When I was in high school, I used to have a recurring nightmare. In my nightmare I would be standing in front of my locker staring down at the combination lock, trying desperately to remember the combination. All the books that I needed for class, all the binders that contained my carefully completed homework assignments, as well as the time-table that would tell me which class I was supposed to go to next, were inside my locker. The clock was ticking, the bell was about to ring, I was supposed to be sitting down at a desk somewhere, but I had absolutely no idea where because I couldn’t for the life of me remember the combination for the lock, that dangled before me, keeping me from the stuff I so desperately needed in order to be where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I would have this nightmare whenever my anxiety levels where elevated which when I was a teenager, used to happen quite often. The funny thing is, I never forgot my combination and even though the lock is long gone, confined to the garbage of history, I can still tell you my combination: 21,13, 27. You see whenever I find myself feeling totally overwhelmed and anxious, and not knowing what to do; when I know that I am in over my head and I’m almost paralyzed with fear, in order to get myself going again, in order to find the courage to do something, I will often repeat to myself the numbers of my high school locker combination: 21, 13, 27.
I learned this trick on a September morning standing beside a locker located not in my high school, but up on the second floor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. It was my first day at seminary as a student in the Master of Divinity Program. I was 36 years old; the oldest person in a class of a dozen students. I was standing in front of the locker that had just been assigned to me. It had an all too familiar lock on it. In my hand I held a small piece of paper on which the seminary office staff had written the number and combination of the locker that had been assigned to me. I stood there staring at the combination, and suddenly I was a teenager again, standing terrified in front of a locker, with absolutely no idea what to do next. I was 36 years old for crying out loud, I’d travelled thousands of miles to get to this locker, I was about to embark on a program that I’d been preparing to enter for the previous 4 years as an under-graduate. I’d left a good job, and a good life behind, and I was supposed to be headed to some classroom or other to begin a program that I was convinced I didn’t have what it takes to complete. I’d already met my fellow students and they all looked like children to me. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the faculty discovered that I didn’t really belong at seminary. I remember standing there and wanting with all my heart to run away and hide, I remember praying, “help Jesus, help, help, me Jesus, help, me Jesus, yeah, get me out of here.”
I was terrified, when all of a sudden, a well-dressed woman came up beside me and said, “Can I help you with anything?” From her age and the tailored suit, she was wearing, I assumed that she must be a professor and I knew that I should say something, but I was too afraid that anything I might say, would give me away as someone who really didn’t belong at seminary. So, I just sort of stood there. “I’m Marlene” she said, “It looks like we’re locker neighbours. Just take a deep breath you’re going to be all right. Do you feel like you’re back in high school?” I nodded. “Just breathe” she said. “You can do this.”
“I’m too old for all this.” I said. “Ha” she said, “I’m older than you and I keep waiting for the hook to come and drag me off the stage and outta here. But trust me,” she said, “this is way harder than anything you’ve ever done before, but you can do this, just pretend you’re back in high school and put one foot in front of the other and you’ll be just fine. If you need any help, my name is Marlene, I’m in my second year here, so I should be able to help you.” Continue reading