Hobby? Or Passion?

by on March 6, 2009

As usual, I’m going to to take the rhetorical back door to my topic.

I’ve spent all week moving. I’m moving from a room in the third floor of a Brooklyn Jewish woman’s house to a house in a slightly “rougher” part of Philadelphia with a couple of guys from my church. The place is amazing, neighborhood not that bad, rent cheap, and roommates incredible. As I was moving a load today out of the Jewish lady’s house, I peered over to the house next door. A couple lives there, the husband having gone to Westminster years ago. We would run into each other as I was getting in or out of my car and we talked often about me going on walks with him and his dog to talk about life, marriage, church polity, and seminary. He’s an elder at his church – a local PCA church with a large Westminster contingent – but he’s currently some sort of computer engineer or something like that. He’s awkward, but confidently awkward. He’s funny, but awkwardly funny. He’s always cracking some joke or pun that you didn’t see coming at all. His smile is happy, but his eyes are slightly sad – he wears well that discontinuity between the northern and southern hemispheres of his face. His walk is something between a stroll and a mope. We would always offer to help or spend time with one another, but neither of us let those thoughts stir our affections and in turn inform our wills enough to actually take advantage of those offers.

Thus, now I’m moving out, and we never got to spend any time together apart from our occasional outside-my-car-door rendezvous. I never got to really talk to him or know him deeply. But my old roommate did. Once. He got a beer with this neighbor a while ago and told me some of the conversation. One thing that was said I’ll never forget. It was something that I was reminded of today while loading yet another box of books into my car (what is it with me and books?) and it inspired this ramble/article. This neighbor, upon receiving a question from my old roommate about his time at Westminster, grew quiet. He looked down and set his drink on the table. After a few moments of thoughtful reflection he simply said that following:

“I was a boy pursuing his hobby surrounded by men pursuing their passion.”

Why am I here at seminary? Why are you at seminary? Why are you thinking about going to seminary? Why are you looking at this site or even reading this article? As a hobby? Or your passion? I’m scared sometimes. Terrified, even. I am a very self-aware man who’s been shown that even he can be absolutely blinded by his sin and his motives.

Completely. And utterly. Blind.

I realize that in many of the circles I run in, theological knowledge and rhetorical skill are the “currency” among those people. It’s what is thrown around, flashed, and shown off. It’s what gets you into the exclusive rooms with the VIPs that you can try and manipulate to get them to affirm you in the ways you most deeply desire. Is this metaphor making sense? All poetical devices aside, I’ve realized that there are parts of me – very dark and wicked parts – that are fed by seminary. I’m realizing that I have placed certain men and women on pedestals and then asked myself “okay, what in others do they most esteem? What do they most value? What do they seem to find most attractive in others?” And then I’ll act accordingly. I’m realizing that I’ll say very solid things very eloquently in my small group and some small part of my heart whispers to me, hoping that how “solid” and “rhetorical” I am gets to the senior pastors of my church. I’m realizing I want a wife who would be attracted to me more because I went to seminary. Why does that old man within me still think this?

Because in the end, these desires for human affirmation are merely a reflection of my longing to be accepted by God on my own terms. Some part of me, no matter how small, still thinks God smiles just a little bit bigger because I’m at seminary. Some part of me feels like when the sky rips apart and I descend with my Lord along with a thousand armies of heavenly hosts, watching my bridegroom’s blood-stained robed flapping before me in the wind behind his pure white horse, and I am thereafter allowed to stand before his throne to bear the exposure of judgment, I will be able to lift my trembling hands before him and offer these four years of seminary alongside his blood as my acceptance before Him. Oh, the age old heresy of “Jesus and _______”.

Hobby? Or passion?

But here’s the good news: I really do abuse the opportunities extended to me in seminary. Those things a year ago I dreamt and longed to do that I now can do, I take every opportunity not to do. I do create idols out of other people, a future wife, my education, my knowledge and my self. I do long to wave something in the face of God at the end of time and cry out “I did this! I brought myself here! I played some part in getting me here!

Yes. I am in fact that wicked and idolatrous.

But-

God, being the creator and sustainer of all things and therefore having a rightful claim on my life and what I do with it, has found it to be His pleasure to act. Apart from every sin and idol I have erected in my heart; apart from every M.Div and sermon I get to preach, He has chosen me. He has come! He has accomplished on my behalf all that he finds loving, pleasurable, acceptable, and righteous in His sight. He has poured His own wrath upon Himself that was due me that I might never taste it. He has dressed Himself in the robes of my own shame, and behold: He has dressed me in His very own Righteousness! My full, complete, and living righteousness now sits at the right hand of God, far from my hand lest I touch it and pollute it – attempting to add or take from it. I am now free to follow the leanings of this God’s Spirit now dwelling within me – refining and shaping me to look more like this righteousness. A process that will last the rest of my life; a process that He will employ every external and internal factor to accomplish. A process that will make the desires and leanings of God my greatest passions so I am now free to discard the useless and vain “hobbies” that I only use to esteem myself to others. So now God’s Glory becomes my greatest joy and things that otherwise would be taken advantage of as those mere “hobbies” now find residence in the deepest recesses of my passions.

I don’t want to look back at my time here in seminary with the same perspective as that neighbor. And I don’t think I will. Practically speaking, I am able to look back and see that seminary was never part of my “plan”. Nine months before I began my first class at Westminster, I would have laughed if you suggested seminary was in my future. It wasn’t even on my radar. Nothing external changed. No one suggested it to me. It was God using the preaching of one faithful sinner in Dallas to stir my heart and passions in a way they’d never been stirred before. I had to preach! I had to go to seminary! My heart and the Gospel demanded it. I can’t ignore that. Also, I can tell you that my deepest affection for Christ, obedience to His Word, and love and service for His Bride have all grown in great strides since walking into summer Greek all those months ago.

If you read this article again, you will find I have actually said very little: there was a guy who went to my school; he said so-and-so about it; I’m wicked but through the Gospel what he said doesn’t have to be true for me nor you. That’s it. So why have I proceeded to write my longest article yet on this site with excessively long descriptions, phrasings, introspections, and prose that borders on sentimentality? As a test. You see, this is the hardest type of article to write, because it’s attempting to expose sin in the reader. And I can’t do that. The people that need this article the most are the very ones that will be hardened to it. I can only write as passionately as I possible can (even to excess) in hopes that God’s grace may use it to break up fallow ground.

Was your heart stirred by confession followed by the Gospel? Did your heart resonate with “yes, I am that sinner as well! Yes, I make those idols as well! Oh, how I long to guide others past that point of realizing their sin!” Did the application of the Gospel to exposed sin cause your passions to flare? Then I would venture to suggest seminary may in fact be for you. If not, then I would wonder. If you were absolutely cold to the very real confession of very real sin and the proclamation of the very real Gospel, then maybe you need to wait – or stop. Maybe this thing has just become another passion. Another “club”. Another dead idol that you will worship with one end and burn for warmth at the other. I don’t know. These are just some musings from a weak and broken sinner quite possibly reading the propensities of his wicked heart onto the rest of the seminarian world. Or maybe I’m speaking to something deeper in all of us – a condition of our hearts that seminarians fall into in a very unique way.

Please, for God’s sake, don’t let this “seminary thing” be a hobby. Rather, let it be the all-comsuming passion of your heart and life to serve both Christ and His Bride faithfully and well while resting in the finished work of Christ as the foundation of your approval, affirmation, and security. This isn’t a game. This isn’t trite. We – I – need to stop treating it as such. I hope this article helps someone, somewhere, at sometime. I’m praying for you all.

Grace and peace.

About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.

Comments

My pride almost kept me from writing because I have nothing profound to say.

But this is the best I have–thank you for writing. I needed this.

I read this on the eve of starting my first seminary class–something I’ve longed for for many years.

Your “ramblings” as you call them have caused me to stop and think–is this just another cool thing to do? Or is God moving in a whole new direction? Is it a hobby or a passion? But I guess, then, nothing that we do in the service of our Savior should be a hobby–whether it be a doctor, lawyer, carpenter or pastor–that same passion should spark everyday to bring glory to Him no matter what we are doing or how we are serving.

Thank you for being real, and causing us to stop and think about why we do what we do.

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time with a Gordon-Conwell graduate. He and I love chatting about theology. I suspected that there were deeper personal things that we could have discussed, but we talked about the paper I was working on and some of the problems we see in some of the local churches.

As I talked about it with my wife later in the evening I realized that it was no different than when I talk sports with my stepdad or politics with my dad. It was just two grown-up boys showing off what they know about something and sharing their passions for it.

This realization got my attention. I am guilty of doing the same thing with my classmates. We get very smug about how right we are in our doctrine and effectively pat each other on the back about it. It really smacks of being a club sometimes.

I appreciate this post as it gives me much food for thought.

Paul-

Your ramblings are needed and most importantly, honest, but are not a distinction between a hobby vs. passion. They are the struggle all young men (whoever heads the call to grow up into Godly manhood) from youthful immaturity to staid maturity.

When I was 21 I heard the call of God to go to seminary, but I opted not to go do because I lacked of “3rd person encouragement” (which I now count very high and glad I did not go at that time.) Now at 41, I count myself ready. I am no longer swayed by public opinion or pander for approval. Few people impress me as in my youth. I don’t need nor look for spiritual highs, but rather delight in common obedience, wisdom and spiritual freedom.

Read CH Spurgeon’s, Lectures to my Students, where you can distinguish between the untested, un-honed and unready man vs. the one who is ready to die each day for the rest of his life. The distinction is stark. So, I am grateful for God’s call on my life to serve Him and ever grateful more to do it in His timing – even if it is 20 years later.

Separately, if you are unsure if you are ready for seminary – STOP! WAIT! Make sure you are prepared and have the endorsement of men who know you, who intimately know you! Sadly, too many men are washing out of seminary or later in ministry.

The MDIV degree is not a source of honor outside the Church. Get on Linkedin.com and do a people search for “MDIV” and find the thousands – yes thousand people who earned the MDIV who are NOT in ministry. I personally contacted and questioned several and found a common theme. Many entered seminary in their youth and what they thought life was going to be like did not match the ministerial requirements of self-denial, work without recognition and hardship. In short, they couldn’t hack it because they weren’t prepared. They didn’t wait for God to prepare their personal character.

Now, I commend those who use their MDIV for more effective evangelism in the workplace and for fairer employee and project management, but I dare say this was not most people’s intended goal in earning this degree.

The point should be making clear to anyone seeking the high calling of the pastorate / professional ministry to know thyself very well, to be known by others very well and to be very critical of one’s motivation and the sense of a so-called “calling.” So, if you are young and immature or regard yourself as spiritual “hobbyist,” stay clear of seminary or at least stay clear of bonafide evangelical seminaries.

So be mindful that Satan would delight in supporting a well intentioned young, credentialed man of God, to become washed out from ministry, ever relinquished from his pulpit, relegated to self-fulfillment, enticements and be disillusioned, ineffective and be a walking tarnish on the image of our King.

And with a bit of sarcasm I lastly add, if you are really a hobbyist and intend to stay that way I would encourage you to got to Harvard, Union or Yale ‑ they cater to the avid hobbyist, never delving too deeply into truths that change lives, ever mindful that the post-Christina era of wealth and ecumenicalism, prosperity of any kind is positively well enough.

@Sean–As I sat here reading your comment, I was deeply touched and encouraged. Not by what you said; rather, by the experience and authenticity with which you spoke. I turn 31 tomorrow and I confess I have struggled with being “too old” for seminary. However, in the past 9 months or so, I have seen that being older is to my benefit. Though I knew this all along, I have really learned it as of late as I watch my younger friends tossing and turning and forcing their way through what they believe God has called them to do. I am not saying that they have not been called, I am saying that it would appear that they are going at God’s calling in there own time and not His.

Fortunately, God forced me to wait upon Him before leaving for seminary. I tried seminary once about 5 years ago before I had finished my undergrad only to flunk out of my undergrad (again) and have everything put on hold for three more years. It is amazing the difference one year, let alone three, makes when it comes to maturity and understanding.

Thank you, Sean, for ministering to me through your comment. It helps to hear what you think from the mouth of a complete stranger. God bless.

Terry-

I understand full well your chronological concerns. Unfortunately, to our detriment we think like a single woman in her thirties, grieving over what she believes will be her barren womb; useless, unwanted and disgraced. She compromises, marries in hast or without Godly consent.

Sadly, to many seminarians, their barren womb is their false notions of a yet unrealized platitude of self-actualization. They sacrifice God’s timing, the requirement of self-denial and daily dying which gains them the necessary freedom to effectively do the job in the pastorate.

Too many are bound by conventional wisdom established by protected youth groups, wealth, caring families and entrenched sense of winning and competitiveness. They are tossed asunder when hardship, evil, and loss become their unwanted bedfellow. Quickly loosing its luster, the marriage is dissolved; the bastard child is viewed a burden, and the King is disgraced.

Sean

I really enjoyed these posts and the following comments. I am considering seminary myself, and many of the same thoughts shared on this page have penetrated my thought process.

I’m a 31 year old husband and father of two. Again, not the typical seminarian. To make things even more interesting is that I’m a part owner of a computer service company. Most importantly, though, I’m a learning follower of Jesus Christ.

Discerning “the call” has monopolized my thoughts and prayers for over six months now. I’ve asked God repeatedly to close the door on this possibility if it isn’t His will, only to have him remove some concerns that I had originally thought to be barriers.

My fear lately is that I’ve convinced myself that seminary is right for me. I’m afraid that that this is my plan and not God’s plan. I certainly hope this passion I feel is more than a hobby.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to pray for God to show His path for me. I hope I don’t miss any of the signs!

Jason

Jason –

I was in a similar season of life when I started. If possible, I would suggest that you try taking a class or two to get a taste of what it’s like. Just be sure that you have your wife’s support because seminary will be just as hard on her as it is on you. It may even be harder on her at times, depending on the ages of your children.

@Jason–

Jason, I am a 31 year old seminarian myself. I have three kids and one on the way. I still have at least 3 years of seminary to go before I can be completely finished. All that to say I can completely relate to your situation.

Jason Chamberlain’s advice is sound–be certain that your wife is supportive of your calling to attend seminary. I am continually impressed by the grace my wife gives me while I am in seminary. If your children are old enough, I would talk with them as well. My children are all under the age of 5. For them, school is just “what daddy does.”

I would caution you to not go in with the “rose-tinted” glasses. Seminary will be difficult and will take a toll on your family. I would make certain of your calling and make even more certain that your wife is supportive. If both of those are certain and you want to give it a go, then trust that God will bring you through it all.

As a final help, I would recommend the book we just reviewed here at Going to Seminary titled So You’re Thinking About Going to Seminary by Derek Cooper. It will answer many of your questions as well as questions you don’t even know to ask.

God bless.

Thanks for the responses, guys! I certainly don’t mean to hijack this post, but let me respond.

I should have mentioned that my wife is completely on-board with the seminary idea. We’ve actually looked at this website together a couple times! She’s a bit weirded out by the idea of me being a pastor, but she also embraces it.

I agree that I want to be certain of the calling before I commit to seminary education. Referring to the original post, I want to be sure that this is more than just a hobby for me. It feels like the passion of my life, but it’s difficult to be sure. I’ve been lucky to have the encouragement of several people at my church, including two of the pastors.

I appreciate your feedback, and I’m definitely going to go find a copy of that book you suggested. Please keep up the good work on this website. I’ve been a frequent visitor this year.

Jason

Thank you for your transparency. I nodded and said “yes” to parts of your article and was actually relieved to know that I am not alone in this terrible struggle. I don’t want this to be a “club”! And you know, I’m not even in seminary. I thought about it years ago and here and there until now. I have taken classes at my church, but now, for some reason, I want to go deeper (I “happened” upon this blog today). I don’t even care about a degree…I just want to KNOW and I want others to KNOW Him. I want to be taught well and I want to teach well. And I realize there’s so much I don’t know..but God will reveal all that He desires to me…and I refuse to let this be a mere hobby but my passion.

Thanks again. I will keep myself in check.

Actually, what I had said was, “I was a rich man pursuing a hobby among poor men pursuing God’s call,” but the sense is close enough.

I missed you when you left, Paul. Our schedules didn’t quite coincide, but I had looked for your car or up at your windows many nights, hoping to find a chance to bring you along on a walk for a talk. If you are still in the area, of course, the offer is still open.

ahhhhhhhhhhh…. well… as one of your former neighbors 🙂 i appreciate your post and your thoughts. i am sorry we didn’t get to spend time with you guys, it was a delight to even know there were some seminary guys near by… but although your post was directed elsewhere, i will take it as a little poke in the ribs to make oppportunities for those around me.
be blessed in your new location!!!