In a recent noon brown bag lunch, several WPC faculty gathered in Egtvedt 203 to talk further about the mission of the college and how it actually informs the classroom and the life of the mind. It was a good conversation. Timothy, our convener and instigator for this conversation, asked us to think carefully about three challenges.
It was a hearty conversation but one statement really stuck with me. It was almost not heard; I heard it —and I’ve rolled it around in my mind and heart many times since. Ruth said that she wondered about redemption in the classroom….
Seems an appropriate wonder, doesn’t it, for a college whose mission begins “Christ-centered.” I suggested that we might want to think more fully about that wondering when we had more time—as is often true, the richest comments come late in the discussion and there is little time to talk…. But I continue:
Redemption—how does that happen?
As a generic term, we redeem all kinds of things: recycling is a form for redemption; I’m old enough to remember Green Stamps; anyone who has ever been in a pawn shop knows what redemption is about; ransom is sometimes associated with redemption—both legally and theologically; an entity that issues bonds is obligated to redeem those bonds. So, the principle is fairly clear: to regain, turn in, convert, to make up for—even to restore.
I think, however, Ruth is asking more specifically about how we might be in that line of work—how might a Christ-centered liberal arts college do this?
Redemption (in the theological sense of the word) happens at WPC in the usual ways: persons find Jesus for the first (or second) time and begin (or restart) a journey with him. A person goes forward to pray at the end of chapel and life-change occurs. A conversation with a friend, a professor, staff person, the president—such conversations do happen and do lead to redemption in the sense often meant by the word salvation—deliverance from sin through Jesus Christ.
But WPC is not a church; it is a college—a point of confusion not always understood by either its friends or its critics—and its role in the work of redemption may be missed when looking for the more usual ways. I told this story before in my blog but it bears repeating here. Milo Chapman gave me a book and redeemed my mind and heart.
While I was never in his classroom, I count him among the great teachers of my life. I was having the not so 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 the others. 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 were all these problems, which I’ll not enumerate because there was nothing particularly 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.
That is redemption, and I suspect it is the kind of redemption that happens more often at WPC primarily because WPC is not a church but a college. In a very real sense, I think, redemption at WPC can be understood as mission fulfillment. To work seriously, lovingly and relationally and with discernment toward the realization of mission and core values at WPC is to be redemptive. It is inherent in the mission.
I could tell story after story of young men and women, enslaved to all kinds of narrow and fundamentalist and unhealthy perspectives who came to WPC and were redeemed. They were redeemed because someone listened to them and heard them. They were redeemed because no one judged them; instead, they were invited on a journey of discovery with their professors who were also on this journey—and weren’t afraid to say so. As a consequence, they were redeemed because they found a God different than the one they were raised to know; this God is freeing and liberating and challenging and demanding and loving in spite of (or because of) our doubts and questions—especially the ones earnestly asked.
Another form of redemption: discovering how to be a man who is himself and a woman who is herself—not a clone; not a product; not a consequence; not a predetermined Ken or Barbie. We live under such pressure. In a class I teach, Religion 320, we ask students to look critically at the messages with which we are all bombarded—with malice aforethought—in our culture through every possible medium. That message is you are not good enough, not whole enough, not worthy of love enough—unless you buy this product. Instead, colleges like WPC show the hollowness of that powerful and more often than not iniquitous message and replace it with this—You are a person, individual and created for community, worthy and lovable and powerful because you are created by God and loved beyond measure by your Creator.
Another form of redemption: the student who has very nearly given up on life—little or nothing has ever gone well for them. They’ve made poor decisions, have become addicted to something or someone not good for them, been homeless, houseless, churchless; felt life has little good purpose and certainly no higher meaning. Yet, they find a hand somewhere who lifts them up and they find themselves at WPC in a degree program and the process of redemption begun by the one who offered a hand continues through a myriad of hands—professors, academic counselors, teammates—to discover their own distinctiveness, their own worthiness, their own intelligence; in short, their intrinsic value as persons valued and love by others and by God….and valued and loved by themselves.
How does this happen? Books, learning objectives, learning activities, team and individual projects, service learning, opportunities for reflection, teachers, relationships, discernment and reflection, a helping hand, a caring comment—“Take care” “What to talk?” “Can I take you?” Where does it happen? In coffee shops (and sometimes a pub), during an evening break, in between classes, in an office, walking across the commons, standing in the rain at a bus stop. Who helps it to happen? Teachers and advisers and teammates and presidents—persons who know that the fulfillment of mission is finally about relationships and learning and mutual care and living out and teaching within the “letter and spirit” of the Great Commandments.