Why talk about difficult topics?

The studies in the second half of the spring semester focused on difficult topics in Christianity and the Bible. As many people avoid these conversations because of potential conflict, it’s not always obvious why we should talk about these things. Yet, studying these difficult topics can help us love God and those around us. Reading the Bible carefully, as well as listening to those around us, makes us aware that knowing and understanding the Bible isn’t easy. How could God command the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites when they went into the promised land, an act that people today would consider genocide? Why would a caring, all-powerful God allow people to be attracted to people of the same-sex if it’s sin to act on those feelings? What about gender dysphoria? Hell?

These are hard questions that many struggle with. Not talking about them doesn’t make the struggles go away; in fact, it often makes it worse and may even cause people to question faith. Looking for answers to these difficult questions allows us to use our God-given intellect to know God better. At the same time, sometimes the answers are unclear, as witnessed by how differently Christians address these questions. The Bible also seems to suggest (in the book of Job) that as mere humans, it is not our place to understand all things. So sometimes the questions do not need to be answered so much as they need space to be voiced. When address the problem of suffering, Mike Wagenman, a campus minister at University of Western Ontario, notes that sometimes it’s not about answers so much as providing a “listening ear and open heart” in the middle of the pain and the struggles.

How historical is the resurrection?

We’ve been talking this last semester about difficult topics in the Bible, and one of the topics has been how historical certain events in the Bible are.

One event that presents a challenge to our understanding of how historical the events in the Bible are is the flood. After pointing out that “a global deluge does not fit the evidence,” we have, Andy Walsh at The Emerging Scholars Blog suggests that

“perhaps the Flood narrative is about a regional event or is meant to convey truth about the kingdom of God but not necessarily the history of Earth. I do recognize that once one heads down that road, it shifts the boundaries around what parts of the Bible to consider history. Thus some prefer to stick with a more traditional interpretation, in part to preserve the interpretation of other passages, and instead focus on finding clever solutions to the practical challenges a literal Ark presents.”

Walsh captures well the challenge of questioning the historicity of one event in the Bible: how does one then determine which events really happened and which ones didn’t? How does one not get to the point where one even questions if the resurrection really happened, even though belief in the resurrection is a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith (see 1 Corinthians 15)?

It’s thus reassuring to hear that there is a lot of corroborating evidence for Jesus’ life and death, alongside of evidence that the disciples and early church believed that Jesus rose from the dead and that this belief deeply changed how they lived (and died). Gary Habermas highlights some of this evidence in a recent article. While he acknowledges that this evidence “does not prove that the resurrection happened, it does indicate that the disciples thought that it had occurred. Further, these believers were the only ones in position to know whether or not they had seen Jesus alive after His death. That they were willing to die for these experiences is certainly significant in that it shows that they were utterly convinced of these facts. That goes a long way towards providing the best explanation of what actually happened.” Thus while one cannot prove without a doubt the historicity of certain events in the Bible, it is reassuring to be reminded that it is still reasonable to believe in Christ’s resurrection.

Young Adults in the Church

This past summer I participated in a panel discussion on young adults in the church. I argued that young adults very much want to belong to Christian community. In order to feel like they belong, though, they need to be given space for honesty and difficult questions, along with having potentially different life situations, like being single or needing to commit so much time to their discipline/profession.

The following provides further details of what we talked about, as reported by Chris Meehan.

“A Love-Hate Relationship with the Church: Ministering to Young Adults Today” was hosted by Matt Ackerman and panelists Tyler Helfers, Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink, and Jamie VanderBerg — all of whom are campus chaplains.

They started by giving some U.S. and Canadian statistics about young adults.

In the U.S., Tyler Helfers said, people who identify as “nones” — or having no religious affiliation — are growing. This group was only 7 percent of the population in 1990, but grew to 23 percent of the population by 2014. Of those who identify as “nones,” 33 percent are in the millennial, or young-adult, age group.

In Canada, Jamie VanderBerg pointed out, there are statistical differences in comparison to the situation in the U.S. Church attendance, for example, is even less than in the U.S. across the board, with only 23 percent attending church in Canada on a monthly basis. . .

Despite this decline in formal church attendance, many young people still consider themselves “spiritual,” a term that may be hard to define and yet also seems to imply young people are seeking an experience of God.

“Churches need to create a space to ask questions and have conversations,” said VanderBerg. He also pointed out that many young people are very missional and want to get actively involved in service to others at home or beyond.”

Integrating one’s faith and one’s discipline

It delights me to hear from the wisdom of those participating in Campus Edge. And last week’s conversation about how to integrate one’s faith and one’s discipline did not disappoint.

Graduate school is about being formed deeper in one’s discipline. The deeper one gets involved in one’s discipline, the more one is shaped by that discipline: you could say that each discipline disciples a person into a certain way of being and thinking. This then affects one’s faith, as these ways of being and thinking affect one’s relationship with others and God. Scientists, who are taught to question everything and accept as true only things that can be proven, often question the validity of their faith and Christian beliefs – because how can one prove that it is true? Musicians (and artists), who are taught the validity of each person’s experience, also question the validity of their faith but for a very different reason: how can we accept that Christian beliefs and my faith is more true than someone else’s faith or beliefs? For professional students, one’s questions about faith and beliefs are less likely to be intellectual and instead are often very practical: what does faith and belief look like in the presence of suffering and death and the ugly side of human beings?

Knowing the tendencies of one’s discipline helps one to recognize and understand one’s faith questions better. It also helps those of us supporting (other) graduate and professional students, as we recognize the crises of faith that are likely to happen. We can trust that God will be present in the midst of the questions and can thus be hopeful that people will grow in their understanding of God and their own discipline.

We can also rejoice in how growing to love one’s discipline can help one grow to love God more. Many doctors and veterinarians can delight in how the discoveries of medical science allows them to help others. Many scientists appreciate God better on account of the wonders they discover in creation. Many musicians become closer to God through music. Many academics understand their own assumptions about the world, God, and others through being forced to identify the assumptions that those in their own discipline make about the same things.

Emerging Leader Grant Final Reflection Part 2

The pursuit of spiritual growth during graduate school
Welcome back to part two of the reflection of my recent Ignatian Exercises program made possible through the Emerging Leaders grant through Campus Edge Fellowship and the Christian Reformed Church. This reflection zooms out from the Ignatian Exercises program that I have been participating in, and focuses more generally on the question of how to pursue spiritual growth during graduate school. I am just wrapping up my doctoral program at Michigan State University and am well aware of the multiple competing priorities for one’s time over the course of a graduate program: coursework, lab meetings, qualifying exams, mid-term exams, committee meetings, conference presentations, lab reports, proposals, defenses, grading, job hunts, emails, sleep, well, you get the picture. Life if very full, and the list of demands are seemingly relentless. Go, go, go. Push, push, push. Think, think, think. More, more, more. Do it all. How exactly is one to make space – in the head, heart, and agenda – for the pursuit of spiritual growth during this season of life? Well, that is a question that can be answered differently by each person. It is my aim to share my unique experience of this challenge and a few ways that afforded me the opportunity to develop spiritually.

The challenge: Failure
I am not sure about you, my dear reader, and what your relationship with failure has been throughout your graduate studies and life, but this F word haunts me. Specifically, when I consider how I was taught that my relationship with the Divine is my bounden duty, ultimate priority, and greatest calling in life, my apparent failure during graduate school has been a source of shame, disgust, and anger at myself for just not “having it all together.” Sure, I attended church most weeks, but actual intentional study, prayer, and practice of faith outside the church walls felt beyond my capacity. (Side note: this is my unique experience, and granted, there were other life events happening beyond the demands of graduate school that led me to feel overextended. Feel free to ask me about this in person.).

Despite the sense of failure on this front, when I reflect upon my spiritual journey of the past three years, I mark it as a largely pivotal season in which I engaged in prolonged, perennial spiritual conversations; actively sought out space and time for retreat and silence; and adopted a more grace-filled view of my available resources during the graduate school season. In essence, my sense of failure was sourced from my adolescent approach to doing spirituality. Events and people I encountered during graduate school have permitted me to redefine spiritual growth as neither success nor failure, but rather a slow, incremental, and nearly undetectable faith-building project. Below I will highlight a few invaluable bricks I received during the season of graduate school.

Spiritual conversations and friendships
I am so privileged to have come into contact with several brilliant and intentional individuals over the course of my graduate program. Some of these people shared the same faith background as I, and others were at various stages along their faith journey. At the near start of graduate school, my life circumstances forced me to verbalize my discomfort, questions, and shifts of faith with newfound friends and mentors. These dialogues were initially scary and threatening to my reputation, but I know that the honesty, suspension of judgment, and caring curiosity expressed among the individuals wove us together in a way that established robust relationships able to weather future conflicts and difficult conversations. I particularly valued hearing parts of others’ faith journeys and the questions they carry. All in all, relationships that honestly plumbed the depths of spiritual matters were new to me; I began to grasp how true high-impact relationships can offer one another accountability, challenge, guidance, and true integration of faith into real-life relationships.

A specific example I’d like to offer is how I have encountered Christ in the flesh through a few of these spiritual friendships (Note: Spiritual Friendship is the title of a book that will be reviewed on the CEF blog soon. It is highly recommended!). I encountered the following prayer by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) in the The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien (2011) and immediately recognized how individuals have embodied Christ for me.

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

It has been through these spiritual friends during graduate that I have encountered the eyes, ears, and hands of Christ. Despite the difficult demands on my head and heart during this season, Christ has showed up and made His love real life to me.

A bit more removed than face-to-face spiritual friendships have been a number of authors that have held my hand and heart throughout this season: Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, Parker Palmer’s Let you life speak, and the podcast show On Being with Krista Tippet. I believe the Campus Edge Fellowship library has a number of these titles that individuals can borrow.

Retreat and silence
Since my return from abroad in 2014, I have had the opportunity to participate in a silent retreat at least twice per year. One of my former InterVarsity friends introduced me to the Hermitage, the Christian retreat center where the Ignatian Exercises program is based. I deeply cherish these 1 – 3 day opportunities to withdraw from my daily responsibilities and technology, breathe in the silence and natural beauty of the countryside, have no particular agenda or to-do list to complete, and simply rest, read, and reflect on the past, present, and future. Retreating at the Hermitage is particularly rejuvenating thanks to the healthy and hearty food (which is “God’s love, made edible”). It is prepared by the retreat center hosts, and many of the vegetables come right out of their on-site garden. Any guests that stay at the retreat center offer the other retreatants the “gift of silence,” meaning that no one speaks to one another during the meals or other times. This is a welcome relief to this introvert who, at times, must expend much emotional energy to carry on conversations with strangers. Retreats at the Hermitage are truly a retreat, a break, a slowing down, and an opening up to attend to the working of the still, small Spirit within.

Faith building project: Brick-by-brick
The graduate school season has been one of re-evaluation of a number of foundational life boulders, such as family, vocation / calling, and faith. In brief, I sensed the need to step away from the faith of my childhood and all of the black and white lines and prescriptions that accompanied it. There is no doubt that many questions still remain; nevertheless, there is a spiritual muscle that I desire to exercise, a desire to encounter the Divine apart from the familiar social club approach or musical outlet. One particularly helpful book throughout this process of deconstructing and reconstructing faith in this season is Escobar’s Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart. During this shifting season, I have found hope and comfort in the slow working nature of God. If faith is something that will be reliable and dependable, it must be built with care, attention, and patience. I will finish this reflection with a prayer that has been a guiding light over the course of the Ignatian Exercises.

Prayer of Teilhard de Chardin

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.


The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien (2011)

The Ignatian Adventure has been my roadmap for the past 15 weeks, and it will continue to guide me through the Ignatian Exercises through May of this year. In short, the Ignatian Exercises are a historic journey of “four weeks” (broken down into smaller bite-sized pieces to stretch over 8 months in the 19th edition) that were initially inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The book first introduces its readers to the Ignatian way of reading scripture and prayer, and then gently leads through the traditional four weeks of exercises

  • experiencing the boundless mercy of God (week 1),
  • accompanying Jesus Christ on mission (week 2),
  • being with Jesus in his suffering and savoring the grace of compassion (week 3), and
  • experiencing the joy and sharing the consolation of the risen Lord (week 4).

I am reading this under the tutelage of a spiritual director from the Hermitage, and we began in October in order to align the “weeks” with the spiritual calendar. For instance, during the week of Christmas, I read about the birth of Jesus; and nearer to Easter, we will join the Ignatian exercises in the suffering and death of Jesus.

The intent of these exercises is to develop and commit to a spiritual practice of prayer and Scripture reading each day (for upwards of an hour). This, you may be thinking, is an ambitious goal for anyone, let alone a dissertating graduate student. There is no denying the fact that such a practice has been a struggle to diligently pursue; I often feel as if I am only skimming the surface of the depth of this historical journey of the soul. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the structure and simplicity of being given one verse or passage a day and asked to be with it in different ways.

I’ve learned that Ignatian spirituality invites its participants to enter into Scripture and prayer that may be foreign, uncomfortable, perhaps even scary. Throughout this book, the author introduces gradual steps into various approaches to the time participants spend in prayer and Scripture reading. Some of these include the following:

  1. The Examen – a daily prayer of awareness
  2. (Re)imagining God – having an image of God that works
  3. Ignatian repetition – repeating a scripture reading and finding new angles/depth
  4. The Principle and Foundation – a sort of life’s resume summary statement
  5. The Colloquy – putting yourself in the biblical scene
  6. Discernment of the spirits – desolation vs. consolation, a little like Lewis’ Screwtape Letters
  7. Ignatian contemplation – imaginative prayer

Additionally, O’Brien sprinkles beautiful, well-timed prayers by other saints and spiritual leaders throughout history within each chapter in order for his readers to enter into prayer through others’ words. See, for example, these prayers by Merton and de Chardin.

In all honesty, I am not sure what product will be revealed at the end of the Ignatian exercises for me. For now, I am simply enjoying the journey, the process, reading the scriptures with the NRSV (a different lens than youth), and having “no idea where I am going” (the opening line to Merton’s prayer, p. 37). I imagine this would be a fruitful journey for a committed book club, university ministry group, or intentional community to take together.

– JF, Emerging Leader 2016-17

Reflections on “Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice”

After 18 months of planning (I checked – my first communication was on June 29, 2011), we finally hosted the first ever Veritas Forum at Michigan State University. We at Campus Edge were proud to team up not only with the national Veritas Forum organization, but, more importantly, to partner with a whole group of local ministries: River Terrace Church, Riverview Church, St. John’s Catholic Church and Student Center, Christianity and Culture, University Christian Outreach, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Spartan Christian Fellowship, The Furnace at MSU, and All Saint’s Episcopal Church. We were thrilled to see around 200 people come to this exciting event.

We hosted Dr. Mary Poplin, professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, as she presented “Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice.” The talk was interesting – Dr. Poplin is an engaging speaker and a wonderful person with whom to converse. Perhaps the most important thing Mary did, however, was to spark dialogue. In the days leading up to the event, the Facebook page was the home of a heated debate about the criticisms leveled against Mother Teresa by Christopher Hitchens (and others). In the days since the event, I’ve had coffee with colleagues and friends to discuss further what we thought of Mary’s talk. From the time I spent with Mary, I know she would be thrilled by the conversations all across campus that have been sparked by her presentation and I know that they will continue for some time.

What may be most exciting of all is the number of people who have said that this talk challenged them to think or live differently. Students have shared that the Veritas Forum gave them a better understanding of how to share their faith. Others were challenged to be more forgiving or to take seriously God’s call to justice and mercy.

I am excited to continue the conversation in the weeks and months ahead and look forward to bringing more partners on board for next year’s Veritas Forum. Stay tuned!

~Kory PlockmeyerImage