My husband and I moved to San Francisco from Australia just over a year ago. I already feel more at home than I ever would have thought possible, something due in large part to the community at Grace Cathedral. Certain things still remind me, however, that I am in a different place than I was before.
One thing that reminds me of this is the school year. In Australia, the teaching year commences in February and ends in November; by September, teachers like myself are anticipating (with deep if unspoken longing) the end of the year. It has been a shock to my finely-calibrated “teacher’s clock” to be involved in back-to-school activities throughout the past month. What is more, I am returning to “school” this year as a student. I have commenced the longest program of study I have enrolled in since leaving college many moons ago: the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.
This program is already yielding many miracles in my life. I know, however, that even a year ago I wouldn’t have contemplated committing to a four year program of study in anything, let alone one with a theological focus. Throughout my life I have enrolled in and dropped out of more short courses than I care to admit; likewise, I have reengaged and dropped out of my faith many, many times. In many ways, my sudden desire to commence a course in theological education is as strange to me as an academic year that begins in September.
On reflection, I can see that this enrollment in EFM is really a culmination of my year at Grace. Following a path that now seems both as circuitous and predetermined as that of a labyrinth, I found my way into life at Grace through firstly yoga, then volunteering at the sublime Bayview Mission, then bible study classes with Dean Malcolm Young and, finally, formation classes with the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger. It was these classes, in particular, that set me on my current course of study in EFM.
I did not really have a concept of what “formation” was before undertaking study with Mark; it’s only now, looking back, that I see how the classes I took between February and April of this year, “First Light” and “Our Ancient Faith, Our New Life in Christ,” were formational and transformational. It seems fitting these classes were held in the lead-up to Easter. They felt for me like a pilgrimage into the heart of my faith and faith itself: a journey through the texts and landscapes of Christianity; across many centuries and terrains; into holy spaces and Holy Lands; from early times of hope to eras of reform; from Nazareth to Jerusalem; from inception to the foot of the cross.
What perhaps “formed” me more than anything was the love and care with which I was welcomed into these classes. A somewhat jaded religious-dropout, I suspect I presented as a challenging pupil; restless, looking for an excuse to challenge a point, seeking any opportunity to present an opinion to the class whether it was sought or not. Nothing I said, or did, was met with anything other than care, interest and love by Mark Stanger. Every question I raised was answered with humor, erudition and profound, unconditional acceptance. It was through this that I learned what was perhaps the most important lesson of all: there was a place for me, as I was, within a church, and within the Church. There was a place, and a community, for me, where the diminished, but never snuffed out, flame of faith within me might be able to once again grow.
It is remarkable how quickly life can change. I live on the other side of the world; I have made peace with the fact that academic years begin in September; I have undertaken a four-year course of study in a field in which I thought I could never be more than an occasional, distracted participant. Things can change so quickly, and so profoundly, that there is often barely time to reflect, or give thanks, even when so much thankfulness is due. I am grateful, therefore, that in the midst of all the busyness of the new academic year, I can still offer my sincere thanks to Mark Stanger; thanks I give, wholeheartedly, as one of the many, many students who have had their faiths strengthened and lives transformed by his teaching and care.