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Spiritual growth through relationships

When I was in college, my campus chaplain was someone who was influential beyond words in my spiritual direction. She was the type of mentor and leader who could ask challenging questions, call me on my bluffs or denials, encourage me when I was struggling, help guide me to resources when I had questions beyond her skill set and the one person I was always able to call and celebrate the joys of life with.

My relationship with her helped shape me and mold me on my journey into ministry. She was one of the first people I talked about my desire to go to ministry, to change the career path I was working on in college and to change course in graduate school. The day I told her she just smiled, and then a chuckle came with as she said, “I’m so glad you’ve found what others and I have known for a while.”

When I attended seminary and was working toward ordination, she was the one I would call to discern with, laugh with and cry with as I encountered all the challenges and joys that come with the ordination process. It was little surprise to her when I entered college chaplaincy — when I took on a role that had shaped my faith and my being profoundly.

Now I am blessed to have a call that allows me to give back and work with young people, much like my mentor. And for me, the most rewarding part of college chaplaincy is walking alongside young people as they grow into their call in this life. Watching them ask the hard and difficult questions, laughing alongside them at the humorous parts of life, being their support when tears flow in sadness or frustration and everything in between.

When a young adult first comes to college, they tend to hold the values of their family base. They think and believe like their parents because that is what they believe they are to do and that is what most of them have ever known. And then they come to college and are challenged by different views, different belief systems and different ideas they never heard of or thought about before — and it can shake them, challenge them, liberate them.

And that it where I get to enter in and walk alongside them in this journey of self-discovery and growth. They might hold on to the systems they entered college with, they might go running in the opposite direction, they might windup in the middle somewhere — but growth happens, and that is a beautiful thing to witness.

I will never forget the day that I was teaching about the attributes of God. The students and I got into a discussion then about whether God is really male or not. Some students were convinced that God was male because that was the way Scripture read; it used “he” to talk about God, so therefore God must be male. Another student mentioned that she viewed God as female, mainly because of her strained relationship with her father.

It wasn’t until a transgender student spoke up to ask why we must label and put God into a category or box of gender that we turned to the passages students were using in their defense of gender identity of God. We took to the texts, we studied the various words, looked at the imagery used to describe God and we dissected the various forms we found that God takes in Scripture.

As we were reading the passage that describes God like the hen who collects her chicks, the transgender student exclaimed: “Wait! So God is like a giant chicken!?!” The discussion that followed was one of hilarity, truth, honesty and a deep examination about just why we desire to box God into our standards and labels.

This interaction in a class setting also sparked an unlikely relationship outside of class. A football player and a transgender student  – an unexpected friendship – spent countless moments together asking deep theological questions, and learned from each other’s experience in life and in religious communities. I got to witness this friendship develop, watch as questions were raised, walk alongside them as they relived childhood religious experiences and as they developed new religious experiences through this relationship.

The key, I think, in the journey of faith is to find those who could not be more opposite than you in life, who you do not interact with on a regular basis, who think differently than you. Because when you do find them and build a relationship with them, you are able to learn more about yourself, your faith and God in the process. You might still think of God in male terms, but now are open to the fact that your friend views God as a giant chicken. You may not want to label God or box God into society’s labels, but understand that for some it makes it easier for them to relate to God.

May we all look to build relationships like these two students — to learn, discern and grow with one another in faith, in life and in our relationship with God. And along the way, may we all find the person that changes how we view God and ourselves. Maybe it won’t be as exciting as the exclamation of “Wait! So God is like a giant chicken!?” that was the day this friendship formed, but I hope you do find that person you can help flip your view around from time to time in order that you may grow and gain a better understanding of just how incredible God truly is.