by Joanne S. Richmond (March / April 1999 — Volume 15, Number 2)
In the midst of academic and campus life, students are facing the fires of life's tests. A faithful God promises the strength to endure
The image is chilling, a silhouette of a woman standing, holding a handgun extended in front of her. She is shooting, but the gun is not shooting bullets. Rather a flag extends from its muzzle. On the flag are the words "personal tests."
The image is on a banner constructed by Dana College students, an annual project which has become a traditional part of our campus ministry fall retreat. The 1998 theme: "Faith under Fire," chosen during a brainstorming session, reflecting students' responses to 1 Corinthians 10:13.
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (NRSV)
"Faith under Fire" — a violent image for a generation whose lives are surrounded by violence. This generation lives with the knowledge that children bring guns to school and shoot other children. This generation lives with the image of an African-American man being dragged behind a truck, to his death. This generation hears of people their own age who kidnaped a gay student, tying him to a fence, beating him with a handgun, and leaving him to die.
Ought we wonder why students would choose to use the image of a woman with a gun to convey their defensive posturing as they experience the many ways life tests their faith? Are we shocked?
I was shocked when I saw the image on the banner; the silhouette was painted long after I had gone to sleep. I was surprised to see a woman aiming a gun with a flag sticking out of the muzzle with the words, "personal tests."
Like bullets exploding around the image, other words were painted naming the tests: individuality, time management, abstinence, work, commitment, money matters, health, values, stress...
The words are familiar. Any one of us might name one or more of the personal tests of faith Dana College students listed as issues in our own lives. Yes, it is hard to maintain one's individuality when peer pressure iis so great; it is a test of our faith. And yes, everything around a college student's life challenges his or her commitment to abstinence. The list of tests makes sense.
But, are they so difficult, these tests students face in their personal lives? Do they hold the possibility of wounding students so deeply? Or have students in the late 20th century incorporated a kind of ferocity in their lives that allows an image of a woman with a gun to have no more significance for them than, say, my generation's memory of watching a coyote chase a roadrunner off the edge of a cliff?
In her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston's main character, Janie, described to her best friend, Pheoby, how important it was for Janie to leave their small, southern town. It was only after living on her own with a man she loved that she finally figured out what it meant to live.
Now, Pheoby, don't feel too mean wid de rest of 'em 'cause dey's parched up from not knowin' things...It's uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there to know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." (Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, University of Illinois Press, 1978, p. 285)
If you know Janie's story, you know the poignancy of her words. After surviving a hurricane huddled in a shack with her husband Tea Cake, Tea Cake was bitten by a mad dog. Rabid, in his own madness, Tea Cake pointed a pistol at Janie's head. Defending her own life, Janie shot Tea Cake with a rifle. He died in her arms.
"...you got tuh go there to know there."
Helping Students Face Tests
Where is the "there" our students are going? What do they know, and what will they know as they make their journeys? How can we best serve them, and serve with them, as they go to God and find out about living?
These are the questions we who serve the church as Lutheran campus ministers and college pastors are asking.
Recently, I asked a student attending Wayne State College (Nebraska) how her campus pastor assists her as she faces the "tests" of faith that mark her life's journey. She wrote:
Life is difficult. There are certain situations that simply hurt. My campus pastor is always saying "some pain lasts a lifetime." Last Fall, I was able to talk about some difficult issues that were painful and heartaching. My campus pastor was there. Pastor Paul listened...Pastor Paul didn't just listen; he shared the message of a liberating gospel. Pastor Paul talked about a God and Savior who grants hope, mercy, peace, and life in the midst of brokenness. (Stephanie Lorenz, e-mail correspondence dated October 8, 1998. Used with permission.)
The Dana College students I retreated with this past fall answered my question a second way. When they face situations that test their faith, whether the situations are personal, academic, social, or spiritual, they asked themselves "WWJD?" They want their campus pastor to assist them in the process of answering the question: What would Jesus do?
Their question is real: what would Jesus do? Just because we see "WWJD?" adorning car bumpers, and on bracelets, t-shirts, necklaces, posters, and key chains, we ought not minimize the significance of the question. Rather, our answer to "WWJD?" must be developed with the same rigor we give to sermon preparation. Our answer, then, takes those popularized initials and gives them the depth so often lacking in contemporary Christian conversation.
If, as my students demonstrate in their poster image, the experiences they have that are testing their faith are coming at them with the speed and force of bullets, they must also have the power to inflict deeply wounding pain.
What Would Jesus Do?
In answer to the question "WWJD?" the Dana College students I retreated with began by looking at the story recorded in Matthew 12:9-13.
Jesus left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, "Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Then he said to the man "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. (NRSV)
What would Jesus do? In this instance, when tested by a group of Pharisees who appeared to be missing the intent of the Sabbath law, Jesus offered them clarity by telling them a story.
The story of the lost lamb pointed the Pharisees in the right direction, showing them a path leading toward mercy.
Through the story, Jesus reminded those testing him that, according to traditional interpretations of Sabbath law, it was perfectly legal to do an act of mercy on the Sabbath. Acts of mercy for another take precedence over one's own need.
Studying Matthew's story, my students realized, though not for the first time, the significance of the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind...and You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39).
Keeping those verses in mind as we answered the question "WWJD?" the answer became clear. Jesus would do that which was most loving of God and one's neighbor. Jesus would do that which shows mercy. Jesus would do that which honors God and neighbor.
Rooted in Jesus
For college and university students facing situations or struggles that test their faith, how do they seek answers for their struggles? Our answer is rooted in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ: they strive to do that which is most loving; they strive to discover an answer that is merciful; and they strive to honor God and neighbor in their thought, word, and deed.
The sacrificial quality of these answers does not escape today's students. Neither does the reality that what Jesus would do stand in stark contrast to how society teaches young people to confront life's tests. This takes us back to the image of the woman in silhouette holding a gun.
Four students involved in my campus ministry program stopped by my house as I was writing this article (on a Sunday afternoon). The day before, one of the four, along with several of her friends, joined a local church's youth group on a trip to a local farm where they paid $20 per person to shoot paint balls at one another. The student who stopped by my house is bruised, physically bruised, by the game she played.
What does this mean? What are we teaching our children and young adults? Is there a message in our "gaming" that leads our youth from toys to real weapons? Is this part of the reason children bring handguns to school? Is this why handguns are used by young adults to pistol-whip others in the head? Is this the solution society provides for those moments in our lives when we are being tested?
If your answer to these questions is yes, as mine is, then imagine the way these messages conflict with the message we are trying to provide. It's no wonder that there is conflict we see in students' lives.
"Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." (Their Eyes Were Watching God,
Hurston, p. 285)
Although Zora Neale Hurston wrote in the plural form, as Janie addressed her friend Pheoby, she implied a singular journey. In ministry at Lutheran colleges and state universities, campus ministry must encompass both. Our students come to our programs and services alone, occasionally brought by friends but carrying the baggage of their own unique life's journey.
It is the task of campus ministers to work for and with these students, providing a safe space and time for them when they are able to speak and listen to one another. These students are going to God in worship, in conversation, in shared service projects, in Bible studies, in shared prayer — and they are finding ways to live that are authentic expressions of who they are as children of God in a community of faith.
No where are our Dana College students' voices of faith more vibrant and alive than in our Wednesday evening chapel service. At 10 o'clock every Wednesday night, we worship using Holden Evening Prayer. It is a student service: students play piano and guitar, take turns serving as cantor, and fill the chairs. My only task is that to which I was called, reading the Word of God and making time for the Word to settle in.
Each week the students respond to the Scripture reading singing the same words, Mary's words, the Magnificat:
"My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you,
You have looked with love on your servant here,
and blessed me all my life through."
(Holden Evening Prayer, "The Magnificat," GIA Publications)
This is the image I choose to carry in my mind, the best expression I find of how university and college students face life's tests. I see students in sanctuary, singing. I see candlelight shining through the darkness of the evening, illuminating the faces of young adults turning toward God. And I see the silhouettes of people gathered after worship, hugging one another, sharing a word and embrace of peace. God's peace.
"May God's grace and peace be theirs in abundance..." (1 Peter 1:2, NRSV).
Joanne S. Richmond is currently campus pastor at Dana College, Blair, Nebraska. Prior to this, she served as campus pastor at Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan and as pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Houghton, in concurrent calls.