It took me at least a week to realize why I felt so different after I visited Arkansas.
A few weekends ago I made the long trek out to the north-western tip of Arkansas to visit Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas. It’s about a ten hour drive (not including time for stops) from Auburn to there, so I loaded up on podcasts and caffeine and hit the road before dawn.
Most of the trip is pretty unremarkable. Everything looks pretty much the same until you hit central Arkansas, where everything turns flat and dusty. But something happens as soon as you hit Highway 49, the last turn before arriving in Fayetteville. With no notice whatsoever, flat earth transforms into the foothills of the Ozarks. Rolling hills and plummeting valleys adorn either side of the highway. The sky looks bluer somehow, and the color palette changes from earthy greens and browns to steel and lavender. It feels like something out of Lord of the Rings.
It’s absolutely gorgeous.
The whole weekend was a blur of new faces and places. I finally got to meet my campus minister, Mike, his wife, Deanna, and their family in person – one of the first things I remember is their youngest son, Peter, giving me a bear hug the way only a two year old who’s arms can’t quite reach all the way around your legs can. We ate together and laughed and talked.
I’m only now realizing how strange it is to have a total stranger come from seven hundred miles away and immediately treat him like family. I take for granted just how supernatural the church is.
The next day we went around the city – first the farmer’s market, then around campus, the RUF office, downtown. We stopped in a used bookstore that was more like a maze than a shop. I think I ate better that weekend than I have in my entire life. That night, I got dinner with some of the students, which lead to a night of frisbee and volleyball and a display of my spectacular lack of dexterity.
I hit it off with a good number of the guys (all of whom are cooler than me). There’s a refreshing honesty in the students – a lack of that pretence of nonchalance that comes with pretending to be cool.
Underneath everything, I felt welcome and wanted in a way that I never have before. I came back to Auburn practically sleepless, but feeling awake in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. I felt like I brought something back with me.
A recent conversation with one of my dear friends in Auburn brought me back to this passage from C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm:
“It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good [things] that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life – in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experiences – we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and deprecating all other occasions by comparison. But these other occasions, I suspect, are often full of their own blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of his glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been looking forward to the RUF internship for a long time. I’ve been preparing for ministry for what feels like my whole college career. I dearly and deeply love the ministry that has meant so much to my life here in Auburn.
But what I hadn’t realized is the way I’d swallowed the old lie that “it’s all downhill from here.” Auburn is the place I’ve experienced more joy, growth, and sense of belonging than anywhere else I can remember – so much so that I subconsciously began to assume “nowhere else can be as good as here.”
Which translates to “Jesus actually won’t be good to me all the time.”
I came away from Fayetteville with two realizations: first, that Jesus is alive and working on Arkansas’ campus. You can’t put a group of people together like the ones I met that night – people who are so different but also so loving towards each other – unless the Holy Spirit is changing hearts naturally full of hate into ones that look like Christ. Second, our Father is good – and good to me – all the time. His generosity overflows the boundaries of what I can hold. And he is not limited to the Auburn/Opelika area.
I’m not saying we only know that Jesus is good when he makes our lives easy and enjoyable. He’s called us to take up our crosses and follow him, to be refined as gold in a fire. Sanctification is often – and probably normally – a painful process. Even in the midst of heartrending tragedy, he is still good, merciful, loving, and kind.
But sometimes the ways that he reminds us that he is good is simply by blessing us until even our insensible hearts can’t deny that “[our] cup runneth over.”
He’s given me a renewed sense of hope – hope that I am not leaving the best behind, but that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And that hope “is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly trust in Jesus’ name.”
August can’t come soon enough.
Prayer and Financial Update:
I finally got in my official budget from RUF: I have to raise $35,000 each year in pledges. Right now, I’m at $21,500 pledged+received for my first year! So close, and yet also so far. If you’re able, would you consider partnering with me to continue bringing the gospel to students who desperately need it? Information about how to give can be found under that little tab up there that says “Support James.”
Please pray for the students at Arkansas – that the ones who know Jesus would continue to be renewed in their whole being after the image of Christ, and for the ones who don’t to be brought into an encounter with Him with Spirit-opened eyes and ears. Pray for Mike and Deanna and their children, and all the chaos and beauty that comes with family life. Finally, please pray for me as I finish up my time in Auburn, say hard good-byes, and move into a new phase of life!