I had no idea that I was bringing baggage with me.
I had luggage. One black roller suitcase and my "Mary Poppins" bag with various medicines to keep from getting sick. Yes, I definitely had the necessary luggage as a new pastor, traveling with eight students and a fellow adult leader to Montreat, NC for College Conference 2016, "Faith in 3:16," based on John 3:16.
What I did not realize I'd brought with me was baggage. It was not until I was texting with a friend about the conference that I found myself surrounded by baggage I had not intended to bring with me, baggage from my past.
John 3:16 was one of the earliest verses I remember memorizing. My young mind saw this verse as an ultimatum: choose Jesus Christ or perish. These words that speak of the vast love of God were lost on me, seeming more like a threatening weapon rather than words of love. This was a hard revelation to come to as we were traveling to College Conference, and even more difficult to try to discern: how I was supposed to be a source and form of pastoral support, when I hadn't wanted to touch that verse with a ten-foot pole? How do you come to grips with a passage you have come to dislike because of its potential for harm, and you can only see it as a source of shaming and threatening others, rather than a source of hope at the foundation of your beliefs?
"...And now my heart stumbles on things I don't know, my weakness I feel I must finally show..."
Perhaps the most frequent question I've been asked from ordination exams to becoming a pastor who works with college students has been, "What do you think is going to happen to the future of the church with so few young people going to church?"
We hear the statistics and see the articles that talk about Millennials moving further away from religion. It's terrifying for churches and denominations to hear, and the immediate reaction is to believe the church is dying, and the only way to prevent this from happening is to jump into "fix it" mode.
"In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die, and where you invest your love, you invest your life..."
We had the great honor of hearing some amazing speakers during this conference. Each speaker shared various snapshots and interpretations of John 3:16, each one providing more insight and another facet of the verse.
As part of the conference, I sat in a 20-25 person discussion group of college students (only four of us were pastors), listening to college students explain and express their views on John 3:16. The overarching message they proclaimed was one of love. These students took comfort in this verse, like an old sweater that you put on during the coldest and bleakest of nights. Yes, they struggled with the "perish" part, but they primarily saw 3:16 as the greatest proclamation and reminder of God's love in this world.
I was in shock. I had foolishly thought all these students would think as I had (I am part of the Millennial generation), that they would share in being fearful and mistrustful of these words. But these students had something to teach me, had a new and fresh perspective to offer.
Perhaps the students, as part of the church, hold a new perspective to offer, one that is vastly different from what the church looks like today, but one that the church desperately needs.
"Awake my soul, awake my soul, awake my soul, for you were made to meet your maker."
The last night of the conference, we sang "Awake My Soul" by Mumford & Sons during worship. Now I've grown up going to Presbyterian camps and conferences. It's safe to say that I know most all of the standard songs, but this was the first conference I'd been to where they intentionally brought in what some would term "secular" music, as a form of worship.
I stood with all these students, listening as the familiar chords resonated in my ears, but it was the chorus of voices that pierced my soul and left me mute. I was deeply struck by the volume and confidence everyone in that auditorium was singing "How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes...." It was louder than any other song we'd sung during the entire conference, and I stood there, listening, taking everything in when it struck me: they're living 3:16.
Friends, these college students are the church today, living out 3:16 in all its complexity. They get that this verse can be used as a tool for manipulation, can be a source of fickleness and deception. They get that we aren't meant to have everything figured out, that we're meant to stumble and struggle, but to not allow our struggles to defeat or consume us. God's love cannot be defeated, for it is a love that stretches out through eternity. And we--pastors and leaders and adults in the church--who are so quick to question the fate and future of the church in the hands of these students, we can learn from them. We can see that our calling is not to fix, but to trust and to live into the complexity we find ourselves in, to trust that the future of the church is not dependent upon us to find the fix or solution, but to have faith that the God of Love will sustain us--will sustain the church--as was made evident with these students singing at the tops of their lungs: "Awake my soul, awake my soul, awake my soul, for you were made to meet your maker."