The Buffalo River in Northern Arkansas flows cold year ‘round. This is important because its swift, cool waters provide a great breeding ground for Trout. In the spring of 1994, I traveled to Flippin, Arkansas (yes, that is the town’s name . . . I have my picture taken next to the street sign announcing the “Flippin Church of God” to prove it) with a group of friends to fish this mountain river on a guy’s weekend away.
Knowing that the waters moved swiftly, and not being the owners of a boat, my friends and I first stopped in Flippin at a boat rental shop to get a small motor boat to help us navigate the Buffalo. After renting our boat, we hit the river and spent our first couple of hours with lure in the water, searching for a trophy trout.
About 11 AM, however, we discovered a problem. The motor on our boat was not working, and we were drifting aimlessly downstream. Normally, as we drifted downstream, we would have simply fired the engine up and driven back to our desired location, but without the engine, we were at the mercy of the current and found ourselves about a mile off course, with no real prospects for how to get back to the dock. As “Dueling Banjos” played in my head, I began to get nervous. Thankfully, we eventually got the motor back started and cruised our way back to the dock.
Today, as I watch thousands of students moving to Norman to begin their studies, I am reminded of my experience on the Buffalo River, and think that experience holds an important parallel for students moving onto the OU campus today.
As a Pastor (and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma), I frequently get asked about the spiritual climate of the OU campus. The subtext to these questions (sometimes asked by prospective students, sometimes asked by these students parents) is this, “Is it possible to walk with God on a secular campus?” Sometimes this question is asked directly, other times it is focused on a particular environment on campus, “Can someone walk with God and live in a fraternity house . . . or in the athletic dorms . . . or in a science department?” When asked these questions, I always measure my response. Here is why:
Many times I think we imagine the Christian life like a greenhouse. At some level we believe there is a nearly perfect protected and controlled environment where all Christians planted will automatically grow and mature. The greenhouse mentality prefers Christian University over State University, and off campus apartments over the sorority house. The thought being, if John or Susie are planted THERE, they will AUTOMATICALLY grow and mature.
Observation, Biblical Study, and experience have taught me that the Christian life is far more like the Buffalo River than a greenhouse. We live in a world that has a current that is pulling all people away from God. Left to our own devices, none of us will drift toward godliness. In fact, left alone, we will float downstream away from God’s plans for our lives. This is the truth of Romans 3:23, “All of us are continuing to sin and are falling away from the glory of God (emphasis added according to the original text).” Galatians 1:4 describes this world as a “present evil age” from which we must be rescued. The general drift is away from God, not towards Him.
Now, immediately, you might begin to make an objection to this theory that would go something like this, “But Mark, in the fraternity house at OU you are surrounded by foul language, sexual immorality, and drinking. At the Christian University you are surrounded by choirs and mission trips.” That is a fine objection. There is a lot of truth in what you are saying (I will get to this more in a minute), BUT, none of those things will make you walk with God. In fact, at seminary I had many friends from Bible College backgrounds who drifted through their undergraduate days toward legalism and cynicism . . . not toward God. I say this to point out that in the parable of the prodigal son, the Father had two sons . . . both of which spend part of the story separated from fellowship with their father. The younger son was isolated from the Father while He was partying in a foreign land. The older son was isolated from the Father in his self-righteousness. This parable helps remind us that regardless of your environment, left to ourselves, the human heart drifts away from God, not towards Him.
All this said, it is important to remember that the current of the culture (and the inside of our own hearts) wants to sweep all people, regardless of their environment, away from God. So what are we to do? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to our predicament on the Buffalo River. We need a functional engine to drive us to where we want to go. For the Christian (of course) this engine is the Holy Spirit. We engage this engine in our lives when the Christian lives the life of faith, choosing to embrace God’s direction and gracious empowerment over their own feelings and temptations. When an individual recognizes the drift, then engages the Holy Spirit engine by faith, they are able to move against the current regardless of their environment.
Some of the most dynamic spiritual growth of my life happened while I was attending OU and living in a fraternity house. However, I did not grow spiritually because I was at OU or living in a fraternity house. Those two things simply provided the geographical context where I was on the “boat.” I grew in that environment because some of the guys I was around helped remind me to engage the engine and live by faith. This allowed me to go against the cultural drift and see God do some amazing things. My friends who grew in their walk with God while at Christian school did so by doing the same thing . . . engaging the Spiritual engine by faith, not just by being in some spiritual greenhouse.
Now, I want to add an important disclaimer. On my fishing trip in 1994, I was on the boat with two other men who were also committed to getting back to the dock. It took all three of us to fight the current and get the motor engaged. In the same way, on the University Campus, it is essential to have other Christians “in the boat” with you helping you navigate the waters back to the dock. I firmly believe that walking with God works best inside community. Jesus called the 12, not just one. Regardless of where your environment is, it is important to have a community of believers near you. For me in college it was an on campus Christian organization and a few close Christian friends in my fraternity house. For others it is a church group, small group Bible study, or other opportunity. This is why Wildwood has invested so heavily in our College Ministry (Sunday mornings at 9:30 AM in the Gathering Hall). Who we are around makes a big difference, it just does not make the ultimate difference. Walking with God in any context requires connecting to the engine.
Therefore, for the University Student, two questions:
- Will you engage the Spiritual engine by faith this fall, or will you simply drift downstream? No one wants to end the semester far from God and reaping the consequences of a wasted semester spiritually. However, as we have seen, there is no treading water in the Kingdom of God. You are either driving up river or drifting downstream. Will you engage the engine this fall?
- Who will you climb in the boat with to help keep the engine engaged and headed towards God’s purposes for your life? What church, campus organizations, etc. will you partner with this fall to keep you on the right track?
Thoughts? I would love to hear them!
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I love your blog and wish I lived where I could attend your church. I love you, Mark!