A presentation for the Christian Reformed Campus Ministry Association
May 27, 2020
Friends, I am grateful for the invitation to share with you some reflections on the calling of campus ministry. When I came up with the title – Of Prophets, Priests and Poets – I was alluding to the dedication of my first book with Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed. That book was dedicated to my (now late) friend, Bud Osborn. Bud was a street poet and fearless advocate for the poorest of the poor in the famed downtown eastside of Vancouver. Bud was a prophet, priest and poet and he has had a profound impact on my life.
So I thought that I could put together a bit of a manifesto, a radical vision of campus ministry, a rallying call to my colleagues in CRC campus ministry – something fitting for a farewell lecture – all under the categories of prophets, priests and poets. But then I remembered that I have an aversion to vision statements and manifestos, and that I have always been reticent to speak to my colleagues in the CRCMA in a way that might suffer from the presumption that I have something to say that folks don’t already know.
And so the more I thought about this presentation the more it became clear that the subtitle was missing one crucial word – autobiographical. These are not so much words of wisdom that the retiring campus minister imparts to his younger colleagues, as they are some “autobiographical reflections on the calling of campus ministry.” And the triad, prophets, priests and poets, serves me well in sharing these reflections with you.
But first, I’d like to go to the beginning of my story and share with you two life-changing events of my very early Christian discipleship.
Two life changing events
Of course the most life changing event of my life was coming to be a follower of Jesus sometime in fall of 1969. But there were two other events that happened within about a year and a half of my conversion. One was a large conference and the other was a small meeting. As I look back upon these two events I can see how profoundly formative they were in my life. And both events had everything to do with campus ministry.
Some fourteen months after my conversion a man gave my grandmother some money so that her young grandson, recently converted to Christian faith, could attend the IVCF Urbana Missions Conference between Christmas and New Years of 1970/71 at the University of lllinois.
And there were four things at that conference that deeply resonated with my young Christian faith, and had a profound impact on my calling in life.
The first was that I got to listen to the great biblical expositor, John Stott, give four evening bible studies on the Upper Room discourse in the gospel of John. I had been converted just a little more than a year earlier reading the gospel of John, and here was a man with a winsome intellect and a profoundly deep faith taking us deeper and deeper into that intimate conversation between Jesus and his disciples on the eve of his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Now I didn’t have a “when I grow up I want to be John Stott” kind of an experience, but I certainly had a sense that if I was going to open the scriptures for people as part of my calling, then Stott had set the standard. Not that I would mimic Stott’s expository style, or even come to the same exegetical conclusions as this great bible teacher, but that my engagement with scripture, and my calling as an expounder of the word, would need to strive to be as winsome, as faithful, as engaging, and as intelligent as what I saw displayed those four evenings at Urbana.
The second thing that happened at that conference was that I met American racial tension in the flesh for the first time. The African American preacher and civil rights advocate, Tom Skinner, gave a talk called “Racism and World Evangelism.” You couldn’t get anywhere near the stage because all the black kids showed up an hour early to grab all the seats at the front. And the tension in the room was palpable. I was a very young white Christian convert boy from Canada and here was an event addressing matters of race that threatened to undermine much of the evangelical theology and church culture that I had experienced in that first year of discipleship. And I knew that there was something very right about the black kids at the front, with their backs to the dominant white audience behind them.
If Tom Skinner began to dismantle what was an implicitly (and often enough explicitly) racist kind of Christian faith, then the third experience at Urbana set me on a path of seeking a socially engaged radical discipleship.
The Latin American Christian leader Samuel Escobar gave a lecture that introduced us to something very new in the world of Christian thought and practice. He offered us an evangelical version of liberation theology. Here was a faith with justice at its core. Here was a Christian discipleship that recognized that the preferential option for the poor wasn’t Marxist rhetoric, but gospel truth. Here was a hermeneutic that released the scriptures from their pietistic and individualistic shackles, allowing the liberating power of the gospel and the radical praxis of Jesus to deeply transform our lives.
All that happened at Urbana 70 for me. And it all happened from the main stage. But there was one other thing going on at that conference that was kind of an underground, subversive, and decidedly unsanctioned movement. Every day a newspaper was being handed out that commented on, and often critiqued what had happened at the conference the day before. It was called The Vanguard and was clearly more radical than anything that IVCF would sanction. Articles outlined the connections between evangelical missionary activity around the world and the forces of American imperialism. After Skinner’s talk the editors of this guerrilla movement interviewed all the mission agencies at the conference to see if they actually welcomed black folks to be missionaries. The vast majority did not! So they published that news and the dormitory where the black kids were segregated exploded. (Yes, the registration form asked you to identify your race, and the black kids were in separate dorms from everyone else.)
Who were these people? What was their agenda? Why were the organizers denouncing them from the stage? Why did their stuff sound so right, even though it all seemed just tad dangerous? Now here is the interesting thing. I wouldn’t find out who these radicals were for another three and half years when I kind of stumbled into the CRC campus ministry at the University of Toronto. This guerrilla vanguard of radical discipleship was connected to the Institute for Christian Studies, and a whole bunch of these folks worshipped with the CRC campus ministry. When I found that community in 1974, I had a deep sense of homecoming.
I’ve got to tell you friends, those four things – Stott’s biblical exposition, Skinner’s anti-racism gospel, Escobar’s liberation theology, and a bunch of radical reformed students and faculty stirring up the pot – pretty much set me on the path that I’ve been on in discipleship, scholarship, writing, and campus ministry for the last 50 years.
But there was one other little event that shaped me. Some time in that early period of following Jesus, while I was still in high school, I got invited to an IVCF meeting at the University of Toronto. I remember well that it was in the medical sciences building. And there, this 17 year old convert hung out with much more mature Christians in their early 20’s. And an IVCF staff worker – I can’t remember who it was – gave a talk. I don’t remember what it was about, but I knew that it was good. This guy had a group of some 25 or 30 students hanging on his every word. Listening to him unpack the scriptures, prod them with questions, and begin to discern what Christian faith looks like in a modern university. And at the end of that meeting I knew what I wanted to do with my life. When I grew up I wanted that guy’s job. I wanted to spend my life unpacking the scriptures, helping to dig deep into the struggles of life, accompanying students into more radical paths of discipleship. Yep, the youngest kid in the room, the kid who wasn’t even at university yet, figured that his life would somehow be bound up with campus ministry.
So here is the first thing that I want to tell you this afternoon that you already know. Campus ministry changes lives. Whether it is in a local meeting of a campus fellowship group or a large public event, whether it is sanctioned by the church, or an underground guerrilla movement, in deep gratitude and joy, I want to bear witness today, that those experiences of campus ministry at very early moments of my Christian life profoundly formed me, gave me vision, and made a call on my life.
And one way we could describe that call would be to talk about prophets, priests and poets.
Of Prophets …
As you can see, there was a prophetic edge to some of my earliest and most formative experiences of Christian faith. While many young Christian converts in the late 60’s were cutting their hair and burning their rock and roll albums, my conversion resulted in long hair and an abiding love and interest for contemporary music. For me, the Jesus who I met while reading the gospel of John and hanging out at a soup kitchen mission in the inner city of Toronto, was radically counter cultural, in constant conflict with the authorities, wouldn’t play by the rules of the dominant class, and gathered around him an alternative community rooted in the values of the kingdom, not the empire.
So when I stumbled into the CRC campus ministry at the University of Toronto and actually found such a community who followed this radical Jesus, I was all in. In that community I began to come to a deeper understanding of the prophetic tradition and how it is at the heart of campus ministry.
Here’s the thing about prophets. They were creative and courageous leaders of intellectual rigour, a liberated imagination, and cultural discernment who were deeply rooted in the scriptures of Israel. Now that sounds to me like CRC campus ministry. Us reformed folk are known for the theological depth and breadth of our vision.
Let’s begin with depth. The prophets engage in a ministry of retrieval and memory for an amnesiac people who have lost their way. The prophetic word only sounds novel and new because the people have forgotten their own story, they have lost the plot, and their imaginations have been taken captive by alien, and invariably idolatrous, cultural systems, symbols and narratives. And the radical word of the prophets is to remind the people of who they are, where they came from, and the shape of covenantal faithfulness.
Well, it seems to me that such a ministry of retrieval and memory helpfully characterizes campus ministry. Isn’t that why teaching is at the heart of what we do? We seek to open the scriptures in our campus ministry communities precisely because we know that without deep roots in the story of God with God’s people and all of creation, we will lose the plot of the gospel and forget who we are. One way to describe this is to say that our evangelistic and pastoral ministry is one of inviting folks into the story of Jesus. But to do that we need to be constantly digging into that story, engaging Jesus in the gospels, coming to a deeper understanding of the torah, writings and prophets who shaped a kingdom worldview in Jesus, and following that through in the Acts of the Apostles, epistles and writings of the rest of the New Testament.
This is a ministry of memory that retrieves what has been lost. In terms of my understanding of the distinctiveness of reformed campus ministry this is crucial. Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but it seems to me that a lot of reformed folk have sold their birthright for a pottage of evangelical pietism. Rooted in the sacred/secular, heaven/earth, soul/body dualisms that have taken the Christian imagination captive for most of our history this kind of pietism (found in so many campus ministries and perpetuated in most of our hymnody) seems so pious with its Jesus talk, but in fact leaves the church wide open for cultural captivity. Once you have split the world up into two realms of sacred and secular, once you have named heaven as your escape destination away from earth, and once you have divided the human person into a soul and a body, Christian faith becomes irrelevant to embodied, this worldly, cultural reality at best, or a pious legitimation for idolatrous cultural practices, systems and patterns of life at worst.
At its best, a reformational understanding of Christian faith knows better. And so my entry into campus ministry was through teaching Christian worldview courses on secular campuses. How can we break through the dualisms that have held us captive for so long and embrace a wholistic worldview, a transforming vision of all of life? How might we read scripture that would release it from the shackles of such dualism? How might we have the audacity of an Abraham Kuyper and confess that there is not one square inch of all of creation over which God is not lovingly and redemptively sovereign?
Now if it is true that there is something prophetic about this kind of teaching, then we should not be surprised if such biblical worldview exploration creates tensions and crises in our midst. How many times have I heard a student raised in the church exclaim,
“Why didn’t anyone tell me this stuff in my church? Why do I have to unlearn so much of the piety and theology of my church background if I am going to really engage the scriptures and follow a path of radical discipleship? Do you know what happened at Thanksgiving when I started talking about this stuff at the dinner table? A big theological argument erupted!”
So as campus ministers, employees of the church, servants of the church, we find ourselves, like the prophets before us, creating trouble in and for the church. It is very hard to be a court prophet. But there is a sense in which campus ministry in our circles is called to precisely such prophetic ministry. Living and working at the margins of both the academy and the church we are called, I believe, to be a prophetic voice calling folks to a deeper fidelity, a more radical faithfulness, a more holistic and liberating worldview. Our prophetic calling is to be bold but not arrogant as we negotiate our service to the church subject to our higher and more radical calling to the kingdom of God.
Now, given this prophetic emphasis on biblical depth and an integrative worldview, it is no wonder that CRC campus ministries have been known for the breadth of our vision. If we are doing this kind of prophetic teaching ministry on campus, and if this is a vision that anticipates nothing less than the redemption and reconciliation of all things (as Paul puts it in Colossians 1.15-20), then surely we must be all about tracing the connection between this comprehensive vision of life and the crucially important work of scholarship and education in the modern university. No wonder, CRC campus ministries are well known and respected for our emphasis on the integration of faith and studies. We might not have always known what we were doing, but if we are proclaiming a gospel of such cosmic scope on the university campus then surely we would want to help students and faculty to develop an integrally Christian perspective in their work at the university. And this has been hard work. This has been struggling with principalities and powers kind of work. There is so much at stake for both students and faculty to play the game, learn the paradigms, and don’t ask embarrassing questions, especially if they are “religious” in character.
You see, the dualistic distortion of Christian faith serves the academy well. Scholarship is religiously neutral so leave your religious assumptions at the door. But the genius of reformed faith, and one of the most significant contributions of the reformed tradition to Christian scholarship around the world, has been to debunk and deconstruct this false dichotomy.
So employing the best resources that reformed scholars (and others) have produced over the last half century we have sought to encourage integrative scholarship through campus ministry. My own approach was to try to keep on top of the Christian scholarship in any given field just enough so that I could ask good questions. I didn’t presume to prescribe what “the Christian perspective” would be in any given field, but I wanted always to be able to find the right questions that would probe into the heart issues in that field of scholarship. The strategy wasn’t a matter of making dogmatic pronouncements but rather of creating a community of communal discernment in which the hard questions could be raised. Indeed, if at the end of a conversation more questions were on the table then when we began, I would take that to be a sign of success.
Now one of the problems with this approach was that it seemed to so privilege “scholarship” when most of our students have no intentions of becoming scholars per se, but are seeking an education towards various kinds of occupations. That is a fair and important critique. Most students just want to get their degree and get a job and they don’t have the time, inclination or disposition to get into the worldview issues at stake in any given discipline. Nor do they need to. But what all students need to do is reflect on what Christian discipleship looks like in the totality of life. And surely a ministry rooted in reformed faith should be fundamentally directed towards precisely such discipleship. If a student has the privilege to engage in post-secondary education, then they are on a path of cultural, professional and community leadership. And the same principles and questions that we would struggle with in the faith/learning kind of discussion apply to the issues of leadership development in any other field. In campus ministry we try to form communities of discipleship to help students thrive at college or university precisely so that they will be shaped into deeply and radically Christian cultural leaders in all of life – from vocation to family to church to sexuality to politics to ecology and economics.
And perhaps that gives me a segue to one more thing to say about the prophetic nature of campus ministry. The prophets knew that justice was at the heart of Torah. “Justice and only justice, you shall pursue,” insists Deuteronomy (16.20). “What does the Lord require of you?” writes Micah, “but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (6.8). “Let justice flow down like a mighty river,” thunders Amos (5.24). The deeper you get into the biblical story the more deafening do the bells of justice ring. And this too should be at the heart of any campus ministry that would stand in the tradition of the prophets. And when justice becomes the lens through which you engage the world, all kinds of new questions emerge about vocation, family, church, sexuality, politics, ecology and economics. So often our students receive a justice education in the context of campus ministry that is alien and often even oppositional to what they have learned at home and in their churches. I have had more than one student say to me, with a chuckle and gratitude, that campus ministry ruined their lives because we opened them up to a vision of justice that meant that the comfortable path that they were on now had to be abandoned and a new more difficult, but also more exciting path of discipleship needed to be embarked upon.
When you understand the call to justice you become painfully aware of both your own privilege and your complicity in injustice. Your eyes are opened to a wounded world of oppression on the brink of collapse or self-implosion. You ears are unstopped and you hear the cries of the most vulnerable, the discarded, and the despised. I think you begin to see the world more through the swollen, tear-filled eyes of Jesus. And if such a vision proves true the preferential option for the poor that liberation theology discerns in the biblical witness, then might it not also entail what we could call “the epistemological priority of suffering”? What happens if we prioritize suffering in our engagement with the world? How does an attention to suffering – whether it be ecological or socio-economic, mental health or sexual – shape our understanding of the world and how we will live into radical discipleship in the conflicted and compromised realms of vocation, family, church, sexuality, politics, ecology and economics?
It seems to me that the breadth of campus ministry, especially if it has profoundly biblical depth, calls us to shape prophetic communities of justice-seeking discipleship on our campuses, for the sake of the university, for the sake of the church, for the sake of the world that God sent his only Son to redeem.
But, of course, all of this requires more than just prophets. We also need priests.
Of Priests …
You see, all of this talk about the prophetic calling of campus ministry can be quite heady. Biblical theology, Christian worldview, faith/learning integration, all of life redeemed, cultural engagement, pursuing justice in the face of systems of oppression – maybe there is something about the seriousness of the reformational intellectual tradition that gives us a proclivity to such large ideas and agendas. And there is the danger of reformed folks replacing a dualistic pietism with an intellectualism that is no less dualistic. This is the kind of thing that Jamie Smith has been critiquing in his cultural liturgies project. We abandon a culturally compromised pietism only to embrace a different kind of dualism between the mind and the body. Calvinists live a lot in their heads, but faith is always embodied and experienced in the midst of real, conflicted, compromised, suffering and confused lives.
So there is, if you will, a priestly character to campus ministry that must complement and ground the prophetic dimension of our work. Some of us are better at the priestly side of things than others, and that is one very good reason to have team ministries in which different gifts are manifest in the leadership. But the point isn’t so much a matter of finding folks with a priestly gift as it is to live into our communal calling as a royal priesthood. The church, and by extension campus ministry, is called to be a priestly community mediating the grace of God to the world even as it holds the pain of the world in its heart.
Friends, I have loved my ministry of teaching, preaching, writing, and being something of a theological provocateur, but I’ve got to tell you that the moments of deepest honour for me as a campus pastor are always pastoral. Engaging in a ministry of accompaniment through dark valleys in a student’s life; a ministry of listening and encouragement; praying with someone and reminding them that they are beloved, forgiven, and gifted – these are when I feel like I have entered the holy of holies. Sometimes these are awful, tragic, heart breaking moments of sorrow – I have buried three babies, I have witnessed the dissolution of marriages, I have been in the psych word to visit suicidal students, and have pastored those weighed down with sorrow and exhaustion. And other times they are moments of such unspeakable joy – a baptism, a reaffirmation of faith, moments of healing, milestones in students’ lives, and I’ve lost count of the how many weddings I’ve conducted.
Times of joy and times of sorrow. In sickness and in health. In good times and bad. This is at the covenantal heart of all ministry, not least campus ministry. And it has perhaps been especially important for our ministry that we have been a place where lament is welcome. My experience is that students are looking less for answers and more for authenticity. In the context of a church that prioritizes and perhaps even mandates “joy” there is something liberating about a community that can give painful and sometimes abrasive voice to lament. Walter Brueggemann is right – “grief is the doorway to hope” – and you don’t get to hope – real hope – without going through that doorway. And, my oh my, have I met a lot of grief over the years in campus ministry. And it seems to me that integral to our priestly calling is to hold space for that grief. Literally holding space (and time) for grief, for lament, for sorrow, without trying to fix anything. In fact, that holding space is what makes our offices and meeting areas into sacred spaces. Somehow a space needs to be baptized by tears before it can be holy. I think that our office at the U of T is one of the holiest places on campus.
But there is another holding that I perceive in the priestly dimension of our calling. I would call it the holding of faith. I said earlier that campus ministers don’t have all the answers, but they should have a good collection of questions. It is also true that campus ministers don’t have all the faith, or a final angle on the faith, or even a consistently strong and secure faith. But we are people of faith, longing to grow in faith, and to shape a community of faith. And I think that we have the high calling of holding faith for those who cannot.
This is kind of hard to explain, but so many of our people end up in our campus ministry as their last shot at Christian faith. They are the “dones” – “been there, done that, got the Christian teeshirt, and I can show you the scars.” So many of our folks suffer from PETSD – Post Evangelical Traumatic Stress Disorder. They can’t quite believe anymore, but there is something about our campus ministry community that attracts them for one last shot at staying in the story. And the gift of a campus ministry community is that it can hold the faith, embody the story for these folks in the midst of what is often a painful transition. The community holds the story, struggles to live in the story, and in doing so we keep the story alive for others to explore whether they want to get into the story themselves. Agnostics, atheists, folks from other religions are all welcome. We hold the story, but not too tightly, less it becomes our possession and we refuse to welcome others.
Or to extend this more personally, I think that sometimes in pastoral care we are called to hold faith, or hope, for someone else. Does a student think that she is so broken that she is not worthy of God’s love, and could not possibly receive forgiveness? Well, we can simply assure that person that while they cannot believe in God’s love for her, I as her pastor am happy to hold that belief on her behalf. Or perhaps a marriage is in crisis, and you know that a crucial counselling session is coming up on Friday, well, you can intentionally hold the pain of that relationship, spiritually and physically bear that pain, through fasting and prayer on the day of that appointment. Holding space, holding faith, holding pain, holding hope – these, I believe, are integral to our priestly calling.
Now let me say something about poets.
Of Poets …
Discerning listeners would have heard Walter Brueggemann throughout this lecture. At times I think that much of my writing is an extended footnote on what I have learned from Brueggemann about reading scripture in the context of late modern culture. So you won’t be surprised by this quote:
“… the key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numb, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.”
Faithful cultural engagement, embodying the gospel, enacting the story of redemption in all of life – in our families, churches, sexuality and gender identity, in our political lives and ecological care, in our economic lives and occupations – requires serious imaginative work. It isn’t simply a matter of believing certain things and then putting them in practice, because if we have reduced or captive imaginations then we simply won’t have the resources of imagination to envision what faithful life looks like.
Again, Jamie Smith’s cultural liturgics project proves to be helpful. Humans are liturgical animals, writes Smith, “who live off the stuff of imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.” Embodied existence, real life at your place of employment, in the polling booth, going to church, doing the shopping, raising kids, is rooted in and reflective of the stories, pictures, images, and metaphors that shape our imaginations.
If intellectual acumen is one of the strengths of reformed faith, then the shadow side of an iconoclastic Calvinsim is how prosaic is its theology. Even something like Our World Belongs to God, which was a valiant attempt at a contemporary testimony, only has the shape of poetry to cover up what is decidedly a prosaic document.
So I have spent the last twenty-five years of my ministry focussing on the poetic – not in the sense of writing poetry, but in the sense of seeking a liberated imagination – and this has brought me to liturgy. The Wine Before Breakfast community has been an experiment in imagination. Attending to the poetic shape of worship, of prayer, of music, we have sought to be a community of Christian imagination. We want to open the word in such a way that scripture breathes and moves within us. We engage in contemporary music in our liturgies not to seek relevance but to hear the resonances. How does the artist’s imagination resonate with a biblical imagination, especially the text of the day? How does one open up the other? And how are our imaginations shaped in the interface? Through the poetics of liturgy, and centrally in the imaginative enactment of the narrative through the concreteness of the Eucharist, we find our imaginations opened up and liberated for radical discipleship.
If our worship is going to liberate our imaginations then it will need to be profoundly biblical, symbolically rich, culturally engaged, unafraid of lament and pain, deeply Eucharistic, and so honestly authentic that it will simply not put up with bullshit.
Now here is the thing. Almost all of the prophetic literature is poetic and the priestly language of the psalms, and the liturgy is equally poetic. So I guess that I am saying that if campus ministry is to be prophetic and priestly, then it will necessarily also be poetic.
So friends, I don’t offer a manifesto or a five year plan, or even a mission statement for campus ministry. I am simply grateful to have this opportunity to share with you some autobiographical reflections on the shape that campus ministry has taken in my practice over these years at the University of Toronto and before that at the Institute for Christian Studies, Brock University, and Erindale College. I felt the call to campus ministry very early in my Christian life and it is an amazing gift that I’ve been able to live into that calling.
I am humbled and grateful that the Christian Reformed Church saw fit to hire an Anglican to do ministry on their behalf at Brock University and then at the University of Toronto. There were times when I was blown away that I got paid to do what was so close to my heart and calling. At U of T I have been blessed with wonderful colleagues who brought their own gifts to our team ministry. There are too many over the years to name, but I do want to name Geoff Wichert, who has been my colleague for more than 20 years. Thank you Geoff.
The Emerging Leaders program of Resonate has been an incredible gift to our ministry and we believe that the gift has been returned in the creative leadership of our alumni in campus and parish ministry, in the academy and in creative cultural leadership.
The Wine Before Breakfast community has been as much a place of healing and homemaking for me as it has been for the hundreds of folks who have been formed in our midst and who have shaped our community. And there is no poetic without music. Sometimes I joke that I founded Wine Before Breakfast just so I could have a place to hear my musical friends play at 7.22 on Tuesday mornings. That is mostly true. My gratitude to our musical director, Deb Whalen-Blaize and to all of her predecessors in leading the bandhood of all believers is immeasurable.
I began this presentation by talking about my late friend, the poet, priest and prophet, Bud Osborn. “Down Here” is an abrasive and strident poetic rage depicting the lives of the most oppressed and broken people in our society. And it ends with these lines:
let my words
sing a prayer
not a curse
to the tragic
& sacred mystery
of our beautiful
Let it be so. Thank you very much.