MSC & Me
McKenzie Study Center. Gutenberg College. Although I have lived in Eugene, Oregon, for the past decade, I had not heard either of those names until almost a year ago. Since then, my husband, Tim, and I have been discovering the type of thinking and teaching available in this unique community.
A friend of ours had printed an article from the MSC website called “Appeal for Radical Biblicism” by Jack Crabtree. Tim and I both read and discussed it, agreeing it made a lot of sense. At that time we felt we had seen a bit of what Jack termed “neo-biblicism” in the Christian culture around us. Many Christians appeared to trust the Bible to confirm what they already believed about God, rather than trusting God, through the Bible, to teach them the truth they needed to learn.
Tim and I concluded that, while we probably were not true “radical biblicists,” we wanted to be. I began spending time scanning the MSC website. The description of Gutenberg College made me wish I were once again a high school senior. An education in the great books of history sounded like the best kind of liberal arts academics.
I was past that age, though, a fairly typical mother of two who volunteered for different groups and did some free-lance writing. Tim and I had done our best to learn about God and biblical truth. We defended our faith, as we understood it, in lively conversations with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and evolutionists.
Sometimes, though, the views on which I based my life had left me a few dollars short when dealing with non-Christians. Recently I had watched a friend die of disease at age forty-six, the second friend I had lost who never quite related to what I had to say about Christ. I had not learned how to translate my strict daily cycle of prayer, devotional time, and Bible reading and my weekly attendance at traditional Sunday services into a message about the gospel that made sense to someone from a different background. In spite of the magazine articles I had read (and written) regarding how to reach unsaved, unchurched people, it seemed God was not allowing me to do so the way I thought I should. Two of my biggest questions, therefore, were “Have I let my friends down?” and “Have I let God down?”
As I made time for MSC classes, subscribed to the newsletter, and read more articles from the website, I began to believe I might find biblical answers beneath the surface ones I had heard so often before. In my journal I wrote, “The teaching here is like switching from TV sitcoms every night to the best show on public television, only much, much better.”
I soon heard Ron Julian speak about the validity of looking forward to the coming kingdom of God. He showed how Jesus’ teachings consistently described the good news He came to give to those who could receive it. This gospel reached back to the time of Abraham and before. It would remain the hope of believers until Christ’s return.
Looking forward was a different idea. But I had become weary of books and magazines mainly spotlighting life today and how to make it better. I knew well the recipe for self-help stories: mix a main point about godly living with a few pithy anecdotes, sprinkle in pertinent Bible verses, and garnish with solid, practical “take-away” applications.
Although these messages sprang from heartfelt intentions, they missed something. While they had given me some helpful suggestions, I struggled against a current of stressful feelings, knowing I would never measure up to all the applications they urged me to make.
More food for thought came from an article Jack Crabtree wrote about Mary and Martha in Luke 10. I had not known that Jesus may well have been saying that intellectual curiosity (about Him) was a good thing for everyone. Formerly I had absorbed a notion that Jesus was teaching Christians not to be “bad Marthas.” After all, I thought, we can only relate to Martha. Hardly anyone would be allowed to understand Mary. She was like someone up on stage, in the limelight, untouchable.
Now, though, I looked at this Scripture as though I were in attendance. Christ told Martha she did not have to do what she was struggling so greatly to do. He said she could be like Mary, choosing the most important thing. Understanding this was a first step for me in what has come to feel like shedding old, dry skin.
I was beginning to think there might be biblical evidence for diligently studying the things Jesus taught. Even if it meant dropping some busy occupations of my life, I sensed a nudge to know more. Reading Nancy Scott’s article “Reconciled Enemies,” I recognized my rigid tendency to structure a “faith life,” fearing separation from God if I let my duties slip. This helped me relax a bit throughout my daily routine, but it brought up questions, too.
Didn’t some of my actions (unwilling though I might feel about them) give “spiritual” evidence that I was trying my best for God? For example, I had provided part-time care to my ailing grandma during the past eight years, even though I often wished I did not have to. Grandma was going to leave a legacy of selfish ambition; helping her was often a trial. My mixed feelings confused me and left me pained with guilt. I had asked God’s forgiveness for my thoughts toward her as often as I had needed to forgive her myself. But I had been told I was earning a crown in heaven for my work with her.
The questions surrounding duties and guilt began to clamor while I next read Ron Julian’s book, Righteous Sinners. My thoughts had much to process for awhile. Two things stood out clearly, though: even true believers continue to sin, and God uses the trials His children struggle through to prepare them continually for His kingdom. Looking back on the worst of times gives a believer confidence that he can persevere.
Soon after I finished the book my grandma died. A few days later, some things came together in my mind that helped me write words to say at her funeral. I told the crowd, “My grandma was a rebel against God. But I have been a rebel against Him all my life, too.” Then I related a more accurate picture of the gospel than I think I had done before.
In the spring, Tim and I took Ron’s MSC class on Galatians. We have both always enjoyed in-depth Bible studies. Nothing before had compared to this one. I am not saying the class in any way dazzled us with special effects. It was fairly simple, basically giving us what Paul most likely said to Christians of his time in the Galatian region who were wrestling with an issue.
I found out the issue was freedom in Christ. I learned that those Christians tried to keep themselves under slavery to Jewish laws, hoping mistakenly to please God. In their strict adherence to customs, their unwitting slide into self-righteous attitudes, and their fear of not being “good enough” children of God, I saw myself.
I have always been a “pleaser,” trying to please God, my husband, my parents. In my twenties, I rebelled against all of them for six months. Then I went back to being “good.” But though I trusted God, I felt I still had an image to uphold. I needed to be effective in this life to show God I really loved Him.
Through the course of the Galatians class, I realized Paul (in agreement with the rest of the New Testament) said believers are done trying to please God. Only God can please and honor Himself, though He has chosen to do so through people who live for Christ. When the Spirit is working a change in the understanding of someone like me, it is as miraculous as a crippled person suddenly dancing a jig.
“It was for freedom,” Paul stated, “that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Seeing what Paul meant at the time he wrote those words hammered home to me the meaning of the freedom central to Paul’s gospel. I had been freed by Jesus, but not to set up a system of good deeds or map out a five-year goal. My sinful self, forgiven and at peace with God, had the liberty to learn more of what He wanted me to learn. I decided I would accept this gift gratefully and see what happened next.
Since then I have continued to benefit from being around MSC and the people who faithfully tend this community. On my own I am finding a greater joy when I open my Bible than I have ever known, as I read the surrounding context of a passage with more understanding. There are people to ask when I need help with study (which is often). I hope someday to pass on the things I am learning.
For now, I even tend to find practical applications for my lessons. So far they show up in my perspective and, I hope, in my attitude. When talking to someone who believes differently than me, I do not have to worry about coming out on top. There is no pressure to perform mental gymnastics over faith when my object is to hear what another person has to say and maybe learn something from him. This attitude is modeled by MSC teachers and staff, and it is refreshingly humble.
God could have shown me these things anywhere, through any person or group. But I am glad He brought to my attention what has been going on in Eugene under my nose, over the Internet, and through academic circles. The Study Center may be a view of something vanishing from our culture, but I hope it will be a glimpse for more people of something coming alive.
Copyright October 2000 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.