The first seminary I applied to rejected me. I really wanted to go to that school. It was a top school in the US for the training of pastors. I had made the traumatic decision to leave a career in dentistry to pursue a church-related vocation. The next step was to get proper seminary training. After much deliberation — and everyone was an expert on where I should receive my theological training — I had picked this school.
Therefore I was crushed when the school said “no.” They had seen my transcript from the University of Singapore and were not convinced that I could hack it academically. Admittedly my dental school grades were not that great but their grading system was very different from the one used by the typical American liberal arts college. The transcript looked worse than it was. The seminary helpfully suggested that I should do one semester in an American college and if my grades were ok, to try again. I didn’t have the time or the money.
The second school I applied to was Regent College, Vancouver. I found out later that they too were concerned that my academics weren’t strong enough. Miraculously the Lord opened the way for me to go to Regent. I had an “A” average in my first term and the question of my academic suitability for graduate theological training never arose again.
The four years I spent in Regent changed my life. The nurturing I received there gave me the essential preparation I needed for my ministry, and for a life that was to prove much more demanding than I could ever have expected. I was meant to go to Regent. Yet at that time it felt like a second best option. It was something I considered only after the deep disappointment of being rejected by my first choice school.
You live long enough and you begin to see the wisdom of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in this reflection about life.
It is quite true what Philosophy says: that Life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying: that it must be lived-forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible, precisely because at no moment can I find complete quiet to take the backward- looking position. (Journal entry, 1843)
There will be those unintelligible moments in life when we are overwhelmed by closed doors and other disappointments. There will be times when, not only are we faced with major set backs, we have no clue as to why we have been allowed to go through the wringer. We are called to proceed in faith till such time when the meaning of our pain will be made clear. Often, that moment of clarity may come only after we leave this “temporal existence” but sometimes God allows us a glimpse of meaning this side of heaven.
Long before Kierkegaard, Joseph had learnt this principle (Genesis Chs. 37-50). Joseph was daddy’s favourite but jealous brothers almost murdered him. He was sold into slavery. His life was a roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. But later in his life, with the fate of his brothers in his hands, he has this to say:
His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said. But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:18-21 TNIV)
He finally understood the hard and confusing nature of his life. It was a long and convoluted journey that was to end with him becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt. Second only to Pharaoh, it was a position from which he could give life to his family and to many others. But Joseph would have had no clue that this was the intended destination of his pilgrimage when he was going through the many disappointments of his life. Intelligibility came only with retrospection.
During Holy Week we remember what must have been the greatest disappointment of all. For a long time God’s people had been wondering whether the Messiah would actually show up. He finally did only to be captured, tortured and killed by his enemies. Talk about your big time anti-climaxes.
We meet two disappointed disciples on the Emmaus road, their faith crushed (Luke 24:13-35). It is Jesus Himself who goes to them, reviewing both Word and history with the two disciples till they reached “ah-ha.” Again it is from the perspective of retrospect that it all made sense. But the two disciples had to go through the trauma of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It was only after the Resurrection that they understood how it all fitted together and what it all meant.
Some of us may be at a place in our life where nothing or little makes sense. This Good Friday we are invited to once again, view the disappointments and confusion of our lives through the twin lenses of Good Friday and Easter. We want to remember that often, events may not make sense at the time of their unfolding, but that they will make sense one day, as we look back with God.
One day we will understand the divine logic behind our lives and the events of history. Confident of this we choose to press on. Like Paul, we may be “perplexed, but not in despair…” (2 Corinthians 4:8bTNIV) We press on through the Good Fridays and the Holy Saturdays of our lives knowing that Easter awaits.