I had a chance to visit my Alma mater – Vanderbilt University Divinity School (www.vanderbilt.edu/divinity) – this morning. It is delightful to visit this campus any time, but especially in the summer, when the flowers are in bloom and there are very few people around. I wandered into the library and saw a single student hunched over an old book. As I passed the table, he didn’t even look up at me. He was clearly engrossed in the book, furiously writing out notes; his entire body alive with discovery. I have no idea what he was studying, but I would be willing to wager at that moment he was being formed by his encounter with that old text. I suspect he will leave the library a different person from when he arrived. I remember with joy my own time in that school and the hours of discovery and transformation I experienced there.
We are formed by study. Classically understood, to study is to pay close attention, to sit with a text or a person or an idea until we are formed by the encounter. Richard Foster says that study is a “specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” The operative words here are “careful attention,” which is why true study – as opposed to rote memorization or test preparation – is a rare thing in our time.
Foster asserts that the mind “will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates.” This is another way of saying what I remember many thoughtful teachers communicating to me in my childhood and adolescence: “garbage in, garbage out.” Those things that I carefully paid attention to would form my mind, they said, and so I should take care to place my attention – my study – on things of beauty and worth.
In the book of Proverbs – which we are currently studying at First Presbyterian – the sages are constantly urging the hearer to “hear,” “accept,” meditate,” “be attentive” to the words spoken. The sage knows that there are other voices out there vying with the voice of wisdom. The one who wants to be wise must always be carefully attentive to discern between them.
I have learned in my own ministry that I must set aside time each day for careful study. If I do not, I will find myself responding to a thousand pressing needs but neglecting the one thing needful. If I do not allow myself to be formed by study, my ability to present in a helpful and wise way with these other concerns is diminished. I know many ministers – and I am often one of these ministers – who are what one pastor calls “a quivering mass of availability.” Never disciplining themselves to study, they become burned out, unhappy, and, worst of all, less than effective preachers, teachers, and caregivers.
This is not only a problem in the ministry, however. All of us, no matter our vocation, are diminished if we do not take time to devote careful attention to those things which form us into committed followers of Jesus Christ. This is especially true for the primary audience of Proverbs – the young. A recent New York Times included an alarming article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/health/26teen.html?em) on texting and the ways that this technology is inhibiting teenager’s ability to give the focused attention necessary to study. It seems that more and more of our days, and the days of our children, are filled with distraction. We are so connected in largely superficial ways with one another that we are becoming disconnected from the source of true life.
I was reminded during my visit to Vanderbilt this morning of the importance of setting aside time and space for serious, formative study. It is nothing short of a spiritual discipline, and one we neglect at our peril. Let us set aside each week a time when we can become lost in learning, minds and bodies alive with discovery, formed by our encounter, and transformed in our walk of faith.