Before I begin I should say I had a great time at MHGS. I say this because as hard on it as I am I did enjoy myself, learn a lot, and grow with a group of great people.
A couple of weekends ago Rob Bell visited the seminary and had a good interaction with students there. I watched the exchange online and enjoyed seeing Rob interact with people at MHGS. After he attended the school he wrote this on his webpage:
I had the chance to speak at the Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle. Those folks are so far out ahead. When you start there, you essentially do group therapy for a while, because, as they say, “you can’t take people where you’re not willing to go yourself.” Brilliant. This kind of holistic, flesh and blood, theological education is where it’s at.
Here I think Rob points out very clearly what is billed as the central experience at MHGS, Practicum. For many people at MHGS this type of situation is a well needed breath of fresh air that helps them get perspective on their lives. For many students the Practicum experience is a gateway to professional one on one therapy that continues healing for them but at times can turn into a sort of fetish for the MHGS student.
But I think my biggest problem about what Rob’s quote states is that it signifies an attitude that floats around the school that therapy is the thing that is going to take us to the places where we are not willing to go.
Granted, I am not the typical MHGS student, but practicum never met in that way. Maybe I wasn’t open to it, or it was the wrong time, or I was just too worried about passing. However, practicum served as a good opportunity to try on different modes of listening, and understand issues of transference. But there are those at the school who would echo what Rob is saying here and that therapy is the realm where we will surpass where we will go.
On a biographical note, when I was halfway through MHGS I started volunteering bi-weekly at a ministry for the homeless. It was the place I didn’t want to go but I found myself there none the less. I would sit and talk to people who from week to week couldn’t even remember my name. I soon learned that I had nothing to offer them, but I kept going and through the process people close to me began to notice I was changing as a person. After I graduated I started spending three mornings a week with the folks at this ministry. I would come into the house in the morning put on a pot of coffee, do the dishes, and just sit. Some days I broke up fights, some days I hung out in garden with them, some days I helped them with laundry. I prayed a lot. It was a humbling time, but with little else to offer it was what I did. This was the place of transformation, my holistic, flesh and blood education.
Before I came to MHGS I read a Brian McLaren book (I can’t remember which one) where he laid out that seminary could be a place where people came together and did things like this. I had misinformed myself enough to think this is what Practicum was and failed to ask the right questions before attending. While Practicum and therapy was for many students what Rob says it is I felt lost with the singular option I was expected to fit into.
This is my problem – when I think of flesh and blood, holistic theological education I don’t think of the classroom or the therapy session with other emerging adults, but of the places that Jesus will carry my body that I do want to go. When I hear what Rob describes I just can’t imagine the therapeutic experience aimed at creating a healthy individual who can enter into community changed but something else. I think of places we could not go but for Jesus carrying us there. Sitting in silence (see the bottom of this article by feminist theologian Sarah Coakley), placing our bodies between conflicts, teaching at risk youth coffee skills, joining a black Pentecostal church, going to the godless, working with the homeless, prostitutes, or the mentally disabled. I think the key thing for me is that I am convinced going places where we don’t want to go involves Jesus carrying our bodies there and not just our minds/souls.
I was one of a few students that got votes to address the graduating class and was asked to pray at the ceremony. Being aware that people thought of me as one to address the class I began to ponder what I would have said if I was giving one of the speeches and the only I think I could think of is this section of John that I feels gets to the heart of what I was trying to say during my time at MHGS:
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"