I went to college about a month after I turned seventeen, from a small town in Wisconsin to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” known to rural folks as the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There were about 7,000 people in my hometown, contrasted with the student population of 40,000 of the University. To say that I was a lost lamb might have been an understatement. I was clothed in a protective layer of my own misguided ego, so I didn’t know the extent to which I was in over my head.

Thankfully, and by the grace of God, my misguided ego and I stumbled into the Lutheran Campus Center (ELCA) in the middle of the campus. There, I found a warm community of quiet believers with Nordic-sounding names, warm dinners on Wednesdays, and a mustached pastor named Brent Christianson. Brent preached the gospel of grace in a confident, intellectual way to a gathering of tired and sometimes confused students. He baked us homemade bread and made lentil soup spiced with cumin, so we could smell how much he loved us as soon as we walked in the doors from the cold Wisconsin air. He spent a lot of time lounging with us on the mid-century modern couches (as in, the originals, in burnt orange), drinking stale coffee and mostly just listening to us. If you think this sounds a little bit like Lake Woebegon Goes to College, you wouldn’t be wrong. There was even a story about Brent’s Norwegian Bachelor Uncles, which sealed the deal that we were living our Best Prairie Home Companion Lives: College Days.

I now know that Brent had probably heard versions of the same conversation repeated year after year on those coffee-stained couches. When we students thought of our problems as interesting and new, I know in hindsight that they were neither, and that Brent must have wanted to tell us then that there is nothing new under the Sun. He never did, though. He made us feel like our problems were unique and special, and even — here’s the kicker — interesting. I remember coming into his office one day and crying about something. This was rare for me, because I usually saved my crying for other people. I don’t remember why I was upset, but I remember Brent looking at me and saying, “You know you don’t have to, right?” Whatever it was that I thought I absolutely had to do, which was obviously not all that important because it’s lost to the ages now, Brent released me from it. I was the student who achieved, who did, who completed, who did not quit. Brent affirmed the word of grace I didn’t know I needed: Don’t. Just stop. It’s okay to quit. I’m sure I confessed things to him that he already knew.

Brent is the person who challenged my theology that “I must have done something good” to earn my place in the world, at the university, on those couches. He challenged the heresy that any of us were deserving of God’s grace, while still reminding us that it was extended to us anyway. For a kid on a full academic scholarship, this was nothing short of mind-blowing, but he didn’t deliver the message in the kind of bless-your-heart way that would have turned me away. He just stated it as fact, and made it known to all of us that we were loved by a God we didn’t deserve.

One of the most serious conversations we had on those couches was about marriage. We were all twenty-ish, and our parents had all been married at nineteen-ish, so this was a pressing question. “Do you think that there’s one person for everyone?” This was, in our minds, a question central to our very existence as humans. “I don’t know,” Brent said. “I found a wife who loves me, and I love her, so I stopped looking. I never had to worry if there were more out there who would have sufficed.” WHAT. What about soulmates? What about divine providence for THE ONE? This took our Disney childhoods and our 1990s rom-com teens and shook them UP. But if it was good enough for Brent, it was good enough for us. Don’t take this for a lack of romanticism. Brent was a serious poet, a lover of nature, a musician, and a comedian. He made the large university into a smaller community, where we were loved and nurtured and fed.

More than anything, though, Brent pointed us to the love of Jesus. Regardless of our almighty majors and GPAs, our apartment leases and our grad school plans, Brent brought us to worship a God that loved us. Brent showed us that God’s love remained constant in our sea of changing ideas and growing minds.

Brent died last Wednesday. Wednesday was the day in college when we gathered as a community to worship and eat together. I can imagine the gathering that Brent is joining now, in the nearer presence of God, even as we grieve him here. A few of my college friends and I gathered virtually on Zoom on Wednesday night to toast Brent. We talked more about our boneheaded antics than about Brent, which says something about how much freedom he gave us to do our boneheaded things, forgiving us and leading us, week by week, to worship the unchanging God he loved.

My prayer for all of you is that you have someone in your life who will forgive your boneheaded antics and point you to Jesus.

About a month before he died, Brent wrote this poem for Palm Sunday.

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

“Our Hope just got crucified.”
– Pastor Todd Iverson, Sunday of the Passion, 2020

If the church can’t help us mourn,
it will never be our joy.
If the church can’t help us die,
it will never move with us into resurrection.
If the church can’t understand hopelessness
it will never proclaim real hope.
If the church can’t see the cross and tomb,
unadorned with lilies and shining vestments
it will never be able to touch
wounds on the risen Christ
or the victims of plagues.

Thank you, pastor,
for trusting us to mourn, to die,
to be hopeless,
to really see cross and sealed tomb,
and wounds that survive resurrection.

When you tell me of the Good News
it will, indeed be good.

Thank you, pastor,
for not rehearsing “Happy Days are Here Again”
for the pandemic’s end
but reminding us that we will take our stand
beneath the cross of Jesus

God, in Your Mercy, Hold him in Love.