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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Towel

Growing up is weird.  That's not just my opinion either.  I've surveyed a few friends who are also engaging in this activity, and the results are unanimous. As with any experience after which you find that your staunchly-held ideas are really complete misconceptions, growing up is a humbling and difficult endeavor that I think doesn't actually stop.  It has peaks and plateaus, but it doesn't ever end until you die.
Of course, I've been growing up for a long time now.  I should be really good at it.  But I'm not.  I just graduated from college, and I'm now looking for jobs and pinching pennies and trying to figure out this strange thing called "life." It's overwhelming.  Exhilarating.  Nerve wracking.  And God is good.
Maybe this season is harder for some of us than it is for others.  Though the economy isn't doing all that great, there are still some people who step right out of college into a job that supports them enough to move away and set up on their own.  My mom works with dozens of these types in the engineering world.  And I say, good for them.  They worked hard to get marketable degrees from prestigious schools and now they can pay their school debt off quickly.
Then there's me.  I have a nationally-accredited English Education degree from a tiny Bible college in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.  Don't get me wrong.  I got an amazing education.  I was pushed to think critically.  The student-teacher ratio was incredibly low. And I actually formed close relationships with many of my teachers so that I was personally mentored in my field by more than one expert on more than one occasion.  I had to work hard for my good grades.  It was no joke.  I'm not ashamed of my school or of my degree.

But since graduation, I've found that it does have some limitations.  There are some jobs that won't even consider me because my resume includes a Bible college degree.  There are lots of grad programs that won't accept me because of accreditation issues.  And for those reasons (to say nothing of some recent controversy within the evangelical circle), some people have asked whether I regret my decision to go to Northland.
To those who ask, I have a hard time explaining my "No."  I guess it doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface.  Why am I so thankful for a degree that seems to delay (I do not say prevent) grad school or state teaching certifications?

Because Northland gave me something that I couldn't get anywhere else.

Northland gave me a towel.

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, I had one goal in mind.  It was a self-ambitious plan that had everything to do with my glory.  That's why I was only going to "do my time" with a year at Bible college and then transfer somewhere and go into medicine. Thankfully, God's grace is bigger than my selfishness.  I ended up staying.  I met people who challenged the way I viewed God.  I sat in classes where teachers reminded me constantly to make the gospel my life-orientation.  My heart was watered with the Word and refreshed with fellowship on a daily basis. I made friends that are still pushing me to Christ-likeness.  That's what made my experience different.  (Though, I admit that God could have done that anywhere, I think it is important to recognize that it was essential to my sanctification.  Or else He wouldn't have allowed it.)

What made my degree different was an emphasis on the reason I was alive in the first place.  I knew and was reminded often that I was not getting a degree so that I could go make a lot of money and be successful in a material sense.  This piece of paper that I now have on my bookshelf in my room to prove that I finished my studies does not qualify me to be something.  I was studying because by studying I was going to be equipped to serve. To make myself nothing.  To be ready to die to myself.  To make a name for Jesus.  And though you don't necessarily need a degree to learn that, I know that it was part of what God had for me.  I was also reminded often that no matter what happened, I could trust Him to provide for me as I followed Him.  Even if it didn't look like it was going to make sense.  Even if I didn't get the highest paying job.
The first time I ever witnessed a graduation ceremony at Northland was at the end of my freshman year.  At that time, I was still in the maelstrom of wrestling with God.  Trying to let go of my dreams in exchange for His. Learning that my life is all about worshiping Him and not about achieving my goals.  I remember watching the graduates cross the platform to get their diplomas, and then they were handed a towel. Embroidered on the fabric were the words, "Be Great, Serve," which is a quotation from Matthew 20 where Jesus short circuits the prideful ambition of the disciples by explaining to them the radically different values of the kingdom of God:

"Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave- Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."  Jesus then demonstrates this lifestyle during the Last Supper when the God of All removes his outer garment and washes the feet of humans.

Last May, I received a towel with the same words on it. It is a visible reminder of why I got an education.  I am not in the world to be served and make a name for myself, but to serve and to give my life to reconcile people to God.    
The kind of thinking that would make me regret a degree from Northland is the kind of thinking that is contrary to the Word of God. There's nothing wrong with accreditation.  There's nothing wrong with material success.  I wish I had both of those things from time to time, and God can use those things.  He puts many Christians in positions where they have degrees and success to glorify Him.  But I know that when God looks at what He is doing in me and what He wants to do in me, He doesn't see my degree as an asset or a liability.  He doesn't bemoan the limitations or applaud the benefits.  He rejoices at the work of Christ, and He is strong in my weaknesses.  He is a God who loves to do the impossible. From an eternal perspective (and that's the only one that really matters), the gospel in me is worth far more than a marketable resume.

Former Northland Chancellor Doc. O. once said, "Degrees make you hireable, but brokenness makes you useable."  Those words have stuck with me along with these verses from Psalm 33:

"The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the people of no effect.  The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations."

God will do what He will do no matter my perceived strengths and weaknesses.  His plans are much greater than my job search and my educational background. It might take me a little longer to find a job.  I might have to go back to school.
But I don't regret my Northland degree.
Because it was there that God decimated me and handed me a towel.  


  1. GREAT reminder! Thanks, Em. Also... I still owe you an e-mail. :)

    <3 Nicole

  2. Thanks for the great post, EmJ! Yes, my years at Northland were life-changing.

  3. AMEN! Thank you Emily! Very Grace-filled and relate able! God is faithful and He will provide what you NEED. Don't let the world convince you what you need more than what God has blessed us with! An eternal inheritance in heaven! I'm thankful for friends from Northland like you who can remind me continually that we are NOT living our best life is yet to come. =)
    I will be praying that you find a job soon! I got one going through a temp. agency and I really enjoy it. It's good pay and benefits. =) Just an idea.

    1. Thanks, Leah, for the prayers! I miss you!