Emerging Leader Grant Final Reflection Part 2

The pursuit of spiritual growth during graduate school
Welcome back to part two of the reflection of my recent Ignatian Exercises program made possible through the Emerging Leaders grant through Campus Edge Fellowship and the Christian Reformed Church. This reflection zooms out from the Ignatian Exercises program that I have been participating in, and focuses more generally on the question of how to pursue spiritual growth during graduate school. I am just wrapping up my doctoral program at Michigan State University and am well aware of the multiple competing priorities for one’s time over the course of a graduate program: coursework, lab meetings, qualifying exams, mid-term exams, committee meetings, conference presentations, lab reports, proposals, defenses, grading, job hunts, emails, sleep, well, you get the picture. Life if very full, and the list of demands are seemingly relentless. Go, go, go. Push, push, push. Think, think, think. More, more, more. Do it all. How exactly is one to make space – in the head, heart, and agenda – for the pursuit of spiritual growth during this season of life? Well, that is a question that can be answered differently by each person. It is my aim to share my unique experience of this challenge and a few ways that afforded me the opportunity to develop spiritually.

The challenge: Failure
I am not sure about you, my dear reader, and what your relationship with failure has been throughout your graduate studies and life, but this F word haunts me. Specifically, when I consider how I was taught that my relationship with the Divine is my bounden duty, ultimate priority, and greatest calling in life, my apparent failure during graduate school has been a source of shame, disgust, and anger at myself for just not “having it all together.” Sure, I attended church most weeks, but actual intentional study, prayer, and practice of faith outside the church walls felt beyond my capacity. (Side note: this is my unique experience, and granted, there were other life events happening beyond the demands of graduate school that led me to feel overextended. Feel free to ask me about this in person.).

Despite the sense of failure on this front, when I reflect upon my spiritual journey of the past three years, I mark it as a largely pivotal season in which I engaged in prolonged, perennial spiritual conversations; actively sought out space and time for retreat and silence; and adopted a more grace-filled view of my available resources during the graduate school season. In essence, my sense of failure was sourced from my adolescent approach to doing spirituality. Events and people I encountered during graduate school have permitted me to redefine spiritual growth as neither success nor failure, but rather a slow, incremental, and nearly undetectable faith-building project. Below I will highlight a few invaluable bricks I received during the season of graduate school.

Spiritual conversations and friendships
I am so privileged to have come into contact with several brilliant and intentional individuals over the course of my graduate program. Some of these people shared the same faith background as I, and others were at various stages along their faith journey. At the near start of graduate school, my life circumstances forced me to verbalize my discomfort, questions, and shifts of faith with newfound friends and mentors. These dialogues were initially scary and threatening to my reputation, but I know that the honesty, suspension of judgment, and caring curiosity expressed among the individuals wove us together in a way that established robust relationships able to weather future conflicts and difficult conversations. I particularly valued hearing parts of others’ faith journeys and the questions they carry. All in all, relationships that honestly plumbed the depths of spiritual matters were new to me; I began to grasp how true high-impact relationships can offer one another accountability, challenge, guidance, and true integration of faith into real-life relationships.

A specific example I’d like to offer is how I have encountered Christ in the flesh through a few of these spiritual friendships (Note: Spiritual Friendship is the title of a book that will be reviewed on the CEF blog soon. It is highly recommended!). I encountered the following prayer by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) in the The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien (2011) and immediately recognized how individuals have embodied Christ for me.

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

It has been through these spiritual friends during graduate that I have encountered the eyes, ears, and hands of Christ. Despite the difficult demands on my head and heart during this season, Christ has showed up and made His love real life to me.

A bit more removed than face-to-face spiritual friendships have been a number of authors that have held my hand and heart throughout this season: Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, Parker Palmer’s Let you life speak, and the podcast show On Being with Krista Tippet. I believe the Campus Edge Fellowship library has a number of these titles that individuals can borrow.

Retreat and silence
Since my return from abroad in 2014, I have had the opportunity to participate in a silent retreat at least twice per year. One of my former InterVarsity friends introduced me to the Hermitage, the Christian retreat center where the Ignatian Exercises program is based. I deeply cherish these 1 – 3 day opportunities to withdraw from my daily responsibilities and technology, breathe in the silence and natural beauty of the countryside, have no particular agenda or to-do list to complete, and simply rest, read, and reflect on the past, present, and future. Retreating at the Hermitage is particularly rejuvenating thanks to the healthy and hearty food (which is “God’s love, made edible”). It is prepared by the retreat center hosts, and many of the vegetables come right out of their on-site garden. Any guests that stay at the retreat center offer the other retreatants the “gift of silence,” meaning that no one speaks to one another during the meals or other times. This is a welcome relief to this introvert who, at times, must expend much emotional energy to carry on conversations with strangers. Retreats at the Hermitage are truly a retreat, a break, a slowing down, and an opening up to attend to the working of the still, small Spirit within.

Faith building project: Brick-by-brick
The graduate school season has been one of re-evaluation of a number of foundational life boulders, such as family, vocation / calling, and faith. In brief, I sensed the need to step away from the faith of my childhood and all of the black and white lines and prescriptions that accompanied it. There is no doubt that many questions still remain; nevertheless, there is a spiritual muscle that I desire to exercise, a desire to encounter the Divine apart from the familiar social club approach or musical outlet. One particularly helpful book throughout this process of deconstructing and reconstructing faith in this season is Escobar’s Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart. During this shifting season, I have found hope and comfort in the slow working nature of God. If faith is something that will be reliable and dependable, it must be built with care, attention, and patience. I will finish this reflection with a prayer that has been a guiding light over the course of the Ignatian Exercises.

Prayer of Teilhard de Chardin

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 

Emerging Leader Grant Final Reflection Part 1

Introduction
My name is Jess Fox, and in this final year of my doctoral program, I participated in an 8-month long Ignatian Spiritual Exercises program, facilitated by a spiritual director from the Hermitage, a Christian retreat center in Three Rivers, MI. This program was made possible through the Emerging Leader Grant, which is generously provided by the Christian Reformed Church each year to young adults seeking to develop their leadership capacity within faith circles. Although I was not an active participant in the activities of the Campus Edge Fellowship this year, I would like to offer a brief reflection of my experiences with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises as well as how I pursued spiritual conversations, growth, and relationships during the season of graduate school.

Background of The Exercises
The Exercises were written by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the early 1500s. These exercises were originally intended to be completed over the course of an intensive four-week retreat; over the centuries, the Exercises were modified to stretch over 8 months. Themes of the four weeks of the original Exercises are the following: (1) experiencing the boundless mercy of God, (2) accompanying Jesus Christ on mission, (3) being with Jesus in his suffering and savoring the grace of compassion, and (4) experiencing the joy and sharing the consolation of the risen Lord. I followed the Exercises with the guide of the book, The Ignatian Adventure, by Kevin O’Brien (2011), and each “week” was broken down into daily scripture readings and meditations. Throughout the book, I learned about some of the foundations of Ignatian Spirituality, which include: the Examen, a daily prayer of awareness; Ignatian repetition, repeating a scripture reading and finding new perspectives; the Principle and Foundation, a life resume summary statement; the Colloquy, imagining oneself in a biblical scene; discernment of the spirits of desolation and consolation (think C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters); and Ignatian contemplation, imaginative prayer. Ignatius intended the Exercises to be of particular usefulness during seasons of discernment and decision-making.

On a practical level, the Exercises took the form of a daily Scripture passage and a suggested format of engaging with the Biblical text. While these approaches to stepping into Scripture were not entirely new to me, I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshingly novel, yet simultaneously deeply historical, these activities were. At times, I found it quite difficult to imagine myself in a Biblical scene, have conversations with characters, and really imagine Jesus in the flesh. After all, Scripture is the inspired Word of God and how dare I apply my limited, human lens to the sacred text. Regardless, I encountered a new freedom and use of my creative capacity throughout these contemplations.

In addition to the daily Scripture readings and meditations, this program involved bi-weekly conversations with the spiritual director face-to-face or via Skype. During these conversations, I had the opportunity to share insights from the Exercises, ask questions, and gain a new perspective from a wise, scholarly listener. In many ways, I mark these conversations as the fruitful aspect of the Exercises program. During our conversations, when I felt unable to fully attend to the Exercises and dizzied by the events of life, this spiritual director met me where I was and gently opened my eyes to attend to the work of God through people and circumstances. She asked big questions, waited patiently, and drew connections between my reflections and the Exercises. If you ever have an opportunity to develop a relationship with a spiritual director, I encourage you to do so! SDs’ is seemingly otherworldly from our typical expectations of specificity, measurability, and precision of graduate school, but there is something grandly relieving to converse with someone who sees the world and issues of the soul in broader, and often differently colored, brush strokes.

Book Review: Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves on Life

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves on Life, Richard Rohr
This book is about two parts of life: the first part of life is when we are climbing, achieving, and performing to get ahead and prove ourselves. The second part of life is only possible once we have struggled, suffered, failed, and “fallen” from the first part of life. It is characterized by responding to the call to let go of past pain and judgments and to learn to hear God’s voice in a deeper way. I particularly value this book and its emphasis on the transformative seasons of life; Falling Upwards pairs well with the more contemporary book Faith Shifts by Kathy Escobar in which she describes the semi-linear process of faith development: fusion, shifting, unraveling, and rebuilding. I recommend this book for anyone at any point along his or her faith journey.

Book Review: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories we Believe about Ourselves

The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories we Believe about Ourselves, Curt Thompson
Author Curt Thompson, M.D., offers an integrated approach to understanding shame through the lens of his psychiatry background and Biblical perspective. His premise throughout the book is “shame is the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity” (p. 13). He notes how shame targets the mind and can become a large part or all of the story that people live. Some of the remedies that the author proposes in the second half of the book are the following: vulnerability, accountability, and community.
Perhaps the most hopeful portion of the book for me was the author’s encouragement to “tell a new story, a story of hope and creativity, one that scorns shame in order to imagine new minds, new possibilities and new narratives, all of which point to the new heaven and earth that we believe Jesus is surely bringing” (p. 186).

Report from the Campus Edge Board

This report from the board is from the Campus Edge Spring Newsletter.

A lot has happened since the last Campus Edge Fellowship (CEF) Newsletter, and the Board sees much that we can be thankful for, and many reasons to be enthusiastic about the future of the ministry. In December, a team from Christian Reformed Home Missions visited to conduct a review of CEF. Team members met with Brenda, Board members, and students participating in the ministry. We received the report of the Home Missions Review Team last month and were delighted with the many positive things it had to say about Brenda and the work of CEF. The report also included a wealth of useful suggestions for making CEF a stronger and more effective ministry going forward.
At the end of March, my predecessor Jake Baker stepped down from the CEF Board, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his many years of service on the Board. He has held every executive office (sometimes two at the same time), always working hard and cheerfully to help the ministry thrive. Jake is finishing his Ph.D. and moving on to the next phase of his life, and all of us who have served with him on the Board wish him well.
Brenda continues to lead a ministry that serves the unique spiritual needs of the graduate and professional students at MSU – organizing Bible studies, arranging weekly pub theology sessions, keeping the students informed about events of interest on campus and in the community, hosting social activities, and sometimes simply being there for students who need someone to talk with about things going on in their lives.
As always, we are thankful for your prayers and encouragement, and we ask for your continued support both spiritually and financially. We invite you to our annual Celebration Dinner to be held on May 23rd at the Lansing Country Club. It will be an opportunity to hear about and rejoice in the work God is doing through Campus Edge Fellowship.

– Jeff Biddle,  Campus Edge Board President

Pastor’s Report

This is the Pastor’s Report from the Campus Edge Spring Newsletter.

Spring Semester has brought with it joys and challenges. Alongside of our regular Monday and Saturday studies, we’ve continued the Pub Theology group, added a weekly discussion on sexuality, and offered two retreats. The first retreat focused on Ignatian spirituality, and the second was time away at an Episcopalian monastery. In our studies, we pondered how differently society and church approach sexuality and spent time digging deeper into the Bible: the book of Ecclesiastes on Mondays and the prophets Elijah and Elisha on Saturdays. To read more about these, please see the reflections in the Campus Edge Spring Newsletter that have been adapted from the Campus Edge Blog .
We’re delighted to say that we once again have twenty-five people participating regularly and at least that many who are peripherally connected to the ministry. The past semester was a bit quieter in terms of attendance, as CEF competed with the time pressures that come with starting clinical rotations, completing comprehensive exams, and finishing up dissertations, alongside of the breaks of spring break and Easter. Yet, all this hard work is paying off, and CEF can rejoice that multiple people connected to the ministry have (almost) completed their dissertations.
Your prayers are requested for those who’ve finished up their studies – that things will go well as they find and take up new jobs and responsibilities. Pray also for those who are having other life events – like weddings or babies. By the time we send out this newsletter, baby Kronemeijer should have arrived, and I’ll have started my maternity leave. I will miss the meaningful conversations I have with students, but I am also thankful for the time the board is giving me to adjust to taking on the new identity of mother. I’ll be back in August, and until then Jessica Fox, one of CEF’s emerging leaders and a newly minted MSU PhD has graciously agreed to take over many of my responsibilities for the summer.

– Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink
Pastor, Campus Edge Fellowship

Book Review: Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian

Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, Wesley Hill
“Unlike romantic relationships or the bonds between siblings, friendship is entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt. And friendship is thereby rendered special, mysterious, and deeply rewarding…” (p. xiii). This is a book about friendship and its import in our modern age. Throughout the pages of this book, the author invites his readers to consider what priority and weight we place on our friendships; for instance, he poses the question of whether friendship be “free, unconstrained, and vulnerable to dissolution at any point if one of the friends grow tired of or burdened by the relationship;” or could friendship entail so much more: a stable and permanent commitment between individuals to remain together through thick and thin? The book is divided into two parts: part one describes the cultural background, history, and theology of friendship, and part two depicts the actual living out of friendship.
Wesley Hill’s premise on Christian friendship invites more voices to the table, including those who identify as gay and Christian. While Hill reveals aspects of his personal experience as a gay and Christian, I found this book to be pertinent to a much wider audience by offering concrete ways we might begin to pursue and nurture friendships in the church today.

Spiritual Pornography

Someday, I’ll have a little log cabin in the woods at the edge of the lake. There will be mountains off in the distance and gorgeous sunrises will paint the sky.

I should really take a vacation in the Caribbean. Relaxing oceanside is just what I need. I deserve the break from all the hard work I do.

My workplace is such a drag. I should look for a place where work is fulfilling and all my co-workers get along. 

Sound familiar?

I have become rather skilled at complaining lately. Mostly to myself, but I am sure my friends have noticed. To justify my malcontent, I’ve created a litney of excuses, such as:

I’m just so tired from work,

the weather has just been awful lately,

and I just don’t have time to do the things I enjoy anymore…

However, my excuses don’t get at the root of the issue. The real problem is that I have learned to focus on the often small inconveniences and troubles of everyday experiences while becoming blind to the much more abundant and meaningful good. Our current culture thrives on this attitude, focusing on success and growth as the markers of happiness. The emphasis to always seek bigger and better breeds malcontent and leaves no room for gratitude.

In order to cope with my selective perception and grumbling, I often turn to fantasizing about ideal situations, e.g., the log cabin dream house, where everything is awesome (as in the Lego® movie). But this is spiritual pornography:

“…creating a mental fantasy of a perfect place of people or people and not recognizing the good things around me. This spiritual porn is my nemesis. It’s poison.

-Kevin Rains in Living into Community 1

Fantasizing about a trouble-free future negates appreciation of life in the present, minimizing both personal actions and interactions with others right now. This is not the way life should be. But what to do about it? Instead of cultivating a culture of complaints, nurture gratitude. Be thankful for not only for the career advancing, relationship building ‘big’ events in life, but also for the fleeting and fragile moments of grace. Pause and take note when a friend shares their life with you over tea, when you notice an unfolding bud, and when the sun scatters light just so in the sunrise before a busy work day. Recognize the unexpected good in the mundane.

Counter-cultural attitude transformation sounds like a big deal, but I’m hoping to start with the small stuff.

– Sarah Bodbyl

 

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Trying to be thankful – even for snow…

 

 

1. Pohl, Christine D. 2012. Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us. Eerdmans Publishing. p 215.

The above post was originally published on Sarah Bodbyl’s Musings (April 2016)

My Own Ivory Tower: Isolation

By Mike Bennett, 4th year Physics Ph.D. candidate

Isolation is everywhere in academia.  Academics are expected to put in long, lonely hours.  We’re expected to sacrifice friendships, romance, and family life.  We’re expected to produce results and not complain, even at the expense of our own health and sanity.  All for the sake of the next paper or grant or proposal.  Even the most well-adjusted, self-assured, and perfectly relatable human might buckle under the weight of these expectations.

In the midst of all this sacrifice, our relationships begin to fulfill us less than we think they should.  They start to feel clunky or obtuse, like they don’t fit in the new framework that the Academy builds around its inhabitants.  I’ve felt the empty ache of isolation keenly in my three years at Michigan State.  My advisor hates my work. Everyone else in my program is smarter and more capable than I am. My friends back home don’t understand what I do.  My family thinks I’m wasting my life. I can’t take time to date or I’ll lose productivity.  These are just a few of the many, many worries that plague me and grad students like me.

Even in the Church, it’s easy to feel alone and separated.  Well-meaning parishioners begin conversations with “So how long until you graduate? And what kind of research do you do again?” only to interrupt moments later with “Wow, that’s pretty impressive. You must be very smart!” and obvious attempts to exit the conversation.  These pseudo-interactions only fuel the fires of alienation, and even in a body purported to bring healing to the sick, academics can feel miserably quarantined.

Clearly, even being “united” in Christ isn’t enough to quell this spectre of self-doubt.  How can Christians minister to themselves and others who are suffering from the experience of isolation?  What does the Bible itself say about isolation?  Can we gain any insight?

In a recent Campus Edge study, we looked at several passages that dealt with the experience of loneliness.  Among them we read about the prophet Jeremiah, who experiences intense persecution and alienation at the hands of the Israelites.  Jeremiah, though called directly by God to his ministry, is brought by that same God into a deep and anguishing experience of isolation.  We often feel as though being alone or feeling isolated are symptoms of God’s absence or displeasure with us, but it’s darkly encouraging to realize that these can be an important part of God’s call for us, even if doing so doesn’t prevent or even soften the sting.

Further, we do not worship a God who is unable to sympathize with our experience of isolation.  In Gethsemane, Christ himself experiences a complete abandonment; by his disciples, who can not stay awake with him while he prays to the Father for deliverance from his impending crucifixion, and then by the Father himself, whose answer to Jesus’ plea to “take this cup from me,” is a deafening, cavernous “No.” Even as he dies on the cross, in perfect fulfillment of God’s plan of reconciliation, Chris experiences tremendous isolation.

Though we may never be able to completely overcome isolation in academia or in life in general, knowledge that loneliness can be part of God’s plan can help us persevere through our experience of it.  We can additionally take heart knowing that even Christ, through whom “we live and move and have our being,” was not spared the torment of loneliness.  As Henri Nouwen writes, it may be possible with this knowledge to transform our understanding of isolation into something that can point us toward God, who alone can address the underlying problems and bring lasting healing.

The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief… The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer