In 1903, George Horace Lorimer published a book entitled Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. The letters were written by John Graham, the head of a meat-packing company in Chicago, to his son Pierrepont, who had recently started his freshman year at Harvard. The letters themselves are chock-full of the practical and loving wisdom of a father who wants his son to become a man.
In the very first letter, Graham writes this to his son:
I’m anxious that you should be a good scholar, but I’m more anxious that you should be a good clean man. And if you graduate with a sound conscience, I shan’t care so much if there are a few holes in your Latin. There are two parts of a college education — the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.
The second part is what the last eight years of my life as a campus minister have been about. The part of college education that is more about character, about what the Bible calls “growth in grace,” which includes both seeing the need for it, and learning to live to apply it to every area of life.
This is the part that makes every Christian parent of a college freshmen both excited and nervous. My kids aren’t there quite yet, but I imagine watching your child go to college feels like watching a squirrel crossing the road. You find yourself cheering, hoping that they make it to the other side in one piece.
If I could write a letter to every incoming freshman who doesn’t want to waste their college, I would want to say six things to them before they move to campus. It applies to their anxious parents, too.
1. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is learn.
One difficult part about college is being confronted with so many people who disagree with you, professors included. It’s easy to get either disillusioned or overly defensive. Don’t. One of the best ways you can bear witness to Christ is to learn so well from those who disagree that you can sympathize with their perspective, see things from their point of view, and express it as well as they could.
No one will respect your disagreement with them unless they first feel you’ve understood them, even gleaned things from them. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to learn, especially from those with whom you disagree.
2. Community isn’t optional; it’s essential.
More specifically, I mean Christ-centered community on campus. In other words, you need friends who love and listen to Jesus. Friends who love you enough to say hard things. It takes time to find those friends. More than time, it takes persistence. Stubbornness even. You have Christ, and you need community. It’s not either-or. It’s both-and. No one says it better than Bonhoeffer in Life Together:
“You need friends who love and listen to Jesus.”
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.
3. Committing yourself to a local church is vital.
Community on campus is good. The wise, diverse, multi-generational, pastor-led community of the local church is better. This feels like a good time to remind you that the church isn’t a place; it’s a people. As a Christian, you are already part of it. You don’t go to church. You are the church. That means you aren’t being yourself if you’re not involved in a gospel-centered, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting local church. Finding one is typically easy. Committing yourself to one is the hard part.
4. Love your roommates until you love your roommates.
The hardest thing to do is love the people right in front of you. And no one is more in front of you than your roommates. You know, the ones who will keep you up way too late, and wake you up way too early. The ones who will go Castaway and not leave their room in weeks. The ones who major in Awkwardness. That’s exactly the person God is calling you to love.
“Convictions are never an excuse not to love.”
Don’t wait until you feel love for them to love them. Love them until you feel love for them. Eat with them. Play Xbox with them. Watch movies with them. Have convictions, absolutely. But convictions are never an excuse not to love.
5. Stop looking for a soul mate and look for a sole mate instead.
One of the easiest things to do is spend all of college obsessing over boys or girls. There are the ones back home. There are the ones you met at orientation. There are ones that you haven’t found the courage to speak real, human words to yet. There are the ones you’re already thinking about marrying. Then there is the fear that you will never be someone else’s “one.” That you are somehow peculiarly unlovable. That upon graduation you will be banished to Misfit Island along with Rudolph and Hermie, left to die alone in your singleness.
The good news is if you’re a Christian you’ve already met “the one.” The bad news (at first) is his name is Jesus. He’s the only one who can ever emotionally fulfill you in all the ways you long to be fulfilled. He is your soul mate, the one you were made for, the one with whom you will spend eternity. This frees you up to look for what Gary Thomas calls a “sole mate” — someone who loves Jesus and is willing to walk side by side through life with you in marriage as you both follow him. The best place to find this is often within your community of Christian friends.
6. Your brokenness isn’t a barrier to Jesus, but an invitation.
The last thing I want you to know is that because college is a time that reveals your heart, it is also a time that reveals your brokenness. You are going to say and do and think things you wish you could take back. You are going to be confused. You are going to be challenged. You may find yourself with nagging doubts. You will get lonely, and take that loneliness to all the wrong places. You will find out things about yourself you hope aren’t true.
“Your brokenness is an invitation to trust and be loved by Jesus.”
I want you to know that your brokenness, whatever form it takes, is no barrier to Jesus. It’s an invitation to trust and be loved by him. The good news is that the kind of people Jesus loves are broken sinners. You’re never beyond the reach of his grace, even on your worst day — just as you’re never beyond the need for his grace, even on your best day. Because “the only fitness he requires is to feel your need for him.”