Pastor's Pastor

If at first you don't succeed---beg for mercy

The greatest lesson I learned in Freshman Composition came when a generous woman extended grace instead of the results of my own works, which is really what I deserved.

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

"For by grace you have been saved . . .not of works, lest any one should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9, NKJV).

Long before television's The Waltons popularized the angst of a college-age writer, I experienced the agony and ecstasy of Composition 101. You see, I was called to write. I arrived at Southern College's freshman orientation expecting to enroll in Evlyn Lindberg's Honors Composition class. After all, I intended to pursue a double major in theology and English, had worked in academy as assistant to the head English teacher, had consistently scored high on various verbal skill assessments, had written a monthly column for the academy newspaper, and had worked in the printshop as a typesetter. Furthermore, my best friends were the literary elite of the campus.

In focus

You might say I was focused. In fact, when I had attended college the previous spring, I had visited Miss Lindy's comp class—twice! I wasn't even afraid of the ultimate Scandinavian spinster with two middle names and a reputation for severity that withered triviality. I was eager to have her red pen address my compositions. My friends who preceded me were living proof that anybody who was anybody in the Southern College English Department enrolled in Honors Composition. In fact, it was generally assumed you didn't have the right stuff to pursue an English major if you couldn't make at least an A- in the toughest class a beginning writer would ever encounter. My background combined with my self-image propelled me toward this special class where the best professor taught the best writers.

This was the class to launch my four-year plan and my future career—editing the Southern Accent, publishing a few short stories, and writing the great American novel on the theme of the great controversy. After all, I was also a theology major who was convinced my first job offer would at least be a staff position on the Youth's Instructor (yep, I went to college back then) if there were no openings on the editorial staff of the Review and Herald.

In disappointment

So midmorning after the qualifying exam, I sauntered by the posted results expecting to see my student ID number at or near the top score. Imagine my humiliation. My number was missing. If this list was accurate, I had failed to qualify. Failure was not in my vocabulary. Worse, how could I ever face my peers if I were excluded from the inner circle?

First I concluded there must be a mistake, an error or omission, merely a clerical error that skipped the top few students. But when I checked with the English Department's secretary, in spite of everything I believed about myself the qualifying exam left me several points below the last slot available in the only composition class this freshman could consider.

My next reaction was that my score must be wrong. After all, upon careful, introspective self-evaluation, I admitted that I was a better writer than several students who had qualified. Nevertheless my score proved accurate.

Perhaps I was ill. I immediately headed for the infirmary, where the nurse took my temperature, scanned my throat, and pronounced me healthy. No malady beyond a bruised ego could be blamed for my predicament.

The remaining options terrified me. Either I could enroll in a flunkie course from another instructor or I could beg. Mustering every bit of courage I could find, I requested an appointment with the professor I now feared. I had to get into her class. Would there be a waiting list? Did she ever make an exception? Would she expand the class size? The lump in my throat had grown to a brick by the time I faced Professor of English Evlyn Maria Matilda Lindberg!

In mercy

Wonder of wonders. I received mercy. Marvelous miracle—at least for my fragile self-image—she would make an exception to allow me to try to keep up with the others. Mercy was mingled with justice, however. That was the only slack she ever gave me.

I never edited the college newspaper. I did edit the student directory, but that hardly counts when the thing is named The Joker. At least we published it faster that year than any time in previous history. The Youth's Instructor not only failed to call; it folded. To this day I've never been called to the editorial staff of any magazine. The Adventist Review has published an article or two that I've written, and I must prepare my monthly column for Ministry by deadline.

The greatest lesson I learned in Freshman Composition was neither grammar nor style, syntax nor structure. The greatest lesson I learned came when a generous woman extended grace instead of the results of my own works, which is really what I deserved.

Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - Healthy and Happy Family - Skyscraper 160x600