Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1
Embracing the Christian Story
The big story of the Bible gives meaning and shape to the little stories of our lives
President Eaton presented Lora Jones with the plaque of honor at the Alumna of the Year Homecoming celebration recognizing her life her life and achievements
I have been wondering lately how some people can live so radiantly when I know for a fact how much they have suffered. How does this happen? What is the gift they have been given? What is the secret?
I look at the circumstances of certain lives, and I can’t imagine keeping my balance, maintaining such poise and hopefulness, expressing such joy, shining out with this extraordinary radiance, even in the face of sometimes unspeakable difficulty.
I have two remarkable friends, both of whom come out of circumstances of pain, sometimes severe physical deprivation, but mostly the pain of having others try to rob them of their dignity. Somehow, when I
sit and talk to these dear people, I am astonished — they have such joy and hope,
and I feel I am the one who has had my
dignity affirmed. How can this be?
The first of my friends is En Ying Zhou, known at Seattle Pacific University by her American name Lora Jones, a 93-year-old Chinese woman who graduated from Seattle Pacific in 1943. Lora Jones was on our campus this winter as our Alumna of the Year, traveling all the way from her home in China to be with us. Lora was abandoned as a baby outside the city gate of Chengchow, abandoned very likely because she was a girl,
she tells us. She was picked up and adopted by an American missionary, and in that act she was introduced to God’s love and to a story so much bigger than her own.
Lora Jones was incarcerated for 20 years during the Cultural Revolution because of her faith, and yet she stands and speaks with deep dignity. She knows who she is.
She knows she plays a part in God’s big drama across her country.
My other dear friend is the great John Perkins, now 76 years old. John came out of the bitter racial violence and deep culture of hatred of rural Mississippi during the civil rights era. He came within an inch of losing his own life, brutally beaten and tortured. His brother was shot down and killed by a local sheriff. As I sit and talk with John, or listen to his spell-binding preaching, I keep wondering where he gets the gift of forgiveness, where he finds a vision for hope and reconciliation. How can John shine out with such radiance?
I know these matters are immensely complicated. I know we must work hard to change the social, economic, and cultural circumstances that bring suffering on people such as Lora and John. And I know God is at work in mysterious ways to change hearts from bitterness to joy.
But, in addition, I think I have an idea about how at least a part of this transformation might happen. Is it possible that people who shine out with such radiance do so because they are caught up in something far bigger than themselves? Somehow they seem to have caught a glimpse of a big story that gives meaning and shape to the little stories of their lives, something that seems to lift the burden of their own struggles and limitations. This seems to be in part what happened to Lora and John.
The great Lesslie Newbigin, longtime missionary to India, theologian, philosopher, and still one of the best voices we have on Christian engagement with culture, says that we become aware, in reading the Scriptures, that “we are a people who know what it is to cross the Red Sea on dry land, to be fed with manna in the wilderness, to return with singing from Babylon, to stand before the cross, and to meet the risen Lord in the breaking of bread. This is our story, and it defines who we are.”
The problem is that we live in an age when all stories of what is true and good and beautiful are called into question. The mid-20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt says there is a crisis in education in our day precisely because there is a crisis of authority. There can be no true education unless there is an authorized story to anchor our learning,
to give meaning and direction to that learning.
And so I ask, what if we placed the Bible right at the center of the learning enterprise? That’s what we are talking about at Seattle Pacific these days. What if we gave our students the tools of theological reflection of the grand story of the Scriptures? What if we lifted up the Scriptures as the story that will guide us to human flourishing? That’s what we are trying to do on this campus.
In order to focus our vision to engage the culture and change the world, we have declared five signature commitments at SPU. One of those signatures says that we will be a place that embraces the Christian story, becoming biblically and theologically educated. We are humbly seeking here the kind of maturity, rooted in the Scriptures, that has brought such radiance to the lives of Lora Jones and John Perkins.
The great poet Jeremiah talks about people who have spent their lives wrapped in mourning and sorrow. But then God makes this audacious promise, that their lives
shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the women rejoice in the
dance, and the young men and the
old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them
gladness for sorrow.
This is the promise of the Christian story. And the promise is that our lives can be “radiant over the goodness of the Lord,” Jeremiah says. Isn’t that something we want to teach our students? Isn’t this at least part of the secret of Lora and John? Isn’t this really the way for a university to change the world? Isn’t it possible, against all of the odds of our culture, that we might be on to something radically important for our world?
—By Philip W. Eaton
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