VTS Cemetery

[Ancient Faith Radio; October 30, 2007]

I’m here on a hillside in Alexandria, Virginia, on the campus of Virginia Theological Seminary, the Episcopal seminary that I graduated from in 1977. I’m here because it’s the annual Fall Theological Convocation, and it’s the year for my class to have our 30th reunion, so there are a number of classes getting together on campus this week for a series of lectures. But as everybody else is marching off to the dining room, I thought I’d take a minute and come to the cemetery here, where there are buried perhaps 50 or 60 seminary professors beginning from the time the campus opened, in 1823, so it goes back for awhile. There are men here who were missionaries to Africa in the 19th century, and who poured out their lives in South America—this was a very strong missionary campus. I heard today that probably this seminary sent more missionaries into the world than any other Episcopal seminary.

And as I look around—I hadn’t been on this campus for a long time, and it’s kind of a pain in the heart to recognize names of people that I said goodbye to the day I graduated, and now here they are with a stone over them. Jack Goodwin, and Army Booth, and Paul Sorrell, Miriam Ross, Albert Molligen, Marianne Micks, some familiar names here.

There are two professors here that I particularly remember. And from each of them I learned a lesson. One is Charlie Price, and I see that his stone says he died in 1999. One day in my first year I was talking to Charlie Price after class and, I don’t remember who the author was, but there was some new book that had come out from a theologian that was in the news, and it just had this crackpot theory, and so I was standing there in the classroom near the desk and, like, making fun of this guy. I guess to make your name as a scholar you have to draw attention to yourself, and you have to say something really unusual, but in this case it was unusual and stupid. And so I was just making fun of him, making wisecracks, and Charlie stopped me. He said, ‘Really you shouldn’t ridicule people like that. This may be only the amount of faith that he has. He may be struggling to believe. Maybe this is the best he can put together at this point, and that’s all God has to work with in him. But be patient with people like this; it’s not funny. It’s not something to ridicule, but rather, pray for him and pray that his faith will increase.’ And that shut me up really quick. I thought, boy, that’s profound. That’s a very good insight.

I remember another professor who’s here, but doesn’t have a stone yet. He died just a few months ago; I know he was interred here, but I don’t see the stone. Dr. Reginald Fuller, an internationally renowned New Testament scholar, was director of my senior thesis, an Englishman, and just a delightful and fascinating and impressive person. One of the things that I remember about him was that he had that kind of surreal, absurd English sense of humor that Americans didn’t really get, until Monty Python became very popular and very well known. But back in the ‘70s, there were moments when his humor would just completely confuse us; we couldn’t understand what was going on.

An example that comes to mind is we had a talent show every fall, and he was the only professor who signed up to participate in the talent show. So I probably played guitar and sang a song by Leonard Cohen or something, and it was all that kind of, you know, first-year students putting on their talent show. And what Dr. Fuller did, though, was he had a cardboard box with the front cut out of it, and he put it on his head and wore this box on his shoulders like it was a little theater and you could look in the side and see him there. And then he put a sock puppet on his hand, and he turned to face the sock puppet and he sang, [Singing] ‘If I loved you, love wouldn’t come in an easy way.’ He just sang this whole song to the sock puppet and then bowed and took the cardboard box off his shoulders. And we were baffled. You know, we were like, what was *that* about? Now I get it (as much as it can be gotten), but he was exposing us to a kind of a humor that ‘The Goon Show’ and Monty Python and people like that were doing when Americans still knew nothing but Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.

But I learned another lesson, a good lesson, from Dr. Fuller, too. I was talking to him after class once, and another classmate was with us, and this guy in my class said, ‘Dr. Fuller, why is it, in the Scripture, when the followers of John the Baptist come to Jesus, and they say, “Tell us if you are the one we are looking for, or should we wait and look for another?” Why didn’t Jesus just say yes or no? Why didn’t he give them a straight answer? Instead he says, “Tell John what you see and hear, the dead are raised, the deaf hear, the lame walk, blessed is he who does not stumble at me.”’ And Dr. Fuller paused before he answered. And he paused so long that I thought, ‘What’s his problem? He doesn’t have an answer for this? I mean, have we really stumped him? How could you stump somebody that’s this famous a professor and author?’

And then he sort of slowly began to unpack this answer that was really very profound and very layered, really a beautiful answer. And what I learned is that the person who talks first is not always the smartest person. That I’m able to be very fast. Watching a comedy in a movie theater, I’m the first person who laughs. I get the jokes before anybody else, and I’m always jumping in with my opinion, and I realize that that does not necessarily mean that you’re smarter than other people. That sometimes wisdom just has to slowly develop, and come out gradually. You hear this obviously when you listen to tapes or CDs by Bishop Kallistos, who has that wonderful melodious voice, but he speaks so grandly and fluidly and slowly that sometimes I think that if I could train myself to talk that slowly, when I wrote speeches they would only have to be half as long.

So that was a lesson I learned from Charlie Price and a lesson I learned from Dr. Fuller.

It’s beginning to really get to be sunset now and I guess I ought to be going. As I look down the slope of the hillside, I know that if the leaves were off the trees, I would be able to see the Washington Monument from this spot—not the Washington Monument from DC, but the one in Alexandria, the one that was built by the Masons, so it’s the Masonic Washington Monument, and it’s an ugly thing, you know. It’s not attractive, not harmonious at all. When we came here to seminary we were told that one of the first professors that was buried here begged that they would bury him with his head to the bottom of the hill and his feet toward the top. He said, ‘So on the Day of Resurrection when the graves are opened and everybody gets up again, the first thing I’m going to see is not going to be the Masonic Washington Monument.’

So I’ll leave you with that thought.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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