In the movie “Legally Blonde” the lead character Elle, played by Reese Witherspoon, experiences her first day of law school and feels completely out of place. As other students seem to know what is expected and how to act, she feels like a stranger in a strange land. She whips out a fuzzy pen while everyone else has a laptop. Clearly she is out of her league. Shortly after that, Elle tries to find a group of students to study with but no one seems to want her in their group. Poor Elle has a lot to learn about law school, and it will take a few sympathetic professors and one great manicurist to get her there. I thought about these scenes many times in my first semester of grad school. I may not have been legally blonde, but I was “liturgically blonde.”
During orientation at Duke, I felt like I was the one holding a fuzzy pen. I was trying to learn a new language – the language of “theology.” One of the speakers at orientation said that we were going to do “Exegesis” but I thought I heard “Extra Jesus” and spent the rest of the day wondering where one got more Jesus. I eventually heard the correct word, and after a quick check in the dictionary, I started to get on the right track. I majored in Biology and Psychology in undergrad so this was all new to me – I was clearly “liturgically blonde” and had a lot to learn. Just like Elle, it would take some wonderful co-students and a few great professors to help me negotiate my way through the next three years. I have been thinking about those professors a lot this week. One of the greats, Dr. David Stienmetz, passed away Thursday and it got me reminiscing about those first couple months in grad school.
As much as I joke about being liturgically blonde, it wasn’t just the new content that made my first semester so hard. Just as I was getting used to school, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer for the fourth time. My head and my heart were back home with her. I received a grade that I was really disappointed with, and the nagging feeling that I was in over my head began to sneak in. Maybe the call I thought God had on my life was a mistake. I didn’t have the confidence to go talk to to the professor himself, so I resigned myself to not having the academic achievements that had defined my educational career in the past.
One morning that week I was running on the treadmill and the professor was running beside me. He asked me how things were going. I wasn’t sure how to answer. Maybe because we were both in our workout gear and not in the academic setting, I decided to tell him the truth: that I was disappointed with my grade and feeling unsure that I had what it took to excel at a place like this. He asked me to stop by his office later in the day to chat. I stopped by his office, and there he sat with his liturgical collar and massive leather bound books; I began to feel intimidated again. I wasn’t sure how to share all the thoughts going through my head. He asked me to sit down and then did the most amazing thing. This incredibly brilliant man reached into his desk and offered me a gummy bear. We sat eating gummy bears and laughing – he had successfully lowered the intimidation factor. I felt bold as I shared with him all that I was going through. He encouraged me and the call that he saw God had placed on my life. Before I left, he reminded me that I could stop by his office anytime. That professor was Dr. Warren Smith someone who continues to encourage and teach at Duke. Because of him and some other caring professors, I was able to overcome my own fears of being liturgically and theologically blonde and come out on the other side. It seems these gummy bears were as holy a meal as communion.
I have had the amazing opportunity to mentor people, and I often think back on my gummy bear days and wonder how I can lower any intimidation factor and encourage the call that I see in others. I also wonder how I can make sure that people sitting in church for the first time don’t feel like Elle did on her first day of law school – like everyone else knows what is going on. I am so grateful to Dr. Stienmetz, Dr. Smith, Dr. Chapman, Dr. Warner and so many others who were willing to help me along this journey and teach me how to help others as they journey too.