Over the Ides of March, I spoke for Manna Christian Fellowship's Spring retreat up near The Delaware Water Gap. I was reminded of my Bucknell days working with students.
Oddly enough, turning the corner in the lush dining room of Tuscarora retreat center, I was accosted by Suzanne Priestaf, a former BU student. She happened to be breakfasting with her husband Chris who is a pastor down the road.
The Priestafs had been student leaders in two different campus groups in the 90's, and I've always respected them. They looked exactly the same as when I left them in Lewisburg. I'm sure I looked the same to them (!).
Manna's retreat consisted of about 80 Princeton students, 10 alumni and four staff. A large portion of their fellowship is a diverse mixture of Asian students.
My host, and the one who is to blame for presenting me to his peers, was Jeremy Chen. He's been working with Manna since graduating from Princeton in 2012.
He and Joel, the Executive Director, prepped me well for the group: They are earnest, gracious and ready to learn from a speaker such as me who is cut from a different kind of cloth.
How different? Well, I sat in on one of their break-out sharing times made up of recent alumni and staff. I noted, as they went around the circle, the kinds of jobs these men and women have...already:
- Programmer at Google
- Investment firm consultant in NYC financial district
- Staff with The World Health Organization in DC
- Medical research at Princeton in preparation for med school
- Master of Divinity student at Westminster Seminary
- Manna Fellowship intern heading to med school
- on and on
Folks shared fears and challenges, and others prayed. Most were in that state of euphoria of having landed that first great job, and praises to God were in order.
A different cloth, indeed, from my upbringing and education, but it didn't get in the way of some good communication. Thanks to Jeremy's encouragement, I simply spoke as directly, winsomely and "Tomly" as I could. And the students responded well to that.
For instance in my first talk, I introduced the topic: Wired for Glory: How Ecclesiastes Calls us to Re-humanize our Spirituality. My talk was 20 minutes long in which I reflected on the need for wisdom in navigating three campus idols: Partying, Friending and Winning. And I showed how Ecclesiastes commends all of these, in the context of a loving Creator.
Except for my Friending talk that I have to completely revise, the others seemed to touch a nerve. In the final talk about "winning," I wanted to uncover that basic human urge to win, to compete, to achieve, to succeed.
Is the urge to win inherently evil or a perversion of a God-wiring in us? I argued for the latter, just as I did in the other two talks. But with this one, I knew that my fabric for understanding achievement presented a cultural dissonance.
To avoid appearing self-righteousness(pointing fingers at all those privileged Ivy Leaguers!), I chose to openly share my own frustrations and achievements across the broad palette of my life.
I spoke of marriage, household, friends and civic life as critical arenas for pursuing success. That is, life is more than jobs.
I also led that session with a lot of questions, allowing them to interact over the relative merits of the ever-present competitive bug at Princeton.
I found they're working through the same stuff I've been wrestling with for decades. I found them able to reflect critically on their campus culture and internal motivations. I found them delightful to interact with, and I credit a lot of that to Jeremy and the other leaders of Manna who have pursued a course human flourishing in Jesus' Good News.
I also had some great conversations with a few undergrads that surprised me:
- Awoman who was very impressed with my apparent encouragement of my five kids' gifts, particularly in music. What for me is obvious (you encourage your kids in the line of work they delight in), was abnormal to her. She was raised to aspire to a short list of acceptable vocations at which she could aspire. For her, she demurred, becoming a doctor didn't bring her angst. Since she was a little girl, she always wanted to be a doctor. How convenient for her parents! Still, she was impressed by my embrace of music as a viable vocation for a Christian.
- It surprised me that one graduate, working in downtown Chicago, aspired to create a library in his apartment for friends to enjoy. He admitted he only had a dozen or so books and that his knowledge of classic literature was very weak. So, not every Ivy League graduate has imbibed a truly Liberal Arts education!
- One other woman allowed me into a family secret: She found out in her teens that her Grandfather had lived a separate life in a country that turned communist. When the curtain dropped, he fled to the democratic side and started a new family of which she belongs. During her childhood she was told he had died. The shame of his re-set life was hidden from her by her Christian parents "out of love". She seems to have reckoned with her disappointment, but the pain remains.
I was struck by the normalcy of it all. These high-achieving folk were coming off a draining week of mid-terms and worries over getting into internships in their summer. One student admitted that all his options were actually pretty fantastic. Still, a person frets.
Persons are persons everywhere. Even as Christians, we can make a big deal out of cultural differences in a way that leads to prejudice, judgement and suspicion. But we are all image bearers. And in Christ, we are all animated by one Spirit.
As I gazed out at the Delaware River running by the retreat center, I mused that God's Spirit runs deep, deeper than the skin of our cultures, as God-given as they are.