Spencer Sipe is the RUF Intern at Vanderbilt

Most of my life, I’ve been a part of the Southern, Bible-belt Christianity Culture – sun dresses and sear sucker suits, congregational potlucks with 50 versions of the same food, and lots of kind greetings that sound like, “Brother (fill in the name),  it’s great to see you this Sunday morning.” During the fall, church can feel like a stepping stone to say we worshiped Jesus so we can feel better about worshiping our football team in the afternoon. Much of this church culture can feel more ritualistic than genuine curiosity to hear the gospel.

I’m an RUF intern at Vanderbilt, and though it’s located in the center of Nashville — the hub of country music — it is the opposite of southern hospitality culture. Vanderbilt preaches inclusivity for everyone, but makes itself exclusive for only the best of the best students. Most of the student body couldn’t imagine taking a Sunday afternoon to watch football. And taking a Sunday morning to go to church feels like a time-filler that keeps them from progressing toward their futures, or having time to study for the exam they have in three weeks. But I’ve learned more from this environment than I could have thought. 

Previously, it was hard for me to see Jesus because I felt my faith was directly tied to the southern “way we do things” rather than seeing that Jesus just loved me and wanted me. This wasn’t for lack of good teaching, but came from the pressure I felt to perform in a way that wouldn’t cause anyone to worry about whether or not I was a Christian.

Over the last year, it’s been a generous gift to learn the differences between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church in Mississippi, and it was a gift to me to learn solid teaching and lots of theology as a young man. But I missed something, the crucial part that made the theology piece together and make sense: Jesus. 

It seems silly to me to look back over the many years that I spent trying to understand scripture and invest in Bible studies and spiritual community when I didn’t see Jesus in the midst of it. And thankfully, as scripture says, it never returned void. It was for my good. But my high school and college self only knew how to perform through the scriptures. Or, I ran to the scriptures to be the object that would save me, rather than a means of grace for me to see Jesus. Enough guilt and sin in my life pushed me away from knowing Jesus because I thought I knew enough about Him to be okay. 

Because I thought I was firmly established in my faith, I pursued the RUF internship. When I moved to Vanderbilt, I came to the campus believing I had something to offer. I thought there might be that one student that I can share the things I knew about God in order to make a difference in their lives. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize that my faith wasn’t faith– it was shameful obedience. It was a posture of following what Jesus commanded me to do so that I could be in good standing, even though I was surrounded by doctrines of grace my entire life. The reason for this: I had never experienced what it was like to FEEL loved by Jesus. I just knew how to articulate that God loves His people. I had spent so much time reading scripture to understand what Jesus taught that I completely missed who Jesus is. 

My former campus minister, Richie Sessions, worked with me through the guilt and shame of my life and reminded me of the most profound truth in all of scripture: Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. What had been such a simple and childish hymn sung to me in Sunday school classes as a boy became the catalyst for the humbling of my heart to be more childlike and dependent upon Jesus’ love for me. The growth that came after such an experience has drastically changed my life. I rejoice in good days through the love of Christ. I rest despite my failures through the love of Christ. And I don’t do this perfectly but with an everlasting hope. 

But while I became overwhelmed with the idea of knowing Jesus for the first time, I forgot the most important part again– He knows me and has known me before I was born. Even when I felt far He was there. The God of the universe has known me and loved me before the foundations of the earth. My name is written on the palm of His hand. God would give up His son so I could experience His love fully.

The ministry that comes from a place of being loved by Jesus turns it away from a complicated set of doctrines and commands into a simple desire for Jesus. This kind of love drives us to a thankful obedience for Jesus and seeing His commands as protections for us, not laws from a dictator. 

We are known by Christ. And being known brings about an acceptance of being needy. It eliminates our facades of appearing okay on Sunday mornings and having to look our best in front of others. While we continue to have a fear of ourselves which will produce an emotional and spiritual turmoil from the root of comparison, Jesus just wants us. He wants us the way we are and knows more about us, the darkest parts of us, that we will never know. And He loves us anyways. 

This brings us rest. It allows us to trust that God is still at work even in the midst of our unfathomable brokenness. There is a God in heaven who loves you and wants you for Himself. We worship a God who is personable and understands you in more ways than we can understand ourselves.  

I love and care for my students, but I love and care for them not because I just want to be a good person. I love them and care for them because Jesus loved and cared for me before the foundations of the earth, and this unconditional love and grace leads me to share that same compassion for others. Praise be to our God and Father who would love such broken sinners and redeem us and have a relationship where we are known by Him.