A Letter to a College Freshman (and anybody else who has ever felt insecure, inadequate, or unimportant)

Dear College Freshmen,

Do yourself a favor. Put down your monthly planner for five minutes. Don’t think about tonight’s social or tomorrow’s exam or your ongoing roommate conflict. Close out of that Buzzfeed article. Step away from the research paper. Surely you’ve noticed by now that #CollegeNoParents is a ridiculously busy time of life. And in the midst of welcome back mixers and test anxiety, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re really getting into.

John-Belushi

You’re three weeks into the most important year of your life. Is that too bold of a claim? I don’t mean to exaggerate. This is the year that you are going to answer the questions that matter. You aren’t going figure out the specifics—what you want to do with your life, where you want to settle down, or whom you’ll marry—but you’ll answer the big questions, the ones that quite literally shape the rest of your life—Who am I? Why am I here? What type of a person am I going to be?

But there are other questions that seem to come before the big ones—the questions we ask ourselves every single day, questions that that run around in our brain before every first date or paper deadline or rush event—Do I belong? Am I good/cool/attractive/funny/spiritual enough?  Am I loved?

Two years ago, I showed up on Baylor’s campus—an insecure 18-year-old with something to prove.  During my freshman year, I couldn’t go to the gym or the dining hall or even Church without feeling the need to be funny, be known, be successful, and be liked. I was constantly trying to prove to others that I mattered and I belonged. And here’s what happened—a lot of times it worked. My efforts to be something I wasn’t paid off. The guys laughed at my jokes, the girl texted back, and the paper came back with an A at the top.

IMG_2809

I lived for the approval of others, for people saying “hey you’re smart” or “hey you’re cool” or even “Hey you really love Jesus.” I looked to people around me and let them determine my value and my worth. But here was the problem. No matter what they said or how much I succeeded in winning their approval,  there was always somebody else to impress and there was always another task to prove myself with. Trying to find my identity in girls or groups or grades left me exhausted, empty, and unfulfilled. Finally I quit. I quit asking people around me if I was good enough or successful enough or even loved enough. I quit asking the people around me and started asking somebody else.

I took those questions to God, and here’s what He said back:

Vince, you live life behind a mask, trying to put forth a plastic image of perfection that people will like.

But you and I both know that image is a lie. Vince, you’re messy and sinful and broken. Worse than that, you spend your days trying to hide that from everyone around you.But here’s what I want you to know.

My Son took care of it. He came to Earth, lived the perfect life you never could, hung on a cross for your sins, and rose again. You don’t have what it takes, not even close. But He did.

And I want you. I want your heart. I want you to find your identity in me. His sacrifice cover your sins. His sacrifice cleaned up your messes. His sacrifice filled in your holes. Now come follow me. Come live in me. Come love like me.

God told me through friends who loved me enough to point me to Jesus when I would try to find my identity in them. He told me this through an incredible church that brought me back to the Gospel each and every week. And He told me through the Bible, His immaculate love letter to His people that have done nothing to deserve his love.

Here’s the point of the letter. If you’ve been skim-reading to this point, tune in for these last couple paragraphs and hear this message loud and clear. What Jesus has done on the cross changes EVERYTHING about those questions (Do I belong? Do I matter? Am I loved?) that are rattling around in your head.

So if you get one thing from this post, get this. You matter. You belong. You are loved. Not because you’re successful or funny or attractive or even kind, but because the God who made you says so. He’s made a way to be His through the sacrifice of His Son. What does that look like? It’s simple: Admit your shortcomings and sins, Believe that Jesus paid your bill on the cross and rose again, and then Choose to follow Him—striving to live and love like your Savior.

But wait a minute, what does this have to do with college? What does Jesus have to do with sorority functions and midterms and late night pillow talk with the roomies? Everything. When you stop looking to others to answers those pesky questions of insecurity that rattle around in your head, when you stop letting other people determine your worth, then these four years of life start to look way different.

Finding your desire to be successful, your sense of belonging, and your need to be loved in Jesus changes everything. Rather than walking around your campus looking for approval, affirmation, and acceptance, you start looking for ways to dish out all the love that’s been shown to you by your Creator.

Your ideas of success, the way you keep score, the way you view the people around you, all of it starts to shift when you’re rooted in the love of Jesus. Everybody you bump into—the people across the hall who play the music too loud, your rival fraternity, your roommate who hits the snooze button six times every morning—becomes an opportunity to show the love and grace that has been shown to you. Jesus transforms #CollegeNoParents from a period of insecurity and self-absorption to an incredible period of your life full of opportunities—opportunities every day to show the love of Jesus to every single person you come in contact with.

Whether you’re a freshmen or a fifth-year senior, here’s my hope for you and me:

Let your roots grow down into Him(Jesus), and let your lives be built on Him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. Colossians 2:7

Let it happen. Cast off the questions and the doubts and the insecurities, and plant your roots deep in the person of Jesus. Fill up your glass with His love, grace, and truth, and watch those things overflow on your campus.

Sincerely,

Vince Greenwald

Advertisements

Losing a Hero

My friend Patrick and I were out for dinner in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We were enjoying the Pilgrim’s special, a ridiculously cheap and delicious three-course meal, inside a lively tapas bar. Pat and I were celebrating the completion of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage hike of 160 miles.

Then I checked my phone. My breathing went short and quick all the sudden. I had urgent texts from my dad to call him immediately. That never happens. I called him. His voice was raspy and weak. “Your cousin Will was killed in a car accident.”

Everything went cold, blank, and numb. I couldn’t do any talking so my dad filled the void. “Do you remember how Will used to wakeboard?” He reminisced. “He would just go for it. All the way. Like crazy.” My tears started dripping on the wooden table.

My cousin was gone.

Will, the cousin who, while in high school, built a cabin—a legit, full-sized wooden cabin complete with a balcony to drink Mountain Dew in with his friends and cousins.

Will, the cousin who went to ISU and lived in Ames for four years during my hopelessly awkward pre-teen years. While most college kids were attending keg parties, Will was taking me to Chinese restaurants, ordering sesame chicken, and asking me about my walk with Jesus.

Will, the cousin who made our annual guys cousin Christmas sleepover not only one of the best nights of the entire year but also significantly better than the girls’ separate but unequal (in terms of quantity of fun and frozen pizzas consumed) sleepover.

Will, the one who, despite having no idea how to properly wakeboard, attacked the wake with so much bravado that he jumped higher than anybody.

Will, the one who taught me to jump on a snowboard by saying something like “I don’t know, man, you just kind of, you know, jump. Just go for it.”

The tears streamed down as the memory film continued to roll. I thought about how huge Will’s role in my life was while we overlapped in Ames. I was an awkward, gangly 13-year-old boy who didn’t know who he was. Will was a man’s man who made go-karts from scraps, had enough intramural champion shirts for every day of the week, went out of his way to love on me, and most importantly showed me that life in Jesus wasn’t a dull, lifeless routine but a vibrant and adventurous lifestyle that was exciting, challenging, and abundant. Will was one of my heroes. And now he was gone.

Image

WIll and I in Colorado after a day of snowboarding

Later that night, I pulled out my journal, put pen to paper, and tried to get some things out of me.

“I miss Will. I hate that I can’t tell him that I love him right now. Death feels so real and permanent and hard. But death, death for those in Christ is only a veil. It’s a passage we walk towards eternity with our Savior. Will is secure in Jesus right now. Because of that, I will choose joy. I will choose joy because JOY called Will home and now Will is experiencing unspeakable joy in the presence of our God.

This sorrow is real, and this is a time for mourning—a life ended so early, a beautiful life that was doing things and going places and bearing fruit. Yes, this sorrow is so real. But joy, yes, joy, overwhelms it. The truth is that Will’s death does not touch God’s unfailing promises, unending faithfulness, or ridiculous love.

One thing I remember about Will was that he had this aura about him, this contagious spirit made up his goofy grin and magnetic personality in equal measure. Will had Joy, that fruit of the Spirit we pick up from contact with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. And now, now that Will is rubbing shoulders with the King in His forever home, that Joy must be more real than ever.”

My dad is a really wise man, somebody who speaks clarity and love and truth into situations. The day after I heard the news, I called him from a restaurant in Barcelona hoping to hear some comforting wisdom. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his words.

“Vince, here’s what I’m finding comfort in right now.” His voice was strained but clear. “Paul writes that ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain.’ And here’s the thing: we either believe those words or we don’t. And if we believe them, then this is going to be OK.”

My cousin Will believed those Divine words, that living was Christ, and that death was gain because it meant going home. His trust in the saving grace of Jesus Christ set him free to spend his days here on Earth doing the things that matter once our days run out—serving relentlessly, living boldly, and loving deeply—all in an attempt to imitate his Savior. Just like my dad said about Will on a wakeboard, “He went for it. Like crazy.” He built stuff like crazy. He helped the people around him like crazy. He loved his wife, his family, and his friends like crazy.

Patrick Kolts, Will’s brother-in-law and best friend, posted an instagram with a caption that says everything that I want to close this post with.

image

God is too good. We find strength in his joy and we are so humbled to have known William…This man was a shining example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He loved without discrimination and served as though he was lesser than everyone. His humility was covered by his joy which was found in knowing Jesus. I am so honored to have had him as a close friend and as a brother (in-law), even though it was for a short time. Death is a real thing and we will all have to face it. I pray that you would know the infinite love and forgiveness found in Jesus. “…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9 ESV) Jesus conquered death, and we have no need to fear it if you know Christ as your savior. #nohashtags

 

P.S. To my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.— I’ve never been more proud to be a Nichols. The faith, hope, and joy displayed by all of you as we mourn has been nothing short of miraculous. Our joy is not the shallow kind. It has nothing to do with plastic smiles or surface-level small-talk. It is a weighty joy, a joy with roots that go deep into our Jesus, roots that hold strong and go down even deeper during storms like this one. 

P.P.S. To the rest of you — if you’re interested in reading more about my incredible cousin Will, please read these beautiful posts by my beautiful cousins that make me dab my eyes and wonder how I got so blessed with these people.

The Day I Met Grief 

For My Cousins (And Anyone That Has Ever Loved At All) 

William Mark Nichols — The Dash Between The Dates