It Starts with 12: Ryerson IVCF at Urbana 12

It Starts with 12: Ryerson IVCF at Urbana 12.

via It Starts with 12: Ryerson IVCF at Urbana 12.

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The sacramental scooter

Urbana 12 began with a man on a scooter, one foot on the deck, the other toeing the pavement as he glided out of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis and through the streets of Toronto. It’s amazing the wonders one can work with technology and a well-told parable that winds its way through the lives of 16,000 people gathered together in one place for five days.

“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.”

At Urbana, the man on the scooter, the servant, kept showing up at every session. We saw him knocking on doors, learning Korean, interrupting people in offices and cafes, chatting with them on park benches. We were with him in spirit as he offered invitation after invitation, cringing with the rejections, applauding the acceptances.

He kept reporting his progress back to the master via Skype. How many people he was inviting, who was coming, who was not.

I’ve started to think of that scooter as a sort of sacramental vessel. The servant as its holy roller. Sacraments are things of mysterious and sacred significance, acts of spiritual grace. They are not static, but move in and around and though us. It’s hard not to be changed when we come into the presence of sacrament.

There have been many sacramental moments during Urbana 12.

The Join In, when people moved throughout the Dome filling bags and boxes with items of compassion bound for Africa, was sacrament. The lighting of glow sticks, when hundreds of people affirmed and reaffirmed their commitment to Christ, was sacrament.

Our offering of more than $800,000, gifts of cash placed in buckets and transferred through technology, are practical sacraments to be used by the people of God all over the world.

We wrote sacramental commitments on pieces of paper. Pens, scratching out promises to go deep into a life of mission and sacrifice, to be people of invitation and hospitality and love.  We shared communion, the bread and wine passed hand over hand among thousands in the vast Dome, a massive movement that worked itself out quietly, mysteriously, gracefully.

A sacramental scooter. A parable of a banquet. A great invitation.

Urbana 12.



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The Worth of a Picture

If you were there you would have walked a line behind your sister with pink hair matted in dreads. A pace behind, your brother would follow with a fro coiffed with comb. This line leading you to giant brown boxes bearing simple goods destined for a purpose. Together your family would reach deep into boxes for a piece of God’s giant heart. Together you would gather into packages these reminders of God’s global care. Coarse locks, straight bob, and faux-hawk would open their arms to these goods and converge upon a great bin filling it with these bright orange bags – safe for transport. If you were there you would have gathered with family you didn’t know and might not see again. Family whose only connection to you is secretly contained in the pieces you pull out of the bin. If you were there.

I wasn’t. Contained neatly in my own bin on the other side of the wall, I sat still with my white screen in front and my white wall behind. From an adjacent table reports from Twitter were juggled between my social network friends. And I had the sense something full of colour was happening beyond my land of grey carpet and drop ceilings.

When the hour had passed and our scouts returned, I copied their photos onto my drive. Suffering from a lack of sleep like most of the world, I happily shut my computer down and left my container for the evening. The conference is not for me, I guess. I am glad everyone else is experiencing some of the wonder of God here.

As I made my way across the empty street the next morning, I stumbled along with my eyelids low. Down the vacant halls I wobbled clutching a mug of God’s caffeinated love. Reaching deep into the corner of my purse I released the key to my gloomy box. Following the faint dots in the flat flooring I shuffled to my station – white wall behind, white screen in front. Hundreds of photos awaited relocation to my ordered folders and so I began the tedious sorting process. Sort sort sort – sifting through the visual narrative of the night before – click click click. Copy paste copy paste copy paste copy…………

And for a long second I didn’t breathe for fear I would interrupt the sacred moment before me. The image invited me into the experience of two women present in the line the night before. Both reaching deep into the bins to scoop up some love. One with eyes fixed on her sister and one with no sight at all. And with cheeks wet with joy I was, for a moment, there.


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10,000 commitments

I just came from a news conference where Urbana 12 Director Tom Lin was asked to describe the current student generation.  I loved his response:

They are soft-hearted, he said, and ready to make a commitment. They want to be challenged, and they respond well to being challenged. And they’re buying a lot of books.

That last comment caught me by surprise — students who live so much in the land of texting and twitter, who read class notes on the Internet and books on their iPhones, are still buying bulky, bound books. How absolutely remarkable.

Here’s something that’s even more remarkable. On Sunday evening, the 16,000 participants at Urbana 12 were asked to put their commitments down on paper – to use pen and ink to record their promises, then hand them in.

commitment card

Urbana 12 commitment to long-term mission more than doubled from Urban 09.

Just over 10,000 people responded tangibly.

Here’s a record of the commitments:

96 people decided to become a first-time follower of Jesus.

2,740 recommitted their lives to Jesus.

6,434 committed to inviting a friend who does not follow Jesus to study the Bible.

7,058 committed to serving and learning in a global or cross-cultural setting.

5,744 committed to going on a short-term (less than one year) mission.

3,071 committed to going on a mid-term (one-to-two year) mission.

4,224 committed to investing their lives in long-term (more than two years) mission.

You are probably wondering about the strength of these commitments. I can’t speak for the 10, 000 people who signed cards last night. But I can tell you that 33 years ago I signed my first commitment card at Urbana 79. I wasn’t as courageous as the 4,224 people who committed to serving long-term in missions last night. My commitment was simply to pray about the possibility of living a missional life.

I followed through with my promise to pray. And ever since God has been inviting me into amazing opportunities to serve him, first in journalism and now in student ministry.

Along the way, I’ve learned that making a commitment to God leads to a joyous and full life. I’m thrilled that 10,000 others are moving in the same direction.

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Invited into goodness

There is so much about the goodness of this world that we know nothing about. So much about the pain, too. On Saturday night we learned something  about both.

First the pain. We learned on Saturday night that Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. One in four adults in that country, which has a population of 1.2 million people, suffer with HIV. So many people have died from AIDS that 39 per cent of the population is under the age of 14. Orphaned children care for grandparents.  There are only two physicians for every 10,000 people who live in Swaziland. One nurse for every 356.

How did so many of us not know this before tonight?

And how did so many of us not know about a great goodness?

In Swaziland, thousands of people care for one another out of the goodness of their hearts. Called Caregivers, these people are profoundly kind neighbours. One of them is named Shortie. She’s of a grandmotherly age, and stature, too. When she stood on the stage at Urbana 12, she barely reached the mic.

But everyone in the Edward Jones Dome heard her invitation: “Tonight you are invited to taste and see that the Lord is good. I hope and pray that you say yes.”

Her prayer was answered. For more than two hours thousands of Urbana participants moved steadily through the arena filling 32,000 sacks with precious items that Caregivers will use as they go house to house in Swaziland, bathing sick people, purifying water, putting ointment on sores.

Packing sacks in boxes bound for Swaziland.

Packing sacks in boxes bound for Swaziland.

When the sacks were filled, they were placed in boxes. When the boxes were filled, they were stacked in two massive shipping containers. Soon, those containers will make their way to Swaziland, where World Vision will distribute the boxes and deliver the sacks so Caregivers can go to work.

On Saturday night, we were invited to open our eyes to the tremendous pain that hounds one country of our world. Then we were invited by the very people who are soothing that pain, to enter into something incredibly good.

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Wow, to think I almost missed that

“Why don’t we want more?”

It was the classic Urbana question, spiraling up from the classic Urbana message, and spinning us into a classic Urbana discussion.

Seconds after David Platt finished his hard-hitting, compelling, give-everything-to-Jesus talk on Friday night, my colleagues and I launched into a challenging, convicting, give-everything-to-Jesus conversation. It was impromptu, unscripted and slightly inconvenient and it came at the end of a very long day.

We work behind the scenes at Urbana and for many of us, this is not our first conference. Because of this, it’s easy to overlook the possibility that God might actually have a word or two for us while we are here.

When David Platt finished saying everything he had to say last night, I was tempted to move quickly on, appreciative that he’d delivered an important talk, one that I’m certain has been delivered at every Urbana since the conference first began in 1946.

But moving quickly on would have been a mistake. Shelving the talk alongside other classic Urbana messages would have been a loss. Failing to talk about the talk would have  been an epic fail.

We didn’t get to the question — why don’t we want more — immediately. When we launched into our discussion, we spent a lot of time circling around the talk itself. David Platt called us to put Jesus ahead of everything else in our lives – our stuff, our money, our affections. Do this, he said, because Jesus is worth it, not for any other reason.

What does that look like, we asked each other? Can we ever give everything to Jesus? How do we follow Jesus with both feet in? Why do we so very often have one foot in, and one foot out? Are we mostly putting on an act, or can we really, truly live like disciples of Jesus? What place does community have in this? Are we being transformed, getting there? Or will it always be a struggle? Do we really believe Jesus offers more?  And if we do, why don’t we want that?”

“Why don’t we want more?”

We didn’t come up with a neatly packaged answer to that question last night. I still don’t have one this morning. But here’s what I love about Urbana: it’s not just a big, exciting, come-to-Jesus conference. It’s a place where God shows up through big name speakers and through conversations among small groups of friends.

Urbana is a place where, if we’re listening, God very likely has a word, even for those of us who work behind the scenes.

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Casting a line into the deep waters of a Bible study

Forty five minutes into the Bible Study, people finally start talking, not rapid fire, but quick enough to give you the sense they are tracking with each other, and even better than that, thinking, listening and responding.

“They’re figuring it out,” my colleague Lisa Laird whispers to me. And we both breathe a sigh of relief.

Have you ever led a Bible study? Do you know the angst that squeezes your heart as you wonder if anyone will talk out loud? I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to toss a question into the abyss, praying someone will catch it and send back a response.

One of the best things I learned as an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship student leader in my university days was that it was OK to wait in silence until someone eventually answered my Bible Study questions.  ‘They need time to think,” was the advice given to me by a wise staff worker. “A minute seems long to you, but to them, it’s probably not long enough.”

That sage advice has carried me through many Bible studies over the years. But I think the old angst would still have surfaced had I been in the shoes of my colleague Scott Gerbrandt this morning.

At Urbana, Bible studies are not exactly the cozy small group you might imagine. Rather, hundreds — sometimes thousands — of students gather in conference rooms for an hour and a half study led by one person.

Leading a Bible study for 200 people is no easy task, but my colleague Scott Gerbrandt pulls it off.

Leading a Bible study for 200 people is no easy task, but my colleague Scott Gerbrandt pulls it off.

Today, I slipped into the back of the room as Scott was leading a group of 200 through Luke 5:1-11, the story where Jesus tells Peter to cast his nets into deep water, even though he’d already fished the night through with nothing to show for it.

In the early moments of the study, I wondered if Scott was feeling a little like Peter, obediently casting out a line because that’s what Jesus (and the rest of us) expected him to do. The pauses were long, but eventually, a few brave souls began to raise their hands and nudge the discussion forward.

Scott is an exuberant kind of guy, and with each comment from the crowd he’d give back encouraging words. “Yes! Great, great observation!” Often he’d take things further, urging speakers to go deeper, think harder, share a little more than they’d intended when they first stood up.

And eventually, something kind of miraculous happened, the kind of thing every Bible study leader hopes and prays for. People started referencing comments made by others earlier in the study. I began to imagine their words as a ball of wool being tossed around the room, knitting us into a cohesive group.

To be honest, I don’t think any of us would claim that 200 people became a community this morning. It takes more than one Bible study for that to happen. Fortunately, there are three more morning studies in this Urbana conference.

Keep throwing out the lines, Scott, Lisa and the dozens of other Bible study leaders at Urbana. As the week goes on, I’m certain you’ll pull in a magnificent catch.

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