Yesterday was my commencement ceremony from seminary. But, my seat stood vacant as circumstance kept me from attending my graduation from Meadville Lombard Theological School and receiving my Master’s of Divinity degree. Months ago, I made the decision to skip this milestone event based on predominately financial reasons. As the date drew closer, health issues had also intervened to make participation troublesome. But, I will admit that much of my decision derived from indifference of attending yet another similar celebration after a lifetime of educational efforts. I had convinced myself not to care about my absence.
Then I received a message from one of my dearest friends – a fellow seminarian whose life path has paralleled mine many times over the years in spite of physical distance separating us. She mentioned my empty seat next to hers and all I felt was sadness for missing a special and unique opportunity and sharing a moment with this loving colleague. I was reminded of a time perhaps 10 years ago. It was midweek preceding a youth conference I was attending as a sponsor, chaplain, and van driver. I learned that my favorite uncle had died and that the funeral was being held that weekend – in a distant city. I did not have the money for the trip, but what really prevented me from going anyway was my desire to fulfill my obligation to our youth and to be with them at the con.
You see, my uncle was a lay Baptist minister who served a small congregation for many years. I knew as truly as one can know in my heart that he would rather I spend that time ministering with my youth than flying to spend time with unknown cousins and other distant relatives. As it turned out, the con was an amazing experience and I felt the vibrant presence of my uncle with me during that Saturday night worship service.
Similarly, yesterday I preached at a neighboring fellowship on one of my topics of evangelical calling – atheism. I find that when I preach on the subject that many listeners, who otherwise find little of themselves in our spoken and sung religious messages, finally feel that a clergy person is speaking directly to them and inviting them into the fold of community. It was a joyous opportunity for me, as it always is, to experience that frontier of potential for ecstasy and transformation.
I suppose that that is when you know that you are truly living life. When you have so many opportunities to serve and to celebrate, to experience and explore, that you cannot achieve them all, then you know that you are not just existing. I wish I could have filled that empty seat, that seat of momentary sadness in my life. I would have loved to be with my colleagues celebrating the sacrifice and hard work of completing our seminary training. But, I overflow with the sensation that my choice afforded me yet one more opportunity to do the work of ministry – to inspire and inform, to encourage and empower, to be with other people in all their vulnerability and courage in an atmosphere of worship.
Maybe someday, I’ll find a way to physically occupy that seat of sadness and satisfaction. For now, only my spirit sits as my body continues walking.