A LASP Case Study: Chitwood 3.0, the Alumnus Years
By Matthew Chitwood
There's nothing like a 30th birthday to make you get introspective. As I hit the big 3-0 last month, the dreaded question actually came to mind: "What if my best days are behind me?"
Suddenly, a panic of processing hit me, and it was BestSemester's Latin American Studies Program all over again. Telos this. Praxis that. Trust the process. Change the world.
Hmmm. That last one hasn't quite happened yet. I was planning on changing the world. My token verse coming out of LASP was Isaiah 61:1-2:
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners."
This mandate was empowering. I was anointed and that was that. But in many ways it proved more a burden than a blessing. The scale of the problems I saw in the world was overwhelming, insurmountable, paralyzing. There are 26,000 kids dying every day from hunger and preventable disease; 12.3 million people are human trafficking victims; more than 1 billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Where was I to start?
As an additional barrier, there were few jobs with "broken heart binder-upper" in the job description (yes, I checked idealist.org). I taught English abroad to kids who couldn't afford it. I explored microfinance in order to help people lift themselves out of poverty. I considered medicine in order to equip myself with a tangible skill and be a direct channel of good. I even tried changing the system "from the inside" while doing trade in China. But these efforts were never enough. The impact was minimal on what I saw as a thoroughly broken world.
I also had a hefty case of what I now affectionately refer to as LASP-guilt. Would LASP approve of this job? Am I living up to that letter I wrote myself at the end of the semester? WWLD? LASP became my gold standard of a purpose-driven life (sorry, Mr. Warren).
A world in need of saving is a terrible burden for one person to bear. My enlightenment weighed heavy on my shoulders. I often wished that I'd never done LASP. I wished I could go back to the ignorant and carefree person I was before. I used to be really happy.
Ironically, in as much as LASP was a catalyst for my melancholy, it was also a catalyst for my renewal. In 2011, a group of fall 2003 LASPers gathered in D.C. for The Ocho, a LASP reunion. Our time together was quenching for the soul. We were immediately reminiscing about tres leches in el Carmen de Guadelupe and throwing Don Trevs in the ocean in Limón. We also turned quickly to doing what LASP had fostered in us so well: processing within community. What was our post-LASP journey like? How did LASP shape our current existence? What would we have changed about LASP?
As we drifted between fond memories, processing, and celebration of God's work in us during LASP and beyond, it became evident that LASP had played a catalytic role in everyone's life. All of us worked in very different fields: international development, education, medicine, health insurance, and politics. But each of us could trace experiences during LASP that steered us toward those unique vocations.
As we shared, it also became evident that many had struggled with the same LASP-guilt that I had suffered from. Some longed for a sense of purpose at work, but job satisfaction seemed elusive. Some struggled with being homeowners or saving for retirement while so many continued to be in need.
As we worshiped and shared together that Sunday morning, I reflected further on my mantra from Isaiah that had commissioned me to change the world. But, for the first time since LASP, I read it with different eyes-no longer in the first person. The Lord wasn't anointing me, he was anointing Isaiah. Rather, I was the poor one in need of good news; I was the one whose heart needed binding; I was the captive who needed set free; I was the prisoner who needed release from darkness.
Suddenly this weight that I'd felt since my experience at LASP was lifted from my shoulders. No longer was saving the world my responsibility. In fact, I myself still needed rescue.
This epiphany confirmed in me two important truths. First, at the center of my relationship with God is a need for brokenness. As good as I am, as enlightened as I become, I am still in need of rescue-which, thankfully, He readily does.
Second, only from my own state of brokenness can I engage the broken world that surrounds me. As Henri Nouwen poignantly wrote in The Wounded Healer, "[Christ's] appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross." My brokenness is linked to others' brokenness, and others' brokenness is linked to changing the world. Only from that vantage point can I truly understand, love, and serve a broken world.
A mentor once cautioned me, "Be wary the old specter of paternalism-that you have something to give and they all need to receive-which creates a power gap and isolates you from those whom you really want to love." In loving and serving from my own brokenness, I am able to see past myself, and my efforts once again become about glorifying God rather than the work itself.
I have in turn discovered that brokenness only comes by daily choice to receive God's Spirit, rather than trying by my might and my power. And I've in turn discovered that prayer is the key component to receiving his Spirit. Andrew Murray, a South African pastor in the late 1800s, captured this succinctly: "I feel sure that as long as we look on prayer chiefly as the means of maintaining our own Christian life, we shall not know fully what it is meant to be. But when we learn to regard it as the highest part of the work entrusted to us, the root and strength of all other work, we shall see that there is nothing that we so need to study and practice as the art of praying rightly." Changing the world strikes me as falling in the category of "all other work," and so I learn to press further into the work of prayer.
As I head into my 30s, I turn to a new mandate: "Let your petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers" (Phil. 4:6). As prayer finally creates time and space for God to work in my broken life and in the broken world around me, I become fully expectant of His work to change the world and, as I am a part of His work, of my best decade yet. My 20s were great, but I've come to realize that my efforts are but an earthly bean in God's ethereal platter of pinto.
And at my age, it's nice to know your best days aren't just behind you.
Matt Chitwood participated in the CCCU's BestSemester Latin American Studies Program in fall 2003 during his undergraduate studies at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. He recently completed his M.A. in International Economics and China Studies from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Matt is now in his fifth year of living in China where he works as a Research Analyst for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He also moonlights as a Chinese TV host.
About BestSemester: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities offers 12 off-campus study programs, collectively branded BestSemester®, which expand learning opportunities for students from CCCU campuses and are designated as culture-shaping or culture-crossing programs. Culture-shaping BestSemester programs are: American Studies Program (Washington, D.C.); Contemporary Music Center (Nashville); Los Angeles Film Studies Center (Los Angeles); and Washington Journalism Center (Washington, D.C.). Culture-crossing BestSemester programs are: Australia Studies Centre; China Studies Program; India Studies Program; Latin American Studies Program; Middle East Studies Program; Programmes in Oxford; and Uganda Studies Program. Visit www.bestsemester.com for program details.
About the CCCU: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities is a higher education association of 171 intentionally Christ-centered institutions around the world. The 118 member campuses in North America are all fully-accredited, comprehensive colleges and universities with curricula rooted in the arts and sciences. In addition, 53 affiliate campuses from 19 countries are part of the CCCU. The Council's mission is to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth. Visit www.cccu.org.