Advice for grad school (from people who’ve been there)

The Well has posted two articles with some advice for those in grad school. They are especially helpful if you’re in a place where you’re wondering about how you might flourish more fully in grad school.

Amy Whisenand challenges us to take care of our bodies, make friends, let go, and celebrate the good. She shares that, while her habit of “exchanging sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise for long hours in the library studying, reading, and writing papers” brought much success in her time as an undergraduate, she realized that if she “wanted to sustain this life of the mind, she needed to take care of herself as a whole person, including her body.” Secondly, her experience has been that that “a wide variety of kinds of friends — collegial friends, hanging out friends, mentors, close friends — greatly increases the quality of the graduate school experience.”

Amy Webster provides similar challenges: make good friends, choose your advisor wisely, bring yourself to your work, and keep the big picture in mind. Keeping the big picture is not only in relation to your work (e.g., “it’s easy to chug along with experiments and analysis without thinking about the big picture”) but also in all of life. She points out that one needs to keep time for non-work things and learn how to

“say no to things that are distracting from your main pursuit. . . Saying no may require a difficult conversation, or it may just be a quick email. (And on that note, learn to write quick, to-the-point emails without over-analyzing them. This is a great life skill.) It is important to prioritize your time for what you consider to be the deep, important work.” 

Both Amy W.s highlight celebrating – celebrating milestones and celebrating all of the good that has happened, both to yourself and others. Practice in celebrating the good also helps you have perspective when you face the difficulties of grad school (e.g., “rejections from jobs or journals, difficult interpersonal dynamics.”) In all of this, “Remember that your worth as a human being is not tied to your graduate school success (a truth even when things are going well).”

Called to reach out to each other

Matt Reed, in describing his participation in a college phone-a-thon, highlighted how surprised he’d been by how positive the experience he had been – and how often people thanked him for reaching out to them. He noted that

“It reminded me a little of the feeling, at 18 or 19, of not feeling entirely sure that you belong.  An offhand comment, or the tap on the shoulder, can tip the balance in a positive direction. It’s a simple acknowledgement, but some folks don’t get much positive acknowledgement.  It matters.”

His thoughts reminded me a bit of the calling of Campus Edge. While the purpose of the acknowledgement is different, as is the technology (we often use email, after all), there is a similar sentiment. Part of being faithful in following Christ as a ministry means reaching out to people and checking in with them, trying to meet them where they’re at, irrelevant of how involved they might be at Campus Edge.

The gift of Sabbath

For most folks, graduate school is a time of being busy: there is always something to do or else guilt in not doing it. Practicing Sabbath can be a challenge during this time, especially as it often takes some creativity to make happen.

Yet, Sabbath is a gift, especially of perspective. It challenges our understanding of time, seeing “time not as an enemy to subdue, but as a friend to savor.” (Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs). Furthermore, it challenges how we think about ourselves. We are not as important or as invincible as we sometimes think: the world will continue quite fine without our efforts. As much as God can use us to do good, God is certainly able to do good without us. It also challenges whatever guilt we might ahve picked up in terms of how undeserving we might be of rest:

“Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.” McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 105.

On top of the obvious challenge of carving out time for Sabbath, it doesn’t help that one of the joys of Sabbath – delighting in one’s friends and family – is made more difficult in that most people move to a new place for grad school. The friends made in the new place tend to be busy working.

Yet, even practicing Sabbath in small doses can be an encouragement. Perhaps one of the following suggestions is something that you could work into your schedule:

  • taking one morning, afternoon, or evening to journal or read an encouraging (or challenging) non-school book;
  • going out into nature somewhere – or explore some other new place;
  • taking a break from technology for a few hours;
  • commuting in silence and/or using the commute time to sing in the car, pray and meditate, or listen to a podcast that rejuvenates you.

Last of all, I encourage you to give yourself the grace and courage to keep trying. Taking Sabbath is a habit one needs to form and, like most habits, it takes time (and often some failure) to figure out how to grow into.

Some helpful quotes and books to keep pondering Sabbath:

  • “What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, 6-7.
  • “Sabbath puts the focus on God and God’s gracious invitation to rest from one’s work.” Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 22.
  • A quote from Sabbath in the Suburbs (89): “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” Mary O’Connor.
  • A helpful book to read: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (2001)

Timing

Sometimes people discover Campus Edge near the beginning of their program. They’re looking for a community and so they search for and find us online, or they visit our supporting church, or they meet us at the graduate fair. Sometimes they connect with people in their program who’ve been participating in Campus Edge for awhile.

Other times, though, people have found Campus Edge later in their program. I lament a little that these individuals didn’t connect with us sooner – we could have been blessed by their insights and presence, and we might have been able to encourage them through providing a supportive community and a place to ask difficult questions.

Yet, I also believe that God is at work in the timing, and people will come to Campus Edge at the right time. While one might expect that the beginning of one’s program would be the best time, we’ve seen that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s because life is too full or overwhelming for there to be space for one more thing. For others it’s because their faith journey is going really well – they’ve connected to a church/Christian community and are receiving answers for their faith questions. Still for others, it is even possible that they wouldn’t have found someone at Campus Edge who they would feel a strong connection.

Yet, later a time might come, whether that be a crisis or a gentle nudge, when connecting with and participating in Campus Edge would then be good. Perhaps a person has experienced a deep sense of loneliness or isolation, or church doesn’t seem to fit quite like it used to, or there is a longing to be with people who understand the unique experience that is grad school. And then, whenever people ready – no matter how early or late they are in their program, I hope that they do find Campus Edge and we can be an encouragement and place of hope and grace.

Justice, Forgiveness, Restoration, and Truth-telling

This past year, we’ve spent some time talking about justice and forgiveness. The Bible shows that God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; 16:7-8) and that Christians ought to forgive (Colossians 3:13). Yet, how forgiveness and justice relate to each other is not always obvious, as too often people (including and especially Christians) understand justice as an unnecessary part of forgiveness.

However, Rachael DenHollander, wisely argues that forgiveness that ignores justice denies who God is (and denies a bit of our worth as human beings, especially as people against whom injustice has happened). In an interview with Christianity Today, DenHollander, notes:

“I worked to get to a place where I could trust in God’s justice and call evil what it was, because God is good and holy. One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”

I agree with DenHollander that acknowledging injustice is an important part of recognizing who God is and how things ought to be. It is only in recognizing that God loves justice that we can truly forgive. When DenHollander speaks of forgiving Larry Nassar, she says:

“It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.”

Perhaps another way of looking at justice and forgiveness is through the lens of restoration and/or truth-telling. Both justice and forgiveness are about restoring the wrongs that have been done, especially in terms of restoring relationships between humans and in relationship to God. Truth-telling is about acknowledging that it was truly evil; forgiveness can’t exist outside of that acknowledgement. Nor can any restoration of relationship happen without acknowledging that something truly horribly happened (that deserves punishment.) Or as DenHollander puts it,

“It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.Obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”

To hear more about Rachael DenHollander’s understanding of justice and forgiveness, you can watch her presentation at Calvin College’s January Series in January 2019. You can start at minute 6 if you’d like to skip the part of how she met her husband.

d.

Loneliness, Meaning, and Hope

The Los Angeles times recently published an article by Varun Soni, who is dean of religious life at USC, highlights some of the changes that he’s seen among students during the eleven years he’s been in that role. In the beginning, the conversations he had with students centered on “quests for meaning and purpose. [Students] were striving to translate values into action, cultivate joy and gratitude, live extraordinary lives.”

However, more recently the conversation has shifted more often from “how should I live?” to “why should I live?” As Soni, notes that students today are more likely to “grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness. Every year, it seems, I encounter more stress, anxiety, and depression, and more students in crisis on campus.” He goes on to present the research that has also noticed this shift on campus.

Soni notes that students are often overwhelmed and lonely, and they find it difficult to know how to make friends, a trend that Jean M. Twenge, who has done a significant amount of research on the generation entering college, has also noticed.

Soni further notes that, while we sometimes consider this generation to be coddled,

the reality is they face unprecedented challenges and circumstances. They are entering a world in which many of the career paths of their parents’ generation no longer exist or have changed drastically. They face escalating tuition costs with little sense of whether their future opportunities justify the outlay. They have participated in active shooter trainings and campus lockdown drills for most of their lives.”

In this challenging context, Campus Edge and other religious communities strive to provide community and support for people who are struggling, as well as speaking hope into people’s lives. Please pray that we might do that well, as well as praying for all those who are struggling.

God’s presence is already on campus

While some might understand a campus ministry as being primarily about being God to the university campus, I’m part of a tradition that believes God is already present on campus. The task of campus ministry is then about recognizing and proclaiming how God is at work, and then coming alongside the good that God is already doing.

Paul Verhoef, a fellow Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Calgary, ruminates what this looks like in his context. Most importantly, he “has always worked with the goal of trying to achieve mutual understanding among people, he added, because this is an important part of what it means to love.”

On top of this, Verhoef highlights how important it is that the campus ministry love the university. This includes a calling “to serve, to support, and to live in a mutually supportive relationship with the university,” but it also goes further:

“Can we appreciate its work, its research and teaching focus? Can we sympathetically understand its habits and concerns – and if we at times call it to task, can this be done as someone who supports the university, who is seen by the university as a person who loves it, a person who is part of the university?”

Not only ought we to love the campus, but we also need to recognize that God is already there. As Verhoef has noted, he “has seen how God is always at work — that the Spirit of God is always moving, breathing, creating life, reconciling God’s world back to God, and doing this on the campus in Alberta.” And we, as campus ministers, ought to be looking for how and where “the Spirit of God doing good and beautiful things.” And then, as Verhoef himself notes, we can ask how we might be able to “come alongside of those places and lend support, put my shoulder behind the work being done, and work side-by-side with other staff, faculty, and students to make something beautiful happen.”

Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

CRC Statement on Mass Shootings

During our Lenten Communion services, Rev. Betsy Aho led us in a lament on the existence of the phrase ‘another mass shooting.’ How can we not be upset when so many continue to be killed and hurt?

In light of several recent shootings, I am thankful that the Christian Reformed Church, which is the denomination that supports Campus Edge, recently put out a statement on mass shootings.

The following are some highlights of that statement:

“As Christian Reformed people, we grieve this loss of life. We grieve the hatred and extremism behind these acts of violence. We, as God’s church and society, grieve that we’ve been unable to put a stop to mass shootings

What these shootings have in common is a fuel of false narratives that the gunmen were allowed to feed on. They were hearing stories about, connecting with communities that support, and believing in the idea that some people are less human than others, and that these “others’” lives are worth less. As long as this fuel is allowed to continue, senseless deaths will continue.

White supremacist acts of terror have been committed in the United States from its earliest days, at the hands of those most often radicalized on the margins or in secret. Today, these ideas have come into the mainstream, and have been espoused and amplified by people in leadership, even in the highest elected offices.  

Words matter. Using dehumanizing and hateful speech when referring to immigrants, refugees, and people of color, fuels and affirms violent actions against them. And these words, especially when they come from people in leadership positions, greatly displease our God.

The document continues by providing biblical basis for their condemnation of racism, as well as condemnation for those, especially authority figures, who do not use their influence to do good to all people, especially those most vulnerable. We are encouraged to do something since “we know that words can fuel and affirm violent actions.” So the statement calls on all members of the CRC to “take an active stance against false narratives. We ask them to stand up against racism and acts of white supremacy. We ask them to speak up against words of misogyny and of hatred toward immigrants. We ask them to be proactively anti-racist, proactively anti-sexist, and to proactively promote the dignity of all people.”

We, too, at Campus Edge, encourage everyone to:

  • “pray for the president and prime minister of our respective countries, our elected officials, and those with the most resources and political influence, that they will use their positions of power to promote the dignity of all people, particularly people of color, immigrant communities, and women targeted by these shootings
  • pray for those who are grieving following incident of mass shootings and violence
  • pray for Latina/o, people of color, and immigrant pastors and congregants of the CRC who may be feeling overwhelming fear and grief at this time
  • pray for people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable and marginalized people who are too often the targets of hate speech and violence fueled by false narratives in society
  • pray that the individuals, who have been radicalized or are at risk of being radicalized by hateful rhetoric, would learn truth and find community with truth-tellers
  • lament the ways in which the church (and Christians) have not only been silent about these false narratives but has, at times, used them to oppress others
  • speak up from our individual places of influence when we notice hate-filled speech and white supremacist beliefs being shared around us
  • extend an act of kindness or encouraging word to your colleagues, neighbors, fellow church members, and friends that are Latina/o, immigrants, and/or people of color.”