It was two and a half years ago. He picked me up at the Springfield airport for a convocation series at the College of the Ozarks. The moment I met Dean Zehnder I didn’t feel good about this whole gig. The man had all the appearances of someone who couldn’t possibly get this message of grace and identity. Everything about him yelled out self-made man. Older, distinguished and supremely intimidating, if anyone could solve his sin by himself, it was this guy. His handshake was scary firm: no nonsense, intimidating. His rough, strong hands enveloped mine like they were Playdough. His crew-cut was precise and efficiently military. No stewardship funds wasted on hair. And he squinted; like he’d most certainly endured torture during war. Everything about his attire was totally put together. The school emblem was prominently featured on his crisp, blue blazer. Sharply pressed slacks and shirt, perfectly done tie and shiny shoes made me feel like a homeless man in my Levis and un-tucked shirt. His gruff voice barked, “Hey, we’re glad you’re here, young man.” I thought, “You won’t be when you hear me speak.” I wanted to whimper, “Hey, there’s been a terrible mistake. I think I’ll just get back on the plane and go home. God bless you…I think.”

God loves me so much He seems to take great delight in gently revealing my judgments and prejudices. I have rarely been so wrong about a man. In all my years, I have met few who’s very life advocates as well for the freedom, power and joy of grace. He’s caused me to understand that carriers of this message come in all forms, backgrounds, persuasions and hairstyles. He, Jennifer Freeman and a beautiful faculty in the Campus Center are bringing God’s freedom, life, purpose and sense of destiny to the students at the College of the Ozarks.

I just returned from my second trip there. I am again humbled and delighted with how God works. I spoke two nights to packed auditoriums of students longing to hear these truths, because they’d already seen them made real.
Jennifer set up a luncheon for me with some graduates of her leadership class. I felt the need to blather out a bunch of profound one-liners. Jennifer stopped me after a few minutes and said, “John, why don’t we let the students respond to what you’ve been saying.” I was blown away by story after story of students who just wanted to say thanks for how God used me to encourage them into this new identity the last time I was there. She was modeling grace-letting me be affirmed by what I would have never known otherwise.

If I lived in Missouri, Chuck (Charles) Zehnder would be my close, close friend and mentor. Every student on campus feels his gentle acceptance. He knows most of the 1,200 students by name. Our conversations in the cafeteria were constantly interrupted by students who just wanted to say hello to the man they know has their back. Yesterday, he was asked what their vision is for their students. He quickly jotted back a note:

“Our hope here is that Christians (our students, faculty and staff who are truly the Body of Christ) will become that unfettered body Jesus longs for us to be. For way TOO long, the Body has been walking in its own strength, basing everything it does on working FOR God (usually out of shame or guilt) instead of letting God accomplish His work through them (me, included!). If the Church can grasp this concept of God’s grace extended to them, not only for salvation but for their daily lives, we will once again “turn the world upside down!” When that happens, we will see true revival of the Body of Christ and true spiritual awakening of those who are outside. That has been my prayer for as long as I have been at C of O.”

I read that and get chills. I’ve been part of books written on the subject and I can’t say it as well as what just flew off Chuck’s keyboard…

…Maybe I’ll get a crew-cut and start wearing a blazer.

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