A white haired man in an untucked button down shirt walked onto the stage. As he began speaking I wanted to tune him out, slide down into my seat and take a nap for the remaining thirty minutes of chapel; I had heard the phrases he was using many times before and was bored with them. But I wanted to be a good example for the underclassmen around me so I sat up and listened to the speaker, Kevin Butcher.
“Do you know God loves you?” This got my attention because it was not followed with sappy expressions of how He wants to cradle me in His arms. Instead, looking straight to the audience, Butcher admitted that he had not always believed the love of God. He described the violent actions that came out of that void without sugar coating them. He told the truth straight. He admitted to us that it was not until after his four years at a Christian college, after seminary, after being a successful pastor for many years that he realized he did not have faith in God’s love.
I do not know if all the students in the room caught how monumental that admission was. To me, the message was loud and clear: You do not have to leave this place with your theology ducklings all lined up. It’s not guaranteed and you’re not broken if you have doubts or questions.
As Butcher spoke honestly, he asked the same from us. He asked that we stop pretending to “get it” when we don’t.
So I am going to do just that. Here’s my confession: I didn’t get it my first two years of college.
The first two years away from home were tumultuous concerning God. I doubted and questioned Him; I yelled and cursed at Him. I felt isolated and alone in my faith. I had a few achingly precious moments of connection with my professors and fellow students; a stargazing night outside of a Kentucky abbey and a teary meeting over mugs of hot tea in my hall director’s apartment. But for the most part, I ran from honest conversations about faith because I felt like a bad Christian-college student.
Butcher said knowing God loves you is essential to living a healthy life. It is what fills the voids and stops the vacuum from consuming you. However, believing God loves me is monumentally difficult in ideal times, let alone when I doubt if He exists at all. For a long time, the everyday grit of an all-powerful God loving me was too much to put my tiny faith in. I needed some external persuasion.
In Cold Tangerines, Shauna Niequist writes, “Friendship is acting out God’s love for people in tangible ways.” It is through the acts of a friend that I am beginning to believe in the wild truth of God’s love for me.
This summer I worked a full time job with the National Park Service and took an online class. My days were full of canoeing, writing, reading, and studying. At the end of July, my boyfriend, Sam, came to stay with my family for five weeks. He did odd jobs around the house and ranch while I worked. He sat with me as I studied at night. I was often grumpy, tired, and preoccupied with schoolwork. When I wasn’t ignoring him I snapped at him time and time again.
But every morning he would wake up with me, help me pack my lunch, and offer to make me breakfast. As soon as I left for work, he would text me and ask if there was absolutely anything he could do to help me, to make my life easier. He washed my laundry, made my bed, painted furniture, made phone calls for me. When I came home from work, he would be waiting on the front porch, sometimes with a glass of iced tea or Coke. Always with a big hug.
There were days when I would not see another human on the river for hours at a time. The bird calls and insect buzzes and steady rhythm of the water became more than background noise. It was on one of these days that I understood that the way Sam was loving me was a reflection of how God loves me. Relentlessly. Unconditionally. God’s love is there when I reject and ignore Him. Even then.
I think I get it now.