The final, final, final exam

I was a bit embarrassed in church yesterday because our priest (very kindly, I might add) asked all the students in the congregation to stand up so that the congregation could pray for us. Our congregation is full of Yale students–most of us Episcopal seminarians, but also missionaries who are staying at Yale’s Overseas Ministry Center as well as Ph.D. students.

The reason I was embarrassed was that, just before that, we prayed for the church in China, where a megachurch with thousands of members has been destroyed and its pastors imprisoned. It’s hard to hear about persecution of any kind, but especially the persecution of Christians. And so it seemed silly to pray for students who are taking final exams and writing their final papers for seminars as if we were going through a great trial. The prayer was for our relief from stress, but our stress is nothing compared to that of imprisoned pastors or people who could be put to death for being Christian … or gay, in the case of Uganda.

So I thought a bit about the stress of final exams and papers because, even though I kept telling myself that I should feel no anxiety because I was prepared and would at least pass, I too was feeling the stress.

What can make people feel this way? Only the sense that they are going to be judged harshly based on a brief performance of 3 hours that can’t possibly assess all they have learned. And they may also feel unprepared. There’s no “do over” if one had a bad day, no remediation if one misunderstands or realizes how much one skipped. We fear being judged with no recourse. I jokingly wrote to a friend on Facebook after a final exam, “The only important final exam is the final, final, final exam”–that is, the Last Judgment.

And then it dawned on me that some people must feel this way about the final, final, final exam–that too much is riding on it, that it’s not fair, that they wished they had prepared a bit more and not skipped so many lectures….

Unfortunately, fear is not a good motivator. It may be a surprise to most non-Christians that most practicing Christians don’t live in fear of God, though we may feel awe. Nor do most of us feel great anxiety about the proverbial Last Judgment, at least not when we’re feeling really healthy. The Last Judge of this test knows that we have the right answers within us, even if we were too distracted during the preparatory period to learn all that well. When did Jesus not wish to reteach, even when he was annoyed?

I don’t have a strong sense of a Last Judgment per se, but I do sense a God who teaches. And fortunately, the semester’s never over with God, and in this case, and only this case, that’s good news.

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