Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:38
This is the month in which we remember the courageous faith of a young Nazarene woman, probably in her early teens, who was invited to surrender to God’s most audacious plan: the plan to surrender his divinity, take on human flesh, and redeem our world (Phil. 2: 5-11). Last Sunday, some of you asked me to post the story I shared about another Mary, a secular academic who surrendered herself to the same Spirit that brought Jesus into Mary. I’m speaking of Mary Poplin, Dean and Prof. of Education at Claremont Graduate School. Mary had explored Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation, even bending spoons with her mind; but her journey to Christ began in earnest when she visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta to study her work among the poor.
In her book, Is Reality Secular? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014) she explains that she could not account for Mother Theresa’s motives from within her secular understanding of social work. This is because the humanitarian work that Poplin and other secularists greatly admired was, according to Theresa, not her first work; but rather belonging to Jesus and praying without ceasing. It was by this first work, even in times of doubt, that her remarkably effective ministry to the poor was nurtured. After returning to the States, Poplin wondered how she would explain this to her colleagues. Around that same time a graduate student, who had been praying for her 8 years straight, gently invited her to consider the path of Jesus. It was shortly after he left the university that she experienced a visitation from God – not an angelic messenger, but a powerful dream. In her own words,
“I was in a long line of people suspended in the air. The line seemed eternal on both ends. Jesus was standing greeting us in line. When I looked at Jesus, I knew immediately what I was seeing…I fell down to his feet and started weeping, and the only way I can describe the feeling I had in the dream is that I could sense every cell in my body, and I felt total shame in every cell. Then Jesus grabbed my shoulders and I felt total peace, like I had never felt in my life. I woke up and I was crying….
In January my mother wanted to go to North Carolina … to this little Methodist church, not because she was religious, she just wanted to see her friends. When we got there, I was really moved to just go up to the altar…. It wasn't even an altar call. It was a communion call. The guy said, you don't have to be a member of any church to take communion. You just have to believe that Jesus Christ lived, that he died for your sins, and you have to want him in your life. And when he said that, I was so powerfully moved that I actually thought, even if a tornado rips through this building, I'm going to get that communion.
I took the communion, and I didn't even listen to the guy. I knelt down and I said, "Please come and get me. Please come and get me. Please come and get me." And when I took the communion and I said that, I felt free…And I began to have an insatiable desire to read the Bible.” ["Mary Poplin Calls Claremont Her 'Calcutta,'" ChristianityToday.com (posted 12-10-03)]
Later, Poplin began to realize that she no longer believed the secular theories about social work she had been exclusively teaching. It should also be noted that she soon experienced significant resistance from her colleagues for her conversion. Poplin maintains that no other world view is excluded in the secular academy like Christianity. Still she remains hopeful, finding that the university is her Calcutta, that place where love propels her to serve with tears those who are poor in spirit, and hungry for God…even if they don’t know it.
If you’ve been inspired by Mary Poplin’s testimony, you might also consider The Alpha Course, beginning this January 10th where we will see and hear other credible Christians tell their stories, like human genome director Francis Collins. Surrender…it’s a beautiful thing, and it is what Christmas is all about.