Written by: Sterling Ellsworth
This might be a ramblin’ blog post: I know that is not normally desirable in American writing (my college years taught me how to write in direct, no non-sense prose), but I feel okay with rambling for two reasons: Firstly, I believe that everything is connected in some way (well, not everything, but many things). Secondly, our own dear Oklahoman Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Ramblin’ blues.”
Let’s start our little journey together with a parable:
I. Going to the Lost
He (Jesus) told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
— Luke 15:3-7
I will not lie. I was originally led to the Wesley by my stomach and concern for my wallet (and perhaps also by my longing for community). I remember those first 1-dollar Tuesday night meals vividly – dozens and dozens of people from all races and nationalities coming together to share food. I was delighted to make new friends there from all over the world, though at first I didn’t bother to find out too much about the Wesley Foundation or the people who worked there. One aspect of those evening meals I remember quite clearly. Sometime in the middle, a large, gentle man in the middle of the room would lead us in the following prayer:
“Eternal and gracious God, we give you thanks for this food.
We give you thanks for the hands that prepared the food.
We give you thanks for the earth that gave forth its life that we might eat.
Be with those who are less fortunate than we are – those who are genuinely hungry. Teach us to be with them also. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.”
A few of my acquaintances scoffed at him and even poked fun at his prayer. Over time, however, this man, Rev. Michael Bartley, and the others at the Wesley Foundation won me over through their hospitality and acceptance of all (from the wealthy to the downtrodden), through the authenticity and intentionality of their relationships, through their willingness to share life with us, through their willingness to bring up the big questions in life, and through their worship of the Lord which shined through in faith, deed and thankfulness. Indeed, I am attracted to the piece of the divine that is reflected in the way they treat others and even in the way they think about others. This is what Pope Francis calls the “light of faith”, which is “capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (7). This faith, which “is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love” (7), is what is behind the love that inspires them to go out and encounter the lost sheep. Many are serving the 99. Michael Bartley, Janina Graves and the Wesley foundation are serving the one lost sheep, while still incorporating the 99. They pour out their lives for the students (and even for those who are not students) and view everyone as their neighbor to whom they strive to show love and mercy.
II. Being a Student as a Season of Life
I remember something that Michael once said to people who were seeking God’s will for their life: “while you’re a student, you are called to be a student.” Though God does know what our lives will look like in the future, in the present we are called to be fully present where we are. This was a difficult point for me to process and internalize in college, as I was still figuring out who I was, what I thought about the world, and what I wanted to do with my life. Though those pursuits seem selfish, they are important to work through and this is an appropriate stage of your life to build a solid foundation. Looking back, I realize that college is an essential time of character and worldview formation. Importantly, these processes require a balanced openness to introspection, experience and encounter. Walking with God always brings newness. Do not be afraid of being transformed by the newness that you will encounter in college; greet it with open arms and sift it through the proper filters – the Bible, the Spirit and prayer.
So, being called to be a student means we are called to study. This is inescapable and it is good. Here I am interested in the more personal and spiritual aspects of the student experience, so I’d like to present you with a few tips for making the most of this aspect of your college career.
1. Dedicate some time and thought to the development of your character and your worldview.
Though this will happen organically, it is much more beneficial if it is done purposefully with the aid of the Spirit. According to Bryant Myers, “Work spent articulating one’s worldview, one’s assumptions about how the world works, why it is as it is, and what might improve it is work worth doing” (Myers, 59). Do this with Christ at the center. The more he “becomes the center of your life, the more he leads you out of yourself, leads you from making yourself the center and opens you to others” (Church of Mercy, 17).
2. Develop and appreciate the multiple forms of intelligence.
Though developing skills in your field is very important, it is not the “be all end all” in life. There are many forms of intelligence and developing them will help you to have better and more diverse relationships at work and at home and to lead a more fulfilling and socially responsible life. According to William Deresiewicz, “Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them.”
3. Take time to get to know all sorts of people.
Though I have lived in the middle of Europe since graduation, I don’t think my friendships have been nearly as diverse as they were at OSU. Indeed, my life was enriched beyond words through the relationships I had in the mini-world to be found in Stillwater. I spent time with secularists and Baptists, Muslims and Christians, jocks and intellectuals. I went to Church, to the coffee shop, and to wild house parties. I was friends with people from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Kenya, Iran, Haiti, and the list goes on. We ate together and shared life together. I made many stupid mistakes in college (I still make them), but this aspect of the experience I would not trade for anything in the world. Do not be afraid of newness and diversity. “God is not afraid of the outskirts. If you go to the outskirts, you will find him there” (Church of Mercy, 18). He is the same God of whom the Pharisees asked: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
4. See your education as “part of a larger intellectual journey.”
On the academic side, “Being an intellectual means…being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade” (Deresiewicz). I think that you will find that having a sense of continuity in your education greatly increases its value, as concepts within a field tend to build on one another.
On the spiritual side, we cannot escape the fact that life is a journey. The Bible exhorts us to “Let perseverance finish its work so that (we) may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4) and to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Ph. 2:12). Jesus says, “Come, follow me” (Mt. 4:19). If we do not have some of this movement in our lives – of this going out and going forward – then we become spiritually sick and closed in on ourselves. Be comforted in the fact that wherever you may go, God is already there.
5. Don’t shy away from asking the big questions.
Both the people at the Wesley and the programming greatly awakened my mind to the “big questions”, which are ultimately the most important in life. Indeed, in our compartmentalized lives it is easy to become stagnant and to “fail to see spirituality as a tool for knowing or working in the real world” (Myers, 11). This is where the conviction that everything is connected comes into play. Your views on economics, on ethical issues, on politics, on the poor, on those who are different than you are, say worlds about your image of God. Deresiewicz says, “Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them.” The end goal of this exercise is to make us more like Jesus, more open to transformative encounter and positive action on behalf of the oppressed, and more willing to go out to the lost sheep. As we discover our core beliefs and values, these principles “shape our understanding of what a better human future is and how we should get there” (Myers, 3). Big questions also help us to become aware of the idols in our lives – of the gods that we are “often too quick to worship” and which “claim to give us our identity and security more directly and quickly than our crucified Lord” (21). This takes a lot of courage to do; fortunately, as Christians we are assisted by the Holy Spirit.
I place such emphasis on thinking and being because every time we act we reveal ourselves. It is important to remember this intrinsic relationship between being and doing; though being and thinking must sometimes precede doing, we should view the two as a spiral taking us to ever-greater heights. “Being is the beginning. We cannot do what we are not” (Myers, 44). This worldview formation should start with Christ and lead to the (re)discovery of our true identity and vocation in Christ, which will always involve being “a faithful and productive steward of gifts from God for the well-being of all” (14). Though thinking is of great value, I echo the thoughts of Pope Francis, who recently invited the Cuban faithful to serve “people of flesh and blood rather than ideologies” (RFI).
6. Join a community and serve.
Remember this as you are studying and pursuing your big dreams. You are not only there to be served, but to serve. Don’t just take; give a little back. In the kingdom of God it is not negative to serve. Get involved in the community and the Church body, with all that this entails. You are not too young to make a contribution that adds value. As you search for yourself, remember, “Our human selves are embedded in relationships, finding their fullest meaning in just and harmonious relationships or losing meaning and worth when these relationships do not work” (Myers, 43). As you search for the Kingdom, remember, “The sign of the kingdom is the church” (38). Of course, it is in giving that we receive. One of the many benefits you will reap by allowing your story to converge with the Wesley’s is the joy of studying the scriptures and worshiping in community. This will hopefully lead to being part of one of the greatest testimonies to the kingdom of God – “a church full of life and love, working for the good of the community in which God has placed it” (39). God is in the process of redeeming the world – do you want to be a part of it?
Teach us to see your design in all of creation.
We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.”
– Fragments of a Franciscan Prayer
Deresiewicz, William. “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” The American Scholar. June 2008.
Myers, Bryant L. Walking with the Poor: Principles and practices of transformational development. New York: World Vision International, 1999.
Pope Francis. The Church of Mercy: A vision for the Church. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014.