An ongoing story of God's work on campus: God is real, Jesus saves, and you are loved, always.

Archive for October, 2011

True Christianity

Recently, our very own Sarah Stef took it upon herself to start up a unique and much needed workshop: True Christianity.  The purpose of this weekly discussion is to address common misconceptions about the Christian faith in an attempt to clarify how and Christians view the world.  It is not an apologetic class, and neither is Sarah looking to lecture for an hour every Thursday night, rather she is trying to facilitate open conversation and understanding among people of all faiths.  Over the last few weeks, Sarah has been working to publicize her workshop and has seen had some really good conversations as a result!  Last week, she was even featured as a guest blogger on Faith Line Protestants blog through a connection with UIUC’s Interfaith organization (head on over there when you get the chance and browse their website, it’s pretty neat)!   Here’s what she had to say:

At the end of my junior year at the University of Illinois, I began to contemplate what my last semester of college would look like (since I am student teaching in the spring, I have to pack all my senior experiences into half the time). What would my goals be? How would I accomplish them? More importantly, have I made a difference in my time at the university? I struggled with these questions and more as I tried to plan the blank expanse that is my future.

In a meeting with several other leaders of the Christian ministry that I attend, I took to heart a comment that seemed to outline a need on our campus: Why can’t we create an environment in which we present our faith without making any assumptions about our audience’s faith, prior knowledge, or intentions? Even the most basic Bible study usually assumes that the members have a Bible at home that they can read between meetings. I got excited, because I felt that I had found my purpose for my last semester—I would organize some sort of weekly workshop that could outline Christianity for anyone who was interested, regardless of religious belief. In fact, I encouraged people to invite their non-Christian friends, because it would be most beneficial to those who may not have heard some of it before.

Wait, let me back up… what do I mean by “it” in that last sentence? Well, having grown up in the church my head is packed full of all these random facts about Christianity; what it is, and what the implications are. My weekly workshop is a semi-successful attempt at organizing basic biblical doctrine into different topical explorations of meaning. But I didn’t stop there! Since I wanted to design this workshop to be beneficial to people who may not know very much about what Christians believe in, I decided to add another layer into my discussions—how can I address common questions and misconceptions that people have about the Christian faith?

We all hate clichés and stereotypes for the same reason—because we don’t like to be misrepresented. Christians aren’t any different. It bothers me that the image of Christianity presented by the media, and a few small fringe groups with loud voices, is a garbled caricature of what Christianity really is. A lot of people are put off by Christianity because what they see is only a distortion, and so I am using my workshop to try to clear up those confusions. This is why I named my workshop True Christianity, because there are so many false Christian ideas out there.

Right now I am at the halfway point in my workshop series, and what surprised me was the response to it. My expectations were that Christians would use it as a way to invite their non-Christian friends into non-judgmental discussions about Christian beliefs. It was very disheartening when I finally realized that my Christian friends had little interest in the workshop, probably because they didn’t think it would be useful to them (which is not necessarily true, I myself have learned a lot through my research for this workshop). But on the flip side, I’ve been getting a lot of positive interest from the non-Christian community itself. People actually want to learn about Christianity! Several groups on campus have supported my work, recognizing the need for educating people about Christianity. I think it’s been awesome how my workshop has allowed me to connect with people on campus with common goals that I would not otherwise have had a chance to work with.

As the end of my workshop approaches, I am once again faced with contemplating the future—what do I want to do with everything I’ve learned and done through this experience? I hate the idea that this was just a one-time deal, and will soon be nothing more than a memory. In fact, I refuse to leave it that way, because the need for this workshop will not end when I leave. That’s why I’ve put all of my notes on my website,truechristianityuiuc.weebly.com, because I want everyone to have access to the information regardless of whether or not they have attended my workshops. Besides, I think this small workshop is something that I would like to refine and re-implement wherever I end up in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll write a book… someday. And wouldn’t it be really cool if some underclassman came up to me today and asked if they could keep the workshop running on campus after I’m gone…

True Christianity meets every Thursday night at 6:30 pm in 309 ACES Library.  Spread the word, invite your friends, show up and support Sarah, join her in helping to clear up misunderstandings on our campus while making lasting connections with people of other faiths!

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Rewind. Pause. Push Play. Identity crisis solved.

October 17, 2011 – Aaron Bird

Rewind:  Identity.  This word has been giving people headaches for centuries.  It’s what defines you; it’s who you are.  It’s what some people spend their whole lives looking for.  According to the Oxford Dictionary identity is the very definition of intuitive: it’s the fact of being who or what a person or thing is, which pretty much says that your identity is you.  Yet, we walk around, hanging our heads, full of passion and pain, desperately asking everyone and everything around us for direction.  We ask them to do what proves too difficult for us to do on our own; we ask them to define us, to tell us what is at our core.  We ask “Where do I fit in?  Where am I not wanted?  How valuable am I?  How insignificant?  What purpose do I serve?  Where do I fall short?  Who am I?”  Their answers, however, trap us in a dangerous cycle; they always leave us unsatisfied, which is why we keep asking.  Mankind is going through a major identity crisis.  It won’t end until we stop asking everything and everyone, and start asking The One.

You want to know who you are?

You are God’s child.

If you’re looking for your identity, that’s it right there, in all of its mysterious, awe-inspiring grandeur: you are God’s child.

There are a couple of things at the center of our identity crisis…

The process of elimination: Even when we feel like we don’t know exactly who we are, we can almost always say something about who we’re not.  I am not as smart as him; I am not as pretty as her; I am not as successful as her; I am not as kind as him, etc.  There’s a much more scientific, intellectual name for this, but at its core, it’s a process of elimination, similar to the test-taking technique we’re all so familiar with (well, it’s not A or C…).  The flaw here, is that it’s completely destructive.  Whether it’s intentional or not, you are putting yourself in direct competition with those around you in an attempt to prove you deserve to exist and have value.  But, how can you prove that you have value if your your evidence rests completely on all of the things you are not – all of the things you are “missing?”

Belief that actions are your identity: The world around us is constantly saying that what you do is inherently who you are.  If you teach, you’re a teacher; if you preach, you’re a preacher; if if you write, you’re a writer; if you farm, you’re a farmer; if you run, you’re a runner; if you succeed, you’re a success.  But, the problem here is that what you do is inherently who you are, even when those things are not positive… If you cheat, you’re a cheater; if you lose, you’re a loser; if you quit, you’re a quitter; if you fail, you’re a failure.  So, then, if you win the spelling bee, but fail an exam, who are you: a winner or a failure?  Or do they cancel out, meaning you are nothing at all?

Take a look at what Paul has to say about our identity crisis:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29

You see, the truth is, you don’t have to impress anybody.  You already have an identity: you are God’s child.  And since you are incapable of impressing God, any efforts spent trying to assert your claim to this identity, to prove you are somehow worthy of it, are in vain.  You can’t prove anything, which is why God made it so you don’t have to.  You belong to God, and you can either embrace that truth, or run from it.

We struggle with this concept because we are constantly looking inward and outward, and never upward.  But, the more you get yourself out of the way – the more you let Him have you – the more truly yourself you become.  Once your life belongs to Christ, you are completely clothed in this new identity.  You have nothing left to prove, because in Christ you have value; you have significance.  When you are sure of God – who He is and what He has promised – you are sure of yourself.  Our value comes from being loved by the Lord, and our identity is firmly rooted in who God is.  Since God never changes, His love never changes, which means that our value never changes.  Your importance on this earth never depreciates.  You are God’s child.

That is the Gospel.  He never changes, so who you are never changes.  Again, you can embrace it, or you can run from it, but that doesn’t change it.  Do you know who you are?

Pause:  Even if it makes you feel silly, read these things out loud.  Make them a part of your prayer life today.  Write them down.  Repeat them to yourself as your falling asleep.  Internalize this truth: I am God’s child.  We all need a paradigm shift.  We all need to see ourselves as God sees us.

I may be angry; I may be happy.  I may be big; I may be little.  I may be dark skinned; I may be light skinned.  I may eat desert first; I may not eat much at all.  I may be gorgeous; I may need a little makeup.  I am God’s child.

I may love politics; I may hate politics.  I may be introverted; I may love people.  I may have a job; I may be unemployed.  I may like a cold of cup of lemonade; I may like a nice glass of wine.  I may marinate and sauté; I may overuse my microwave.  I may get straight A’s; I may not remember the last time I got an A.  I am God’s child.

I may be single; I may be married.  I may like rap; I may only listen to Stephen-Curtis Chapman.  I may make lots of money; I may barely make ends meet.  I may like dogs; I may like cats.  I may have children; I may not have children.  I may like pricy lattes; I may only drink tap water.  I may have a police record; I may live in fear of taking risks.  I am God’s child.

I may have a plan for my life; I may be clueless.  I may be successful; I may be struggling.  I may be popular; I may always sit by myself.  I may believe in global warming; I may think it’s a hoax.  I may kiss on the first date; I may wait till marriage.  I may like soap operas; I may not own a TV.  I may appreciate real books; I may own a kindle.  I am God’s child.

I have value.  I have worth.  I have significance.  I am accepted.  I am known.  I am loved.  I have nothing to prove.  I am God’s child.

Push Play: Brokenness stems from a grand misunderstanding of ourselves and of the world around us.  Lifetimes are wasted in search of abstract answers to concrete questions; we deny simple, clear-cut truths in search of something big enough to fill the void in our souls.  We’ve removed certainty from everyday life, preferring the comfort of confusion – no one’s wrong; everyone just has a slightly different, possibly valid, interpretation.  In so doing we have made living much harder than it needs to be.  We have convinced ourselves that our identities are complicated and intangible and vague and indefinable.

The problem isn’t that our identities are hidden or intrinsically complicated; they’re not even all that abstract.  The problem is that we are trying to recreate something that already exists.  Ironically, we end up denying our true selves in a vain attempt to find our true selves.

We haven’t always had an identity crisis.  The modern concept of individual identity is a relatively new idea – most scholars agree that term and the idea it embodies is probably only a few centuries old.  In our efforts to understand the world, to embrace reason, to question and critique and doubt, either to find truth or simply for argument’s sake, we have confused ourselves.  We are constantly mistaking lies for truth.  “The unity of the self was not a problem so long as the traditional Christian conception of the soul held sway…”* but when we decided God wasn’t necessarily God, when we decided the Gospel was just a nice story, when we relegated Christianity to nothing more than a placeholder – a satisfactory explanation only until the ‘real’ truth can be found… that’s when we lost sight of our identity.

It’s okay to question, and it’s even okay to doubt, but let those questions drive you closer to God, not farther.  Don’t believe the lie that man-kind has progressed past the need for God.  We will never not need God, and we will never be ourselves without God.  If you feel lost, this is what you’re missing.

Your identity is mysterious, but it’s not a mystery.  Your identity is beyond comprehension, but it’s not out of reach.  Your identity was bought at a high price, but it was freely given to you.  Your identity will not be found in this world; it resides above.  Your identity is who you are.  And who you are, is a child of God.

Much Love,

Taylor

*Gleason, Philip. “Identifying Identity: A Semantic History.” The Journal of American History. 911 (1983): 910-931. http://www.jstor.org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/stable/1901196


We have to drink Water to give water.

October 10, 2011 – Aaron Bird

Sorry for the temporary hiatus last week… we had a somewhat unconventional service (an interactive discussion about some of the fundamentals of Christianity) that didn’t really lend itself to a written format.  This week, too, was a little different, so you won’t find the same “Rewind. Pause. Push Play.” segments, instead you’ll just get my take of Bird’s message.  This week was about being convicted, being called to action.  This week was about sacrificing for the good of our brothers and sisters around the world who are dying each and every day.  This week was about drinking Water so we can give water…

Nobody likes infomercials.  They’re long, they’re overdramatic, and they’re always trying to get you to do something… usually that something is “Call right now to place your order and receive our special bonus prize!”  To make matters worse, the product they’re selling is typically unnecessary, overpriced, and poorly made.  Nobody likes infomercials because they attempt to trick you, and sometimes guilt you, out of your hard earned cash.

You know what people like even less than infomercials about the latest and greatest quadruple-use kitchen appliance?  Christian infomercials.  You know the ones I’m talking about – there’s the guy or gal dressed in a simple pair of shorts and old t-shirt holding the most adorable child ever standing in the middle of a dirty, dusty street asking you to please do for the least of these.  Now, it’s not that we, as viewers, don’t support the mission of the charities behind these advertisements, nor do we aim to scoff at those among us who choose to pick up the phone and donate the much needed funds to drum up food, medicine, and clean water for our brothers and sisters in need.  Quite to the contrary, we’re all for someone else answering the call to make a sacrifice on the behalf of a stranger, and we’re definitely all for Christians, in general, stepping up to change the world.  Yep, we’re all completely, one-hundred percent on board with sitting in our living rooms and praying for Christians to become the active hands and feet of Christ all over our broken world.  And yet, whenever those commercials come on, most of us promptly change the channel.  You see, the problem isn’t that we’re against the vision behind these Christian infomercials, it’s quite simply that we don’t like feeling convicted.

The trick there, of course, is that if are seeking to live our life apart from conviction by avoiding it at every possible turn, then we can’t really call ourselves Christ followers, can we?  After all, everything Christ does convicts.

So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.  Now he had to go through Samaria. John 4: 3-4

Looking at a map, this journey makes sense; of course Jesus would go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee – it’s a straight shot.  But, culturally speaking, this was a radical concept.  No Jew chose to go through Samaria; instead, if you wanted to go north from Judea, you first went east, crossed the Jordan river, then traveled north, then crossed the river again and went west until you reached your destination.  The Samaritans were half-breeds, social outcasts, a constant reminder of a violent, shameful past (when the Asyrians invaded, they killed many of the Israelite men, but kept and copulated with the women, creating a new cultural mix of people, with whom the Jews did not associate).

The significance of Jesus’ choice to go through Samaria has less to do with correcting nonsensical travel habits and more to do with irradicating hateful, divisive social prejudice.  That, in and of itself, ought to be convicting.  There are plenty of people we avoid on a daily basis because they seem “less-than” the kind of people we think we should be hanging out with.  Who are the people in your life that you avoid?  Do you do so because being with them leaves you feeling just a bit dirty?  Do you think that’s what Jesus wants you to do?  Where or who is your Samaria?

Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.  It was about noon.  When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” John 4: 6-7

Once again, to our twenty-first century minds, this doesn’t necessarily strike us as odd, but, again, this was a big deal.  It was high noon when Jesus and the Samaritan woman were at the well together… no one drew water at high noon!  They’re in the middle of Samaria, which is a hot, dry country, and noon is the absolute hottest part of the day; typcially, women would only make the trip to and from the well in the early morning or the evening hours, when the sun was less harsh.  Also, they would generally go in groups to pass the time and strengthen community.  The only reason, then, that this woman would be at the well at noon would be if she were a social outcast, either forced out or too ashamed to join with the other women.

Also, Jesus is a Jewish man talking to a shamed Samaritan woman (three strikes against her, by the way), and He’s asking her for a drink!  Jesus, a Jewish man and the one, true God, is asking this poor, wretched woman for a drink.  Jesus doesn’t hesitate or avoid; He doesn’t avert His eyes or maintain a holier-than-thou attitude (despite His having every right to do so).  No, instead, He acknowledges her presence and strikes up a conversation.  He validates her existence.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you Living Water.” … The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”  John 4: 10, 15

The Samaritan woman probably would have benefited from reading through a written transcription of this conversation, especially if it included the tell-tale capitalizations.  Here you have yet another example of Jesus’ wondrous rhetorical skill – His incredible ability to manipulate words and stories so that they take on ground-shattering significance.  When Jesus makes mention of this Living Water (which He later explains would forever eliminate her thirst), He is no longer speaking of water (H2O); He’s speaking about Himself.  She, of course, doesn’t understand – how could she; this is a pretty radical concept.  All she’s thinking about is the hours she spends each day walking to and from the well just so she can draw water; how tired she is when she reaches home again; and how she has to do it all over again the next day.  When she asks Him for “this water” she still thinks He’s talking about liquid water – that He’s got some sort of magic, self-replenishing water that will get rid of her lonely, shameful journeys to the well.

We know, of course,  that the water Jesus is speaking of is not liquid, but grace, and the life it brings isn’t corporeal, it’s spiritual.  Jesus is the Living Water, and those who come to know and trust in Him will never thirst again – they will be eternally satisfied.

The woman said, “I know that Messiah [called Christ] is coming.  When He comes, He will explain everything to us.”   Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am He.” John 4:25-26

She’s not disagreeing with what Jesus is saying, she just doesn’t understand.  She’s confused and probably feeling a bit convicted (because Jesus did just finish calling her out on her five husbands), but she’s not willing to act yet.  Instead, she simply repeats what she already knows to be true: The Messiah is coming and He will explain everything when He gets here.  He’ll tell me what to do and how to live and where to find this magic water.  He’ll make it so I don’t have to live under this shame any longer.  Jesus listens patiently, but when she’s finished speaking, He wastes no time in setting her straight: I am that Messiah, and I have explained it to you.  I am the Living Water; I can make it so you are never lacking again.

Are you lacking?  Do you have the Living Water?

We have a water crisis on our hands.  For most of us here in America, living in the twenty-first century means having indoor plumbing, satisfactory sanitation systems, and clean water at your finger tips, but to many of our brothers and sisters in other countries, ‘the twenty-first century’ has little baring on the modernization of their culture.  In countries like Rwanda, women walk, on average, three miles a day to get water for themselves and their families, and the water they get isn’t even clean.  That means two months of these women’s lives each year are spent transporting water.  This substance is supposed to be life sustaining, but, instead, it often brings sickness and death.  So, why go to all this work?  Well, it’s obvious really; because you need it.  Without water, people die.

Over 884 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, and 5,000 children die each day due to water related diseases, many of which are completely preventable. The question, then, is this: Would you dink this water?  If not, why should they?

Without clean water, people die.  People are dying.  We have a water crisis.

So, why do we have a water crisis?  Because we have a Water crisis.  Everyone is thristy for something, and everyone spends painful hours toiling away trying to find the thing they believe will relieve their thirst.  But if we only had Living Water, we would never thirst again.

Read that again slowly: If we only had Living Water, we would never thirst again.

What I mean to say is that if we have Jesus in our lives, we are never lacking.  He always provides.  Our cup is always full.  Even when we don’t see it that way.  He provides for all of our needs, physical and spiritual (like it says in Matthew 6, if He takes care of the wild flowers and the birds, how can we not trust that He will take care of us all the more?).  And, as if that idea isn’t radical enough, I believe that if we have more Jesus in our lives – if we welcome Him in and allow Him to reign over all our thoughts and actions – we can irradicate physical thirst too.

Each year, 2.2 million people die as a result of contaminated drinking water; that’s 20 jumbo jets full of people that effectively crash.  Each day.  If those were literal jumbo jets, people would be up in arms across the world; there would be committees and civil action groups working to prevent the tragedy from continuing; there would be groups of people claiming a conspiracy.  There would be an overwhelming sense of conviction.  We would want to act.

We need to act.  Real people are dying.  This is not a joke or an exaggeration; this is reality.

We have a water crisis because we have a Water crisis.  Followers of Christ are changing the channel, averting their eyes, avoiding Samaria, and refusing to acknowledge a world of people strugglilng to survive.  We need to start watching those Christian infomercials and embracing that feeling so similar to guilt and calling it by its true name.  We need to be convicted.  We need to follow Jesus’ example and walk to the well in Samaria, sit down beside it and meet people there.  We need to drink Water to give water.

At the well is where the world changes; it’s where sanctification, justification, and transformation happen.  Life happens at the well, but it’s messy, which is why we’d rather sit on our couch or in our pew and say a silent prayer rather than taking action.

You will never be held accountable for the number of bible verses you committed to memory or the number of worship songs you sung.  But you will be held accountable for what you did, or didn’t do, at the well.  You are here for such a time as this – there are no more excuses.  Take action.  Drink Water to give water.

Much love,

Taylor

Join the 10 Days Campaign.  Across the nation, college students are giving up all drinks other than water for the next 10 days (Oct. 10 – 19th) and donating all of the money they would have spent to Living Water International, which will take the proceeds and build wells in Rwanda, providing thousands of people with clean, safe drinking water.  Be a part of the change.

Living Water International.