Finding the straight path to God

Editor's note: In this second reflection of Florida Conference Connection's Advent series, a pastor discusses the challenges of helping college students see December as the beginning or renewal of a connection to God, instead of simply the start of a much-needed break. 

Advent can be a surreal season for college students. The beginning of the Christian year is the end of the fall semester. Students experience the distractions and weariness that come with finishing up classes and cramming for final exams. They have the growing desire to be at home with their families for Christmas. So campus ministers often find students a lot less engaged in campus ministries after the Thanksgiving break.  

David Fuquay headshot
 Rev. David Fuquay

The messages honed over many Advents in a local congregation – heart-warming devotions on hope, love, joy, peace and the meaning of waiting and expectation – seem to fall flat with a community of students. By and large, they just want to be done -- with everything connected with college life. And, if campus worship teams use the lectionary, college students encounter only two weeks (maybe) of Advent scripture readings. For those students with home churches, the stories and messages associated with Advent will continue to reach their ears and hearts. But increasingly, many students don’t come to college from a home church. What they receive from the short season of Advent may be only what campus ministries offer. 

Given what’s going on in students’ busy lives at the end of the semester, Advent is often a fragmented season at best. But campus ministers are persistent in their attempts to usher students -- even if ever so briefly -- into this time of watching and waiting, anticipation and expectation. Campus ministers persevere to help students uncover their hearts’ desire underneath exhaustion -- which is about experiencing Jesus’ coming into the world and not about them simply getting through and going somewhere else for an admittedly much-needed break. With an innovative and inventive spirit, many campus ministers develop their own ways of sharing Advent and Christmas in a more holistic, albeit condensed, form.

My favorite approach was focusing on the characters we meet in the gospel stories, like John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds, and the wise men. The student worship leaders and I brought the characters and their stories to life through interactive, creative and contemplative worship stations that were set up around the worship space. These worship stations invited tired students into imaginative engagement with the biblical stories and themes, helping them prepare the way for the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

The students meet John the Baptist first. This is a good thing. We need to get students’ attention. And John the Baptist is the odd guy from Matthew 3:1-12. He didn’t live the conventional life of other villagers and townspeople. He lived apart in a rough place, ate whatever unappealing food he found easily at hand and wore uncomfortable and unattractive clothes.  Not what typical college students are longing for at this particular time: They want to be in a familiar space, have home-cooked meals with family and friends and hang out in comfy, good-looking clothes.  But John the Baptist is God’s wake-up call.  He captures attention — whether you like him or not — and calls students to re-direct their hearts and minds. The kingdom of God, the anointed one of God, is coming.  In the middle of other desires, priorities and plans, John the Baptist interrupts their fatigued striving toward other concerns. Be prepared, he says, because something bigger and better is just around the corner: God-with-us. And it’s precisely this gift that gives meaning and perspective to students’ daily rounds, their dreams and their efforts.

Students walking across college campus at Christmas
College students cramming for final exams and trying to register for the next semester may find it difficult to savor the meaning of the Advent season. Photo by Susan Green.

John the Baptist does not fit easily into our nativity scenes, even as he doesn’t fit easily into students’ lives. He calls them to make a straight path for the coming of the Lord, not a crooked path. But isn’t this exactly where students and campus ministers find themselves? On a crooked path, or at least a bumpy, choppy one, toward the grace of Christmas? In their experiencing of the heavy press of the semester’s end, students may be even more disoriented than usual.  The road traveled seems rough and round-about, not smooth and straight. 

How timely then, for John the Baptist to step in and point out the straight path. He calls students to confess they’ve lost something of their way in the exertion and activity. He calls them to pause, to look up from what they’re immersed in while at college, and find God-with-them again. Or maybe for the first time. At the end of the semester, the end of the calendar year, John the Baptist awakens students to the promise of another new beginning, another fresh start, which comes with the coming of Jesus. The straight path begins with students’ renewed awareness, or the birth of it, of God’s presence and power in their lives.

If we’re honest, Advent isn’t much different for those of us who aren’t college students. Culturally speaking, there isn’t any time for the message and themes of Advent.  We barely have Thanksgiving.  It’s become the opening day of Christmas shopping and activities. Advent seems to be only an ecclesial oddity that we stumble through like the unfamiliar hymns attempted in worship during these few Sundays when we really want to be singing carols. And we’re likely exhausted and distracted by our own concerns and pursuits, too. Advent is a fragmented season for us all. We all travel a crooked path to Christmas. 

Will John the Baptist get our attention?  Will we let ourselves be re-directed to the straight road of simple awareness of God-with-us coming once again among us?

“What matters most on your journey,” author Phil Cousineau reminds us in the spirit of John the Baptist, “is how deeply you see, how attentively you hear, how richly the encounters are felt in your heart and soul.”

*Rev. David Fuquay is the director of Higher Education and Campus Ministry at the Florida Conference and former Gator Wesley Foundation pastor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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