Thursday, September 9, 2010

Christianity In Contemporary Life

Hang on friends, this one is going to be a long ride.

Shortly before the fall semester of my junior year at Southwestern two deaths occurred that would have a significant impact on my life. My grandfather died days before fall semester began. In fact, he died as I was driving back to Georgetown to get the fall semester underway. I had probably been back in the apartment for a few hours before my father called to deliver the devastating news. I remember heading over the KA house and literally drowning my sorrows. I drank cheap college beer until the sun rose. I caught a few hours of sleep and drove back home.

Another man, I didn't know, and whose name I can't even remember, died around the same time. He was the department coordinator of religious and philosophical studies at Southwestern University. I was enrolled in one of his classes called "Christianity in Contemporary Life" for the upcoming semester...but only because I HAD to take two classes in religion in order to meet the requirements of a "liberal arts" education.

I remember the faculty and staff rushing to fill the position for the year. In fact, I think the first few classes were taught by a "substitute" professor. Finally, it was announced the university had filled the slot with a Greek Orthodox Priest from Bastrop, TX named Brant Pelphrey.

What did I know...I heard the word "priest" and assumed he was Catholic like every other "priest" I knew. However, he was married. To be honest, I was too wrapped up in my own stuff to even ask how he was a married priest. I just showed up to class, I needed the credit. It was plain and simple.

I will never forget the day he walked in the door. He was tall and lanky, slightly knock kneed and denim had exploded on him from head to toe! The only thing breaking up all that denim was a sweet tie that I am certain was in some reverence to Christ.

He did present us with a syllabus; but that was an exercise in futility. The only thing we stuck to was reading Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov and writing a paper about it. One day he met me for coffee in "The Pirate's Cove" because I was having a tough time sorting through the novel. As with any good Russian novel; just getting the names sorted out requires a Ph.D.!

Basically, every M-W-F, for 50 minutes, he would inspire us to notice "Christianity in Contemporary Life." To be entirely frank I wasn't always sure where "he was going." I mean....a 20 year old brain is still developing and his big picture of how Christianity can and DOES exist in contemporary times was a concept too broad for my limited mind to comprehend. What was completely obvious to me was that this was a special person. His presence was soothing and comforting. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time; but I can now see that Dr. Pelphrey was filled with Christ's love and the Holy Spirit seemed to sit right on his chest and shine a light on you that left you with the warmest feeling of acceptance blended with love and forgiveness. He was truly a beautiful the way beauty should really be defined.

Two of his classes, in particular, stand out to me. One day he arrived with a tape recorder. He walked directly to the back of the room without a word. He bowed his head and pressed play. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" breathed from the small speakers. His head never moved; he remained bowed in reverence to Dr. King allowing God to speak through him. I watched him and I thought, "He is treating this like a prayer." 30 college students sat in stunned silence. We "watched" him "listening." When the speech ended he dismissed our class. Christianity in Contemporary Life....Christ speaking through Dr. King about the basic commandment to love one another as He loves us. I am embarrassed to admit this....that day....I didn't "get it." I walked out silently and thought, "This class is going to be a breeze!"

Perhaps my favorite hour of class at Southwestern University was the day he brought in yet another tape recorder and we listened to Willie Nelson's "Till I Can Gain Control Again." It started....
"Just like the sun over the mountaintop, you know I will always come again. You know I love to spend my morning time like sunlight dancing on your skin."
My first thought was my Grandma Olga who loves to go out into her backyard and pray every morning...something about the sunlight dancing on her skin, I suppose. Anyhow...he allowed the entire song to play....and it is not a short song. Again, the class of teens and twenty somethings sat in silence; what I can imagine was mostly confused silence. many of us could really know what he was trying to teach us?

After the song ended he softly asserted that most love songs could be interpreted within the context of God's love for man and man's love for Him. He played a few more Willie Nelson songs and Iris deMent songs, as well. But I went home that afternoon and played "Till I Can Gain Control Again" over and over. (I am listening to it right now, as a matter of inspiration!) Here is the chorus:
"Out on the road that lies before me now....there are some turns where I will spin. I only hope that you will hold me now.....till I can gain control again."

I took Dr. Pelphrey's class the spring semester, as well. But for the life of me, I can't remember the title of it. I know I wrote a paper about angels. That's really all I can recall.

During his short time he developed a following of faithful young Christians who all had one thing in common; and that was "Christ was Truth." As he gained popularity administration seemed scared and uncomfortable. It was made VERY evident that his position was only for that one school year and that he would not be asked back. Students gathered in the chapel to pray that his extension be granted. I didn't understand how this kind and gentle man could be persecuted by his contemporaries. I didn't know much as a twenty year old, but I knew that God was real and I didn't "get" that God isn't always necessarily welcome at institutions of higher learning despite their religious affiliations. What I saw was ugly and in a very deep place I knew he was being treated "wrong." I understood the "year long contract" business; but I didn't understand how an entire group of adults (adults my parents trusted with their daughter, her guidance, her education and edification and most importantly, their money) were behaving in such a gross manner.

Given Dr. Pelphrey's complete devotion to Christ you can imagine how he reacted. He stood firm and gracious. He remained silent in the face of his persecutors (does this sound familiar?) because he know The Truth.

He was not asked back. I had heard that afterward he made plans to take his message to China. We were all certain he would die for Christianity. I think we were mostly shocked we actually KNEW someone willing to give his life for Christ. My friend Cory recently told me he had heard Dr. Pelphrey returned safely from China. I have no idea where he is now. I would love to sit down over coffee with him and tell him how after 15 years his message has never left me...and has finally become clear to me.

Over the last 15 years...EVERY time I hear a love song...I spin it into "The Pelphrey Context." Indulge me as I share a few of my favorites with you.....

"When you break down, I'll drive out and find you. When you forget my love, I'll try to remind you. Stay by you, when it don't come easy....when it don't come easy." -Patty Griffin

"And I will always love you. You'll always be mine. Forever and always...till the end of time. Till the mountains split open with the weight of 'the Son;' we'll rise up together; as one." -June Carter Cash

"When the road gets dark and you can no longer see; just let my love throw a spark and have a little faith in me." -John Hiatt

"It took a while to understand, the beauty of just letting go." -Patty Griffin

I could go on forever; but you get the picture. It doesn't have to come from The Hymnal to reflect Christianity in Contemporary Life. With the onslaught of rubbish in our contemporary life, it is nice to be able to find just a little glimmer of Him in the things we enjoy.

As a side note; the following year I was selected to participate in Southwestern's Study Abroad Program in London, England. Part of the application process required two recommendations from faculty members. I asked Dr. Pelphrey to write my recommendation. I have no idea what he wrote. While in London I was sharing a pint with one of the professors on the selection committee....a wonderful man....a math professor. He told me, "I almost didn't recommend you for this program because you asked Dr. Pelphrey to write your letter. I am glad I went with my gut. I am glad you are here in the program." I felt so sad for that man in that moment. He missed the opportunity to know a decent man....

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