This morning on Duke Divinity School’s Faith and Leadership website I stumbled upon the transcript of a sermon that Dr. Ellen Davis gave in Duke Chapel last summer. I was there for that sermon, and on my way out the door I told her I had been waiting for it ever since hearing Dean Richard Hays preach at his installation and the Divinity School’s opening convocation in the fall of 2010. Both Davis and Hays address the topic of discipleship and its cost—the simultaneously terrifying and wonderful realization that there is nowhere else to go, but that this is the best place to be.
In one of the most poignant parts, Hays addresses new students directly:
…if you’re going to embark on the serious study of Christian theology in this place, be prepared to pay the price. Not just the price of your tuition, though that’s challenging enough, but the price of wholehearted devotion to a cause so compelling that it will demand your whole life.
Early in my career as a student at Duke Divinity School I sought out advice regarding doctoral programs from both Dr. Davis and Dr. Hays, and they told me essentially the same thing that Hays quotes of Tom Petty about pursuing a career in music:
If you have a choice, you won’t be able to do this.
In other words, if doctoral study in Bible or theology is one option for you among many equally interesting options, don’t choose it, because you won’t be able to sustain the energy and devotion it takes to persevere in it when it becomes more difficult than you imagined it could be. So, Hays urges along with Jesus in Luke 14, “Count the cost.”
Counting the cost is all well and good when there still is a choice to be made, but for some the choice is past, or there never was a choice. In the Gospel of John, when many disciples around Jesus hear his difficult teaching and begin to leave, he asks the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-68). There is nowhere else to go. Davis presses the point similarly in her reading of Genesis 22:
This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith.
The only option is to trust God more fully, more completely. Despite the horror of being asked to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, Abraham trusts God, because “Life and life with God are the same thing,” as Davis says.
How is this good news? How is it good news if Davis is right, that there should be a sign on the door to following this God:
Caution: Relationship with the real God, the God of Abraham and Jesus, is not for the risk-averse.
The book of Genesis puts it to us straight: Sometimes being in relationship with the real God hurts like hell. Sometimes it’s bewildering. We’ll be inching along in the dark, with no vision of where this relationship is taking us.
The good news is precisely this, Davis continues: The relationship
is taking us to the cross and on to resurrection. It is taking us straight into the arms of God … and the divine Love that will not let us go — ever, not ever.
Staking one’s life and work on the God who loved the world into existence strikes me as simultaneously the most terrifying and wonderful way of being imaginable. What a thrill.