Why have the hard conversations?

At the recent Christian Reformed Campus ministry association conference we talked about a lot of hard things: racism, abuse of power, and sexuality (and all in one day!). It hadn’t really occurred to me that people might perceive this as strange until one person asked me why we were focusing on all these things and another wondered if we’d planned in a drink at the end of the day (pub locations were indeed made public).

The hard conversations were framed by worship and by sharing with each other about how we [campus ministers and students] were doing. That, I hope, helped place the conversations in the right perspective, even as I believe that the conversations were still hard and could potentially have caused people distress and anxiety. I hope and pray that people are still positively working through what we talked about. After all, we have these conversations together because we all need to see how faith relates to all areas of our lives, including and especially the hard things.

Furthermore, I believe these are areas “where a lot of pain and distress has happened and continues to happen,” and so “I’d like to do all I can to be equipped to know best how to bring the hope of Christ to those [who] are hurting.”

May Report from Pastor Brenda

One of the things I love most about pastoring is getting to walk alongside people in their faith journeys. I am honoured that people are willing to share their struggles with me, and I am thankful that I can be an encouragement in the middle of the questions and the challenges that life can bring.

Another thing I love about what I do is looking at the Bible with others, including difficult texts like the book of Judges. When we started reading it this past semester, I wasn’t sure how encouraging or applicable it would be. Yet, fairly quickly we saw how the text reveals how God uses the unexpected people around us. At the same time, the text raises questions about how God intervenes in peoples’ lives. Struggling through why God acts in ways we don’t understand in the text provides a means of talking through the questions we have about how God acts today.

It’s important to me as a pastor to provide opportunities to have difficult conversations, whether that be talking about how God acts, political issues, or racism. Because these conversations matter so much, we spent part of the semester discerning why these conversations are difficult and then helping each other learn better how to speak about things that matter to us, including spiritual matters. We could still use some practice with this, so we’ll keep talking about political issues at pub theology, and we’re looking further at racism this summer.

Lastly, I want to express thanks for the people who have encouraged and helped me in the ministry. I have been inspired and encouraged by Hannah in the short time she’s been with us. I have also been challenged and helped by the students who are part of Campus Edge, especially with our Lenten service and pub theology. I also am thankful for Cory and Heather who willingly answered questions connected to their academic journey. Thanks, too, to the CEF board who pushed me to organize such an evening and who have supported and encouraged me in many other ways. Finally, I give thanks for all of you, especially for your prayers, financial support and general encouragement of the ministry.

May report from Campus Edge Board

Dear friends,

As this academic year ends, and we on the Campus Edge board begin to look to the coming year, there are good reasons to be enthusiastic. Brenda has gotten more closely involved with a group of Christian faculty on campus, helping to coordinate their monthly prayer meetings and forming connections that should help Campus Edge in pursuing its mission. She has also begun to brainstorm with the student leadership team about ways to work with other churches and campus ministries to enhance the shared mission of Christian outreach to the graduate and professional students of MSU.

We feel very fortunate in particular to have Hannah Lee joining Campus Edge as the new assistant Pastor. Hannah is impressively well qualified for the job, with an M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and experience in several types of ministry work, including Campus Ministry.

Also encouraging as we look to the future is the success of our Spring Fundraiser, “An Evening of Gospel.” The event featured a program of Gospel and folk music, made possible by several members of River Terrace Church who generously contributed their musical gifts. It also provided an opportunity to spread the word about the mission and the activities of Campus Edge Fellowship. Those who came enjoyed the music, and also gave generously to the ministry. We are very thankful for that, and I am thankful for the considerable labor donated by my fellow board members to make the event come off as well as it did.

Jeff Biddle, Campus Edge Fellowship Board President

God of questions

Jacqui Mignault, a Christian Reformed campus minister at Mount Royal University in Calgary, has recently written some thoughts related to questions and answers on her blog. The following is the first part of her prayer for students, researchers, learners at the end of the semester:

Jesus of the Stacks
Jesus of all the true things
Jesus of all the words. . .

In our ease, in our dis-ease, in our need to just
Get
Through

The (right) answer has become our salvation. . .

When we have answers that fit our documents rather than bind up lives….
well, speak louder to us please. . .

In an earlier blog, she writes about her own experience with questions, and the challenge of living into those questions instead of finding easy answers. She closes with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, a quote that we could all spend more time living into.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Academia and your Identity

Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.

In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:

“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”

She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:

“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”

Judges: God uses the weak and unexpected

We’ve been looking at the book of Judges in our studies at Campus Edge. The book of Judges is strange and violent, and it’s not always clear how these ancient stories apply to our lives today. Yet, the book of Judges is clear in telling us that God raises up judges from the weak and imperfect and uses them to save the people of God. The judges do impossible things: Samson killed hundreds with the jawbone of a lion. Barak took on 900 iron chariots and Jael killed the army commander with a tent peg, Gideon took down an entire army with 300 men blowing trumpets, smashing jars, and yelling at the top of their lungs.

Knowing our own weaknesses, we are encouraged by how God uses those imperfect people, people like Samson, Gideon, Barak and Jael. After all, if God can use these people, then God can use us despite our own weaknesses and incompetency.

The challenge, though, is that we often move from gratitude that God can use to us to focusing on all that we have done: we tend to become the hero of our own stories. While Judges proclaims loudly that God uses the unexpected people, it’s helpful to remember that most of the time that unexpected person isn’t me.

Mental Health and Graduate School

As we’ve noted before on this blog, “graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population.” A recent study by Harvard quoted in The Atlantic reiterates this, noting that “the study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences.”

The article notes the high pressure in graduate school, but also highlights how graduate school can feel meaningless:

“Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.”

Please continue to pray for those struggling with the challenges of graduate school: not just the difficult workload, but also the difficulty in seeing how their efforts are meaningful.

Adapting your Spiritual Disciplines for Grad school

The Emerging Scholars Network has a helpful article that gives wisdom for adapting one’s spiritual disciplines to the challenges of graduate school. The author, Chandra Crane, highlights “the value of simple, flexible, and defined spiritual disciplines. Or, to put it more succinctly, the urgency of having healthy boundaries between spiritual disciplines which give life and energy, and spiritual disciplines which require effort and sacrifice.” As the author points out, graduate school is complicated and asks a lot of people: “the realities of graduate school are often not enough time, money, or energy. So trying to do the exact same spiritual disciplines in a new season of life is often a recipe for disaster.”

She recommends adapting one’s practice of spiritual disciplines to be more simple: “streamlined, shorter, and/or less rigorous.” She graciously points out that “Accepting this limitation isn’t “settling” so much as settling in, understanding one’s finite nature (as opposed to God’s omnipotence), and adjusting to the realities of a new stage in life.” Reflecting that, she argues that “spiritual disciplines must be flexible enough to handle the constant changes in our lives as our schedules are interrupted and rearranged, and as our energy and stress levels ebb and flow.” For examples of what simple, flexible, and defined might look like, as well as further wisdom on spiritual disciplines, I recommend that you read the whole article.

Creation or evolution: what Christians can agree on

A somewhat recent article in Christianity Today highlighted some of the things that Christians can agree on in terms of how the world came into being, irrelevant of their position on whether God formed the world more through creation or evolution. Todd Wilson provides “ten theses on creation and evolution that we believe (most) evangelicals can (mostly) affirm.” The following are a few of those theses:

  • the doctrine of creation “addresses some of the fundamentals of our faith—the reason for and nature of the world God has made, as well as the reason for and nature of the creatures God has made, not least those creatures made in God’s image.”
  • “Whatever Scripture teaches is to be believed as God’s instruction, without denying that the human authors of Scripture communicated using the cultural conventions of their time.”
  • Genesis 1-2 is “historical in nature, rich in literary artistry, and theological in purpose.”
  • “There is no final conflict between the Bible rightly understood and the facts of science rightly understood. God’s “two books,” Scripture and nature, ultimately agree. Therefore Christians should approach the claims of contemporary science with both interest and discernment, confident that all truth is God’s truth.

Last of all, Wilson argues that “The Christian faith is compatible with different scientific theories of origins, from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism, but it is incompatible with any view that rejects God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Christians can (and do) differ on their assessment of the merits of various scientific theories of origins,” even moving to the point where more Christians are now okay with saying that God used evolution to form the world as noted by another recent Christianity Today article.

Because there are so many differing views on origins, Wilson argues that Christians should be humble about how they approach their own understanding of the formation of the world (and how they dialogue with others about it). As a pastor, I wish this last point was something all Christians would be willing to acknowledge, especially as I think too many people have been hurt by not doing so.

Difficult conversations in Academia

Academia is not immune to difficult conversations, as a recent article in Inside Higher Ed illustrates. In the article, Stephen J. Aguilar notes that:

“Misunderstandings in academe are common and often innocuous, yet they can create conflict. Perhaps someone misheard something you said, and now they are angry with you. Perhaps they heard your words correctly but comprehended them in a manner that did not align with your intent. Or perhaps they interpreted your silence in a way that was inconsistent with the message you wanted to send.

The rest of the article provides wisdom on navigating misunderstandings and conflict. Not surprisingly, it is similar to much of the advice given by the authors of Difficult Conversations.