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.

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.

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.

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.