As a Christian Education and Ministry major (the best decision of sophomore year), I have the privilege of going to department chapel in the Billy Graham Center museum. We meet in the rotunda, a dimly lit circle where we congregate to worship, pray, and listen to a 30-minute message, tailored to us as CE students. It’s one of my favorite chapels of the semester. Although, it should be; if any department would know how to do chapel right, it’s the one devoted entirely to cultivating spiritual formation in students.
Last semester, our chapel speaker was an education professor who works with special needs students. He is also a messianic Jew. Drawing from his roots, he spoke on the shema and the significance behind that prayer. It was a beautiful talk, but then again, we have lots of those at a place like Wheaton College. You could say we’re a little spoiled when it comes to the breadth and variety with which we hear and engage the Gospel.
While what he said was interesting and thoroughly presented, and I still have his beautifully printed handout hanging on my wall, months later I don’t remember the specifics of what he said. It wasn’t the uniqueness of his message that touched on a deep heartstring. It was how, or better yet where, he delivered it from. He sat in the middle of the rotunda circle. Sat, not stood. He planted his PhD, tenured professor rear end in the middle of a circle of undergraduate students because that is where his son was sitting. This professor had brought his entire family along to chapel, a wife and several kids. They helped him lead worshipped and proceeded to work on felting craft projects as their dad spoke. All except for the youngest.
Probably two years old, the youngest little boy, with his curly blonde hair and toddling legs, found himself thoroughly amused with the marble slab in the center of the rotunda. Toddling on unstable legs, he’d dance around a bit until losing his footing and falling over. A little crying, a little laughing would ensue in the distracting show that this little fellow was putting on. The undergrad students were giggling under their breath too. The irony of hearing about this reverent prayer on God’s holiness, albeit a communal one, was not lost on us students.
Growing up in contexts where kids are often viewed as nuances or distractions, I was subconsciously prepared for one of two responses: either this professor would just ignore the shenanigans of his child, waiting until he got bored with being the center of attention and rejoined his older siblings (all the while, secretly hoping students would retain something from his presentation that we obviously weren’t focused on) OR he’d motion to his wife to take the unruly child out of the room (another classic response in my heteronormative church experiences).
Yet, this professor did something that I hadn’t anticipated. He went and sat down next to his child. Putting his arm around the squirmy two-year old, the education professor shifted his tone, his attention, and his gaze to his child. Speaking in smaller words, looking at his son, he began directing parts of his talk towards the two year old. Words about God’s love for us. His nature as One. The call to bind His words on their bodies and doorposts.
It was in that moment I understood the shema like no lecturer had explained it before. No longer was I focused on the words or the Hebrew, but I was getting a tangible example of what it looks like to be loved by the God of the universe. To have Him come and sit next to me in my mess – with all it’s joy and all it’s pain. To have Him speaking both to the entire nation, entire body, entire community and to just me simultaneously.
Because the Lord, our God, the I Am who I Am, is also our Abba. And he loves us so very, very much. It’s not always about my deep processing or fully understanding all that He’s doing – sometimes, in my desperate, and often prideful attempts for Him to notice me, to be pleased with me, He invites me to just be with Him. To just be near my Abba because at the end of the day, that’s all my soul is really aching for.