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New Horizons

Off to College

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

It is with avuncular pride and a sense of middle age that I write to you as you embark upon your college education. You learned to call me "uncle" when you were a small child. It seemed artificial, but also reflected my friendship with your father, a friendship that extends back to college and through almost two decades of service on our session. During that time, I have come to think of you as if you were literally kin.

I am impressed that you chose your father's alma mater, because I know that you have not always wanted to be seen as a mimic of your dad. I believe your time there will prove to be as beneficial to you as it was to me and your father thirty years ago. Please accept the enclosed as a late graduation gift and apply it to the many incidental expenses that will accompany your transition.

I hope you don't mind my writing to you from time to time. Not only does our correspondence allow me officially to discharge my duties as your elder, but I am genuinely eager to hear about your impressions of college life. Your intellectual curiosity will serve you well in higher education, and I trust it will also indulge my occasional correspondence. Although I have your e-mail address, I would prefer to communicate by "snail mail." E-mail has its place, to be sure, but one ought to reserve some time, at least weekly, for the reflective task of crafting a handwritten letter.

My letters may strike you as an unusual thing. Modern culture insists that this is something I cannot do. That is to say, as a grown-up far removed from the revelries of youth, I have nothing to say to you that is meaningful or relevant. After all, we grew up in very different worlds. The death of President Kennedy was the defining moment of my youth; I am not sure if you even remember the death of his son. Your generation has learned to adjust rapidly to resilience and independence—more quickly by far than you ought to have. All of this may tempt you to imagine that there is nothing to learn from adults. I would urge you to resist that temptation. You will continue to hear it said that our generations are worlds apart. In its youth, my generation proclaimed the folly of trusting anyone over thirty, and your generation let that mantra sink in all too well.

The gospel that you believe calls that what it is—a lie. The hymn we sang in worship last Sunday, on the eve of your departure, reminded us of an important truth:

The Lord's unfailing righteousness
all generations shall confess
From age to age shall men be taught
what wondrous works the Lord has wrought.

This leads me to be so bold as to suggest that my reflections, even memories of youth, may transcend the generation gap and find some resonance with your experience as a young man.

I am inclined to pray that you merely survive your college years. Of course, in an important sense you begin your higher education as a survivor. And that is because your parents rightly taught you the importance of the church. Moreover, by the grace of God you grew up in a faithful church, and you were shielded from the worst forms of Christianity adapted to the youth culture. As you will likely find out, many of your peers have been involved in programs where the youth pastor has led the children of the church to doubt the practices and even the beliefs of their congregation, only to exist in a spiritual world all of their own.

I would encourage you to be thankful that this is not your experience. Let your love for the church and the healthy habits that your parents instilled in you continue to manifest themselves in your life at college. Maintain the healthy practices of Sunday morning and evening worship. Remember to review your catechism. These are routines that can quickly atrophy if you are not careful to exercise them.

Of course, it is not accidental that there is a solid Orthodox Presbyterian church within a short drive of your school. I know your parents would not have sent you there without it. This will be your first sustained experience in another congregation. I recommend you find ways to involve yourself in the life of the congregation as fully as you can. This will only strengthen your sense of belonging to a covenant community. It will also give you a chance to experience the catholicity of the church even as you become more aware of the peculiar features of our congregation back home.

Again, congratulations on the start of this new chapter in your life. I must confess to being stunned when your father mentioned all of the paraphernalia that accompanied your move into the "new dorm." (I will continue to call it that, even though it is two decades old.) I recall that when I was your age, I traveled to college carrying only two large suitcases. (Okay, I promise never to begin a sentence like that again.)

When you catch your breath after the ordeal of Freshman Orientation, please write back.

Glen Roberts

Editor's note: "Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2007.

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