Ode to Sterling

Campbell (1)

As my approach to spirituality has shifted and changed over the years, my connection to my alma mater, Sterling College, became less smooth and guaranteed. After moving to Denver in 2009, I was invited back to speak at chapel a few times, something I always enjoyed. Then partly because my faculty connections moved on and partly because I became less sure I wanted to stay connected, the invitations stopped. Along with a general sense of the busyness of life in Denver, I was also experiencing the tension I described in a recent blog I wrote about the tendency for cynicism to accompany the growth I was experiencing. As I mentioned in that blog, I am trying to actively address that cynicism. This blog comes directly out of that effort, and I’m more than a little uncomfortable writing it, mainly because my ego wants to hang on to the cynicism as a way to fit the role I’ve been playing for the past decade. Basically, I’m pretty sure this will lose me a bit of “Street Cred” with some folks.

Well, as uncomfortable as this might be, here is my ode to Sterling–an intentional acknowledgment of what the town and school truly meant to me during a particularly vulnerable time in my life.

I get nostalgic about Sterling often, and this blog has brought back all kids of memories that I fear current students would not even begin to understand. So I hope some of my “old alumni” friends will be reading this and laugh (or maybe cry) along with me.

I am so grateful for the people that make up the cast of my favorite memories. I am thinking about Marilyn, who was the Campbell Hall (an all men’s dorm) custodian, and one of the sweetest and kindest people I’ve ever met. Marilyn would often say “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll step out until you’re done” when someone walked in to shower while she was cleaning the restroom. One particular friend of mine would always say, “No worries dude”, drop his towel and jump into the shower. He always found it strange how quickly the custodian would awkwardly leave the restroom. This continued for nearly an entire semester, because Marilyn didn’t exactly look like a “Marilyn”. She was a woman, who identified as a woman, but looked a lot like a man. When my friend found out that he had been unknowingly flashing a woman, a lot of things suddenly made sense, and the upperclassmen sure had a good laugh. It sort of became the running joke that Freshmen were never told this information beforehand, so experiences like that of my friend were common. Students who took the time to get to know Marylin by name definitely had the advantage. I know she appreciated it.

I am also thinking about C.J. She was significantly older than she looked, and she looked pretty old. She passed away a few years ago and several former students shared memories about C.J., the nearly stereotypical “Lunch Lady”. She was always making me laugh, and often making others uncomfortable. One of my favorite memories was on December 1st of 2004. We had just finished “No Shave November” and some of my friends (definitely not me) had some gnarly beards that they had shaved into mustaches, as the tradition dictated. While those of us from Campbell Basement waited in line to get our I.D. badges scanned for lunch, a Resident Director got in line behind us and said “Wow! I love your mustache” to a friend of mine. Immediately after he said those words, C.J., who had been working on picking something up off the floor behind the counter, stood up and said with great pride, “Thank you!” The RD looked a little mortified and C.J. just smiled.

There are, of course, many professors who helped lay the groundwork for the growth I would eventually experience. I am thinking of Dr. Wells, our Philosophy professor. Dr. Kim, whose only intellectual passion that rivaled the biblical letter to the Romans was the Matrix Trilogy. I was in his class the day after he had seen the third and final movie when he came to the profound conclusion that the series was in fact Gnostic and not Christian in nature. Dr. Hank was our beloved chaplain and professor who is still the only man I know who can make sandals and socks look somewhat normal.

Craig and Anne Smith are absolutely the crowning jewels of my Sterling experience in terms of faculty. Craig was my St.Paul (a class I took) professor and Anne was my Chaplain. They quickly became mentors and friends to my wife, Nicole, and I. Craig was the first professor to get me excited about writing exegetical papers. I was so excited in fact that I got a near perfect score on one I wrote about St. Paul and women–something never before seen during my academic career. They are still dear friends and we miss them more than a paragraph in this blog could express.

Then there are the friends. I will remember the late night C-Mart runs, the nights of (something that sounds less illegal than breaking in…) carefully entering Culbertson for games of Sardines, an experience of riding in the dumbwaiter in Kelsey Hall thanks to the shenanigans of myself and 2 other Freshmen, town-wide games of “Cat and Mouse”, campus wide games of Tuna (an elaborate game of tag that was started by my friends and I, and continues to this day) with all the punishments that made us laugh…and gag. There were all the pranks I never participated in, but enjoyed from the sidelines, and of course the year of “Wholesale Ripoff”, a cover band my friends and I started. Our crowning moment was getting paid to play a show at the local high school. And then there was Nicole.

I thought Nicole was attractive and just the right amount of edgy. Her smile caught my attention long before we actually met. She appeared to be a punk rock chick that wasn’t totally bat-shit crazy–definitely a selling point. We quickly connected over a few things, including February birthdays, a common interest in Monty Python, and the gift of growing up materially poor. But the biggest thing we connected on is what I will always be most grateful to Sterling for: A journey of Exodus.

14 years later I can still remember the feeling I had while I was packing up my truck, about to hit the road back to Sterling. It was a feeling of incredible excitement and relief. During these years I carried a heavy weight that felt inescapable. Delightfully vague, I know, but this blog isn’t about the weight itself, as much as the journey toward freedom. I got into my truck, put it in first gear, and drove to the gas station. Already the feeling of excitement was creeping in, but I would keep it at bay. When I finished paying and made the short drive outside the city limits, the feeling would intensify and I would often shout out the window with excitement, because I was finally returning to the place that was beginning to foster new life within me.

This event was my return to school following summer break. The drive was always cleansing, no matter how many times I had done it. Each tiny town along the way signaled that I was closer and closer to what felt like my true home. I had a few places I liked to stop at along the way to pick up a snack and a Jones Soda, but for the most part I was too eager to drag the trip out too long. 4 hours or so after pumping the gas into my truck I would finally see the edge of McCreery Hall and something profound would come over me. It was a feeling that I can still feel today, though I find it difficult to describe. I was finally home.

Sterling became my refuge, the place of my Exodus out of my own personal enslavement. The fullness of that Exodus wouldn’t be realized for many years, but the journey began in the town once known as “Peace” in the middle of Kansas.

Those shifts in my approach to spirituality (a journey you can read about extensively and follow on this blog) can easily cause me to feel a sort of disconnection from Sterling. But it would be dishonest to my own story, and reprehensibly wrong to the people I met along the way, to pretend that Sterling isn’t Holy Ground in my life. And for that, which is arguably far more important than all the other stuff, I will always be grateful. So here’s to you Sterling College! This blog might not feel like a love note, but it kind of is. I will forever be grateful to you for the home you gave a young man, stuck in his own wilderness, in search of the Promised Land.

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