Before the Fall Orientation (BTFO) at Yale Divinity School is a time to consider where we’re going through God’s grace as much as it is to celebrate having arrived.
His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. ~ Matthew 3:12
My aging car sputtered up the steep hill in New Haven to Prospect Street, and I made a U-turn to park on the opposite side of the street. Gathering my things, I crossed the street and was greeted by two of my new classmates. “Welcome to Yale Divinity School, John,” they said warmly as we shook hands. This is what we call “parking lot ministries” where I come from, and it was a great thing to see streetside at the very entrance to the school.
I thanked them, and stood looking at the school rising up the hillside before me, and the classic gates that framed the campus green. I snapped a photo of it, and stepped up the stone steps into a place which, finally, and still, somewhat unbelievably, I was told that I belonged. And I did – by grace alone. All of the people in my life, all of the divine moments of intervention, inspiration, correction, and guidance – not to mention a good dose of student loans and scholarships – had allowed me to take these few simple steps.
The threshing floor: the wheat and the chaff
God’s grace is free, but it comes at a price. Accepting the road that grace offers us has a price also. I was reminded of this by the beautiful grist mill wheels that form the center of stonework at many of the intersections and entryways on the quad of Yale Divnity School (YDS). Grain is poured into the center of wheels such as these, and the grain is ground between the stones to create flour.
In biblical times, these wheels would be found near the threshing floors, where people would beat raw plants to free up their grains for grinding. John the Baptist spoke famously about this when he prophesied the coming of the Messiah, who would separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheels reminded me that while making it into this school was about this separation, it is just the first step – we will be ground into something more useful for God’s purposes here. I suppose that I should take this as a reminder to have both humility and faith as I enter this community.
A gentle place for rigorous studies
Though it was founded as a separate divinity school nearly two hundred years ago, the Sterling Quadrangle campus of YDS was completed in 1932. It is an amazingly beautiful place. Its general shape forms a large “U”, with Marquand Chapel’s classic bell tower at its innermost bend, and with long arms of classrooms and offices sloping down either side to Prospect Street at its front.
Pathways criss-cross the quad, and gentle arches frame covered walkways and side gardens along the many entry doors into the buildings. The place invites a contemplative mood, but also encourages you to move toward your destination, which is often an uphill journey. Is there a theme here? Sure seems like it. It is a gentle place for rigorous studies, a comforting environment in which our minds and our hearts will be reshaped.
Meeting the wheat: Hi, classmates!
As I mounted the hill, taking the criss-crossing paths forward (no direct path up the hill – there’s that theme again), the welcoming coffee tent set up on the grass began to come into view. Dozens of people were there already, and I got in line to get my name tag and T-shirt. There is amazing diversity in this group of students, though there is one general common denominator – youth.
Being a student among so many young(er) people is not new to me, after two years at Hartford Seminary, but YDS is a larger school, and attracts many more young people seeking out its academic programs and preparation for ordained Christian ministries. So it’s not that myself and other older people stick out like sore thumbs, but more a matter of having to put aside our own assumptions about ourselves and others and diving in. We are here for a good reason, and so are they.
BTFO: Getting to know one another
While the Before The Fall Orientation was a joyful reunion with my fellow Hartford Seminary classmates completing their Master of Divinity program at YDS, it’s been mostly about making new friends and learning about what has brought them to this place. Long story short, it is wonderful to see so many young people and people from other world cultures excited about Christian ministries. Brazil, Poland, France, Africa, Korea, every corner of the U.S. that you can imagine – and so many Christian traditions, as well as some people from other traditions.
One of my favorite moments of orientation was striking up a new friendship with a man from Poland, who is a pastor there for the Church of the Nazarene denomination. This group of Christians split off from the Methodist movement about a hundred years ago, but they still claim the theology of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder. It was the first time in a long time that I had been able to “talk shop” with an enthusiastic Wesleyan. I also rubbed shoulders with several other United Methodists, as well as Anglicans, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and many more. What a wealth of ways of looking at God through a Christian lens.
Chapel: Prepare the way of the LORD!
Each day that there are classes on campus, everyone is invited to attend a chapel service in Marquand Chapel. There are also small prayer groups and spiritual discernment groups, but chapel services each morning at 10.30 form the core of the worship experience at YDS. They are filled with joyful music, creative approaches to worship, and truly insightful and moving messages.
It is a beautifully designed space, and when it is filled with people, it resonates very warmly with voices centered on the lectern near its middle. To the side, a “prayer wall” fashioned out of a coat rack allows people to add prayers at any time, which will be read and prayed for by the chapel team. It has been a long time since I have been able to enjoy a daily worship experience, and so I am looking forward especially to chapel services to move my heart and mind.
By Grace Alone: The key to a new future
There have also been great presentations by the faculty and administrative leaders of the school, as well as guest speakers, and useful information and orientation exercises, but mostly it’s about breaking the ice and having some fun getting to know people. Not everyone will make it through the grist mill’s wheels, and so we will all need one another to make the best of it. What a great community to do it with.
A memorable moment was getting my mailbox key. Yale has generally excellent technology resources, but there are also very traditional ways of doing things that hang on. It is the first mailbox that I have had since my college days. I have a place here now, by grace alone, and by grace alone will I make it through here. But I am grateful for that grace, every day.