A few springs ago, the dean of a nearby Catholic college called and asked if I could take over a section of the school’s required freshman religion seminar. On paper it looked great: a twice-a-week seminar on such topics as the Trinity, the Eucharist, forgiveness, justice. It seemed like an interesting challenge, an opportunity to engage students in meaningful dialogue about faith, to stimulate mature consideration of the things of God.
I was wrong.
At the first meeting it was clear that these freshmen were neither prepared for nor interested in such a dialogue. They were parked in their chairs only because the course was required. Religion was barely on their radar screens. Most students had no experience of church, and those who did had very negative feelings about it.
So I did something that I had never done in 30 years of teaching: At the second class, I announced that I was throwing out the syllabus (anathema to a control freak like me). Instead, I made it up as we went along. We did a highlight reel of the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, David. We read the Gospel of Luke together. We discussed essays by writers like Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott.
I also threw out the term paper requirement; instead, I had the students write 100 words on a question I distributed at every class, and everyone would share their couple of paragraphs at the next class.
Oh, it was a struggle. Handing in the final grades was a relief. I was never happier to see a semester end. It was a sad and humbling experience.
I do not even know if any of the students got anything from the course. But looking back, I realized that those students had taught me a great deal about faith. I learned more from that course than from any earlier classroom experience—whether as a teacher or as a student. In fact, I was the student and they were my teachers. They taught me some hard but valuable lessons.
Welcome Before Dogma
Religion is not so much about believing as it is about belonging. These young adults were not as interested in dogma as in understanding.
I assigned a reflection paper on Luke’s Gospel: What parable of Jesus did you find most meaningful? I expected most essays to name the stories about the good Samaritan or the prodigal son, but more than half wrote about Jesus’ admonitions on not judging others, verses that barely registered in my consciousness. This generation can teach us a great deal about tolerance and understanding, acceptance and respect.
I also asked the students to design the “perfect” church setting. I steeled myself for demands for cooler art and entertainment. But what the students valued above all else was being welcomed, feeling that they had something valuable to contribute. They also wanted liturgy that engaged them, prayer that enabled them to participate. And they wanted sermons that made sense on Monday morning.
The class gave me a new appreciation for hospitality and the importance of celebrants and ministers to help people become fully engaged participants in prayer.
Being in Love With God
I used to think that believers first discover God in nature, what one theologian I read not long ago called “the footprint of God.” But we really cannot understand or encounter God until we fall in love.
Love calls us beyond ourselves, pulls us out of our self-centered orbit and into the orbit of another. We discover God in the joy of loving someone else, in the gratitude we feel in the assurance that we are loved—despite ourselves. As Thomas Merton writes in The New Man, we grow up only when we discover that we are not the center of the universe, that the world is bigger than we are.
The reality is that we have become so used to getting what we want when we want it that we cannot see beyond our own needs to the greater and more desperate needs of others. The students in my seminar were just beginning to find that out. They were beginning to realize the great technological irony of our time: that the Internet has not united us but has fractured us according to interests, skills, politics, values, gender and so on.
We can encounter God only once we move beyond ourselves. Once we realize our ability to love another and the complete joy of the experience, we can then begin to conceive the idea of God. Love is irrational, unreasonable—and irrational, unreasonable love is God. Many of these students could not relate to a theoretical concept of God. They helped me understand that God is not so much a noun as a verb—the verb to love. I will forever be grateful to these students for teaching me how to be a more compassionate teacher.
Most of these young people were working full-time jobs to pay for school. They did not have the grades in high school that win scholarships and merit grants. A few were trying to escape horrible family situations. It is sobering when a student apologizes for her term paper being late because the night before she had to run from her apartment because her abusive boyfriend started to hit her—again. Or an embarrassed student asks for a make-up assignment because she could not come up with $10 to see the movie I had assigned. They reminded me that I am not teaching a subject, I am teaching human beings.
In Luke’s Gospel, note how many times Jesus acts out of pure compassion: He feels someone’s hurt and pain and says or does the right thing. Even on his way to his own execution, Jesus exhibits compassion and extends forgiveness.
These students seek a faith, a spirituality that challenges them to embrace the values of Jesus. They want to be part of a church that speaks to their better angels. They take very seriously Jesus’ command: “Love one another.” It is not a suggestion, not a key to better living. It is “my commandment.”
Revealing the Unseen God
The group’s most enthusiastic response to any of the things we did was to Martin Doblmeier’s film “The Power of Forgiveness,” stories of people who forgave and were forgiven under most extraordinary circumstances. The students were stunned by the very idea that people could forgive so completely and so generously, that it was possible to rebuild the train wrecks of their lives and find happiness and fulfillment, meaning and joy in forgiving with such outrageous selflessness. That was a new idea for most of them—that religion could be joyful, that church could be affirming, that faith could be humble without being self-denigrating.
That is our challenge as a church. M. Craig Barnes put it beautifully in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet: whether we are pastors, teachers, ministers or congregants, we are called to point to the God who “is always present but not usually apparent.” Any preacher can go on and on about how terrible things are; any homilist can point to the evil in our midst—that is easy. The harder challenge is to find good in the midst of evil, to point to God’s presence when God seems to be totally absent. We are called to witness as John the Baptist does in the beginning of John’s Gospel, “There—there is the Lamb of God!” John calls us to behold Christ’s presence in every act of generosity that challenges selfishness and injustice, in love offered unconditionally in response to anger and hatred, in hope that perseveres despite fear and despair.
It was a hard semester. And frankly, I would not want to go through it again. But in these students I had the chance to see the future church. It will be a humbler and more welcoming church, a more engaged and engaging church and, as a result, a more faithful and faith-filled church. Whether we realize it or not, that future church begins in our own church—now, here, today.