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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.

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.