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December report from the CEF Board

Taken from the December 2018 newsletter: a bit late, but still relevant.

Dear Friends,
December is a busy time for the graduate and professional students of MSU, whether they are preparing for final exams, getting ready to defend theses or dissertations, or just pushing forward day after day on their research. And in the background, the decorations and celebrations associated with the Christmas season multiply. No doubt some students regard Christmas as do we on the Campus Edge Board – a time to remember with joy God’s great gift of love, His coming to live among us. And they wish they had a better understanding of God, and of the meaning and implications of His actions. Others are not so sure that the events we celebrate at Christmas really happened as we think they did or mean what we think they mean. We are grateful that Brenda has made Campus Edge Fellowship a place where both types of students can feel welcome and can take a break among friends from the demands of their disciplinary studies to talk about the spiritual questions that they sometimes find creeping into their minds.

It has been an interesting semester at Campus Edge, with Bible studies on the parables of Jesus and Pub Theology discussions on a variety of intriguing topics. There was also the annual trip to Art Prize in Grand Rapids, and the annual Halloween party. And for part of the semester, Campus Edge hosted an early morning, on campus, outdoor Communion service.

Earlier this month, the Board organized a “Farm to Pizza” fund raiser, for which one of our Board members (Dirk Oudman) and his wife Kjersten (a Campus Edge Alumna), put their knowledge of local agriculture and their cooking skills to work to prepare pizzas using locally grown ingredients. The event was a big success, and we are grateful to those who showed up to support Campus Edge by collectively consuming over 40 of Dirk and Kjersten’s unique and freshly made pizzas. Campus Edge depends on fundraisers like this to help support and expand its mission to the MSU campus. Other ways of supporting the mission can be found on our website (https://campusedgemsu.com/donate/). I ask you to prayerfully consider giving to Campus Edge in the coming year and wish you a joyous Christmas season.
– Jeff Biddle, Campus Edge Fellowship Board President

Time to reflect

In the short break between semesters, and as we enter into a new year, I encourage you to reflect on what it might look like to live more fully trusting in God’s abundance in our lives. This includes wondering what seasons it might be appropriate to work “too much,” while also challenging the length of those seasons and even the unspoken assumption that grad school (or academia) implicitly involves always working too much.

Heather Walker Peterson wrote a helpful reflection questioning what assumptions we make when we work all the time:

I’ve come to believe that when I had lived attempting to do all things well, ironically I was treating God as a God of scarcity instead of a God of abundance. By not following God’s command to rest, I was like the children of Israel trying to collect manna on the Sabbath when I needed to have gathered a little extra the day before. If God is a God of scarcity, I am required to do more and do it well for him (and me) to look good, but if he’s a God of abundance, then I must trust that I can take risks, listen for discernment, and focus on what I discern as the most important.

What might it look like to live into God’s abundance this coming semester/year?

Advent mourning for Michigan State

Near the end of the fall semester at MSU, news has come out about how Michigan State handled allegations of abuse. Sadness and anger seem to be the only appropriate response to the news: how can our world be so broken? Why did so many people not listen well when informed of problems? Why did people not want to listen? Why was MSU’s reputation more important than the well-being of those (potentially) hurt?

As we have been remembering all through Advent, the world is not how it ought to be. This is why we desperately need a Savior – this is why Christ came to earth in the first place and why we need to continue to long for Christ to come again: so that all things might be made well (including judgment on those who have harmed others).

Please pray. Pray prayers of lament for all that has gone wrong; prayers of lament and healing for all those hurt and still hurting. Yet pray also that God will work in the midst of these revelations to bring about change and that Michigan State might become more of a place where people listen to those who are hurting and advocate for justice and good.

End of semester compassion fatigue

As the semester ends, your prayers for those (still) grading are requested. Having compassion for students, while also being fair and gracious and challenging students to be responsible and held appropriately accountable, takes a lot of wisdom and strength.

The Well recently highlighted an article that presents the challenge of end of semester compassion fatigue:

It’s the second-to-last week of the semester, which for many professors is the most intense stretch in the academic term. . . Almost exactly one year ago, while trudging through the very same sense of exhaustion, I found strange encouragement when I happened upon two articles acknowledging the existence of this experience for faculty. One piece appearing in Inside Higher Ed includes boundary-setting advice from a former faculty member who admits to having struggled between feeling “like I wanted to be the professor” and caring “so deeply about my students that I wanted all of them to feel seen, heard, and supported in their growth.”

In a related Chronicle of Higher Education piece, an anonymous faculty member details how students’ and colleagues’ appreciation of her willingness to listen often results in expenditures of her time and energy that go unnoticed by her institution. . . The author is quick, though, to emphasize the very problem I felt as my tired eyes read her words: “Listening, empathizing, problem solving, and resource finding take an enormous amount of time and energy.” And, as I seem to re-learn every year, the intense exhaustion many faculty feel is more than physical — it’s emotional, mental, and even spiritual. It’s compassion fatigue. . .

Songs of Joy and Lament (3)

The following is a continued reflection on songs used in worship by the handbell choir directed by Mitchell (Campus Edge’s Emerging Leader).

I Wonder as I Wander (follow link to listen)

Our December piece – “I Wonder as I Wander” – is, to me, a quintessential Advent hymn and perhaps the most contemplative of all the music in this series. The plaintive song starts with the nature of Jesus’s death in the first stanza before moving to Jesus’s birth in second stanza. All three verses contemplate Jesus’s humble and sacrificial nature:

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus, all in a cow’s stall,
Came wise men and farmers and shepherds and all,
And high from the heavens a star’s light did fall;
The promise of the ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have had it, ’cause he was the king.

What words stick out to you? One of my favorites is “the promise of the ages it then did recall,” indicating that this long-prophesied Messiah has finally arrived as indicated by the light of God in the star of the magi. The cosmic truth of this line comes amid the dirty, stinky and inconvenient realty that Jesus was born in a stable. (Compare this with “It Came Upon the midnight Clear”, which says there “shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”)

Like “Wayfaring Stranger” this piece is from Appalachia. The tune and the text were assembled by American folklorist John Jacob Niles in 1933 after he heard it being sung at a revival meeting. In his autobiography he writes

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins. … But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

The story goes that Niles had to keep paying the girl for each additional line of the song. Like me meditating on the words, I can only think the Niles was transfixed by this sight and the almost mystical words he was hearing. What sort of scene does this song conjure up for you?

New and Old Stories
These are only some of the things that could be said about these pieces. There are also the wonderful ways in which each arranger captures the music for handbells and the contributions of the composers who devised each melody. Even so, I hope that my reflections on the music will help more fuller appreciation of the music shared above.

– Mitchell Eithun, Ringers of the Kirk, Director

Songs of Joy and Lament (2)

The following is a continued reflection on songs used in worship by the handbell choir directed by Mitchell (Campus Edge’s Emerging Leader).

Pie Jesu (follow link to listen)
The words of the Kyrie, a part of the mass from the ancient Church are “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” The basic liturgical formula used today by Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans was standardized some time before 1000 C.E. Some of the key parts are the Kyrie, Alleluia, Sanctus and Angus Dei. The Angus Dei is a prayer for penitence (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”) It is these words that Andrew Lloyd Weber uses for the basis of “Pie Jesu” in his Requiem:

Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, give them rest.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, give them rest. Everlasting rest.

Weber also uses the ending words of the Dies irae, a text used for the ancient requiem mass: “Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Amen.” Together these words are a powerful reminder of our bleak mortality, but also God’s ability to forgive.The text with Weber’s music is a beautiful song of lament and resolve.

Timbrel and Dance (follow link to listen)
Aside from “Pie Jesu”, in October we also shared joy with “Timbrel and Dance”, an original piece for handbells. The phrase “timbrel and dance” comes from Psalm 150, which offers wonderful insights for church musicians. I particularly enjoy the KJV version of the text. (The world timbrel means “tambourine”).

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high-sounding cymbals. Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.

The driving rhythms, and joyful energy in the piece shout “Praise ye the Lord!” I picked this piece because I remember hearing it played by the youth handbell ensemble when I was young, and it always made me feel excited.

I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger (follow link to listen)
In November, we played “I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, a piece of American folk music probably first sung in Appalachia in the early 1800s. Little is known about the song’s origins, but the hardship expressed in the song could reflect any number of antebellum issues including famine, hardship and immigration. The song has probably persisted because of the universality of the lyrics. Consider the first verse:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,
I’m trav’ling through this world below;
There is no sickness, toil, nor danger,
In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m just a going over Jordan,
I’m just a going over home.

The journey of the wayfaring stranger could be a life of physical hardship or a spiritual lament yearning for the presence of God. What do the words mean to you? 

– Mitchell

Songs of Joy and Lament: Amazing Grace

Apart from being enjoyable and enriching the soul, music has a story. While many of our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are familiar and well-worn, there are still stories to be told about where our music comes from and why it matters. This fall I (Mitchell) delighted in taking my church on a journey through some of my favorite music written for handbells. I’d like to explain some of the fascinating meaning and history embedded in this music, hoping that it will enliven your worship and provide some insights for the journey.

Amazing Grace (follow link to watch video)
Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of Amazing Grace is inexplicitly linked with the story of the transatlantic slave trade and is more nuanced than many people know.

While his mother hoped that he’d join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a plantation in Sierra Leone. He was later freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. (Saul of Tarsus, anyone?) Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and led several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans. (Despite the well-known refrain about “the hour I first believe”, Newton described his faith as a more gradual experience. “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards,” he later wrote)

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England. He was ordained in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends were a part of the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by clergy. Inspired by texts of legendary hymn writers Isaac Watts (e.g. “O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (e.g. “Angels We Have Heard on High”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, “Amazing Grace” was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, New Britain, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and plays that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God, it was not until 30 years later—in 1788—that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things and Newton’s life was certainly complicated. However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact that justice and redemption take time. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much later. Luckily he lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which finally abolished the African slave trade.

How are systems of injustice still perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from recognizing systems of injustice that are clearly wrong? Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by organized and consistent efforts. This takes time. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficult of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (For the full story see Luke 18:1-8).

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways in which our world is unjust and work toward mending the breach.

– Mitchell Eithun

So maybe it is about economics?

In our studies on the parables of Jesus, I’ve been struck by how often the parables talk about money and economics. Perhaps, though, as Jesus’ teachings tended to make people upset, it’s not that surprising: nothing quite gets people as upset as challenging them about money, power, and their self-importance.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) challenges readers both about economics and their self-importance.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that of grace: like the day’s wage that each person is paid at the end of the day, all those who believe are given salvation (irrelevant of how long they have been doing kingdom work). Salvation by grace alone (not by works) is one of the often repeated themes in Paul’s letters, so while there is something wonderful about being reminded about God’s extensive grace, there’s not much surprising in this message. Nor does it fully explain the ending of the parable – the part where the landowner basically tells the ‘early’ workers to get over themselves and highlights the generosity of the landowner in making sure all those who’d worked received enough for their daily needs.

It helps to look at the context. This parable is probably being told to the disciples. The text surrounding the passage doesn’t give the best picture of the disciples: they rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, they ask what they’ll earn because they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus, and then two of them ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom (and the others get upset at their audacity). The parable then rebukes the self-importance and entitlement of the disciples, something that many of us ‘older’ Christians also tend to have. The challenge to the hearers of this parable is thus:

“Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated? . . . Even while we speak of justice, none of us is satisfied with average. We always think we deserve a little more.” Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 378.

As the text surrounding this parable talks a lot about money and our desire to get what we deserve, it is also important to wonder what the strange economics in the parable might have to say to us today. Amy-Jill Levine does a great job of pointing out how the justice portrayed in this parable is a justice that is not related only to saving grace but also to every day life:

“The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’ . . an economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough. . . . If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.”  Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213, 218

Support and your Cohort

A recent study highlights how the lower the percentage of other females in your (STEM) cohort the greater the chance that female students will drop out of their program.

Katie Langin highlights this study and looks at the experience of different females to understand better what effect having female peers has and how one can find support outside of one’s cohort. She quotes Susan Gardner, “who has interviewed Ph.D. students about their experiences in graduate school. Students usually drop out because of some other factor besides intellectual ability, such as poor advising, a toxic climate, or because they want to pursue other options, Gardner says. ‘Very few people drop out of doctoral education because they got bad grades.'”

The reason that females leave isn’t necessarily toxic environments, although harassment and other negative experiences related to gender and sexism do occur, as the anecdote at end of the article illustrates. Instead, the challenge can be summarized as a lack of support: whether that be through challenging negative environments or simply through social isolation and difficulty in developing friendships (within one’s cohort and labs).

The end of the article presents how important it is to find good support. It is my hope that Campus Edge provides that kind of support, especially for people who feel isolated and unsupported in whatever program they’re in, for whatever reason.

Moral Distress among Veterinarians

NPR recently published an article about moral distress among veterinarians. The author, Carey Goldberg, highlights a study “published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine about “moral distress” among veterinarians. The survey of more than 800 vets found that most feel ethical qualms — at least sometimes — about what pet owners ask them to do. And that takes a toll on their mental health.”

She quotes Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman in highlighting the challenges:

“Sometimes, owners elect to have their pets put to sleep because they can’t or won’t pay for treatment, she says. Or the opposite, “where we know in our heart of hearts that there is no hope to save the animal, or that the animal is suffering and the owners have a set of beliefs that make them want to keep going.”

Furthermore, “J. Wesley Boyd, sees a connection between the study’s findings and daunting statistics about veterinarians’ suicide rates: “My assumption,” he says, “is that the findings from our survey are definitely part of, or even the majority of, the reason why veterinarians have higher-than-average suicide rates.”

Your prayers for veterinarians – especially those in training – are appreciated.