Before I moved to Purdue University for my freshman year, seven of my close high school friends camped-out in my backyard. Gathered around a fire, we skipped sleeping and talked from dusk to dawn. We reminisced about high school and expressed excitement about college. Two weeks later, I found myself at a state university of more than 35,000 students. I knew the transition from a close-knit homeschooling community to a secular campus would come with difficulties. But I didn't expect the challenges I faced.
I anticipated that I would quickly find a campus ministry, establish a group of friends, and thrive in my area of study. In reality, I struggled to find a place of spiritual, social, and academic belonging. Throughout the year, I internally asked, "Where do I fit?"
By God's grace, my second year at Purdue was different. I began studying agricultural communication and became captivated by the field. Friendships flourished. At Reformed University Fellowship, my spiritual life developed. The question of fitting in remained, but I approached it from a new angle.
I went to my first agriculture class as an agricultural communication major wearing a denim pencil skirt and a black cardigan sweater. I settled into my desk and looked around only to realize that many of my fellow female students wore jeans, 4-H or FFA t-shirts, leather belts studded with rhinestones, and cowboy boots. A photo of sheep shone from the projector. My professor asked the class of 100 students what breed they were. To my amazement, the class shouted words like "Cheviot," "Dorset," and "Rambouillet," a different language to me. I don't remember what breed was correct. But I remember laughing to myself, wondering how I would fit in with this group and how God would work through me.
Not long after that, someone introduced me to the phrase "faithful presence," an expression coined by James Davison Hunter, a professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia. Faithful presence asserts that instead of changing the world, Christians should seek to pursue excellence in their respective vocations. How could I live my life as a sojourner on this earth in a way that bore witness to my identity as a citizen of heaven? This question whirled through my mind as I nestled into Boilermaker life. I started thinking about how my identity of pilgrim helps me understand my various vocations (student, RUF member, friend, etc.). I wondered what would be required to make faithful presence a reality in my life.
I quickly realized an intimate understanding of grace fuels faithful presence. Grace encompasses the idea that my standing before God rests not in my worthiness, but in Christ's merit. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I attempted to become involved with people in my field of study. Conversations with them often seemed superficial, and I usually sat alone in class and at meetings. Although frustrated by the lack of results, I rested in the knowledge that I was being faithful to live in the sphere where God placed me.
I'm an adopted child of God because of his grace, not my works. Faithfulness, not results, are bottom line. The focus of faithful presence shifts from doing to being, from acting to living. When I take my attention off of myself and what I need to do, I can look to how Jesus is calling me to respond to my identity as his child. Instead of operating under a list of rules, faithful presence beckons an outward response to grace.
While grace sustains faithful presence, a vibrant spiritual community emboldens it. My RUF community speaks truth into my life and cares for me. They encourage me to live steadfastly in my various callings. In my semester of attempting to make friends with students in my major, my community reminded me of truths about God and the gospel that I had forgotten.
Last weekend, I sat around a campfire with fellow ministry team members from RUF. We spent our evening eating dinner, water skiing and swimming in the Ohio River. We ended it at the campfire, talking about our struggles and joys in faith and discussing what it will look like to live in light of that faith. Two weeks from now, I'll have finished the first week of my senior year. It will be the beginning of the end of my endeavor to live faithfully at Purdue. I now own a pair of cowboy boots and have many dear friends in my major. By the providence of God, my presence will be used for his glory and the good of my campus and community.
Abigail Maurer is a senior at Purdue University studying agricultural communication.
Editor's note: This column is part of a series of essays on a back to school theme. Click here for a list of other essays in this series.