Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.

Walking and Praying for Campus

Emerging Scholars Network recently published an article by Jamie Noyd which provided suggestions for how walking can be a means for praying for one’s campus. She envisions the campus as a crossroads, “a place of intersection where the church and academia meet.”

Noyd has walked the campus weekly this past year, praying that she would see the university campus as God does. She notes that “the discipline of being present on campus and looking has slowly been changing [her] heart and helping [her] to recognize the presence of God’s kingdom in this place.”

Noyd gives the following suggestions for how others might also walk through campus and pray for the university:

  • “Look at the buildings – old and new – and pray for the work going on in them.
  • Look at posters of upcoming lectures and events. Are you drawn to attend any of them?  How can you pray for them?
  • Ask for compassion for the students, faculty, and staff walking past – and pray that they may be blessed.
  • Ask God to show you the good way to live out the good news on campus and the courage to walk in it.”

For more suggestions for how to grow spiritually while being connected to academia, I encourage you to read more of the series.

Hoping for Change at MSU

Satish Udpa, the new interim president at Michigan State, apologized to survivors at a recent MSU board meeting. Upda spoke the following “on behalf of the university I love, as acting president and an executive officer, and as a former dean and faculty member:”

“I am sorry you were subjected to the pain and humiliation of sexual assault by somebody you should have been able to trust. We failed to comprehend and acknowledge your injuries. We were too slow to grasp the scope and enormity of the offense you endured. And we failed to treat you with the respect and care you deserved even as we sought to make amends.

Upda committed to “listen more closely, ask more caring questions and act more thoughtfully as all of us work to advance the culture of this campus to one focused first on safety and respect.”

I pray that all of us connected to MSU might have the courage and strength to indeed make it a place where people are listened to and cared for.

Humility: Spiritual wisdom for academics

The Emerging Scholars Network has been doing a series on spiritual wisdom for those in academia. A recent article highlighted growing in humility. The author, Johnny Lin, notes how much self-importance and pride can affect those of us in academia:

A major “spiritual occupational hazard” for an academic is thinking too much of yourself. This can show itself as pride and arrogance . . . or finding yourself unable to understand the students in a class you’ve taught one too many times.

He goes on to highlight that

The traditional antidote to pride has been humility. For an academic, C.S. Lewis’s view of humility as a kind of “self-forgetfulness” is particularly helpful: Do I rejoice in another’s accomplishments no more (or less) than if it were my own (or if it were a phenomena of nature)? 

What that looks like in practice is different for everyone, but as Lin notes, it probably involves at least some of the following:

  • Don’t find your sole/primary identity in our job;
  • Take a Sabbath as it reminds us that the world can function without us and that it’s not on the basis of our efforts that we succeed;
  • “Purposely pursue and embrace mystery in some area of life.”
  • Trust God for every aspect of your career.

Leaving Church?

The last month has seen a number of recent articles on people leaving church. The Colossian Forum published an article about losing faith in church, a Christianity Today article notes that many young people stop attending church when they go off to college, and Christian Courier is publishing a series on why your church is losing numbers.

When talking about people leaving church (and faith), there is always the question of why. As Rob Barrett points out, the why is not always as obvious as we might think:

Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. . . . There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing.

As Barrett further notes:

Research by the Barna Group has revealed six themes young people cite in their explanations for their disconnection from the church. They characterize the church as overprotective, shallow, invalidly exclusive, anti-science, simplistic and judgmental about sex, and intolerant of doubt [David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Baker Books, 2011), 91-93]. One way of drawing this together is that they find Christians unwilling to engage the complexities of the world as it really is.

Barrett’s words of advice about how to respond echoes how we try to talk about and live out faith at Campus Edge: an honest, transparent – even vulnerable – faith that includes our uncertainties and mistakes. As Barrett puts it,

We too often think that faith is bolstered by hiding the difficulties Christians face. Quite the opposite. Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away.  The world is filled with people offering quick fixes and easy answers. Christian communities have the possibility of offering a richer vision of human flourishing, one that rings truer. When we confess our lack of easy answers and vulnerably invite others into our difficult places of struggle, the difference the gospel makes becomes apparent. 

If you’d like to join others in discussing further the reasons behind why people are leaving church, including looking closer at the Christianity Today article mentioned above, come visit our Pub Theology on February 12.

Millennial Burnout

A recent article on millennial burnout points to the challenges that millennials face in growing up in a culture that has valued being busy over one’s well-being. The author, Anne Helen Petersen, notes the following:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

How do you talk about faith?

Despite Christians being called to share the gospel many of us feel inadequate to the task. It doesn’t help that most people have had strange and awkward experiences when it came to sharing faith.

This Saturday and Monday, as part of our study on having difficult conversations, we’ll be focusing on what it might look like to share one’s faith. The unhelpful reality is that “Christians have historically considered sharing one’s faith to be the exclusive practice of evangelism and have often bypassed normal conversational decorum to leap to the action of telling the gospel.” (Mary Schaller and John Crilly, The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations29). As with all difficult conversations, it rarely goes well when we enter the conversation convinced that we have all the answers and when we have limited desire to listen to the other person (and make space for their feelings or how any conversation related to faith might touch on their or our identity).

While it’s fairly easy to see how spiritual conversations can go wrong, it’s less easy to figure out how we might start good conversations about spirituality. How can be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove in this matter (cf. Matthew 10:6)? Perhaps the question is better framed as how one might live out one’s faith (and share it) in a way that is authentic (innocent) and creative (wise). Robert Kaita, in discussing how he has been able to share his faith with his colleagues, challenges us to think of how we might creatively share our faith:

The relevant question becomes not how good we are at striking up conversations at the water cooler. . . . If “generic” ideas on how to share your faith are not for you, God has given you the ability to figure out creative alternatives. As He does not make mistakes, He expects you to meet this challenge based on the kind of person He has created you to be. . . Are you serving the body of Christ in a lockstep fashion that you would never tolerate professionally, or are you exercising your God-given creativity?

Kaita ended up working with his church to provide a class for high school students as part of their Vacation Bible School program. He “started each day with a Bible study on Genesis on the theme that God has “created us to be creative.” [He] then took the students to a different place on campus each day. [They] went to the art gallery, the geology museum, and some engineering laboratories where some Christian friends were teaching.” Such a program led to good conversations with the students who participated, as well as with his local church and the university community.

I’m hopeful that we will be able to encourage and challenge each other to be creative about living out and sharing the good news with others.

Marriages often struggle in Grad School

While most of the people who attend Campus Edge are single, a significant number of people in grad school are married. And grad school is hard on marriages, as a somewhat recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education points out. The article contains a number of difficult-to-read anecdotes: stories from real people for whom getting a doctorate has caused significant pain to themselves and those they love(d). The author,  Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, begins by acknowledging how frustrated she has “become with the fact that so many of [her] friends have lost their marriages to graduate school.” After explaining how grad school can be hard on marriages, she ends the article with wise and helpful advice for those who would like to have healthier relationships.

For those of you haven’t gone to grad school, grad school can feel a lot like having a (first) baby: lack of sleep, long hours, lot of scary unknowns and feeling of incompetence, not a lot of helpful communication, strange eating habits, emotional chaos, and so on. While the stress level can be compared to that of having a first child, the support network and rewards aren’t as significant as having a child: there are no wonderful baby giggles, positive hormones, babysitters, and/or wonderful people who bring you meals.

Quoting another grad student, Wedemeyer-Strombel notes: “Grad school is a crucible that strengthens relationships and can expose unknown cracks in [the] foundation.” A healthy relationship means that both people in the relationship are doing their best to work towards helping each other get through the challenge of grad school (stress, neglect, insecurity, etc.); that is what the commitment to love each other looks like. The commitment to love translates also into communicating with each other and making choices that are good for both of you, which includes developing one’s gifts and caring for those you love. Failure to communicate and make choices for the good of everyone in the relationship might cause the marriage not to be able to survive the growth, changes, and choices that happen in each partner during grad school, irrelevant of how committed one might be.

Your prayers are thus requested for grad students, especially since we as a culture and as a church don’t always know how to talk about good commitment to one another looks like.

Pub Theology: Analyzing statements on sexuality

In light of the recent uproar in the Netherlands about the Nashville statement, we spent the last two pub theologies looking at the Nashville Statement, including comparing it to the Denver Statement.

After looking at the Denver and Nashville statement, we had the sense that the Nashville statement discouraged dialogue. Numerous Christians in the Netherlands agreed with that, as can be seen by the following statement by Gert Jan Segers, leader of a Christian Socialist party that would be considered to be amicable to fairly traditional understandings of marriage and how to read the Bible:

I didn’t sign the Nashville Statement because I was worried that the conversation about belief and homosexuality would not be helped by it. The conversation about this is important, touches people deeply and must therefore – no matter what you believe – be held in a respectful and open manner.  . . Jesus primary message to the world is not a list of dos and don’ts but instead an invitation that makes it clear that everyone is welcome by/to Him.

translated by Brenda; original Dutch post can be found on his Facebook page

The Nashville Statement did, however, do a good job of describing how sexuality has boundaries (even if some of us disagreed with those boundaries). The Denver statement, however, didn’t seem to give (m)any boundaries. Furthermore the Nashville statement seemed to be overly negative about sexuality and society; however, the Denver statement was overly positive, neglecting to critique the direction of sexuality in society today (e.g., pornography). While we disagreed with how much we appreciated (or disliked each statement), we did mostly agree that we’d like to see something that was a bit more nuanced (and somewhere in the middle of both statements). Perhaps we’ll have to return to the conversation sometime and look at the Catechism of Sexuality produced in connection with the Reformed Church of America.

Prayers for MSU

Periodically, I (Brenda) lead the congregational prayer at River Terrace Church, which supports the ministry of Campus Edge. As a reflection of this semester’s studies on difficult conversations, the prayer includes some of the topics that would be considered difficult, like politics, being vulnerable and honest, and doubt.

As a way of continuing to pray the words in this prayer I am posting it below. It is also a way of praying for the current situation at MSU and the challenges faced by what appears to be the soon resignation of interim president, John Engler.

Almighty God, we come before you with our thanks and our concerns. We thank-you for the work that you are doing in this church and in the ministry of Campus Edge. We thank you for all those connected to MSU that we are able to encourage and support.

God of all peace, we pray for the world. We pray for those harmed by religious persecution or climate change and those suffering on account of war, poverty, or hunger. Bring comfort to all those who are suffering and protection to those who are fleeing dangerous situations. just as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus once had to.

God of all wisdom, we pray especially for this country in the midst of the government shutdown. May good dialogue happen; help those in charge find a way forward that will protect those living in the United States while also being a place where foreigners might be allowed to seek refuge.

God of all power and truth, we bring before you the church – and ask that Your spirit work among us. We pray that we might be able to speak the truth in love with each other, both encouraging each other and holding each other accountable. And that we might find ways to be vulnerable about our struggles and grow through voicing our disagreements. We pray this not only for the wider church but especially for River Terrace and Campus Edge.

We pray also for the work of your church at MSU. We pray for all those reaching out to those on MSU’s campus: that we might provide places where people find fellowship and support as well as space to ask questions about faith and know You better.

God of all comfort, we bring before you the communities of which we are a part. We pray for our families and friends, for the community of River Terrace Church, for those participating in Campus Edge, and for the wider community of Michigan State.

For the MSU community, we pray especially for the challenges that are part of a new semester. Fill people with hope and courage for the challenges and experiences that lie ahead of us. We pray for the family of the student who passed away this week in an accident. And we pray for those who’ve been harmed this past year and for the leadership, especially as John Engler’s time seems to be coming to an end.

We pray for those who are suffering. We pray for the illnesses and suffering that we know  about and for those things we don’t know about – whether that be spine surgeries or infertility, financial troubles or relationship troubles.

May all those suffering know your grace in all of the complicated areas of our lives. Give us the courage and wisdom to know how to be honest and open with each other, speaking about things that matter to us. May we also listen well, encourage each other and to be a strong community to each other.

Knowing that you hear all of our requests, we pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.