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Anticipating a challenging fall

There remains a lot of uncertainty about the coming fall semester: the only certainty seems to be a consensus that it will be challenging. To get a sense of what fall might look like, I encourage you to read the communication(s) from MSU as well as to check out several Inside Higher Education articles that envision what an average day in the life of an undergraduate student might look like as well as for a faculty member.

If you’d like a slightly different experience for envisioning what the fall might look like, a graduate student, Cait S Birby, simulated several scenarios for what the fall might look like for people who are often marginalized: people who have disabilities, live with people with significant health challenges, and/or identify as LGBTQ. There is both a scenario for an undergraduate student, faculty, and graduate student. The scenarios give a sense of how overwhelming being on campus might be this fall.

This past Monday we hosted our first hybrid study – some of us were at the house while others joined the study online. While it was very good to chat with folks outside the house after we finished, the study itself was disappointing. It took us an extra 15 minutes to set up, as the original plan of being outside didn’t work. We then set up a computer attached to the television, which meant that those of us at the house no longer had access to communal chat. Because of social distancing, all (4) of us in the house were seated far from the computer microphone and not all of us could be seen by those online. With the added challenges of wearing masks, it was hard for those online to hear us. The need to speak unnaturally loud, the sense that those online were not hearing us well and that those in the house were not as easily able to participate, plus the seating arrangement that felt less conducive to building community, all of these things contributed to making it disappointing.

Even as I was disappointed in the study, I was very glad to have tried it. Next week, we will try again – and hopefully work out some of the difficulties so that we know how and if hybrid studies can work for us before school starts in the fall. Most importantly, seeing the challenges that we as a small group faced in trying a hybrid study, I became more aware of how hard the fall will be for all those trying to meet in person.

Please pray for all those who are now making plans and working through the challenges to allow people to meet in a way that is most conducive to learning while also taking into account each other’s safety and well-being.

Uncertainty for International students

On Monday, the ICE announced that, despite the current pandemic, international students would not receive a visa if their programs/colleges had primarily online-only instruction. This announcement is causing a lot of stress and uncertainty for international students and the universities themselves.

With this new ruling, students do not know if they can finish their programs or if they can even start a program and enter the country. Students are not sure if staying where they are means they might risk being deported, irrelevant of whether they have a lease for the coming year, whether they can even travel back to their home country, or whether it’s logistically feasible to attend online classes in a significantly different time zone. On top of this, this ruling is one more factor affecting the decision universities need to make regarding opening up their campuses. Universities are now forced to temper their decisions about what might be the safest for all involved with what possibilities might allow international students to remain at their institution. Losing these students would be hard for the individual students themselves but the university would also feel a significant loss, as international students contribute significantly to the university, including financially.

Please pray for the students and all of the administrators who have been impacted by this decision.

For more information on this situation, a recent article in Inside Higher Education outlines some of the key concerns of this announcement.

Lamentations 5 for today

In light of our study on Lamentations and everything happening in the world today, we are sharing with you a paraphrase of Lamentations 5 for today as written by Soong-Chan Rah.

The following is a short excerpt:

“Trust in our ultimate triumph has diminished;
          our triumphant proclamation of victory has turned to a funeral dirge.
Our sense of exceptionalism has been exposed.
          Woe to us, for we have sinned. . . .
Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us for so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew as that we may find a new way forward
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.”

Soong-Chan Rah

Pentecost and cutting off the breath of God

During quarantine I have been recording multi-track handbell videos of hymn arrangements. Since this coming Sunday is Pentecost (the arrival of the spirit in Acts 2) I posted a recording of the hymn “Breathe On Me, Breathe of God.”

It didn’t occur to me for several hours how my video may have been inappropriate (or at best, awkward) to post just a day after black man George Floyd was pinned by white offers, screamed “I Can’t Breathe” and then died in custody. This story (and the countless others like it) continues to fuel both righteous anger and deep complacency in the United States.

As I began to consider Pentecost in this context, I was filled with anger. While Pentecost is (and has been since Ancient times) one of the most lively days in the life of the Church, I began to lament, knowing that God’s gift of the spirit — God’s breath — has been denied to so many people of color in the United States. At the very beginning of creation God’s spirit actively participates and “hovers over the waters” (Gen 1:2). God’s breathe continues to form and reform us. When we hurt others, we both deface the image of God and deny God’s gift of breath. We deny the gift that God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

For many of us it’s easy to think that we don’t commit violent crimes and therefore “we’re good”. But Jesus offers a stunning rebuke to our complacency by describing in the Sermon on the Mount what life in God’s kingdom is all about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-24)

Maybe Jesus knows that anger can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence. Maybe Jesus knows if left unchecked anger leads to unhealthy relationships, to mental and physical anguish. Anger has the power to destroy us and to destroy communities, just as police brutality does again and again.  For Jesus, living in the kingdom of God (and in true communion with God) is about reconciliation: “first be reconciled to your brother or sister”. For Jesus, building the blessed community involves acknowledging our pain and our brokenness and working toward restoring our relationships with one another.

And anger is not “good” or “bad,” by itself. It may more useful to acknowledge, as with any emotion, that anger can be helpful and harmful. Righteous anger has the power to move us to action, particularly after an injustice has happened. Jesus, speaking truth to power, became angry with those who upheld unjust systems. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the pharisees: “woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23). While these leaders “followed the rules” for presenting temple offerings and sacrifices, they failed to enact the intent behind the law: justice and mercy and faith.

As a so-called Christian nation, we are so far from pursuing justice for black and brown people. Who is it, really, that can’t breathe? We claim that we live by the Holy Spirit, we ask for it to “break me, melt me, mold me, fill me”. But do we really trust and follow the spirit’s power do so? The book of Acts tracks the movement of the Spirit after Pentecost and describes ways that it led the apostles to pursue justice. Early on Peter bears to the spirit’s power to convict the counsel or Jesus’s unjust killing:

“The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God  rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” (Acts 5:27-32)

This language of “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (used several times in Acts) has deeply painful overtones in the United States, where many historians observe that today’s victims of police brutality are much like victims of lynching after the Civil War. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes:

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgatha – should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’s death. But it does not. In fact the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections on Jesus’s cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was essentially a first century lynching.” (30)

Jesus Christ already died for our sins. How long do black and brown people have to die in the United States for the sin of racism? Floyd’s is just one of countless black lives lost to police brutality in the United States. With the prophets and the Psalmist we cry “How long, O Lord?” Because when we kill image-bearers, we kill God.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern.

New Study: Julian of Norwich

We’re holding a study on Julian of Norwich and would love to have you join us, even if you’re not currently a graduate student or otherwise involved in academia.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century writer who lived in seclusion in Norwich, England during the Black Death. She is most known for the saying “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” In her book Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving (Middle) English text written by a woman, Julian struggles to accept the fullness of God’s love for “well-making.” How do we realize and embrace the power of God’s love to create wellness in our lives?

Together we will read excerpts from The Drawing of This Divine Love by Robert Fruehwirth, who spent decades living as a monk in the Order of Julian of Norwich. His devotional (yet academic) book provides reflections and commentary on Julian’s writings and theology. Join us as we wonder together about how wisdom from this medieval mystic interacts with the current pandemic.

This will be a 3-5 session study starting with our first session on Tuesday, May 26 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. Each session will have a recommended (but optional) reading sent via email. Anyone is welcome to participate in any or all of the sessions. If you are interested in this study, please contact us, so that we can determine a time for the next sessions that will work for all those who’d like to join.

Prayer from Psalm 5

“The Psalms are not religious in the sense that they are courteous or polite or deferential. They are religious only in the sense that they are willing to speak this chaos to the very face of the Holy One.” (Walter Brueggemann, “Praying the Psalms,” 19)

In the spirit of the Psalmist who brings vulnerable feelings of to the Holy One, today I offer these prayers, using words from Psalm 5:

  • “Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (v. 2)
  • Gratitude for all medical workers, grocery store workers, scientists and others on the frontlines of the pandemic. Thanks for their persistence and their sacrifice. “Spread your protection over them.” (v. 11)
  • Anger at the murder of another unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery. Anger at the denial of systemic injustice. “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.” (v. 4)
  • Frustration at lies and misinformation, which hurt the most vulnerable. “For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.” (v. 9)
  • Sadness that communal singing may not return soon. “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.” (v. 3)
  • Encouragement for the homeless, the jobless and all those suffering economic hardship. “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.” (v. 1)
  • Gratitude for moments of grace and joy. “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house.” (v. 7)

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge intern

Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Reflections on Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is hard to read. Its five chapters contain some of the most angry and resentful passages in the Bible. While even the darkest Psalms usually contain some words of assurance, the book of Lamentations only has a few hopeful verses.

The lamenting poet knows the promises of God but feels like none of them are true. “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2) is in direct contrast to God’s creative action which “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4). When we are suffering or when all we see is suffering, we question God’s promises or we wonder if they have been subverted (3:35-36). Along with the poet we might say “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” (3:17-18)

During the pandemic, some of the words in Lamentations might resonate with us as we try to understand a “new normal” separated from other people. It is a time of food insecurity when people “search for bread” (1:11), when the city is lonely that “was once full of people” (1:1) and cultural activities are suspended as “the young men [have left] their music” (5:14). In the United States it is also a time when economic and racial injustice are more clearly seen, bringing into question the true “greatness” of the country. Speaking about Jerusalem, the poet writes that onlookers sarcastically jeer and say, “is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?” (2:15)

I appreciate that this book is in the Bible because it speaks about reality. Suffering is a prominent part of the human experience and this book witnesses to the way that God’s people have long wrestled with the problem of human suffering. I believe that these words suggest that anger and lament are authentic expressions of faith rather than doubt. Too often in our culture we ignore pain and suffering and say “look on the bright side” or “just trust in Jesus,” like band-aids for flesh wounds. The pain of sufferings is even described in these terms: “he has made my flesh and my skin waste a way and has broken my bones” (3:4).

Liturgically speaking, what I learn from Lamentations is the necessity of lament: during times of crisis it is important to name the realities of suffering. Christian worship usually includes a time of confession to acknowledge sins, seek forgiveness and receive assurance. Perhaps this pattern happens too quickly. The chorus of “Great Is They Faithfulness,” one of the great hymns of assurance, comes from Lamentations 3, which has some of the only words of hope in the entire book:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The fact that these words are found among deep laments of sorrow makes them all the more profound. While we might seek a quick resolution from the sin and injustice of the world, the poet struggled through some 64 verses of lament before “calling to mind” this great hope, suggesting that we could do more to acknowledge our own realities in worship. Not only is our grief and suffering acceptable to bring to God, but we share it in Jesus.

– Mitchell Eithun, Pastoral Intern

Lamentations and Christ

Crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross, identifying his suffering with the Psalmist. Reading Lamentations 3 reminded me of Psalm 22. Both Lamentations 3 and Psalm 22 describe trapped (Lam 3:7, Ps 22:16) and threatened by lions (Lam 3:10, Ps 22:13). Further, Lamentations 4 perfectly describes Jesus’s descent to the dead: “The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life was taken in their pits” (4:20).  In Orthodox Christianity, Lamentations 3 is read on Good Friday. To me this association between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem  makes a powerful statement: Jesus suffers with us.  Jesus is present in our pain because his suffering is not unlike the reality of exile. If Jesus’s ministry, and the cross in particular, occurred in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), then Jesus’s death solidarity with all who suffer, including those who resonate with the deep suffering in Lamentations. The poet laments that “the punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished” (Lam 4:22) while Jesus cries, “it is finished” (John 19:30).

A cause for hope is that the ministry of Jesus sets in motion a new reality, the kingdom of God, which seeks reverses these painful realities brought about by iniquity and injustice.  In the midst of exile the poet laments that God “has made my ways crooked” (Lam 3:9). Preparing the way for Jesus in the midst of another occupying superpower (Rome), John the Baptist quotes the Isaiah’s promise of deliverance of exile in Isaiah 40, announcing that “the crooked [paths] shall be made straight” (Luke 3:5). Those under oppression in Babylon lament that “with a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary and given no rest” (Lam 5:5), but Jesus provides the parallel antidote: “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:28-30)

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern Pastor