Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Grateful Divvie

August turned to September, and a thought popped into my head today: my arrival at Yale Divinity School for my masters degree was thirty years ago, sometime about now but I don‘t recall the exact date. I was a student at YDS in 1979-1982.

I knew I was in trouble the minute I drove up the narrow driveway off Prospect Street and stepped into the brick complex (designed on the order of the University of Virginia). I felt a rush of happiness that felt exactly like falling in love with someone. I knew I was in trouble, because I felt I belonged here but I couldn’t stay forever. This was, after all, only a three year program.

I won’t write here about the friends and acquaintances of the time, although that part of YDS was as important to me as the academic program, a little more so. I’m the kind of person who feels that, however successful a situation might have been by some standards, it was unsuccessful if I didn’t come away from it with positive relationships. YDS was a place of great friendships which have endured over all these years. Now we’re all in our fifties and have been through all kinds of life experiences. Ironically, I arrived at YDS more painfully shy than I felt when starting college, for my college had been a lonely experience.

Not all my YDS courses were worthwhile. An otherwise interesting social ethics class was cut short by the professor’s travels in search of a new job, since he’d not gotten tenure there. Seminars related to parish ministry would’ve been more useful if I’d had more experience; without that, I missed a lot of what I should’ve been learning about the subtleties of church leadership. Plus, those classes tended to be dominated by folk who loved to hear themselves talk. A professor who swore like a sailor taught a preaching course. I remember very little about the class but that.

I loved my classes on the Bible, though, taught by Brevard S. Childs, R. Lansing Hicks, and Luke T. Johnson. I still have several course texts and still build upon the things I learned in those four semesters. I also loved the theological courses taught by former dean Robert Clyde Johnson. He read his lectures, old school, but as we students frantically tried to take notes we felt grateful to be in the presence of such a passionate, probing mind. (Johnson had suffered a very major heart attack in the late 1970s and I was advised to take a class with him as soon as possible. He lived until 2002.)

Two other wonderful professors were Hans Frei and Colin W. Williams. Frei taught in the Religious Studies dept. down the street, but I took his seminar in Schleiermacher and chatted with him about doctoral work. He wrote a kind and supportive letter of recommendation for me later. Williams taught a course in Methodist theology and history. I admit I would’ve rather taken another Barth seminar at that late point in my degree, but Williams’ course was very lively and enjoyable. He, too, wrote me a wonderful letter for my grad school applications. Taoists are correct: life is best approached as a flow. Ten years later I was unexpectedly hired in Kentucky to teach a series of courses in Methodist studies, and that seminary class prepared me well.

For some reason I never thanked Dr. Johnson in later years but I did send appreciative notes to these other profs. Dr. Hicks stopped reading his e-mail as he grew very ill, but his son-in-law found my note--expressing how much his Old Testament class had inspired and taught me over the years--and read it to him just days before he died. Sometimes you’re so glad you took the time to express gratitude to someone.

Unfortunately I never thanked the late B. Davie Napier for his course in the prophets. This was a bad omission on my part, because the course--not really an academically rigorous course but one in which we sat around chatting a lot--was once of the most influential of all. I may have taken it because I needed a few more Bible credits for ordination. The recent death of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement (I’d never heard of her or it) made me think deeply about social justice issues, and Napier’s course intensified my interest. The course also influenced my teaching style, in the way I try to create a comfortable, positive classroom atmosphere in my classes.

I must add my good fortune of rooming next to a Yale School of Music student, who became a great friend and opened to me a nascent love of music.

In parish ministry, I sometimes found that, whenever I told a colleague that I’d gone to Yale Divinity school, I‘d get a weird reaction, implying, Oh, I must not be a people-person if I went to such an academic place. Supposedly-ivory-tower professors have not been put-off by my clergy credentials the way a few fellow pastors have wrinkled noses about my academic degree. Actually, at YDS became truly passionate to help people. It drew me out of my shy shell and gave me three years of honest, caring conversations with people who were posed at the same life-moment: between being called and plunging into some kind of service.

Here is a photo of the campus, which I borrowed from the school's website. Over the years, I never felt a compulsion to revisit YDS. My new wife and I stopped by the campus during our New England vacation in 1985, after classes were out, but that is all. I’ve never returned for a reunion, and during a 2006 New England vacation we had time to swing by New Haven, but I felt no need. The importance of YDS to me is not simply the campus, after all, but the friends, acquaintances, professors and experiences. I’ve served as a class fund-raising agent, however, and now I’ve taken on a new gig as class secretary, so I’ve tried to give back to the school in addition to yearly contributions. I’ve also prayed for students over the years that they might find a special place--if not YDS then a similar place, but hopefully YDS--which will nourish their lives with friendship, important courses, and cherished memories.


  1. I'm a current student at YDS. I know exactly what you felt when arriving here. I felt oddly at home almost immediately. I've left my husband behind in Fort Lauderdale to come here and I travel there for every reading period but this has become my home. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi, Natalie! I had missed your comment here earlier; thanks so much for your note! I hope your studies are going well!