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Urbana -- The Wondrous Cross

To give a full account and reckoning of Urbana ’03 is beyond my scope and ability. I believe that God sets aside times and places in which to work in his people. Often this work of God’s is powerful; sometimes it is subtle. Yet no Jesus follower can leave those places, move on from those times unchanged. Inter-Varsity’s student missions conference at Urbana is one such place. Many people find themselves challenged, changed, and moved at Urbana. I am one of them. Since Urbana is so huge, this letter is twofold. First, allow me to relate two instances of God’s might and power in the midst of me at Urbana. Both are tied to the Cross, both speak volumes about mission. Second, I shall tell you about the ripple effect—beyond Urbana.

The Assembly Hall at Urbana is a large, wok-like structure in which nearly 18 000 people were being stir-fried by God to perfection over the six days of the conference. In the centre of this structure, apparently, is where the University of Illinois sets up its basket ball court for big (read HUGE) games. For the conference, this area is dominated by a stage and ground-level seating. On the stage was a podium from which speakers delivered their messages, intervarsity emblazoned across its front. To the left is the worship team—keyboards, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums, singers, the whole bit—even a cello at one point, a tin whistle at another. To the right, the stage was largely empty, except when the astounding drama team performed its dramas that struck to the heart of Christianity and the spirit of mission. Behind them all were huge block letters—which is to say blocks that happened to be letters—arranged artistically to say, "your kingdom come your will be done." Accompanying all of this were lights that would do crazy things, shining images onto the ceiling, walls, audience, casting different colours and shading on the stage. Flanking the stage and hanging from the ceiling were the solutions to everyone’s visibility issue—huge screens, four above, two beside. On these they projected the events on stage along with the words to the songs. They were also used to display videos that blew away the stereotype of Christians producing totally lame, horrific, bad, cheap, irrelevant art.

Now, you must be thinking that the glory, splendour and majesty of the Assembly Hall were what moved me. True, events that happened there moved me, and worshipping with 18 000 brothers and sisters is pretty cool. But the hugeness of the Assembly Hall was not a pivotal God event for me. In and of itself, singing with 18 000 is no better than with fifty or one hundred, and certainly did not bring me any nearer to God. The lights were distracting and got in my eyes, to be truthful. There I stood in the middle of the Assembly Hall—an Anglican. True, I tend to choose modern liturgy and guitars over Prayer Book and organ, but I am still Anglican in that worship part of my soul. I missed my holy table. I missed my cross. But the people who organise Urbana are into worship and the arts very much. And God knew that I and others like me would be there. Thus we sang, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." (Book of Common Praise, #593)

The words of Rev. Watts’ hymn were superimposed over images of Jesus hanging on that wondrous cross. Singing, "See, from his head, his hands, his feet, / Sorrow and love flow mingled down; / Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / Or thorns compose so rich a crown?" we could say, "Yes. I see it, I see love so amazing, so divine." The images were from across the reaches of time and culture. There were Byzantine icons and modern paintings. The Christ died on the cross looking Jewish, Northern European, block, oriental. His cleansing blood was there on a mighty huge screen, his wounds and death visible for all to see. Truly a powerful experience. Surveying that wondrous Cross, I really did pour contempt on all my pride. Here, in these images, was the reason for it all! Here was mission. Here was the day of salvation. Why go? Go because you cannot bear the thought of another soul dying without the knowledge of that Cross. Go because you must honour the amazing love and sacrifice. Go because if not, you would be unable to look at that cross, transcending time, space, culture, and not weep in shame. Go because no matter what, you can’t behold the cross without weeping. I couldn’t, even though it was "just" artists’ perceptions of Him. I wept. For me. My sin. My country. The unreached millions of the world.

I didn’t feel so bad about not having a cross or holy table at Urbana after that.

See, God meets you at Urbana.

Then there was the evening session on Day Three. As per any usual Urbana day, we’d already had the Morning Session with two speakers, worship, videos, drama, testimonies, prayer. And for some, had attended various workshops or met mission agencies in the gymnasia in the afternoon. For 100 Canadians, we had discussed what mission and ministry look like on a Canadian campus, to Canadians, by Canadians. The days at Urbana were very full. This session was great. And challenging. Ray Aldred, Director of the First Nations Alliance Churches of Canada, spoke first about Cross-Cultural Conversion and its importance. He spoke of how the Gospel must be conveyed in the heart language of the people receiving. The heart language is more than simply vocabulary, syntax, grammar. It takes into account the whole culture, the whole people, its dreams and aspirations. One must take into consideration the pain and suffering of the people. Weakness, Aldred told us, is the place of sharing. Indeed, sharing from a position of power builds walls, does not share the whole being. In his own words, "Jesus spoke to us on the level of human weakness, the cross." He had so much to say about mission and Gospel, I could write heaps unpacking its ramifications. He called the Western Church to repentance; my notes say, "The West has . . . reduced the Gospel to a set of doctrines, propositions. It makes theology something you know, not do. We make Christianity a religion of the mind. We not only have to understand but be what the gospel says."

We must rediscover that wondrous Cross, on which the Prince of Glory died.

We must live, not merely think, Gospel.

The cross, the level of human weakness, has no cultural boundaries.

Later that evening, after more great videos and talks, we had extended worship. This worship was a taste of the cross extending across the gaps and bringing all culture to Jesus. Broken Walls, a First Nations worship team from Canada led the worship. They began by dancing down the aisles in full regalia, the drummers drumming and singing on stage. I found this time of worship very powerful. I may be only 1/64 Shawnee, but something in their music pulsed to the core of my being, something strong and powerful, something of God. Jonathan Maracle, the leader of the team, spoke a little. He said, "For centuries, my people were told that to play our drums was evil, that when we played them, they conjured up evil spirits. Do you sense evil spirits here tonight?" We responded with a resounding no. "The buffalo whose hide is on that drum was a good buffalo—he did no wrong. The cedar tree that forms the frame was a good tree—it never sinned." After inspecting the Yahama drum set for the usual band, he asked, "Yamaha? How is that more consecratable than this?" It was wonderful to hear people sing of Gitchi Manitou and mean God, not some nebulous Great Spirit energy force of creation.

I have much to say about First Nations people and the Gospel as a result of Urbana. Let me simply say this: although we thought we (Europeans) were doing best in the past, we were wrong and caused much hurt. We failed them. We failed Jesus. We unwittingly shamed the Wondrous Cross. And now we must engage in the ministry of reconciliation with our native brothers and sisters. And how powerful it was to see those brothers dancing for joy before the Lord. Pray for the communities of Northern Canada, for Gospel healing of new as well as ages-old hurts.

God meets you at Urbana.

And he won’t leave you unchanged.

When I survey the wondrous cross

on which the Prince of Glory died;

my richest gain I count but loss,

and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

save in the death of Christ, my God;

all the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,

sorrow and love flow mingled down.

Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,

or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

that were an offering far too small;

love so amazing, so divine,

demands my soul, my life, my all.

Copyright 2005, Matthew Hoskin

Annus Quinque
(Year Five)