Well readers, I have officially completed my first year of seminary school, and I would say it was a success, not only in terms of my grades and the accessibility of the online courses, but also in terms of my personal growth. I wouldn’t call myself qualified to be a pastor as I don’t have all the answers, although even pastors with a full-fledged mDiv (masters in divinity), and a lifetime of experience don’t have all the answers. If they say they do, they are being arrogant and you probably shouldn’t trust them. My professors didn’t say those words exactly, but it was implied in many a discussion forum throughout the year, and actually in many church sermons by senior pastors at my church long before that. I anticipate completing the 24 credits required for the Certificate in Christian Studies next year at this time, but even with just 12 credits of seminary coursework in the books, I feel so much more equipped to write about, and engage in discussions on, the Bible and theological issues. I look forward to sharing some of the insight I have gained with you in the coming months. But first, I should catch everyone up with a general overview of the year.
My original plan was to be a full-time student like I was as an undergraduate student, which would have enabled me to be holding the Certificate in Christian Studies right now. But since I didn’t bite the bullet and start the application until June, and because it took longer than I expected to get all of the application materials in, I wasn’t officially accepted until about two weeks before the beginning of the semester. By that time, most of the online course offerings were full, and it also occurred to me that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take it slow first semester and start with six credits, given that I had been away from serious academia for eight years. Also, because it was a new school, I realized it might be a good idea to take it slow to allow time to work out accessibility challenges. To my delight, I quickly found the online platform the school uses to be completely accessible, and the Disability Services department very responsive, although I didn’t have to utilize the Disability Services department nearly as much as I did during my time at Carroll University. This was because to my delight, all of the required textbooks were available on Bookshare, a service I have utilized since high school that allows people who are blind or dyslexic to download digital books. This was rarely the case during my time at Carroll University, so every semester, I would have to buy the print books and drop them off at the Disability Services office to be scanned one page at a time and e-mailed to me. To ensure that my books were ready in time for the start of each semester, my parents and I would go to Carroll’s bookstore to buy Fall semester’s books in June, and I think that after final exams in December, Dad and I went to the bookstore to simultaneously sell back the books I no longer needed, and buy the Spring semester books. Given the dramatically increased availability of digital books, and technological innovations in recent years I was certain that if I could not find the books on Bookshare, I could find them on Google Books, Apple Books or Amazon Kindle. But Bookshare is still in my opinion the most accessible and easy to use source for digital books, so I was thrilled to be able to find all of the required textbooks there. There were a few readings in addition to the textbooks, but since the courses were online, these handouts were already in electronic format, allowing me to download and read them as seamlessly as anyone else. Second semester, there were a couple articles that were scanned images, and I don’t know if the scan quality was poor, or if they were written in a fancy font, but my braille computer did not correctly recognize the letters, for example, interpreting I’s as T’s or L’s. If I had to, I could have read these articles slowly and painstakingly figured out what each word was supposed to be using the words that were correct for context, or as I did on a few occasions at Carroll, I could have sent them to Disability Services to figure out and correct for me. But I always felt guilty burdening the very friendly but always busy Disability Services coordinator with such tedium, and given that with Bookshare, I was blessed to be able to download all the main textbooks for free–one of the perks of being blind–I felt justified to splurge and go to the publisher’s websites and buy the books these articles came from. The clean, frustration-free read was worth every penny!
Another major hassle I remember well from my undergraduate days that I was able to avoid with these online courses was scheduling an appointment with Disability Services every time there was a quiz or test, and reminding the professor to send the quiz or test to Disability Services. This was necessary because as a blind person, I needed to take my test on a computer, and I was allowed extra time for tests since it takes longer to navigate and read things on a computer than it takes for sighted people to read a print test. But with online courses, everyone takes the test on a computer from the comfort of home whenever it is convenient for them, as long as it is completed by the close of the week for which it was assigned. The only accommodation I asked for, and which was quickly approved by Disability Services, was extra time for these tests. As I am sure is the case with all institutions that offer online courses, Trinity had to rely on the honor system when it came to test integrity, but to safeguard against cheating, the online tests had a tight time limit. I felt guilty asking for extra time as I understood the reason for such strict time limits, but the idea of trying to read and answer 20 questions in 10 minutes sent me into a bit of a panic. First semester when I introduced myself to my professors, I offered to schedule a time to take the tests at Eastbrook Church, a local church that is an extension site of Trinity, or at my home church under the supervision of one of the pastors. They both appreciated that I had thought about this, but said they trusted me. For most tests, I did not end up needing extra time, but having it was a huge stress reliever for a couple tests with multi-component questions, and on one of my final exams when the WiFi went out, my parents had to re-set the modem, and I had to re-answer 10 questions. I assure you that I did not cheat, and my test scores sometimes showed it. (Cheating is wrong in any type of school, but the guilt would have been especially overwhelming given that I chose seminary school.) As an undergraduate, I took pride in the fact that I rarely felt the need to spend serious time studying for tests because I had an excellent memory. I could ace tests with just a quick read-through of my notes in the car on the way to the test. I don’t know if it is because as an undergraduate listening to lectures in-person, I actually had to take notes which re-enforced concepts and forced me to be more attentive than just listening to video lectures and reading the lecture outline, or if my brain has gotten rusty with age and/or time away from academia, but I definitely scored better on tests as an undergrad. Fortunately the majority of my grade for these courses was discussion and written assignments so overall, I still did really well. And to my delight, none of the courses I had second semester had quizzes or tests!
So while I really didn’t need a lighter course load to allow time for accessibility issues, I am so glad I made this decision to take it slow given my time away from academia. I remember when I resurrected this blog in 2018 after five years of inactivity, during which time I started my job at the Social Security disability law firm. I laugh when I look back at those first couple sentences, because they were such short, simple sentences a fifth grader could have written. It was as if my brain had literally atrophied, and I had to get used to writing again. I had a similar experience first semester of seminary school. After eight years of reading mostly blog posts, magazine articles, lists of medical conditions and medications for clients at work, and a few books for pleasure, the first couple weeks of academic reading last Fall were a shock to my brain. Such big words! Such long, complex sentences! I had to read the same sentence over and over at first. I also still struggle with migraines, and while they are nowhere near as severe as they were in 2012 before I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, they are still enough of a nuisance that I realized it was a wise decision not to over-extend myself. By not over-extending myself, I also got more out of the educational experience. I did very well as an undergraduate taking a full course-load, even graduated magna cum laude. But there simply were not enough hours in the day for me to complete all the required reading, even on days when I managed to avoid severe migraines. So the beginning of each semester involved determining which courses would burn me if I didn’t do all the reading, so I could prioritize those courses. For example, one semester, I was in a creative writing class with only five other students. In that intimate of a class size, there was no hiding from the professor, whereas in a class of thirty students, I could usually keep my head down, take really good notes during class discussions, and do very well come test time. But by taking only six credits each semester, I was able to complete almost all of the required reading, and participate more meaningfully in class discussions. As ironic and terrible as it is for a seminary student to admit, I will confess I didn’t always complete the assigned reading from the Bible itself. Given that each semester only allowed fourteen weeks to cover the 27 books of the New Testament, and the 39 books of the Old Testament, most weeks covered multiple books. I started out strong, but soon noticed that I was speed reading and occasionally muttering frustrated prayers–“God, why does this book have to be so long! I have so much to do!”–and it occurred to me that this is not how I should be reading the Bible. So I focused on the textbook readings, and read select chapters pertinent to discussion forums or assignments, promising God I would read the Bible in its entirety over the summer in light of the insights I gained over the past year when I have the time to give this book the reverence it deserves.
While these past fourteen months or so have been very difficult for parents, teachers and students trying to figure out how to conduct school online, I was fortunate in that Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has a well-established online course platform and has been conducting courses online long before the pandemic. So I did not have to struggle with technical challenges, and the professors were well-accustomed to online teaching. I also thanked God regularly that this pandemic didn’t happen until I was an adult. I think my parents thanked God regularly for the timing of the pandemic too.
Mom has been retired for several years now. Dad was allowed to make sales calls entirely from home starting March 19, and he too retired at the end of last September. But not long into lockdown, my parents and I were sitting around the table, and Mom pointed out that life would have been very difficult for us had the pandemic occurred when we were young. During those years, Mom worked as a nurse in a large hospital, and Dad was a truck dispatcher. Both of these jobs of course have been essential during the pandemic, so Mom and Dad both would have been stuck at work, and us kids would have basically been on our own. Only half-jokingly, we talked about how Becky, who was mature beyond her years, would have tried to take charge, but it would have been a disaster as my brothers and I probably would not have been cooperative, especially when it came to online school. By high school, I might have possessed the maturity and self-motivation to tune into Zoom classes and do reasonably well. But while I have heard that technology has evolved since I was in high school, allowing graphs and geometric figures to be reproduced in a tactile digital form for today’s blind students, I imagine that when I was in high school, my classroom aide would have had to come to her office wearing a mask to reproduce these graphs and figures in braille and then drop them off at my house, or my parents would have had to drive to the school and she would bring them out to our car. But then without her physical presence to take my hand and show me how to read them, the figures would have made no sense to me, so I imagine those units would have been a total loss and I would have had to repeat them once it was safe to meet in-person again. But fortunately for us, these nightmare scenarios could stay within the realm of the imagination.
Being an adult when the pandemic happened has been a blessing in so many ways. For one thing, since I have paid my dues with Math, I had the freedom to select graduate school courses that entailed absolutely no math. (One reason I chose Trinity Evangelical Divinity School–not the only reason, don’t worry–is because if your GPA as an undergrad was 3.0 or higher, which mine was, you did not have to take the GRE, which contains, you guessed it, a Math section. Second, the very decision to pursue graduate school was voluntary, and because I was passionate about what I was studying, it was a whole lot easier to stay motivated even on difficult days than it would have been during the compulsory school years.
I am also grateful for the limited number of Zoom meetings I was required to attend. One of my courses first semester had hour-long Zoom meetings almost every week, but students were only required to attend seven of them. (I attended all of them as the professor’s clarification of some material was extremely helpful for this particular course, but just knowing I had some wiggle room if the WiFi failed or I wasn’t feeling well was a huge stress reliever. This past semester, one of my courses required attendance of hour-long Zoom sessions every other week starting Week 3, although the professor was very understanding and offered a written assignment as an alternative for students with an illness or an unavoidable scheduling conflict. (Fortunately, I was able to attend all these meetings, only missing the first five minutes of one meeting when the WiFi connection was lost.) For the other two courses, Zoom meetings were entirely optional. These meetings could be short because their purpose was not to deliver lectures, but to facilitate more meaningful discussion than was possible in written discussion forums. The actual lectures were pre-recorded videos, which I found to be advantageous even over in-person lectures. When I would occasionally zone out or doze off during in-person lectures, I was out of luck, whereas if I zoned out oh realized I had dozed off during a video lecture, I could easily rewind the video. I realize that the reason for the gracious policies regarding Zoom meetings is because many, if not most graduate students also have day jobs and family responsibilities, whereas for children, school is generally their only responsibility, although during the pandemic, I have heard heart-breaking stories of high school students who try to tune in to school on Zoom while making smoothies for customers at Starbucks because their parents lost their jobs and these students are the bread winners for the family. I also realize that children, even high school students, need more guidance from teachers than adults at the graduate school level. But I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for children, especially elementary aged children to have to be on Zoom multiple hours a day, every day for both lectures and discussions. Sure, in-person classes were boring when I was young, but this pandemic has shown that the tedium rises to a whole new level when it cannot be broken up by socializing in the hall between classes, or even with more fun classes that really cannot be replicated online like gym and music. I am not surprised so many children are failing, even dropping off the map, and cannot say it wouldn’t have happened to me if the pandemic happened when I was a child.
The great thing about the Certificate of Christian Studies I am pursuing is that there are no specific course requirements. The purpose of the certificate is for people who already work in ministry to enhance their knowledge so they can minister more effectively, or for people like me to discern whether ministry is right for them, and if so, what type of ministry. Then, if students wish to go further in their education and pursue an official degree like a Masters in Theological Studies, or Masters in Divinity, the credits earned while pursuing the certificate can carry over, allowing completion of the official degree program in less time. So first semester, I enrolled in a course that gave an overview of the New Testament. It would have been more logical to start with the overview of the Old Testament of course, but that course was full by the time I was able to register. But I was really excited about taking this New Testament course because I seriously considered taking it at the undergraduate level as it was offered at Carroll University. But while I had an interest in the Bible, I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to go as far as taking a college course about it. But after graduating, especially after my mom and I switched to a nondenominational church in 2013, I regretted not taking this course, and was thus excited that now I had another chance to take it. This course, as well as the Old Testament overview course I would take this past semester, were not so much Bible study courses, but more like history courses. Since God revealed himself to real people, in real places and shaped real historic events, understanding the political, geographical, cultural and religious contexts during which the Bible was written is essential to properly understanding the Bible today. So the New Testament course started with a brief overview of Old Testament history, culminating with the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the forced exile of the Hebrew people by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Then we studied how rule by the Greek empire influenced the Hebrew people, and led to the formation of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus referred to. But most of the semester was spent studying the Roman empire and how it influenced the ministry of Jesus, Paul and the disciples. The other course I took first semester was a study of the book of Genesis, a book I have always wanted to study comprehensively because as is the case with many Christians, I have always found Genesis fascinating but also confusing.
Although I have enjoyed all of the courses I have taken this year, I would have to say this course was my favorite because of the professor. His Zoom sessions–actually he used Google Meet, but these days, Zoom has become a generic term for any virtual meeting app–were optional. But I always attended, partly to show my appreciation for his dedication, as he simultaneously taught this online course for Trinity while also teaching in-person at a Christian college in Lithuania, which is eight hours ahead. So he would wake up at 4:30am his time to host 9pm sessions with us. But mostly, I attended because this professor had the same teaching style as a favorite Politics professor I had at Carroll. For both of these professors, there were formal tests and course requirements, but these were not the emphasis during class discussions. Instead, discussions felt more like free-flowing, fireside chats where the professor’s passion for the subject was evident. In the case of my professor for the Genesis course, we had fascinating, meandering discussions about how literally we should interpret Genesis, or mysteries like whether in God’s new creation, there will be many languages spoken as there are now, or whether everyone will speak one language as they did before the people tried to build the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11. I have not made any decisions regarding a career after seminary school, but I have tossed around the idea of being a teacher, and when I imagine myself teaching, this is the kind of teacher I would want to be. The official reading for this course centered on how Genesis has parallels to, but is also very distinct from other literature of the ancient Near East.
Second semester, I took the overview of the Old Testament course. The second week of the course when we studied Genesis was largely a review of what I studied in the course devoted to Genesis, although it was interesting because the textbooks in the Genesis course were very liberal in their approach to interpreting Genesis, leaving open the possibility that the creation account could be a myth, given that people of the ancient Near East did not view the world with a scientific mindset as we do today, whereas the chapters on Genesis for the Old Testament course were noticably more conservative. But although the textbook authors took a more conservative position, they presented a fair and balanced analysis of all approaches to interpretation of Genesis. The rest of the course was a deep dive into Israelite history from the time of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) to the return to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile under the Babylonians, which set the stage for the coming of Christ about four hundred years later.
The overview of the New Testament was a three-credit course, but perhaps because the Old Testament is twelve books longer yet still had to fit into the confines of one semester, the Old Testament course was four credits. So for my second course, I was intrigued by a two-credit course called Spiritual Formation for Ministry. But by no means was this course a fluff course: in fact, I would say it was the most meaningful and practical course I have ever taken, and the insight I gained from it will benefit me my whole life. The objective of the course was to get to know yourself, and God better to be more effective in ministry and avoid pitfalls common to ministry like burn-out and moral failure. The process of getting to know ourselves better, which was actually the focus of the second half of the course, was accomplished through assessments exploring our personality type, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and natural talents, the results of which informed class discussion. Some of the assigned reading addressed things you wouldn’t expect in a religion course such as the importance of self-care, and avoiding the temptation to neglect family relationships, especially when your ministry is thriving. But while assessments can be useful, the professor acknowledged they cannot substitute for time spent getting to know God, which was the focus of the first half of the course. Readings for this half of the course centered on the idea of the “means of grace.” In a nutshell, this is the idea that although we as Christians are not under the Law as the people of the Old Testament were, but are saved by grace because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, this grace must be appropriately balanced with effort on our part to truly walk the walk, not just talk the talk of Christianity. The means of grace are disciplines including daily prayer time, meditation on Scripture, fasting, generosity and service. This course also afforded opportunities to practice the discipline of prayer through a day-long spiritual retreat, and by requiring students to keep a daily Scripture meditation and prayer log. Starting week 2 of the course, students were supposed to spend at least 20 minutes of time in prayer, five days a week for a total of 65 days by the end of the semester which was extremely valuable for holding me accountable because as I have mentioned before on this blog, despite experiencing firsthand the benefits of prayer, it is all too easy to forget about God when life is going smoothly. I must confess that while some weeks, I did great with this discipline, even exceeding the requirement and praying all seven days, some weeks, the days would get away from me and I would realize I only prayed one or two days that week. So by the end of the semester, I had only prayed 54 of the 65 days. I must also confess that now that the semester is over and there are no course requirements to hold me somewhat accountable, I haven’t prayed at all. But because we live under grace, I decided not to beat myself up about this, but to balance grace and effort, grace in recognizing that after every semester of school, I need a break from all things school, and effort by committing to prayer, and reading through the entire Bible starting June 1.
In the coming months, I look forward to sharing more of what I learned from each of these courses in this blog. But this is the general overview of what I have been doing this past year. While I recognize that it is important to be respectful of the fact that this has been a year of hardship, even tragedy for many in this country and around the world, it has been a blessing in disguise for me. If not for the pandemic, my life would probably still be humming along working three days a week at the Social Security disability law firm, comfortable in my financial security and work/life balance, but still longing for something more suited to the gifts God has given me, yet afraid to take the risk of leaving a job attained through much sweat and tears to go to seminary school. But the pandemic which made it unsafe for me to return to work was just the kick I needed to respond to God’s nudging and take the risk. Even before the pandemic, I was keenly aware of my uncertain job prospects after seminary school, given declining church membership, and the difficulty breaking into any genre of writing. In the post-pandemic world, my career prospects may be even more uncertain as I have heard many Christian universities have had to close during the pandemic, as they were already facing tight budgets before the pandemic, and the loss of the revenue they usually rely on from in-person courses was the final straw. But even if I have to return to an office job to make ends meet, this seminary education will not have been a waste of time. One particular discussion on the theology of work in the Spiritual Formation class, which I will talk about in more detail later, has given me valuable perspective that will improve my attitude toward work no matter what kind of work I end up returning to. There may be more sweat and tears in store for me: in fact there most likely will be as Jesus said in John 16:33 “in this world, you will have trouble.” But Jesus also says in the same verse, “but take heart, for I have overcome the world” and indeed past firsthand experience has taught me that with patience and trust in God, everything always has a way of working out for good.