Saturday, May 17, 2008

An Oops Moment for a College Chaplain

May is a special month. Not only does my birthday fall in May, which frankly, is something I would just as soon forget as I grow older, but it is the month for graduations. It is the month when millions of young people get introduced to the proverbial “real world.”

Today, my daughter graduated from college. It was her second graduation, not counting the times she graduated from pre-school or elementary school. Those ceremonies resemble graduations; they are even called graduations. But as important as they are to parents, they are merely bridging ceremonies.

A graduation is a culmination. It marks the end of something major and the beginning of something else equally major, perhaps the beginning of one’s life or the beginning of a college career.

I was proud of my daughter as she walked across the stage to pick up her hard-earned diploma. She has spent the last four years toiling, worrying, crying, and rejoicing over each small milestone on her way to her grand exit from the halls of academia.

She has learned a lot in her college career, and not all of it in the classroom. I’ve been there, so I know that college students who have just learned a great new truth from one of their professors don’t have the experience or maturity to put their newfound knowledge into proper real-word perspective. College students tend to be idealistic. But that can be a good thing; it gives them hope.

But sometimes, the truths they learn help them to make life-altering decisions almost immediately. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, college students can experience moments of clarity. Call them epiphanies.

My daughter experienced one of these moments when she was just a freshman, when her graduation day seemed a far-off goal. And she didn’t experience her epiphany in a classroom nor from listening to one of her professors extol the virtues of a Shakespearean sonnet.

She had gone to a meeting in the college’s chapel at the invitation of a person she described as the staff minister. He had told everyone to write down a question relating to their faith and put it in a box, anonymously. My daughter’s question was one of the first pulled out to be read and answered by the chaplain.

She wrote that she had been raised a Christian and she believed in God, but she was having a difficult time reconciling her religion with the fact that most people in the world were not Christians. She wondered if there was room in the Christian faith to allow for others who were not Christians to go to heaven.

The chaplain answered that the bible says there is only one way into heaven, and that is through believing in Jesus Christ, and that those who don’t, even those who are good people and who live decent lives, are doomed to eternal hell.

My daughter immediately got up and walked out of the meeting, saying nothing. The next day, the chaplain caught her walking to class and asked her why she had walked out. She politely thanked him for answering her question so honestly and succinctly and told him that he had helped her with the internal struggle she was having about religion. She told him it had suddenly become very clear to her; she was not a Christian. She could not be part of a group that automatically condemns the vast majority of the world’s population to hell.

Over the next four years, she said he tried to persuade her to come back. But she was adamant. This man of the cloth had succeeded in doing just the opposite of what his job description probably tells him to do. He had driven a wedge between a young girl and the faith he espouses because of his blind disregard for what his own religion is supposed to be about, acceptance.

But it was an epiphany for my daughter, and she handled it with great maturity. I told her I was very proud of her. She could now make up her own mind about matters of faith and spirituality, without regard for what any preacher says, or without regard even to what the bible says. She realized at that moment that the bible was only one book of faith among many, and perhaps none of them holds any real truth.

College teaches young people many things in the time up to their graduation day. Sometimes, it can even spawn a life-altering epiphany or two. I’m glad my daughter had hers.

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