Beauty in the broken: where theological concepts grow legs.

Within a few minutes into the speaker’s opening talk, I could hear audible sobs and sniffles.

He didn’t use crash language or make salacious emotional appeals. He just read a few cartoons. Like this one:

Cartoons that seemed all at once simplistic stereotypes and way-too-close-too-home-for-comfort. Cartoons that depicted familial pressure to maintain a certain body image, grades, career etc. In other words, family brokenness that just about everyone in the room could relate to.

It was our fall retreat and the topic was “Beauty in the Broken.” The speaker, Jon Warden, was a licensed counselor who specializes in working with Asian Americans. Our fall retreats in the past were always a wonderful and fun experience. After the whirlwind that is the first two months of the school year (what we call New Student Outreach or NSO), Fall Retreat represented the exclamation point to NSO and was a time of fun, fellowship and a chance for freshmen to meet upperclassmen in a relaxed weekend excursion.

This year would be different.

We had three intense sessions where Jon didn’t pull any punches. He dove right into some murky and challenging waters.

  1. Our wounds — we all carry wounds from our past and present. Ways in which those closest to us, our family and friends, have hurt us. The product of sinful people loving others with imperfect love. And wounds can run deep, deep into our soul. God’s redemption includes healing, even our deepest soul wounds.
  2. Our cycles of brokenness — In very specific ways we experience the depravity of sin: we receive deep wounds, we are seduced by the devils lie, we agree with those lies and we make compromise solutions as a means of coping with our pain. We detach ourselves from others and from God. We become dependent. We become controlling and over-critical. We do to others what had been done to us. In other words, we turn to anything and everything except for God. Little by little, unchecked, unresolved pain only leads downhill.
  3. God’s complete redemption — God not only forgives us of our sins, but offers deep healing and redemption. Repentance requires acknowledging our unhealthy coping and the ways we’ve been complicit in our brokenness cycle (Jeremiah 2).
  4. God’s cycles of grace — God freely offers his love and forgiveness to us, if we are ready to accept. His unmerited favor does specific things: illuminates our minds, awakens our emotions, determines our will and empowers our actions. That’s the only way to undue the cycle of brokenness that all sinful humanity is subject to.
  5. Wounded healers — we are sent by Christ to be wounded healers, saved by grace and in the process of being made whole again.

That’s my best attempt to summarize three chock-full talks of great material. But as it related to students, it did a few things:

  • Put legs to theological concepts — sin wasn’t just some church term, but the depth of sin and evil in our world and in our lives, it was the grotesque collision of our individual depravity, the depravity of others and the depravity and lies of the evil one. Furthermore, redemption wasn’t just a pie-in-the-sky idea either. Redemption meant the deep healing work of God in our lives that made us whole for now and for eternity. As we got a deeper picture of sin, that just made the redemption that comes only through Christ all the more sweet.
  • Opened dialogue about brokenness — after every session we allowed for 30-45 minutes of small group time. I was honestly shocked at how open some of the groups were with their hurts. Because Jon gave the students a language of talking about brokenness, I think students felt free to share their “stuff.” I think there are few things more beautiful and redemptive than a Christian community who shares their pains together, mourns together and seeks God’s healing together.

What was going on at this retreat?

A fundamental shift in how I see my campus workto address brokenness in light of the Gospel. I realize for my students, they have rarely had the opportunity to explore their own brokenness, let alone work through in from a Biblical perspective. The retreat provided a context, in many cases the first context, to address deep issues that students were dealing with — family challenges, career/major/identity crises, relational brokenness. As I watched small groups share intently, I thought to myself, “why can’t this happen on campus on a daily or weekly basis? why can’t our fellowship be known on the campus not as a place of sparkly clean do-gooders, but broken sinners saved by grace?”

A mentor of mine would always say that the body of Christ is too often seen as an art museum, with archaic, stuffy relics overly sanitized, when it should be seen as a hospital, where the wounded are welcomed. When Jon played this video, I knew that’s the beautiful picture of what God does that every student at NU should see in us:

A new beginning. For many students, the retreat was an opportunity to begin the journey of healing of past wounds. For some of the students who grew up in church, the retreat was the first time where they were challenged to surrender their pain and their past to the Lord. For some students, the retreat was a commission to be sent as wounded healers into the campus. For some it meant new life: at the end of retreat I shared the Gospel and gave an invitation to faith and three students responded! (we’re still following up on these students and processing with them, so I would not say they have accepted Christ yet, but we are hopeful! Please see prayer requests below)

How can I pray for the students?

Our fall retreat was a high point in our fellowship this year — students encountered God, opened up to their community and made commitments to go forward in various aspects. Yet, the real work begun the moment they set foot back on campus.

  • Please pray for the three non-Christian students who indicated that they wanted to start a relationship with Jesus. One student is an international student from China and is still very much new to Christianity. Another student is an atheist who after the retreat told his small group leader, he wants to learn about Christianity first before fully committing. Please pray that the Holy Spirit would continue the work He began in these students.
  • Please pray for students to take next steps in light of the retreat. For some students, it may mean beginning to share with their friends and family some their brokenness. For others, it may mean pursuing counseling. For many, it may mean an increased awareness of how their brokenness plays out in their daily lives.
  • Please pray that AAIV would be known on campus as a place where broken people find healing through Christ. Pray that the language and concepts from this weekend would continue to be present in our ministry.

How are you doing, Andy?

For me, what our fellowship has been working through has been a theme in my life as well. The past year or so has been filled with constant self-discovery and new revelations about myself and who God has created me to be. For the first time, I’m starting to explore my own personal brokenness, which is obviously not a party, but has honestly made His grace sweeter and more tangible.

The speaker Jon Warden actually leads a men’s group that I have been a part of for the past few months which has been incredibly instrumental in helping me explore some of my own personal struggles. If you’re interested in reading about some of the cool things we’ve been doing, you can visit our men’s group blog here <> where all the guys post thoughts and reflections on faith, culture and masculinity. There is some really good stuff on there.

In the meantime, my job as a campus minister continues to grow less about my skills, gifts and talents, but more about my ability to be open to God’s work in my own life. This is less and less of a cliche to me and more and more a necessity — like a life preserver in a chaotic ocean. It reminds me of the oft-quoted Martin Luther line that I think will continue to shape my life and my ministry for years to come.

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

So here’s to living a life as a non-imaginary sinner and engaging in the hard but life-giving work of finding beauty in the broken, both for myself and in the lives of my students.

even amidst the intensity, there was still time for s'mores!


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