As I’ve been seeking to spend more time with God this month, I’ve often prayed before morning devotions that God would help me see the daily lectionary text with new eyes, that familiar words might take on an unfamiliar meaning. But this morning, as I opened to Colossians 1, I realized right away that those familiar words had to start with an old meaning, one whose roots reach back to a sixteen-year old memory.
It was the spring of 2004, my second semester at Bethel College (soon to become University). Save for one course as an adjunct instructor at a Catholic university, I had spent my entire academic career in secular institutions. So I was still trying to figure out what made “Christian colleges” Christian. Prayer in class was a particular challenge early on. I had heard several colleagues warning me against simply adding a prayer to the start of class — the “integration of faith and learning,” I was told, went much deeper than that. And that was fine with me: I’d never felt comfortable praying in public… but wasn’t it a good thing to pray for my students? Didn’t prayer bring the same benefits for learners and teachers as anyone else?
So as that first year at Bethel came to an end, I decided to start the last session of our senior seminar by praying for those soon-to-graduate students what the apostle Paul prayed for the small Christian community in Colossae:
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 1:9-14)
In a series about the “with-God life,” there’s much here to help us understand who God is and what it means to be in relationship with him. I keep coming back to this passage because it describes a kind of knowledge that’s particularly important for those of us who work in Christian higher education. As my commentator for the morning, Reformed theologian Andrew Purves, explains:
The truth of faith is not “library” knowledge, a kind of abstract and impractical knowledge. Knowledge of God is not neutral knowledge. Rather, it is knowledge of the God who acts purposely in history to bring people to live lives fully pleasing to God through the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Christians are expected to grow in this knowledge and conform their lives to it. In this way it is the anchor and source of the kind of living that God empowers within and among us.
As I’ve spent more time at Bethel, and as I’ve better understood its rooting in Pietism, I’ve understood better that our intellectual life is about the head — but not just the head. If a university like Bethel is truly Christian, then its people must seek not just to know about God, but to know him so that we “may lead lives worthy” of him, as we “bear fruit in every good work….”
So I’ve felt more and more comfortable praying this prayer with students, often as a benediction for the semester. Each of those moments adds a layer of memory to my reading of this scripture. I can’t see Paul’s words and not think of former students.
I can’t read this description of this aspect of life with God, and not think about life with other people.
Clearly, Paul couldn’t either. “In our prayers,” he began that part of the epistle, “we always thank God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (1:3-5). He writes verses 9-14 not for an abstract public, but with particular people in mind: women and men whose faith, hope, and love live on in his memory.
If Paul did write this letter from his jail cell in Rome, he was almost a thousand miles and several years removed from his stay in Colossae. Yet his love for the Colossian Christians was undimmed by distance or time: “For though I am absent in body,” he continued, “yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (2:5).
Because of the precautions Bethel has rightly taken in response to the coronavirus, being “absent in body, yet… with you in spirit” has to describe my relationship not just with students past, but those present. I’ll be teaching them online, but in Paul’s words, I won’t see them “face to face” (2:1). I particularly grieve that there are seniors about to graduate that I may never see again.
So I closed my devotional time this morning by praying for all those students: that they may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, that they remain strong but also patient, that they may give thanks to the Father who has rescued them from darkness and brought them into his Son’s kingdom. Amen.