The quest for VERITAS
Now, hiding in the woods, the questions of the Veritas Forums became my own.
Our school was founded In Christi Gloriam, with a banner that reads, Veritas (Truth). Seeing the confusion around us exemplified by rises in depression, addiction, sexually transmitted disease, heartbreak, and even suicide, friends and I started the Veritas Forum in 1992. Veritas organizes parties with a purpose—dialogues; film vieweings and discussions; concerts; treasure hunts in labs, museums and archives; and wilderness experiences—to explore the hardest questions in our schools, hearts, and in the world, all with reference to the Person of Jesus and a hopeful, biblical worldview.
To our surprise, 700 students came the first two nights at Harvard, and thousands became curious about Veritas in other schools around the country. A friend offered me the use of his cargo jets that carried biohazard boxes, and I ended up flying to about forty universities from Harvard to Berkeley to brainstorm and pray with kindred spirits who cared about their schools.
My best friend during all this was an MIT grad student in physics. We tried to help one another in our callings and nearly got married. But life had gotten confusing in the age of the almost-marriage, in such a fluid and dynamic place as Cambridge, Massachusetts. I never felt good enough for him. We were both too busy. I became frustrated, and after too many years of ambiguity we called it quits.
I took off to spend a month at Stanford and Berkeley with Veritas planners, and when I returned to Boston, my best friend occupied my thoughts. I wanted to try again. Hopping off the biohazard plane, I drove into Cambridge and up the street to my house. I was surprised to see his car in my driveway. "Thank you, God," I whispered.
But a moment later it hit me: his car wasn't in my driveway, but in the driveway of my next-door neighbour and good friend. She and other friends had often joined the two of us at times on hiking and skiing trips. She had even agreed to be a chaperone at times, helping us avoid getting too comfortable physically before marriage. We were quite a pair, the three of us.
And now he was with her.
I realized it would be difficult for me to stay in Cambridge, especially when he couldn't even look me in the eye when we saw each other. I decided to move into a pine cabin on a wildlife sanctuary in the woods on the north shore of Boston for awhile.
The same year I moved into the cabin, Christianity Today named me an up-and-coming Christian leader in America. And there I was, hiding in the woods, barely breathing, and wondering where God was. Not only had a seven-year relationship ended bitterly, but I contracted Lyme disease and my stepfather lay dying in hospice care. Not able to cope with the realities of my new life, the questions raised in Veritas Forums became my own:
- Why would a loving God allow such pain?
- Does any possible truth survive on the far side of complexity?
- Is hope possible, or do the skeptics have it right—get what you can before you die?
- How does love last?
- Is there justice for wounding a human soul?
- Where is God now?
In my pain, I realized that I could not know much by my own intelligence, virtue or reason. I needed truth to break into my life, to be revealed from outside me, to me. I was open to all possibilities. I began to ask the questions. I began to listen. I began to pay attention.
As I listened in these months, I heard three words: creation, Scripture, and Jesus.
The first word
Near the cabin, I'd begun to run and hike in the snowy salt marsh at low tide. One day the sunlight was getting away from me, and I thought I'd catch the last of it. I put on some GORE-TEX gear and hiking boots and was off on what I called "the red barn run."
I had a routine for these outings: put some wood in the stove for heat that night, either hug the dogs or bring them along, go down through the woods, pass the neighbour's chicken barn, greet the sheep, skirt the big red barn, hike into the marsh to the tide's edge, and be back home in under an hour. Tonight was different. A shining planet shone beneath the crescent moon. Stars congregated in the sky like members of a choir. Songbirds in the snowy pines became a timbred chorus of complex, lilting harmonies. The ocean tide slowly rose to the occasion. Earth and sky took on the colours of bread and wine, flesh and blood. The setting sun turned the barn to orange and, later, to crimson.
Something about it seemed too good to be false.
I heard echoes of a symphony behind which might be a score and a conductor. I intuited a story with a wooing author. I perceived something like Tolkien's enchanted vision, but the rightful owner of the one ring was the Lord of Light, not of darkness. The bearer of the ring to rule the spheres was a wild and relentless lover who could find us anywhere.
It was orchestrated, fine-tuned worship—present, but absent me. My will and pride rebelled against the worship. The universe could sing and dance the night away for all I cared. My own story was over: mission aborted.
But the beauty would not relent. Whether I chose to kneel or my legs were broken for me, I don't know. I fell to the wet earth, my forehead down in the mud and snow, fighting nausea, asking myself, What story am I living? The secular story's prison of self and circumstance? Or the biblical story that moves from a glorious creation, through a tragic fall and on to redemption?
Which story is true? The answer came unbidden and clear: "The one that yields life." How could I move from one story to the other, from death to life? How could I fall forward? In that sanctuary of creation, the questions propositioned—Would I forgive? Would I be remembered to the living, to join the dance, even if with the weakest step?
The second word
A barn behind the cabin housed a friend's "representative library" of world literature, science, and philosophy, and so I read many books. I love "the great books," and even teach some of them, but no human philosophies satisfied me. Reason helped, and pointed me in the right direction, but still left me feeling alone. Some of my life experiences were wonderful, but others were wrenching, and now left me bitter. How else might I know the larger story? I needed to know.
One book emerged as true unlike any other. In all the literature I'd read, it was the Bible that described with pierced precision my human heart, my angst, and the pathos of the human condition in our complexity: "Where can I run from your Spirit?"
If there is a God who can create a universe, then He could manage to write and oversee the printing of a book—a "library." He could even care for its translation into many languages and cultures. Unique among sacred texts and "origin stories," the Bible claims to be God's Word in print, like a treasure map, preserved over millennia yet always fresh. It is open to investigation, inviting the reader to test it by experience as false or true, leading to death or life. It is not a book of human mythology or vague spirituality, but of power for real and abundant life.
The more I was immersed in the text for myself, the more I found the "ring of truth" in the Bible at various levels: its consistency with modern scientific discovery, the journalistic details and integrity of the text, the surprising fidelity of the transmission of the Bible over time, the unique coherence of its many books though written by forty people in three languages, on three continents, over more than 1,500 years, the clear fulfillment of many specific prophecies, and, finally, the sense that the text is true to our human nature and desires for love, mercy, connection, meaning, and glory.
I came to love this Word of God like I love treasure hunts and treasures, like I love opening a love letter. It is a Story worth living in. It is a Word that is alive. More than anything, I love the Bible because it tells me about the heart of God Himself, seen most clearly in His living Word—the person of Jesus.
The third word
The treasure map led to the treasure. God clearly spoke a Word whom eyewitnesses sensed had become flesh and blood, "full of grace and truth." He was loved by women and men. He was embraced and known by small children. He ennobled the least, the lost, and the humble of heart. He was a friend to sinners.
Of all the competing voices and claims to truth, one sacrificed himself—what lovers do for their beloved. Truth is not an abstraction, nor a coward sitting in the comfort of his living room recliner with his remote control and plasma TV view of the world. Instead, Truth became flesh and blood in a real time and place, was beaten and killed as a substitute for our sin, chose us in our pride and shame, and showed us God's heart. Truth has a face. Truth is a Person.
That same Truth was seen by more than 500 eyewitnesses on thirteen occasions, risen from the dead. Jewish and Roman historians wrote about this Truth as well, given the rapid expansion of the movement of his followers despite persecution.
Harvard's founders dedicated a college to the glory of this Truth. The secret of Harvard's shield, VERITAS, has a name—Jesus. And so, the college's founding bylaws read, "Let every student consider that the main end of his life and studies is to know God, Jesus Christ, who is eternal life."
I struggled to forgive others. I was now confronted by the one who suffered to forgive me. To say "Yes" to both—to receive God's mercy and in turn to extend it to another—was to say "Yes" to God, and to new life for myself. It was to trust, and to live forwardly—not in bitterness, but in faith. I still cling to that wellspring of mercy for myself, out of which to forgive others, to forgive myself for mistakes, and to live, again.
Truth is that which yields life
Although I had been hurt by a friend, it was the presence of Jesus in the lives of other Christians who came alongside me. Harvard friends would hop on the train and come up for weekends. We'd paddle my red canoe or sea kayak between islands, boil lobsters, play Ultimate Frisbee, talk, and sing. When I was bitten by a deer tick and contracted Lyme disease, one friend prayed and I was healed (both symptomatically and as confirmed by blood tests). I could see the life of Jesus in the people who followed Him.
In each of these three—creation, the Bible, Jesus Christ—God invited me to take a small step, to rejoin the dance by forgiving. I was invited to receive the mercy of Jesus who died on the cross for me, and then to give that mercy to others. It was as if the Creator and Author held out his hand and asked me to dance. Slowly, I took that first step by grace.
What followed was the gradual healing of my mind, body, and heart such that I could re-enter my community of friends and the adventures that we love. God brought gifted partners into the Veritas Forum mission, now in eighty universities in six countries, involving about 300,000 students, many professors, and hundreds of believing artists, scientists, and professionals as speakers in the most secular— and hurting—schools in the world.
I know less by my slim reason, virtue and experience, and more because Truth reveals Himself to me—as if the One who spoke the universe into being is still speaking and still creating. He is breathing into all living things, including us.
What is Truth? Truth is that which yields life. To live in Truth is to confess our bitterness, sin and shame. It is to unload our sorrows on the One who can bear them. To live in the Story of Jesus Christ is to live in hope that God is orchestrating all things for His and our own good. It is to fall forward into what the theologian N.T. Wright calls "a freshly storied world." In Christi Gloriam.