© 2019 Robert Osburn
When I landed on the University of Michigan campus in August 1969, I was like the proverbial deer in the headlights. I knew that I wanted to study meteorology so that I could become a television weatherman, but I was a rural kid.
That was a problem, since all the farm kids in Michigan attended Michigan State University; the Michigan campus in Ann Arbor was, by contrast, mecca for urbane, brilliant souls of Jewish, Catholic, and mainline Protestant backgrounds. In fact, in all four years at Michigan, I only met one other student who had grown up in the country.
It wasn’t just the fact that I was out of place because there was soil under my fingernails, but the campus was a well-known haven for 60s-era campus revolutionaries, keen to finish overthrowing the “system” and to welcome a socialist paradise. Every single class day that first year (1969-70) was shadowed by the threat of bombings, strikes, and near-constant demonstrations that often turned violent. During one chemistry class, revolutionary intruders tried to take over the lecture but our professor boldly refused. They limped off, presumably working their mayhem in another classroom with a more pliant professor.
All the time, I felt like a fish out of water. Rather than indulging in revolutionary mayhem, I was quickly engulfed by just plain homesickness, amplified by my deep disconnect with this world of Karl Marx, pot smoking, and students whose intelligence matched their elan.
It didn’t help that my roommate (assigned by the university housing authorities) was the wealthy son of a General Motors executive and had studied at a boarding school. When he invited me to move out of our room after about two or three months, he stated the obvious, “You and I have nothing in common.” The fact that I was welcomed by a Jewish student across the hall goes part of the way toward explaining why I feel a deep kinship with Jewish people who have a history of being ostracized. Ironically, David Siegel gave me refuge about the same time I became a follower of the Messiah his ancestors had rejected and who mainline Protestants like my ex-roommate could comfortably ignore.
The simple fact is that I was needy that Freshman year at Michigan.
But, I hadn’t always felt needy. In the Summer of 1968, the foreman at the botanical gardens (where I worked summers) near my Tipton, Michigan home had invited me to his home for his wife’s ice cream shake and an honest appeal for me to accept Jesus, utilizing the famous “Romans Road.” My answer was simple: “I don’t need this.”
It was spiritual and moral arrogance to imagine that I could ignore the Hound of Heaven, but I simply didn’t recognize His voice because I was satisfied with my virtue.
Or supposed virtue. I had known small-time sin, but, truth be told, I was not eager to rebel, drink, smoke, or chase after girls, unlike all the campus hellions I was to later meet in 1969. And so moral despair was not my first concern that Summer of 1968 when students were revolting all over Europe and the USA and Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr had recently been assassinated.
I was very open to Bible teaching, and, while most fellow students were chasing girls and playing organized sports, I went by myself Sunday after Sunday to a little fundamentalist country church where the Bible was taught simply and clearly. But my open mind sheltered a soul that felt no need. After all, I was almost a straight-A student…
But when I met fellow students in A-squared (the affectionate and academically apropos moniker we gave to Ann Arbor), I knew that, instead of a big fish in small pond where I had been number eight in my graduating class of 250, I was a little minnow who could barely swim in a vast ocean. Now, I began to feel deep need: the aforementioned loneliness, intimidation, the revolutionary chaos all about me.
One of my fellow chemistry students had recently transferred from Grand Rapids Baptist College (now Cornerstone University). As we talked, I casually shared that I was a “fundamentalist,” while conveniently ignoring that the heart of fundamentalist (now, evangelical) theology was, and is, Jesus.
Alert to the state of my soul, he invited me to his Baptist church on Liberty Street the following Sunday, November 9, 1969, two days after my 19th birthday. The preaching was earnest and sincere, ending with an appeal to sinners to come to the Cross. I remember few of the actual words, but when the pastor asked all of us to bow our heads, he invited us to raise our hands if we wanted to accept Christ. As my hand slowly ascended, what felt like a monstrous weight fell off my shoulders. It was as real as anything I have ever felt.
I was too shy to walk forward in the altar call that followed, but the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit had most certainly begun and the weeks that followed were marked by a deep consolation: I finally knew my Savior. Sin’s guilt and its diminishing, disorienting, and damaging powers were all allayed that morning 50 years ago.
Had I blithely accepted a religious crutch? Without hesitation, I say, “Yes, but this crutch was real.”
I often cite the research of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who asserts that most human beings embrace religions, philosophies, and ideologies for emotional reasons, only to afterwards look for rational reasons that justify their earlier subjective decisions. For that reason, I have always been deeply grateful that, a little over two months after my conversion, I was introduced to the work of Francis Schaeffer. For this young believer living in Bursley Hall on Michigan’s North campus, Schaeffer helped me craft sound reasons to believe that I had embraced the truth. Not subjective truth, but the truth about the way things really are. At the heart of all this, wrote Schaeffer, is a God “who is there and is not silent” and who provided the “great exchange” —my sin exchanged for Christ’s righteousness (II Corinthians 5:21).
My homesickness, along with the campus revolutionary environment, melted away as I came to treasure both fellowship with my Father in Heaven and with brothers and sisters in multiple campus fellowships for whom Jesus was more than spiritual salve; He was life, and is now 50 years later, life itself.