Saturday, December 8, 2012

Campus Ministry: Unexpected Joy

Long ago, 30.5 years ago to be precise, I arrived on the campus of my small, liberal arts, Lutheran college.  I knew that the key to college success was to get involved in extracurricular activities, and I had all sorts of plans.  That first week, I went to so many meetings.  I knew that I wanted to be part of the Lutheran Student Movement.  At UVa, the group had met at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville (I was a teenager there), and they always seemed to be having such great fun. 

I'd have met the campus pastor even if I hadn't been a member of LSM.  Our campus pastor also taught classes, which I took.  To this day, I still remember his fabulous class in Religious Phenomenology.  To be fair, I still remember most of the classes that I took as an undergraduate.  That's one of the advantages of a small school, and it's part of my own wiring too.

All those years ago, I had no idea that as a woman at midlife, I'd still be in touch with our campus pastor.  He went on to be a pastor at my grandmother's church, and I'm so happy that she was still mentally sharp when he came to her church.  I always envied her having such a good pastor at her local church, and I was always happy that he was there for her in similar ways that he'd been there for me as a college student.

He's since gone on to retire, and now he travels doing work for some Lutheran camps in the southeast.  His travels took him to South Florida this week, and Thursday he came to our house for dinner.

Years ago, it would have been hard for me to imagine us this many years later dining together.  Years ago, I assumed we'd have been dead by way of nuclear war by now.

But no, here we were, talking about church and national issues.  Our campus pastor has been travelling in ELCA Synods which have been torn apart by the church's sexuality decisions.  I've seen those decisions as somewhat wishy-washy, but our campus pastor was able to explain their theological validity:  if we say that the pastor of a church is called by that church, that community, then that church gets to make the decision about whether or not a homosexual pastor will work in that setting.  I'm simplifying, of course.

But many churches have decided to leave the larger national church, which has not been easy on anyone.  We talked about synodical structures and the structure of the national ELCA.  We talked about how much more administration there used to be.  People who say that local congregations are paying for a bloated bureaucracy are just plain wrong.

We talked about how much the church has been able to do with the support of us all.  There's the international aid aspect, of course.  But lots of U.S. residents have been helped by the church too.  We talked about the social services that the ELCA used to be able to provide:  hospitals, schools, food pantries, workforce support, summer programs, you name it.  At one point, 1 in 5 U.S. residents had been helped by the ELCA--that's a pretty wide range.  At this point, it doesn't look like we'll be able to sustain that rate of assistance, but who knows.

We talked about our weariness with national politics and people's inability to work for the common good.  We talked about how we see this even at the church level.

We also caught up on some news of former classmates.  It's good to remember how many of them are still living the faith that we saw in college. 

Our campus pastor talked about a man he'd met who had served on a candidacy committee for one of the Synods.  He talked about the indicators for people who would go on to become pastors.  The number one thing that so many seminary candidates share is experience at a Lutheran outdoor ministry (mostly church camps).  The second most common predictor is experience in campus ministry.

We talked about the church of our childhoods and teen years, and our pastor shared his concern that so many people are growing up without that experience of a childhood church.  Are we really the last generation of cradle Lutherans?

Our campus pastor and my husband seemed a bit despairing after talk of the political climate that is so unable to accomplish anything and the church issues which are so polarizing.  We talked about how we're likely seeing the past through rosy lenses.  I quipped, "Somebody has to be the church in times of exile."

But sensing their growing despair, I felt it important to say that the Holy Spirit is often working in ways we can't discern until much later.  I said, "I'm hoping that we're living in a time like 1984 or 1985, when all seems impossible, and then we're waking up and Nelson Mandela is walking out of prison.  Maybe we'll look back and say, 'Wow, it was all about to change, and we just didn't see it back in 2012.'"

Our campus pastor said, "On that note, let's light the Advent wreath."  And so we did. 

We lit the candle and read Isaiah 4:2-6, which my spouse had chosen before.  It seemed appropriate, both for our conversation and for Advent, with its talk of cleansing and a new day coming.

Yes, 30 years ago, I'd have never predicted that we'd be having Advent devotions, complete with an Advent wreath, with our campus pastor.  I might have dismissed the Advent wreath as stupid, kid stuff.  I'm glad I'm not that self-righteous adolescent anymore.  To have a meal with my campus pastor and spouse, to light the Advent candle, to pray together--it was profoundly moving. 

I can't imagine a better gift on the feast day of St. Nicholas!

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