Connections will be published every other week during summer 2020 from June 10 through August 5. Each column will be a review of Dr. Joe’s writings on GEIST, the thematic goals of the university’s Strategic Map for 2019-2022: GROW Strategically, ENGAGE Collectively, INNOVATE Creatively, SERVE Courageously, TRANSFORM Purposefully. See the Strategic Map at fresno.edu/sites/default/files/strategic-map-2019-22-with-success-indicators.pdf
As I have grown in my pastoral calling over the last few years at FPU, I seem to keep returning to a short passage in Galatians. Even as Paul addresses issues in the church with urgency and what sounds like frustration, we still get a glimpse of his pastoral heart. “My dear children,” he writes, “for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” I do find it a bit hilarious that Paul would liken himself to a woman giving birth to make his point (though my wife, a mother of three who has experienced those “pains of childbirth,” might not think it’s funny, but that’s for another time).
“Christ formed in you.” What a profound vision for the Christian life! We are beckoned into a journey of unity with Christ; where the very person of Christ permeates our thoughts, behaviors and actions. This means we not only have beliefs about the Gospel, we actually become the Gospel, as Michael Gorman outlines in his recent book, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. This is true transformation. There is something deep within me that burns to see Christ formed in the students at FPU!
But, how does this process actually happen?
I was talking with a student this past semester over coffee. In high school, she had been the “star Christian,” particularly when she compared herself to her non-believing classmates. When she got to FPU, however, there were many star students that looked just like her: smart, eager to grow in their faith and happy to serve others. To set herself apart from others, she ramped up her ministry activity, and, quite frankly, was one of the most driven ministry students I have seen at FPU.
All her ministry activity, however, never seemed to close the gap between the person she thought she should be and the person she was. Soon, she began to hit walls, spiritually and morally, even ending up in our student conduct process. “I’m trying so hard to be a better Christian, so why do I seem to struggle? Why is it so hard to change?” she asked vulnerably.
Students are not objects for us to “fix,” but, as an institution centered on Christ, we do need to provide a framework that encourages spiritual transformation. Tragically, too often we promote a version of the Christian life where we try hard to modify our behavior to be “better Christians.” We follow our preferred set of rules (and then argue about what rules are best!), in an effort to make God happy with us, as if we truly can manipulate God into loving us more. Those of us in Christian higher education are also tempted to settle for information about God, rather than a life of intimacy with God.
In OSFD we like to ask students, “what are some narratives you have heard about who God is?” The answers, particularly when we can provide a space where there is no pressure to give “right” answers, reveal much. God is… “distant… unconcerned… angry at me… disappointed in my behavior… expecting me to do better….” We live at the mercy of these beliefs, and when we adopt these kids of narratives about who God is, as the student I mentioned above found out, a life of freedom, abundance and transformation is elusive.
In The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith contends that spiritual transformation begins when individuals and communities adopt the narratives of Jesus. Our Christian tradition tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of God the Father; that the fullness of the deity dwells in Jesus (Col. 1). So, if we want to know who God is and what kind of relationship we can have with him, if we want to know how we can operate in this world with freedom, we look to what Jesus knew about the character of God and the nature of God’s Kingdom.
What did Jesus know about God the Father that allowed him to say, “give to everyone who asks of you?” What did Jesus want Peter to know about God that would allow him to walk on water? What did Jesus know about God’s reign that allowed him to live in complete surrender to God’s will; the kind of surrender that permitted him to say, “not my will, but yours, Father,” and then willingly lay his life down for the world? When students begin to ask questions like this, we are on the brink of true transformation. Rather than trying to answer for students, however, we focus our efforts on creating spaces of radical inclusion and hospitality, integrated into all our classes, events, programs and initiatives, where every student at FPU is safe enough to take all of their questions to the Lord himself to have a transformative encounter. Then, we watch, pregnant with faith and thankfulness, as Christ is formed in the thoughts, behaviors and actions of students at FPU.