Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

Help for when faith shifts

At Campus Edge we strive to be a welcoming place for those who are struggling with faith, especially those who aren’t sure if they’re able to continue to believe what they used to believe about God, church, and faith. If you’re connected to MSU and struggling with faith, we’d be honored to have you connect to us, either to meet others who’ve undergone the challenging journey connecting to faith shifting or simply to be able to share your own journey and struggles with someone who is committed to listening and encouraging you.

We’d also like to share resources with you in the midst of the struggles. Alongside of the series we did on faith shifting a number of years ago, we post resources periodically on this blog. The Well recently posted an article with suggestions for things you can do when your faith no longer feels familiar. The author, Jen Zamzow, noted that while we might expect our faith to shift at certain transitions in our lives, sometimes it happens unexpectedly, and “change is harder when it sneaks up on us.”

In those times, she gives the following suggestions of things to keep in mind “when we need our faith but it no longer feels familiar to us:”

  1. Be patient with yourself. Zamzow especially warns that “when we push too quickly for resolution without taking time to figure out whether this is even how we should resolve things, we end with simplistic answers that don’t even address the questions that we desperately need to ask.” After all, “faith is not about having everything figured out; it’s about doing the hard work of asking the difficult questions. Faith is not pretending to have all the right answers; it’s about trusting that the answers are there when we don’t see them.”
  2. See the opportunity. Zamzow notes that “it’s when we ask why we should pursue a life of faith that we are most likely to find a faith that connects with our deepest selves, a faith that is real and meaningful.”
  3. Be gentle with yourself. Zamzow notes that “We cannot force ourselves to believe something through sheer will; that’s not how belief works. And guilting or shaming ourselves or others into holding onto particular beliefs about God does little more than further our depression and despair. It is not how we foster deep, authentic faith; it’s how we end up overwhelmed, anxious, or angry at God.”

Unexpected Encouragement

While we always hope that people are encouraged and challenged by the questions we provide at pub theology, it’s not always clear how the questions will be received. Nor is it always clear how the Spirit is present in the direction that our answers go. Yet, sometimes it’s fairly obvious that God is at work.

Earlier this spring, we started pub theology with a simple question: what do people notice about you? People reflected a bit: for many, it had to do with their physical appearance, for others, it was a specific emotion. But it felt like a hard question to answer because many of us weren’t sure what people noticed or even whether we liked what people seemed to notice. Spontaneously, one person started sharing what they noticed about another, and soon everyone heard about the good we saw in each other: one person’s courage and strength, another’s gracious presence, another person’s joy and enthusiasm. The question thus prompted a brief time of encouragement where we could recognize the unique gifts that each of us brings to our relationships and how we appreciate each other’s presence.

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.

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.