As you prepare to go to college I think about what I need to say to you as you head out the door. I know you heard me about being leery of bald-headed men who drive convertibles and don’t have enough sense to wear a hat, and I know you heard me when I pointed out that man jogging around the neighborhood in his underwear and the implications of both his self-possession and our response to his comfort level of exposed vulnerability in front of strangers (us). We decided he posed one of those questions that we don’t need to answer.
He is, Katie. That man jogging in his underwear is emblematic of many oddities in life that do not require you to make sense of them.
Let the memory of him remind you to turn your attention to the questions relevant right now for you on a college campus.
For the most part I have left the questions about romance and religion to your mother, except for those occasions when you have asked me a direct question about my own faith. I have told you the truth about Jesus. What you need to remember always is that he is real. Although you will be going to college where they teach you questions and offer you often pat answers about the creation of life and its meaning, I can tell you that while the experience of college will be exhilarating in its open-ended exploration of the best ideas that men and women can come up with, there are many paths that lead nowhere in particular. Some ideas require no more serious cogitation than that man jogging by us in his underwear did.
You’ve heard of wilderness experiences from the Old Testament. Sometimes the freedom to explore tantalizing questions doesn’t turn out to be discovery at all—sometimes, those experiences are mainly circuitous meanderings-- wilderness experiences where the explorer wanders around looking at various strange trees, believing that by knowing the number of trees, time spent in wandering, and the amount of money spent on text books and tuition that you are going somewhere that will ultimately be validated as meaningful or a destination called progress. Sometimes, the only real measure of that experience is that you survived it, but you don’t always learn something distinctively true and life or faith enhancing.
A big subject in college that often leads to a wilderness experience is the blanket assertion by scientific thinkers and logic advocates that evolution disproves the supremacy of God as the creator of you and this planet. Evolution is a wonderful dynamic to explore. It’s true, by the way. But it does not disprove that God made everything. He made the dynamic of evolution. To me, evolution’s most tantalizing feature is the creative dynamic of natural selection upon which an understanding of evolution is based. You can look at the scientific evidence and agree with what you see, but it does not disprove that God made everything. You will need a different faculty in yourself to know this, and it won’t be reason alone, although, ideally, reason can take you there eventually, my dear. You will need to trust that part of your curiosity that is fused with imagination and which explores what reason alone cannot—you will need to let your soul keep company with the Holy Spirit of God and allow him to lead you into all truth. Jesus says that he will, and he will, because Jesus does not and cannot lie. You will follow the history of dates and changes in human kind and animal life, and depending upon how far you pursue the investigation, you will find interesting data about the intersection of viruses on human life and the small big bangs of jumping genes as they inform our understanding of the human genome. You will encounter many big words, beautifully constructed paradigms of science, and also philosophy and poetry, but you will never get to the root of an explanation for why we humans are here that is more tantalizing or true than God created us for himself so that he could have someone to love. And then he waits for us to love him, and he asks us in excruciatingly tender ways to love one another.
Because we are paradoxically attracted to and terrified of being loved intimately and completely, we tend to leave or try to hide from God, so he sent Jesus to first find us and then explain Love to us again. Jesus didn’t leave us orphans when he finished his work here. The Holy Spirit uses the intellectual advances of humankind to hint at aspects of God-Is-Love’s nature, but never mistake the ideas of men for the absolute truth about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
Even the very best preachers only come close occasionally to getting this right. By this, I mean, the characterization of the nature of eternal love that is possible right now in communion with God which happens only because the Great Lover of Mankind (and Creator of it, too) has made this communion possible. Your soul intersects with the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, this is referred to as tabernacling. That gift fits inside what we call grace, and it means that God makes everything that is good that can happen between us possible.
To begin to experience grace, we simply have to believe God and put him first. Anything that comes before our love for him is what he calls an idol.
I suspect that because I have always called you Beloved and you have rightly signed your cards to me that way, you believe that I have made you into an idol of sorts. There have been times when I felt you resisting my love because it was oppressive to you; I know it has been. Unconditional love can feel like that to others, but it is not intended that way. I have loved you unconditionally, and you have never been an idol to me. You have always been only a gift from God. But do you see how big that is—you, Katie Ellen, a gift from God?
I greatly admire you, Katie, my Beloved. Most of the times I only tell you this in ways that you are used to hearing—pretty hair, pretty face. But I see you much more deeply than that, and I know you are an authentic human being who is only temporarily seventeen and works at a pet store where you do not find the task of cleaning up pet poop beneath you. I admire that—as I enjoy how often you come home wanting to buy one of the dogs that you are responsible for showing to others. It must be difficult to function something like a person in an adoption agency who must try and find needy animals homes and to make judgments (and how can we help it?) in that moment about whether the prospective parents—your store’s customers-- are good enough to raise the animals you already love.
As you weigh and assess the dangers of your customers becoming the parents of the dogs you love, think of how I must consider trusting you to strangers to raise—people like college teachers who are bound by their own pressures, driven by their own egos, and biased by questions that have haunted them all their lives and for which they are still looking for answers and may try to justify their inclinations and their answers by telling you information that isn’t always true. They don’t usually know they’re lying. They don’t usually know they have denied the truth of God because they are afraid of being completely and deeply loved by God. They can’t believe that. I know this is true mainly because I am a college teacher and some of my friends are people who are afraid of unconditional love. Sometimes I am, too, still. I am as capable of being fearful and wrong as anyone, and I regularly monitor myself to make sure that I am not trying to justify my faith at the expense of people who don’t believe as I do and don’t want to. They have that right. It’s called free will, and I respect it without reservation.
Ultimately, as you begin your studies in college and soon declare yourself in a field of study, be happy and enjoy that pursuit, but the most open-ended intellectual and spiritual pursuit of yours or anyone’s life is the continued worship of and longing for Jesus and more of Him. Listen carefully at college, and as you hear invitations to think about all kinds of ways that people organize meaning out of human experience, remember that all of them have an end. All of them have a conclusion.
You are about to go and see more of the world than I can control, and I don’t want to. The adventure is thrilling. But there is far more to being alive than learning the pieces of puzzles that fit inside a cerebral paradigm. There is life itself, and that happens inside the living love of the Resurrected Savior whose ongoing mission is to keep talking to the Father about us, and all the while he is calling to us, whispering, beckoning, waiting. He is there, is my point. He lives. Live with him and the puzzles of cerebral enterprises find a different place in what you value, and when you do, you are more alive, more thrilled, more free than in any other kind of simple thinking. You are going off to college, and it is quite an adventure; but you will never find a greater adventure than following the Shepherd who will not lead you astray or unto any kind of death that you need ever fear. Let every day begin with his name on your lips as you ask him to keep you company, and let every day end with gratitude for what he has given you, for he gives you your very life. As he has given me mine.
I cannot give you life or much more than words of encouragement like these as you go off to college. In this world I have mainly been a college teacher, and I can only speak of what it is like on campus and what I have seen and what I can remember from my own days of venturing out.
I can imagine much. But I know this: God loves you, Jesus is real, the Bible tells the truth, and if you would work on your penmanship and take care to use it when you are writing those essay exams in your college classes, your grades will shoot up.