College can be an intimidating place. You walk into a lecture hall, the podium up front has a microphone and there’s a large screen on the wall for a series of points to a lecture. The professor starts up, “Ahem!”
Profs with a hoary head of gray hair, goatees, and spectacles tend to capture the imagination of their students. When the prof has a commanding presence and leads you to see a subject or an idea in a different way, it’s really easy for the student to fall into awe of the prof. You can almost see the prof as beyond human. That is until you have lunch with them.
When I went to Mid-America Bible College (now Mid-America Christian University) in the fall of 1997, I enrolled in a required course for all traditional students at MBC; Biblical Life & Witness. The professor was in his mid 40’s and loved tweaking with the minds of the incoming Freshmen. Unbeknownst to me or my classmates, we were about to embark on an upheaval of the way we perceived God and ourselves.
Cliff Sanders was my professor at MBC. In my time as a student, I had seven course with Cliff; 21 undergraduate hours. From Introduction to Old and New Testament and Biblical Life & Witness to the three inductive Bible study method classes and How to Teach the Bible, Cliff shaped (warped) my mind into a new way of viewing the sitz im laben of the scripture stories and how to draw out practical applications for today.
I admired Cliff and thought one day I might be like him; a college professor shaping young minds. Cliff had served as a pastor prior to coming to MBC and carried with him real world thinking as well as what I perceived to be a solid rational thinking about how to interpret the Bible. With his Masters of Divinity and efforts at earning his Doctorate in Ministry, I found myself looking at Cliff and wondering what it would be like to be him.
Part of what drew me to Cliff was his willingness to go beyond the classroom and lecture hall. Cliff would eat lunch with the common folk. Nearly everyday, Cliff would hold court at a table in the cafeteria. Carefully wrapping his salt and pepper shakers with a napkin as he seasoned the “delicacy” of the day, Cliff would joke, laugh, talk smack, and engage students, staff, and faculty around the table. It was at those many roundtable lunches with Cliff that I first experience the power of eating together to form community.
Even though Cliff was working on his doctorate, he was more than willing to have lunch with 18-22 year old punk, know it alls, like me. He welcomed us to the table and treated us as equals. He did not come across as “better than us.” Sure, Cliff would brag a bit too much about the Texas Longhorns in the room filled with fans of SEC teams or that University just south of the campus; mocking the fight song “Boomer Sooner” in a horrid cry. I am sure the cafeteria staff was glad to see the table empty of Cliff and his fans because it meant the room would quiet down and they could finally close up for the day. But as a member of the table, I miss those lunches.
Cliff carried such influence for me, that I went a step further in my gluttonous learning from him. I asked Cliff to provide pre-marital counseling for me and Christy. He was quick to sit us down and tell Christy how difficult it was going to be for her. He recounted stories of how he could see similarities between me and him, and therefore knew some of the challenges we might have. Cliff shared how he had to learn to love his wife, Becky. He was straightforward with me about how I would have to be intentional not to “forget” Christy in my daily life.
Though Cliff was not formally my pastor, he was one of my pastors during my years at MBC.
I was honored to serve at MBC alongside Cliff when I graduated and worked in the Campus Ministries office. I remember being a part of the faculty and staff prayer time each week as we would pray with one another. I watched Cliff wrestle with Becky’s cancer battle. I was allowed to see my professor as vulnerable and transparent. We had grown beyond the loud antics of lunch and the debates in the classroom to the place of colleagues, friends, sharing life together.
In many ways, my relationship with Cliff has helped me move from being intimidated by God to seeing that I am welcomed at his table, for lunch, prayer, and friendship.