I’m not a patient person. I hate waiting in lines. I hate being bored. I am one of those people who, when left with a few blank moments in life, pulls out her phone to find the most interesting political or life commentary posted on Facebook. And so I resonate with the desperation of King Saul who, when faced with an unanticipated and prolonged wait for Samuel to appear, took the burden of the priesthood on himself and offered the burnt offering reserved for the prophet to perform (1 Sam 13:5-14). When Samuel arrived shortly thereafter and confronted the king, Saul defended his actions by arguing that the pressure of impending battle had forced him to make the offering, because he knew he had to entreat the favor of the Lord.
To put it more crassly, Saul knew he had to jump through the right hoop in order for his plans to succeed, and he couldn’t wait any longer to get through the hoop and get on with the real work.
How often do we refer to the work of preparing to lead the church as jumping through hoops? Filling out charge conference forms, submitting paperwork for ordination, and finishing the 78-plus credit hours needed for an MDiv — at times these may seem more like bureaucratic nonsense than the work of the Lord. We impatiently complete these steps in order for our end goal of a successful ministry to come to fruition.
Saul, too, was looking ahead to his end goal. He knew what needed to be done, and he was ready to charge into battle. But somewhere along the way he had forgotten that obedience to the Lord is a step-by-step process, and not simply an end goal. So Samuel rightly rebuked Saul because he had not kept the Lord’s command. In his hurry, Saul had forgotten his place — he was the king; Samuel was the prophet and priest. It wasn’t Saul’s role to offer the sacrifice; his role was to lead the people by demonstrating the sacred nature of the offering. It wasn’t to be performed lightly or perfunctorily. The sacrifice was an act of worship, a moment in the midst of mayhem during which all hearts and eyes were focused on the offering to the Lord, remembering the God who saves. Such holy moments give strength for the effort to come because they point to our own humility, our own desperate need for the Creator of the universe to enter into our mess and set things right, to once again bring order out of the chaos.
And so the required ministry steps — which may seem to us like hoops for trained circus animals to jump through in order to receive applause — serve instead to remind us of our sacred task. Charge conference forms requiring lists of new members force us to grapple with our calling to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a). Ordination paperwork reminds us of the journey by which God called us, and it compels us to contemplate our preparation for the path ahead, so that we take seriously our commitment to wash the feet of others (John 13:14). Seminary coursework sharpens our focus, reveals our hidden assumptions, increases our understanding of the story of God, hones our skills, and prepares us to enter fields that are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). These tasks should not be performed lightly or perfunctorily. They are not simply a step that must be taken in order to get on with the real work. These are opportunities to pause in the midst of the mayhem and focus our eyes and hearts on the God who saves.
In seminary, especially, we have the opportunity to drink deeply from the well of our own humility by recognizing our need for further training. The research papers, the projects, the internships, the difficult exams — they each shape us in new ways and bring fresh light, if we have eyes to see. But if we impatiently study for a grade rather than study to learn, we may be guilty of Saul’s sin — forgetting that obedience is a step-by-step process and not an end goal.
God hasn’t called seminary students merely to get a degree, but to submit to a focused time of learning new ideas and sharpening key skills. Obedience to the call to study is thus an act of worship in which students humbly acknowledge their need for the Creator God to further shape, order, and define their lives. This practice of learning is not a temporary activity that is completed when the student walks across the graduation stage, but a lifelong posture of waiting on the Lord before entering any battle.