As much as I have enjoyed school through the years, the first days and weeks of a new term always produce anxiety. Yet, time and again when entering an unfamiliar lecture room, I would sense the other students fears and anticipation alongside my own. The communal classroom brought a realization that we are all in the same boat, experiencing the same emotions, and that commonality helped allay our fear. Joining the MTh program at Union School of Theology during the year of Covid was a completely unique experience. There was no school to walk into because classes were online. The palpable feeling of expectation and timidity of a new year was no longer endured by everyone in a room together. The bond that comes when placed in identical desks, physically lower than the lecturer, was lost. Sitting in vastly different homes, in separate time zones, instead emphasised our inequalities. My true life was literally on display as my husband and children wandered off and on the screen. I became adept at camera angles that hid dirty dishes and unmade beds. Most years in my academic career, I have been able to at least impersonate a serious student, but this year it seemed impossible.
I chose Union because it offered opportunity, especially for women. Union was the first school I found which was confessional and reformed yet proactively seeking to train women theologically. Equipping women in theology is more than a nice thought, idea, or the ticking of a box at Union. Phoebe scholarships, the Priscilla program, and the hiring of Natalie Brand as a dedicated women’s tutor are unmistakable proof that Union takes seriously the call to prepare for service the oft-neglected half of Christ’s bride. This was motivation and support that I did not realize I needed until I felt it for the first time at Union.
Even with this support and encouragement, I was unsure and out of place when I began. The anxiety usually dissipated by relationships built in the classroom and over meals was mired by Zoom. Through the computer screen, other students appeared academically fearless and expectant. It was easy to imagine their world had no Zoom interlopers or unfolded laundry to hide. Would I have anything to add to discussions? Could I keep up? Was I even called to this level of academic study?
In hesitant obedience to God, I resolved to attend class, research, and write in faith; not in a naïve faith that promises only outstanding marks and accolades, but a faith that was committed to trusting God no matter the marks made, or difficulties presented. This faith was, of course, tested in various ways the whole year.
The humility that came from stepping into classes I did not feel I fit into strengthened my faith in Christ. It is funny how weakness and vulnerability given to Christ offer safety and strength in return. I knew before I started that I would not be able to complete this degree without His help, and that was proven all year. It may sound trite or pedantic, but in my case, it was absolutely true. There was not a class, or an essay begun where I was not begging the Lord to help me get through. Any understanding I gained or displayed was unmistakably by His grace. It is a unique gift to know your limitations and then see the Lord cover the gap between your ability and his calling.
Academic study may seem like the opposite of growing in faith, the antithesis of increasing in affection for Christ. How mystical can researching 19th century liberal scholars be? Yet the rigor of class and the challenge of research and essay writing threw me into the arms of Christ. He alone had life for me in the days of frustration, anxiety, and the questioning of my ability to be a student. Jesus provided life for me in many amazing ways at Union – lecturers, tutors, fellow students and much of the research and study itself. But the most powerful and consistent encouragement came through my personal devotional study of the book of Ruth.
Ruth was the Moabitess who recognized the LORD in His people. In the Israelites worship, their relationships, their homes, and culture Ruth found Him. Ruth represents a partial fulfilling of Genesis 12:3 – she is a foreshadowing of us – the Gentiles whose eyes would be miraculously and graciously opened to the beauty of Christ, and his bride the Church. When Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi told Ruth to go back to her own pagan people, she refused. Ruth 1:14 says, “Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her” (emphasis mine). Ruth saw the LORD in Naomi and clung to him. She was “determined” to have a place with the covenant people (v.18).
As Ruth foreshadowed the nations coming to Jesus, the prophet Zechariah did as well when he declared, “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech. 8:23). Jesus Christ is this Jew whose robe the nations have taken hold. The “ten men from every nation” wanted to go with Christ, and they have clung to his robe. Jesus is the one to whom we as believers have clung and must continue to cling! Ruth had no idea she could be a part of the heritage that would bring forth the Messiah when she clung to Naomi. She simply saw Christ in his people and grasped him through Naomi.
In the same way as Naomi and the ten men from every nation, we also must cling to Jesus. When our eyes are opened by God in conversion, we behold the irresistible beauty of Christ, and we cannot help but grasp him. Continuing to cling to Christ daily also requires his grace and mercy. He gives us this grace through daily study of the word, meditation on our union with him, fellowship with other believers, receiving the sacraments, and prayer. It takes a daily trusting of his grace to live each day for him and find life only in Him and in his Word. Simon Peter echoes Ruth as he answers Jesus’ question saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). As Jesus alone has the words of eternal life, he also is the only one who can give us peace for anxiety, encouragement for fear, hope for uncertainty, and grace for difficulty.
Especially in seminary, we must cling to his promises to equip us for the ministry to which he has called us. He will not call without also equipping, yet knowing that promise and believing it can sometimes be disconnected. Believing he is committed to equipping us for ministry means trusting him that everything that happens is for our good, our growth, and the expansion of our knowledge of him. We must take to heart what Elizabeth proclaimed over Mary in Luke, “Blessed is she who has believed that the LORD will fulfil his promises to her!” (1:45).
Believing God’s promises for future ministry creates a fissure in self-reliance and self-sufficiency. As the light and life of Christ shines through that fissure in our stony hearts, there is hope that he will use us, he will equip us, and he will allow us to partner with him in building his kingdom. We have seen him, we will cling to him, and we will experience the blessing of believing his promises to us.