Monday, January 28, 2013

SECOND CUP—Milo Chapman and the summer of church camp

Continuing reflection upon achieving my 70th year—

There is so much to say about Milo Chapman. He was (and in key ways still is, though dead now for many years) a major force in my life. A surrogate father to Judy, he was also president and dean and teacher at WPC. While I was never in his classroom, I count him among the great teachers of my life. I was having the not unusual struggles of college students making sense out of the Bible and faith and reason (as they were taught and modeled for me growing up) and life and learning, none of which seemed to conform very well to anything else. I was reading the Bible and going to church and, yes, Sunday school—just as I was always admonished to. I understood that the Bible is an important book and, as a person who grew up in a Christian culture, I knew it was supposed to be sacred and True. Yet, there are all these problems, which I’ll not enumerate because there was nothing particular unique about them. I was, however, really struggling. I went to see Milo—actually, then, Dr. Chapman (I would never have called him Milo then). I went a Judy’s urging. He gave me two life-changing gifts:

One, simply, he listened. He is the first person to hear me and my doubts/struggles with faith who did not attempt to solve them for me. By that I mean, he did not try to explain anything, tell me that it was normal, or dismiss them as silly (which, no doubt, some were).

Two, simply, he gave me a book that I still own: John Bright’s The Kingdom of God. What I came to understand was this: My struggles were with the pieces: I had no frame to put them in. Like a jigsaw puzzle, I didn’t have the outside pieces connected so that a great image would occur. The Kingdom of God did that for me: it gave me a big picture. My purpose here is not to describe that, but simply to say, I was heard and responded to in a meaningful way by a person who really had no reason to. As important as that book and the other Book were and are to me, Milo’s response—and the relationship that emerged from this meeting—were/are far more important.

The largest gift Milo gave me, however, occurred after this. My struggles were not easily resolved by reading one book; I was still struggling with all kinds of questions and issues—at one point, even denying Jesus as God. My first year at WPC was a really rough year in terms of faith and intellect. I knew I couldn’t keep it up; I knew I needed to make a choice but that choice seemed so much about perfection and having it all straightened out. So much of what I understood about being faithful had to do with having it all worked out. But the real struggle was deeper. I have always struggled with the meaning of things and their implications (which is why I was baptized so late in life, but that’s another story). The deeper truth, then, as it often still is, is simply that I was afraid of deep, relational commitment.

I spent the summer after my first Warner year working at the Mt. Palomar Baptist Camp outside of San Diego. What a great summer! I made $5.00 a week (much to my parents’ chagrin) and room and board. Worked hard and hiked everywhere. I loved it. I also read widely, trying to get it figured out. At the end of summer, I went back to WPC—without any of the questions really resolved, not much straightened out, but with a clearer sense of “This is the year. I can't continue to live like this."

The first Sunday of the academic year, 1993, I found myself at Holladay Park Church of God in Portland, OR, and Milo Chapman was the preacher. His topic—amazing that I actually remember, right? I remember this as if it were yesterday—was “I am a Christian, but am I Christian?” More amazing to me than the question, though, was his answer: “Yes, I am a Christian, but, no, I am not Christian.” Whew! At this point I thought of Milo as the nearest to a saint I’d ever know and if he could confess such a thing, then, perhaps, I could make the commitment I knew I needed to make. Perhaps, after all, it was about relationship and journey.

It was a liberating moment—a moment when I understood that I did not have to have it all worked out. It was a journey that began with a desire to be Christian who did not have to be perfect. I count that Sunday as the date of my conversion; it is another touchstone. It is another time when God showed up—in one of the ways God has usually shown up for me: in the life and friendship of another person on the Way.

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