10 Things I Unlearned at Campus Ministry

Emma-Claire Martin (’18)
Thursday, April 16, 2015

Last week, Rachel told us the story of Jacob wrestling with God. A few chapters before that story, Jacob fell asleep in a certain place – really, the Bible doesn’t get much more specific than “a certain place” between two cities I would probably mispronounce. Upon waking from a dream, he remarked that surely God was in this place and he did not know it. This is basically how I felt over winter break, when the first semester felt like a dream and I realized that surely God had been in this place all along. I realized what kind of community we are. The kind that treats every day like a family reunion Thanksgiving dinner set the table for more than you’re expecting save a seat for everyone who ever lived here tell their tales until you conjure them back to the pews they once called home. And I realized that this is the kind of community that deserves a THANK YOU. Tonight is basically my Thank You Card to all of you, from the opening prayer to the postlude.

And at first I was going to write about What I Learned At Campus Ministry, because all of you have taught me so much more than what will end up on my diploma. But what a cliché question. In May, I will return to my small Philly suburb and everyone will ask me, WHAT DID YOU LEARN? And of course I will answer that cheddar cheese isn’t actually orange but the point is, no one will ask the question that is far more important: WHAT DID YOU UNLEARN? So, I present to you all: 10 Things I Unlearned At Campus Ministry.

1. Type-os are unforgivable.

The first time I messed up the bulletin, I was surprised to find that the world kept spinning. The second time I messed up the bulletin, I found that entering Kay did not trip a series of trespasser alarms, and by the third time, I was still awaiting my excommunication letter. And I kept feeling not good enough. When God reaches out to people, they tend to respond with a reason why they are not good enough. Moses tells God that he can’t talk good, and Gideon points out that not only is he the youngest in his family, but he is the leader of the weakest tribe. They say they are not deserving of the tasks God has set out for them. Now, I am likely to label something a New Testament reading when it’s not, and I’ll definitely miss that F sharp during the Offertory. I’m not deserving of the tasks you have set out for me. But, learning not to judge yourself on trivial things like spelling errors is a classic chapter in emerging adulthood, so let’s go deeper.

2. Friendship works like health care, in that you can’t get it if you have a pre-existing condition.

Starting college, I felt like my Anxiety Disorder would be a huge barrier in starting and maintaining friendships. I’ve learned to carry my diagnosis like a warning sign. Like a stop light like a Get Out Of My Life Free card like the escape clause in a contract like I know I’m being a little hyperbolic but I guess that’s just part of the diagnosis.

On a Thursday service in December, I asked Nicolai, “Why are you all so nice to me?” His words crawled into ears that were tuned to a harsher key signature. He said, “Because you deserve for people to be nice to you.” This was new to me.

While we’re on the topic of Thursday services, we come to

3. Tears, like mental illness, scare people away.

Now, we are still unsure about why exactly intense emotional experiences cause us to cry, but one theory suggests it is a method of communication. A nonverbal signal to members of our community that we are vulnerable and fragile and hurting and we need help. We need support. Like a survival mechanism. That amazes me because I have been ridiculed and blamed and abandoned for my tears. I learned to hide them because they repel, they push away, but here, they draw people in.

4. There is an answer to everything.

When I ask a question in this community, I am often met with an answer that can only be described as a Glorified version of Maybe: “What do you think?” “Well, kinda this, but also that.” “Ask the worship coordinator!”

But, there’s this idea in life that you start so that you can finish, you leave so that you can arrive somewhere else, but here, people set out on a journey and leave their maps behind. Here, the compass in your hand will never be as accurate as the compass in your heart, which simultaneously makes more and less sense when you remember that the compass in your heart likes to spin more than it likes to point in one direction, here, the only time there is one direction is when Monica got that comforter for the lounge.

5. Forgiveness does not exist.

I was under the impression that forgiveness was a mythical creature that could only exist if you were in denial about its nonexistence. I believed in apologies around the same time I believed in Santa Claus. As I got older, I became skeptical of the way apologies were carelessly thrown around, sorry was the first crack in a breaking promise, sorry was just the echo the morning after my father drank like the blood of Christ was poured for him and him alone and sometimes I thought it was and sometimes I thought it should be and sometimes forgiveness was the type of resurrection that I refused to believe in. It was hard for me to find balance in words that were built over tectonic plates but you all breath life into the dry bones of forgiveness.

6. Unconditional love also does not exist.

I have only ever known love to come with conditions. Love and love but love or love with love without love unless love if…have I ever explained to you why I’m not a dog person? Like, when everyone freaks out over Dogs on the Quad, or some video of a puppy climbing stairs goes viral, my indifference sets me apart, and I think it comes from how uncomfortable I am with their unconditional love. You could come home from feeding the homeless or come home from killing the homeless and your dog will greet you with the same enthusiastic affection. I want to say I have a moral problem with that, but really, it just makes me feel guilty. I’m embarrassed to be loved in the face of my mistakes. I never felt like I deserved the kindness I received and that’s why Nikolai’s words, which turned out to be the verbalization of all of your actions, were so unfamiliar to me. The sandpaper vocabulary of my childhood did nothing to prepare me for the gentleness I have experienced these past few months and I am still learning how to accept an offer of friendship without analyzing it for hidden conditions. I am still learning how to look at a burning bush and see God before seeing destruction.

7. There is a hard line between childhood and adulthood.

I tend to associate certain things with either side. Most green foods, for example, fall on the side of adulthood. I was excited for college and I knew it would be fun, but I was also kinda scared of the way it resembled a mathematical function. Your input is a child, then its baby teeth are replaced with internships and its training wheels turn into taxes and you’re Halloween bag is full of vegetables and your output is an adult. But guess what? Like just about everything, age does not operate on a binary system. It’s a spectrum, and you can dance back and forth across that spectrum no matter what age you are. There are times when Monica is clearly older than David, but there are times when David is the oldest person in the room. When I met Jonathan and Greg, I didn’t think they were freshmen – I didn’t know what grade they were in – and Mark is able to approach any new information with both hard-earned wisdom and childlike wonder. As it turns out, my vision of adulthood was a little skewed, a little off, a little…wonky. Adulthood cannot fit into an advertising campaign, and growing up isn’t a eulogy to my inner child.

8. Night and day are perfect metaphors for bad and good.

Night is something to survive until the morning; the darkness only exists for you to get out of it. And if you can’t get out of it, well, I guess you don’t deserve to. But outside on Easter morning when the sun was still sleeping, the windows of Kay glowed like embers. And it wasn’t beautiful because it was light in darkness, but rather, light with darkness. Light because of darkness. Night is not the enemy of the day, they work together. But the dark can be harder to manage. The sky has the sun on a part-time contract, and there were times when it felt like the sun quit on me without a two-weeks notice. I let my eyes adjust to the dark, I stopped expecting the sun to rise, and I stopped searching for the word HELP in the crowded hallways of my heart…so yeah, sometimes the night is something you want to get out of, especially when you have forgotten how to want to get out of it. But the sun works a lot like grace: it will come whether you want it to or not. It will come whether you think you deserve it or not. It’s okay that day doesn’t last forever, and it’s important that night doesn’t last forever, either, and I definitely stole this segment from David but, like his dad says, you can’t make soup without soup.

9. People leave.

Well, okay, people do leave, but not always in the way I thought they did. They leave in the same sense that Sarah Omar left. Rachel Ternes has woven herself into the fabrics of our worship. Caitie Gleed’s soundtrack does not end when she graduates. Billy Vazquez has forever strengthened the interfaith bond on campus. Dan Hammerman and Claire Brainerd have led by example when it comes to blending different types of worship together. Sean is always reminding us of Christianity’s social justice roots, and Kinzer, I’m just getting to know you, but you were a great shoulder to cry on the other night. No freshman next year will get through their first semester without hearing a dozen stories about DJ, DJ Hamburger, and Monica Nehls will always be dancing in the aisles of Kay. People leave in the same sense that Jesus left – cause, like, he did, but he’s still here.

10. Don’t unpack.

When you’re staying somewhere for a short visit, there’s no point in emptying your suitcase because you’ll be leaving soon. Similarly, I’m always afraid to “unpack my suitcase” because I’m not used to permanence. The first few Thursdays when Mark said “This is not our table,” I always thought to myself, “whose table is it?…Are we borrowing it from the Catholics?” If we’re being honest, sometimes I still wonder, for a split second, whose table it is. And I probably always will. Because I can’t remember the last time my family shared a table and ate a meal together. Our dining room table was eventually buried under mail and permission slips and taxes and dentist appointments and medical diagnoses, our dining room table became an alter for all the things that no one wanted to deal with. We stopped going to restaurants, but you would too if the anatomy of your family was composed of mental illnesses and addictions and flash backs that all triggered each other like a pinball machine in Satan’s arcade.

And when you become used to something, when you let yourself believe that you deserve these fears and limitations, it becomes harder to recognize God when She works through people. But you. You brought me bread and grape juice when I thought I was least deserving of it. You reached out to me when I thought I was least deserving of it. You listened when I thought I was least deserving of it. Eating food at a table with people always makes me nervous because it reminds me not to settle in, reminds me that it’s good now, but this comfort is temporary. Happiness was a commodity I couldn’t afford and every time I convinced myself that this time, this time for sure, my free trial had expired, somehow one of you found me. Right when I thought I was least deserving of it. Right when I needed it most. And I bet you didn’t know that. You thought your smile was just a smile, your invitation just another outing with friends, your hug a forgettable interaction but actually, you were keeping the sun in the sky. And I just think you all deserve to know that.