Movng away to college was truly my first "independence" from my parents. I'd never been away from them a whole lot. I'd never even been to a camp unless you would include marching band "day" camp. I had never been overly social in terms of spending a lot of time running around with friends. I had spent a couple of weeks in Germany as part of a school exchange program between my junior and senior years of high school and that had been a time of flirting with independence for me. It was an interesting time for me as most of the other kids I was with took full advantage of Germany's loose drinking laws and I was always the responsible one, making sure we got home safely each day, etc. But, by and large, college was my first real taste of independence.
I was looking forward to it in a lot of ways and I never felt particularly homesick. I only went about 50 miles away to college and, in fact, I actually went to college very close to the area where my family had lived until I was eleven. So, I had a lot of extended family members in the area.
I went to a very small Christian college. About a third smaller than my high school. I was pretty certain that I'd feel lost at a real large university. That is sort of odd as I look back. I never have been a person who was afraid of loneliness. In fact, during my first few weeks of college as I was meeting people and trying to make friends, I sometimes ate dinner at a little restaurant in town, by myself. I think that was partly because I needed some occasional "down time" from all of the "new-ness" of college and partly because I didn't know who I wanted to eat with on campus so it was easiest to just eat by myself.
During my growing up years, I tended to have one or two close friends and I hung out with just them. I was never one to be in a huge group of people, and certainly never one who wanted to be at the center of attention. Today, although I have grown to be more relational and I think I am starting to see where God is leading me in terms of developing relationships with others, I am still much more comfortable in groups of two or three than in groups of seven or eight. If you want to put me in front of a group of several hundred, I have no problem with that but when I am forced into a situation of meeting and interacting with a mid-sized group, I tend to shut down. I miss communication signals, my mind wanders, I get bored, I start to drift off to another place.
My college years continued this trend of hanging out and running around with a pretty small, but consistent, group of folks. We were sort of a group in the shadows of campus life. Now, you need to understand a few things here. I went to college during the height of the Reagan years and I was truly the quintessential button-down collared Reagan Republican. He was building military might and many people were not happy with it. That group included most of the people on my campus. You see, my college was affiliated with a church group that most people consider to be extremely conservative and, to some degree, they are. However, politically, they are about as left as they come. Strong pacifistic and social justice views. I have more appreciation for those views now but I didn't have it then. The fact that I have more appreciation (I am wording that carefuilly, mind you) for those views now indicates that I maybe had potential to grow a bit while I was in college, had I been properly encouraged and loved.
However, early in my college career, frankly not even fully understanding what I was doing, I sent a Letter to the Editor of the school newspaper which unintentionally picked a fight with pretty much the entire campus establishment. I was quickly viewed as -- now get this -- a rebel. The letter caught the attention of one of the older students on campus who happened to be particularly left-leaning and a real leader in the campus community. If I wasn't already cast there by the "mainstream" student community, I was definitely cast into the shadows after this incident which, for a few weeks, turned into a volley of letters back and forth in the newspaper.
On a campus where weekly chapels were held that most students attended, and most students also went to church on Sundays, my close group of friends and I were truly put into the shadows for four years. Obviously, that wasn't just because of the Letter to the Editor incident though that did play a role. Fact is, we probably weren't that different from the "mainstreamers" who cast us into the shadows and, I suspect, we're all probably pretty similar today. Back then, my group probably drank less than theirs did but we probably swore more. The biggest difference, no doubt about it, was our stated political views and, for this, we were cast into the shadows of campus life. I never went to a chapel, not even once. I went to church maybe a couple of times when I was on campus but not to the same church as the mainstreamers, of course. Yet, you have to understand this, I do not recall ever being invited to a chapel, nor to church, by the mainstreamers.
Did this impact my view of God? For the most part, I maintained my faith, albeit at some points stronger than others. But, I wasn't living as a disciple and, without denying ultimate personal accountability, I do believe that my college experience impacted my view of church, keeping me somewhat at bay for many years. I wasn't sure that I wanted to go to church if it meant that we'd be a homogenous group that excluded individuals of differing political thought, socio-economic background, or anything else. In fact, that seemed very wrong to me. And it kep me from getting the training and encouragement that I needed to provide footing to my own faith journey.
When it comes to religion, we tend to collect in groups of like-minded and similarly socio-economic people. If you went into any community on Sunday morning, you would observe "older" churches, apostolic churches, various "sect" churches, certain ethnic heritage churches, and in large cities, probably a couple of "inclusionist" churches. The problem is just that though. The folks going to these churches are all cut from the same cloth, made from the same mold. Even "inclusionist" churches tend to, over time, be what I call "100% inclusive". The whole point of bringing people together, and living in a community of challenge and encouragement is lost when we're all the same.
The way I see it, this is not what Jesus modeled for us. He was always reaching outward, downward, and upward. We talk about the tax collectors he reached out to, sometimes treating those folks as the lowest of the low but, in their day, these guys were probably among the richest and at the top of the socio-economic scale. These were the guys with fancy homes in nice neighborhoods. Fact is, Jesus was just showing His father's love to everyone -- all of those who were weak of spirit -- just as we are called to do today. Just as He reached out to tax collectors, he gathered fisherman, children, lepers, paralytics, and prostitutes. You name it, He sought after all people hard and welcomed them always like the father welcomed his prodigal son.
Like I said, my intention is not to point fingers at the mainstreamers that I went to college with. I am instead pointing at all of us. I like the church we attend because it does offer a wide variety of people -- all shapes, colors, types, interests and quirks can be found there. But is what our church has even enough? Are we not still, to the casual observer, a relatively homogenous lot? Are we doing what He calls us to and truly embracing others -- all others? Perhaps not.
God calls us to recognize our weaknesses. In fact, he assures us of His strength in our weakness, if we fess up to it. As the church, we need to recognize that our weakness is indeed our lack of reaching out. We look at "missions" as being money we send to foreign countries, and perhaps an occasional cultural-immersioin trip to those places. But, by and large, we don't look at the mission field as being our neighbors or the people at the desks next to ours. And heaven forbid that the mission field might be the other side of the tracks or the folks living over vacant storefronts downtown or in the local crack house. As Todd Agnew sings, their feet may stain our carpet. Another calling could be the rich set -- the tax collectors if you will -- who spend Sunday mornings at the country club sipping Bloody Marys. We just don't look at these extremes in our own backyard as our mission field. That is our weakness.
We all need folks to carry us through our weaknesses, to support us, encourage us, and love us. Who is there to carry us through our missional weaknesses? Is it ouselves, each other, or what has been coined as the "emergent" church? No, it's Jesus. Just and absolutely Jesus. Just as He reached out without thinking of Himself and embraced the "least of these" whether they be paralytics and the demon-possessed or "jet-setting" tax collectors, He loved them and sought to bring them into the church. We must make sure that He is our teacher, our mentor, and our inspiration as we seek to make the church what He calls it to be.