Cross-Shaped Part 6

“We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be…a church…of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.”

-Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonite tradition)

Disclaimer: All dialogue is based on my best recollection and could not possibly be word-for-word exactly what was said. But it’s dang close. Unfortunately, I do not record every conversation I have and my memory is that of a thirty-eight year-old with poor diet and exercise habits. Keep this in mind.

“…comes to live with us and die for us and live through us down here.”

The last question of the night came from an articulate young woman who kindly let me know my language had offended her. “Mankind.” “Him” and “He” when speaking about God. So much masculine language she believed was unnecessary and offensive. By the show of hands when I asked how many others were put off by this, she was far from the only one who felt this way.

And I felt like an elephant in a minefield. A drunk elephant. A blind drunk elephant.

One of many ways to see God’s will done on earth as it is in Heaven is to sponsor a child. *Boom* Commercials don’t belong in chapel.

We are separated from God and deserving of Hell. *Boom* That’s unloving and outdated language.

Jesus alone can rescue and reunite us with God. *Boom* That’s intolerant of other faiths.

He loves us so much that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life. *Boom* That’s gender biased.

That old inner critic grabbed his bullhorn and began to shout. I felt like a failure, like I’d let down the chaplain, missed an opportunity to connect with students at EMU, like because of my sloppy communication and insensitivity and ignorance and lack of discernment more kids weren’t released from poverty through sponsorship. I’d blown it. Boom.

A tiny sampling of the student body – three – had written less than positively in the school paper about my time on campus. A small number of students – three – had challenged from the microphone. But the guy with the bullhorn told me these students spoke for all of Eastern Mennonite University.

But what about the students I had such a great time with at lunch today? “Exceptions,” that guy said. “The minority.” (That guy’s neurotic.)

I invited the students to hang around and keep the conversation going, to talk with me in private if there was something on their mind they didn’t feel confortable sharing from a microphone in front of others. Then I stepped off the stage scared. That’s incredibly embarrassing to admit. But there it is. I don’t have stage fright. I have off-the-stage fright.

I expected the worst.

I got the best.

I saw the chaplain first and sheepishly asked if it went OK. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted me to do?” He was gracious, smiling, encouraging.

That guy didn’t put down his bullhorn though.

Then I met a young Mennonite woman who asked me to clarify a few things for her. She wasn’t sure what I meant by “cross-shaped” faith. Soon we were discussing the difference between doing things for God and living life with God. She said she’d gotten so passionate about the horizontal aspect of her faith that she might have neglected the vertical. She wasn’t sure. I told her I struggle with that very thing since reading the Mennonites a few years ago and embracing their aims of peace making and mercy showing, frugality and generosity. I ran full-force toward these new ideas and sometimes have neglected Jesus.

Common ground.

I wrote her name on my hand in pen and promised to pray for her. By the end of the night my hand was full of names.

A few Mennonite students assured me the debaters at the microphone and the newspaper didn’t speak for them or the majority on campus. The guy with the bullhorn gave up the fight. I felt every joint in my body slack. My defenses came down. My arms uncrossed. A student, maybe noticing the change in me, said she felt more confortable talking to me off stage. She said onstage my body language and tone of voice felt agressive. I apologized. We laughed about it. She explained with a smile, “Mennonites don’t like conflict. We probably mistake excitement for anger sometimes. Don’t worry about it.”

Another student said that she’d learned in a peace making class of some sort that there has to be equality between the parties. My being on stage and the students being in chairs down below didn’t make her feel equal. She thought that my being a speaker and them having less experience talking in front of crowds gave me an unfair advantage too.

Maybe all this is why so few students spoke at the microphone. Even students who were for me might have been too intimidated to say so.

I continued to mingle and take names. Now very aware of how much I wave my arms around when I’m talking, how my eyebrows fly up and down too, how I lean in when I speak, how my voice rises when I get excited, and how I’m always excited when ideas and stories are being batted around.

A few students wanted to explain why they didn’t sponsor a child too. They were already giving, doing, going so much already. I knew this was true by now. My first morning on campus, when so few students sponsored child, I thought I’d done something wrong. All that talk in chapel about heaven and hell and Jesus being the only way to God might have upset a small number of students enough that they didn’t sponsor a child. Maybe. But after two days at EMU I knew now that these students were the most compassionate I’d ever met. I’ve spoken at nearly 50 schools now and I’ve never seen one so thoroughly working compassion and generosity into campus life and curriculum.

The explanations were good to hear but not necessary. It was good to tell them, face-to-face, that I understood and was amazed at all they were already doing.

Several closeted evangelicals talked to me separately throughout the evening too. They all expressed gratitude. They felt as if they’d been represented on campus for the first time, as if someone had translated them to the rest of the student body, and that had given them courage to continue the conversation after I left. They felt as if they’d previously been a misunderstood – and maybe maligned – minority on campus. “There’s a lot of talk here about tolerance,” one young woman told me. “Other races. We have a group for LGBT students. Other religions. But I don’t feel like evangelicals are treated that way. Only a few people even know what I believe.”

There is a lot of talk of tolerance at EMU. My road manager, Micah, commented on that more than once. And he wisely observed that tolerance isn’t love. “If someone asked me what I think of Shaun,” he told the chaplain, “and I said I tolerate him, how would that sound to Shaun?”

With Micah’s words on my mind, I told a few students I hoped something more profound than tolerance could be experienced at EMU between Evangelicals and Mennonites. And it was that night.

I found the young man who’d asked such great questions from the microphone about what it means to be made in the image of God, and how I define “sinfulness.” I learned his name and shook his hand. He told me he was as Mennonite as they come. But when another student clarified – “More ethnically Mennonite” – he laughed and agreed that maybe that was more true these days. He was still figuring out what he believed and he admitted some of what he thinks these days is outside of traditional Mennonite theology.

Most of us are still figuring out what we believe aren’t we? Shouldn’t we? But most of us aren’t part of a community whose acceptance makes us brave enough to do it out loud and from a microphone.

We rehashed parts of our debate. I think he was frustrated by my inability to understand his point of view. He said he’s not nearly as comfortable speaking as he is writing, and asked if he could put his thoughts down in an e-mail and keep the dialogue going with me that way. “Absolutely. I’d love that.”

He’d spoken in such short fast sentences before. But now, more at ease maybe, he spoke more freely and I got a better sense of who he was, what he was like as a person and not just a collection of words and ideas. He was brilliant. He said he’s been reading N.T. Wright and when I asked how he liked it he just shrugged, “He’s OK.” Brilliant.

And not as heretical as I perceived him to be at the microphone. I won’t put words in his mouth now – his beliefs are still hard for me grasp in detail – but I know from talking with him that this young man loves God and wants to understand God better. He believes Jesus is God’s Son, that Jesus died on the cross, that he rose again. But where we may differ is that he may say all this was not the only or main thing Jesus came to do. And I think when he said from the microphone that Jesus didn’t have to die, he wasn’t saying human beings weren’t in need of a savior but that God could have saved us another way if God wanted to.

Ahhh, I see now. I don’t agree, but I see. So much better to talk face-to-face.

This young man – and others I talked to that night – may disagree with me on a number of things. Who wouldn’t? But he’s my brother. God is his father. Christ is his King. And we are family.

Almost everyone at EMU turned out to be family. We just had to go through hell and back to the cross together to see it. Face-to-face.

Now, about that third article…