year, another degree, another semester, another goal—whatever you do, don’t quit now! Keep your eyes on the prize of the high calling to which you have been called (Philippians 3:14)! In the words of the abolitionist Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier:
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit-
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
With abiding affection,
President Jim Brenneman