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Back to School Two Decades Later

What regret do you carry around, believing it’s too late to address? Catherine McNiel challenges such thinking.

Back to School Two Decades Later

By Catherine McNiel

I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I boldly wrote letters expressing my interest to NASA, and in return received signed photographs and samples of vacuum-packed food rations. Even the generation-defining tragedy of watching the Challenger explode from my elementary classroom didn’t dissuade me.

But “Astronaut” was actually my second choice. What I really wanted was to go to seminary and become a pastor when I grew up. That dream felt further out of reach for me than the moon.

My dad started seminary the day after I was born. His advisors recommended he not start an MDiv program and a family at the same time, so—as our story goes—he started a family on Sunday and his coursework on Monday. Growing up, I relished this part of my origin story. I spent my childhood days on his lap, peering over his shoulders at commentaries, loitering around his office as he studied—and occasionally bounced sermon ideas off me. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to do the same.

But as a girl growing up in a conservative denomination, I didn’t consider actually doing so. What would be the point? Why spend so much time and money if there were no jobs to apply for at the end? I majored in Bible/Theology at college and knew what I wanted the next step to be. Still, I didn’t even apply. I pursued an entirely different master’s degree, one less suited to my interests but far more suited to my job prospects as I understood them.

Decades later, I sent my husband an email. The body of the message was a link to a Master of Divinity program I’d had my eye on for years. The subject heading read, “This is the only thing in my life I regret.”

His immediate reply was equally straightforward: Then you have to do it. Let’s make this happen.

And so, we did. Now, in my mid-forties, I’m almost half-way through a five-year (or, maybe seven-year) program.

It's been decades since I realized women can be pastors; I deeply grieve not realizing this sooner. I’ll admit that sometimes the years between my first chance and the chance I took feel like a waste. What a full-time 20-something could complete in three years will take me nearly seven as I attempt to wiggle it in around work and family obligations. But I trust that God is not only in the outcome but in the journey, that the work I’ve done along the way has been valuable to the Kingdom, that God’s purposes for my life exceed the small vision for women I was raised with.

Proverbs observes that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). It’s true that I experienced heartsickness in the decades I bumped along in the dark, trying to feel out a door that would open to the path God had laid on my heart. And it is certainly true that finding this door at last and setting this dream free from deferment is one of the most joyful experiences of my life. I’m six semesters in now and even with all the trials and troubles of life, in class I feel like I’m walking on air. There has not been a Greek final so tough (though they have been grueling), nor an exegesis paper so bewildering (though they have been, too) that it squelched even a tiny bit of my joy.

Do I have any idea when I’ll be finished? No. Do I have a clear vision for what comes next, or how it will fit with my family and work responsibilities? Not at all. Do I expect that having this degree will make me live happily ever after? Unlikely!

But do I see God moving joyfully before me like a cloud in the wilderness? Yes. Yes, I do. And I am dancing along behind him.

During my first semester, I wrote a short poem to express my joy that this long-locked door was finally open:

The Long Interval

I waited at the locked door

I waited for a long time.

When the door opened, I was ready

I stepped right through.

Life does not owe us fulfillment. God does not promise self-actualization. I’m confident these things are true. But I’m also learning that mid-life is not too late to listen to God’s shepherding voice calling us to get up and walk, to help him create something new.

Catherine McNiel writes about the creative and redemptive work of God in our real, ordinary lives. She is the author of Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies; Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline; and All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World. Catherine studies theology while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Visit Catherine on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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