Cross-Shaped Part 7

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
-Jesus (Luke 10:27)

Thia Shenk wrote the third article in the school paper. My favorite.

She joined the circle of students I was talking with after I stepped off stage at the coffeehouse. I shook her hand. “I loved your article,” I said. “You’re a gifted writer and I appreciate your honesty and maturity. You disagreed with me, but you were mature enough to realize that God could still speak to you in spite of me.”

I thanked Thia for reteaching me that God doesn’t stop doing good when I do what I do badly.

Her article is the recipe for peace that inspired this whole series of posts, the roadmap I’ve followed.

First, she respectfully disagreed with me and honestly shared her feelings.

Listening to Shaun Groves speak in chapel yesterday, I was torn between an impulse to dissent and an inclination to awe.

I was angry with the worn-out language he used to talk about what we are saved from. I was worried about the picture of hell that he first mocked and then elevated to the status of half the gospel. Finally, I was disappointed when the culmination of his message was an appeal for money. These discordant voices in my head tempted me to wave his message off as an inadequate metaphor and head to the cafeteria to dissect his ideas over pirogues with my friends.

While Thia was “angry”, “worried” and “disappointed,” I was too. Well, instead of “angry” I’d substitue “baffled.” I was disappointed that no students hung around to talk to me after chapel, not even to say hello, even though the chaplain set up a generous spread of coffee and hot chocolate and invited students to dialogue or just say “hi.” I was disappointed that so few children were sponsored too. I was baffled because neither of these things had ever happened before. I worried that it was because I’d communicated poorly, inadvertently offended, or crossed some Mennonite theological line I was ignorant of.

Thia and I are human. And this is what humans do: we have expectations of one another and when reality doesn’t meet those expectations we feel all kinds of bad. But we get to choose how we’ll respond.

Thia chose to find common ground and something to affirm and celebrate.

But an equal and opposite voice urged me to pay attention to something deeper than the rhetoric; to see his plug for Compassion International as one suggestion for how to live the kingdom, rather than the propagandized conclusion of his speech. Some Spirit drew my attention to the importance of Shaun’s double-edged gospel.

Coming from a conservative background, I am often aware of the poverty of transformative, grace-based theology at EMU. On the other hand, I love being part of a circle that challenges me to think and live the present kingdom (God’s will on earth as it is in heaven). Listening to Shaun speak reminded me that these two conceptions of the “good news” do not need to be in conflict with each other; in fact they may be essentially interdependent.

When it was time to talk about what had been written in the school paper with students at the coffeehouse, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be disagreed with. I didn’t want to fail. I’d done my best and it made a mess. I was afraid I’d only make it worse. But I did it anyway and I’m glad. Because it was there that we found common ground, again, and again. And I discovered things about the students at EMU worth celebrating.

Tolerance is not love. Tolerance allows two people to merely exist together. Thia didn’t tolerate me. She loved me. And loved God.

She closed her article with a confession and a plea. And I will close this series the same way.

“In academic settings, the temptation is to show your intelligence by dissent. But it may take even more intelligence to know what is worth affirming, to be able to pick out what is good and beautiful in a discourse and approach it with awe. This is the point I am trying to make: As we go into the rest of Spiritual Life Week, as we navigate the tension of an institution both academic and spiritual, do not be overcome with dissension. Let yourself be uncomfortable, sure. Dissect what you hear and cut out what rings false, certainly. But remain open to a Spirit that speaks even through failed metaphors. Welcome awe in the face of truth.”

Now it’s my turn.

In evangelical Christian circles, the temptation is to demonstrate our love of truth by allowing no dissent. The more popular our blog, our books, our speaking, our music, our church – sadly – the less likely we are to scrutinize our lives and beliefs honestly, to pick out what is good and beautiful in other points of view. This is the point I’m trying to make: As we all go through life, as we navigate the tension between feelings and intellect and faith, we must not become so defensive that we are unable to learn and to love. We must love God with all we are and love our neighbor.

Peace is a choice.

It starts with dialogue. Moves on to common ground. Then affirmation and celebration of what is true and good. Then we listen and learn, knowing that God can speak at anytime through anyone. Peace may not end with much agreement, but with relationship that makes both parties better.

  • I bought a book from the seminary at EMU called Preaching the Atonement. It’s teaching me how to communicate Jesus in biblical, but I hope clearer ways.
  • The students at EMU, led by faculty, are gathering on a regular basis now for “interfaith dialogue.” Students of all backgrounds are invited to discuss differences, find common ground, affirm and celebrate what can be, and move from tolerance to relationship.
  • I’m still in conversation with the students at EMU via e-mail. So many that I’m behind on responding! A few Mennonites wrote, wanting to be sure I (and you) know that the few students who bravely spoke up at the coffeehouse do not represent the majority of Mennonites or students at EMU. A few evangelicals wrote to say they are openly evangelical with friends at EMU for the first time now. The young man who spoke first at the microphone that night at the coffeehouse has e-mailed me a few times and promises to explain his theology a bit better soon, after exams are over. I will continue to be in relationship with the students of EMU.
  • I will continue to be accountable to EMU’s chaplain, learning from him whatever I can. He and I have a phone call this Thursday to talk through my visit to EMU and all the great dialogue on campus since.
  • After several hours at the coffeehouse I was ready for bed. But a couple students asked me to play a song I once wrote for my enemies first. So I sat at the upright and someone pulled up the lyrics on their iPad. College students sat and stood around the piano and I sang to God a prayer for forgiveness and change and love and peace. Cross-shaped.

    Thia listened and smiled. I did too.