Monthly Archives: August 2012

Don’t Let Your Heart Be Troubled

Moments of this campus ministry journey include intense times of planning and executing activities during which I must be ‘on’ for five or more hours – talking with students, leading discussions, giving tours of the house, helping volunteers.  All this while also seeing how I might help students connect with God’s story.  During these times it’s easy to focus on food and games, trying to keeping everyone happy.  Or, to think about how the event is not living up to my expectations.

At 6:30pm this past Tuesday I was discouraged because there was not a line outside of the door ready for our annual international meal.  Some students were inside, but many of these were returning from last year.  The rush of new students didn’t appear.  I was reluctant to begin and almost wanted to apologize.  I had people bring all this food for what?

Then a handful of new students walked in – we prayed and headed to the kitchen to fill our plates.  Several times throughout the evening students came in the front door.  There may not have been a long line to start, but it turns out that these small forays worked better.  I was able to focus on each group for awhile instead of being overwhelmed with a large mass of students at once.  Hmm . . . maybe my expectations needed some rearranging?

Once I was more comfortable with the number of people, I started to be concerned when I realized that I hadn’t really prepared anything to catalyze community.  We had good food and people, but how would individuals connect?  I tried to keep the conversation going in the dining room.  However, the energy that comes when people start building a community didn’t seem to happen.  Fearful that people would start getting up to leave, I started to panic.  I couldn’t force them to stay and interact.

But there might be something that would help.  So, when people started moving to the front room I pulled out Jenga, the block stacking game.  I didn’t know if it would work, but slowly people gathered, started coming together, and laughing.  Don’t get me wrong – we didn’t end up with life-long friends talking about the deep mysteries of God that evening.  Yet, a sense of community started and hopefully several of these students will continue on their journeys us in the coming weeks.

Both of these moments were reminders of not letting my heart be troubled – John 14:1, 27 – in the liminal moments of this ministry.  Not an easy thing to do, but these words of Jesus to his disciples could be my mantra during the coming year.  Also, as I look to build community within the group I need to remember that it won’t just happen.  On this journey, there will be moments during which I’ll need to facilitate interaction and not just expect it.  God even had his ways – a burning bush, a ladder with angels, questions.

Could get interesting . . .

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God in the Busyness

So, last week was one of the growing task list – and it has bled over to this week.  Contact students, buy food, send out a prayer update.  Then I look at the actual time I have and it seems a pittance.  Another day to just get through, or is it?  On one of my many phone calls yesterday I asked the person on the other end how their summer had been and we had a conversation beyond setting up meals.  It made the difference.  For even a brief moment there was a glimpse of God in relationship.

To combat the tendency to just get through the day I intended to start each hour with a prayer using Luther’s writings on the Psalms.  Here was a small way I could slow down to remember the story and see myself as part of it – becoming aware of where God is connecting with me.  As I did this I hoped that I would start seeing the many tasks not as work to get through, but opportunities to connect with God.  I can’t say I kept this up perfectly, but after I read a few psalms I returned to my work with a different attitude.

I started cleaning the house thinking of the students who would show up.  Dusting, straightening, and putting away dishes in the newly remodeled kitchen.  I wanted to prepare a place where students would feel comfortable and inspired.  Yet, also a place that would challenge them.  A place where they can rest from the busyness in their lives.

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(not) connecting with God’s Word

So the vision for Concordia Campus Ministries is connecting with God’s Word in the world.  Great and catchy phrase.  However, even before school began I was ignoring it.  Instead I was connecting with my planning and task lists.  One more call to make, meal host to find, student to contact.  Then there were the rooms to clean, posters to make, and website to set up.  And each day the list grew.  This was my connection to ministry.  Once I completed it, then I could get to the God thing.

As I waited to get responses from e-mails I became quite tense.  Don’t they, doesn’t God know that I need this response to effectively plan.  In reality much of this work related to my my looking good in ministry, having success, being ready.  But what about God?  Two weeks ago as I was worrying about not getting responses back from some students, a visiting scholar I hadn’t seen for months walked in with a couple new to the area.  I wasn’t ready.  But God was.  I almost didn’t know what to do because my mind was so focused on all this other work.  However, I sat down and talked with them – and again realized that the priorities I actually focus on often leave out true connections with God.

I just finished reading Hunter’s Horn by Harriet Arnow.  In this story set in eastern Kentucky during the 1940s, a man focuses so much on catching a fox – the King Devil – that he loses sight of other priorities.  His daughter has only a ragged dress to wear and he has no money to send her to high school.  He sells the family’s meat one winter so he could purchase pedigreed hounds.  I want to yell at this character, pointing out his narrow vision.  Yet, I quickly see how I can get caught in a similar hunt.

At times I am chasing after accolades in ministry – praise from others and numbers at events.  I wonder what people will think and how they will respond.  As I do this I become blinded to opportunities where God is at work.  Looking back all I can do now is ask for forgiveness and repent.  Turn and look to God.  Perhaps these failings – and subsequent turnings – are the real connection with God’s Word.  The real thing I can share with students.  Seeing my worthlessness and turning to the one who is worthy.

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Leaving the ‘snare of preparation’

It’s time again – this time four weeks earlier than the past three years.  It’s time to get ready for a new semester of campus ministry at UC.  Days are filled with planning events, preparing publicity, and hand wringing.  If I can just get one more thing done, then I can get to the really important work of preparing Bible studies, catching up with students, connecting with God’s Word in the world.

After four years of this, I wonder why this preparation is so dry and such a trial.  Something is not right.  I talk about story and pilgrimage and I imagine it should be so easy to bring these ideas into ministry.  Sometimes it happens.  But most of the time I seem to be waiting for the right time to arrive so that I can do it.  Once everything else is in order, once enough posters are hung and students are involved in activities. To some extent preparation is necessary for pilgrimage – before heading out, good medieval pilgrims got their household in order so that it would work well while they were gone and would be ready in case of a person’s death.

However, pilgrimage is really focused on the journey.  If one stays in preparation mode, the pilgrimage does not begin.  Jane Addams uses Tolstoy’s evocative phrase, the “snare of preparation”, to describe her experience and frustration with the practice of taking so much time to prepare that one never really lives life.  Thus, she determines to get going “however ill-prepared” she might be.

Similarly, the journey to a story starts in the midst of everything else.  Within the ministry I’m involved with at UC there is a story we’re heading towards – students connecting to God’s Word in the world and being formed by God, as well as the university during these years of their lives.  Will this be a living ministry or one of preparing?  The preparation will probably never be complete.  In reality I’m already in the midst of the journey to some extent.  The question should be how am I living and connecting with students in the liminal places – those places in between where we came from and where we are going – in the midst of this ministry.

Often I am waiting and not seeing myself in the story in front of me.  Instead, I want to be in exotic places – a cathedral in Assisi or the moors of Haworth and talk about people’s experiences in these places.  Maybe someday I’ll lead groups to these and other sites.  However, now I’m leading another type of group and in a different place.  Not all students are heading to the same story, except perhaps a degree or finished research of some type.  Some are aware of God’s story, others aren’t.  Some are ready to see how God’s Word relates to the world, others are leaving it behind.  Where does ministry, where does God fit into their lives?  What about connecting with God’s Word in the midst of it all?  How is that possible?  I wish I had more answers than I do.  I could continue to wait for plans to come together, but that’s not how people work.  Where are the students now?  Where are we going?  Though I’ve reflected on these questions in my head, and at time with others, nothing has ever really come together and I feel that I continue to just pass the time in preparation.

So, it’s time to take a different path of reflection in connecting with God’s Word and exploring how to integrate pilgrimage and ministry.  It’s time to stop preparing and to get going.  To process this work within community, I will take time to share my field notes on this blog.  Over the next year this will be a place to return and explore unfinished work, questions, and even celebrate moments of connection.  It will be messy.  I won’t have time to outline or edit.  I’ll even be ill-prepared.  Even so, I will finally be awash in content moving towards a story – connecting with God’s Word in the world of the campus.

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Andalusia – the name alone invites many exotic images.  The site most associated with Flannery O’Connor was a nine hour drive to Milledgeville, Georgia, but well worth it.   Here was a place where a writer lived with her mother as she dealt with the daily reality of lupus and composed stories that reveal a shocking view of grace.  Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to go to a farm where peacocks used to roam?

I saw this journey as one to a fellow writer’s home, not a time for literary criticism. What would I find?  What did she see when she wrote?  What may have inspired her?  The entrance is a non-descript drive off a four lane highway across from a big-box shopping center.  I turned in and started to drive down the one lane path.  Quickly the traffic behind me disappeared and I was enveloped in another space.  Trees and other bushes lined the one-lane, unpaved road as I followed signs to park.  At a turn in the road the view opened and I saw the house – a white farm house with red roof.

Several other buildings were on the property – a barn, sheds, house – all in difference states of re-construction.  There was a lot to explore.  First, I headed to the main house.  The yard in front was filled with towering oaks, providing some shade in the oppressive heat of southern summer.  I walked up the red brick stairs to the screened-in porch that spanned the length of the house.  Opening the door I was greeted with the scent of lives lived.  This was not a pristine tourist stop.  It’s a re-opened home.  Paint is peeling from walls, drapes are fraying.  There was a sense of forlornness about the place.  Yet, at the same time I knew that this is the repository of great stories.

The tour was self-guided, though the director, Craig Amason, was ready to answer any questions.  Looking down the hallway, the dining room was on the right and Flannery’s bedroom on the left – a typewriter still at the ready – though not hers.  The bed was made, but the bookcases were empty.  Through the small gift shop shop at the end of the hall and on the right was the kitchen and then a room where people could watch a short video about the author.  Retracing my steps I returned to the front of the house and walked up the stairs.  The curtains in the upstairs bedroom were yellowed and torn.  I could sense this place had been lived in.  In a way, it needed the grace about which Flannery wrote.  A life in the midst of questions, of imperfection.  The ideal doesn’t need grace.

I didn’t feel drawn into the life of this house, though it did intrigue me.  There was a sadness of the life lived here no longer and I couldn’t see myself writing in this space.  When I stepped out onto the porch again, I sat in one of the white rocking chairs and looked out over the land.  This farm, a working farm when Flannery lived here with her mother, provided much to think about- the live oaks shading the summer sun, a land that had seen war between the states, the barn, the milk shed, the water tower, and much more.  Here was a whole world that could infiltrate the imagination of a writer.

This was a place

  • to create stories;
  • to think away from the crowd;
  • to understand a new life.

I walked around the yard – down to a pond and around the outbuildings.  Sat on the benches in the gardens near the house, looked at the peacocks – now safely in a pen and not walking around the yard.  I could detect spurts of life.  Seeds of stories.  Maybe I couldn’t write here, but I shouldn’t.  This was someone else’s world.  But I could look at my world more fully.  Where are the places I would write?  Not an old farm house with peacocks walking in the yard – but a campus ministry house, a small home in the suburbs, a local church.  My own exotic places.

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Quilting a Pilgrimage

For over five years I’ve intended to start a hands-on project – one that doesn’t involve a keyboard.  Too often I’m focused on reading, writing, planning, and thinking – mostly in front of a laptop.  So, even before my dissertation was finished, I started a project to create five small landscape quilts related to each of the pilgrimages included in the research. These would be visual images recreated in fabric that I would choose, feel, cut.  A tangible product that would get me out of my head and away from a screen.  I could picture the final quilts hanging on my wall and as illustrations in a book about these journeys.  I had the story in mind; getting there has been the challenge.

Yes, it’s been five years.  Fabric still waits in a basket on top of a bookcase.  Many things have happened in the intervening time, but not much to engage that mind-hands interaction.  My excuses are many:

  • Unscheduled days don’t appear in the calendar.
  • I’m unsure of what to do.
  • I’ll make a mistake.
  • I’ll never finish.
  • This is a waste of time.

So the basket has remained closed.

Recently I met a woman who creates landscape quilts and thought that she could spur my latent interest.  I reached out and spent over an hour at her house looking at fabric and learning some basic techniques.  After sorting through the fabric scraps she gave me, I added them to the basket, saving it up for that perfect day.  Yet, I remained afraid to step out into the unknown space of working on this quilt.  Would I keep the possibility stored away, or do something about it?

I had the story I was working towards and now at least one other person with me on this journey.  So, I eventually I took the basket down and read some how-to books.  I was in the preparation phase of the pilgrimage, gathering the necessary equipment to bring along – pins, fabric, scissors.  I started by first creating the canvas.  I like that.  I’ll be working on a canvas just like an artist.  The first hours, though, were a bit of a failure.  But I had started.  I’d stepped into a place where I’m moving towards the final destination of completing these quilts. It seems a long way off, but there is hope – and I think I’ll learn much along the way.

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Stepping Out in Cincinnati

I know that I’m not the first to say this – see Jane Friedman’s series of love letters to Cincinnati – but Cincinnati, Ohio, is becoming cool again.  Even I, living outside of the city limits, can sense a change.  It used to be that if you wanted to find something to do or places to eat, your first thought would not be downtown Cincinnati and environs.  Now, that may be the first place to go.

One weekend last month I enjoyed a Friendship Concert at the World Choir Games, a free evening at the Taft Art Museum, and an evening movie at Newport on the Levee, where I saw a slew of events taking place – buskers at the levee, a sausage festival on the Kentucky side of the river, the Bunbury Music Festival at Sawyers Point, and people leaving Great American Ball Park.  Then there was the community night at the opera, dinner with friends, and a concert in the park just a few weeks later.

In addition to the events, I’ve been hanging out in the Coffee Emporium downtown.  I had been doing most of my work at home or at the office.  Convenient places – but rather solitary unless I was running a student event.  So, I decided to get out.  Hear the bustle of people gathering.  Share in the energy of this emerging city.   In this place, too, there is a buzzing of activity.  People gathering to meet, encountering friends, standing in line to order.

Whether in my work with AmeriCorps members from out of town or with international students at the University of Cincinnati, I’ve always wanted to promote the city.  At times this has been a difficult sell.  I often hear that there’s nothing to do here, it’s not safe, we’re backwards.  However, stepping out into the city today the excitement speaks for itself.  Something is happening and it’s catching.

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Eden Park Adventures

As part of my summer staycation last year, one of the things to which I was most looking forward was going to Eden Park in Cincinnati with my mom and nieces (ages four and six).  We were going to a playground, to eat a picnic, and then to the Cincinnati Art Museum.  They couldn’t contain their excitement as we made sandwiches and packed sketch books and pencils.  Finally we were in the car and ready to go.  I felt I was going on a field trip again.  The expectations of children are contagious.  The sun was shining and we had the fullness of the last day of summer vacation before school.  

The first stop was the playground.  The overlook in Eden Park was already filling up with people.  We pointed out the boats on the river and then went to the playground.  All the equipment was shaped into woodland scene – old tree trunks, rock ledges.  After a brief stint on the swings the girls spent a good half hour climbing and imagining on the ‘trees’ and ‘rocks’ – and even involved other kids in their games.  No one was left out.

It was hard to tear them away to eat, but we finally convinced them to come see the ducks and geese in the pond.  On the way we stopped to get the food and found a table where we could watch the birds.  We took out the food – peanut butter sandwiches, juice boxes, spotted cheese (co-jack) – and ate.  However, watching the birds was more interesting than finishing lunch.  One crust thrown soon led to others and a visit by a gaggle of geese.

On the way to the Art Museum, the girls noticed a greenhouse, the Krohn Conservatory, and asked to stop.  Immediately out of the car, the four-year old saw a butterfly bench and wanted a picture taken by it, so there they posed for the first of many pictures.  In we walked and they were awed by the colorful flowers – look here, what is that?  Don’t touch the sharp cacti, let’s see the waterfall, look at the mouse.  Isn’t that fish large?  There’s a mermaid.  Where?  So much to see.  It must seem like a virtual jungle to children.  Outside they saw footprints painted on the sidewalk and had to follow them.  Everything was a potential adventure.

Into the car one more time and finally off to the Art Museum.  This place was familiar to them.  They remembered the blue Chihuly chandelier hanging in the lobby.  We had to detour through different galleries this time, which caused some discontent and near tantrums.  But we soon came upon kid friendly, touchable exhibits and all was right for awhile.  As we came out of the detour, they noticed the Miro mural for the first time and exclaimed about its bright colors and shapes.

Up the stairs we went to galleries where they could sit and draw.  They weren’t really copying any of the paintings before them, but engaged in their own drawings.  Gardens this time, reflecting the ones they had just seen at the Conservatory.  A jigsaw puzzle in one room brought us to another stop.  After awhile exhaustion overcame them.  Our time ended with a visit to the Damascus room.  A wood paneled room from the city of its name – decorated with exquisite painting and surrounded with built-in, satin-covered couches.  It was like a room from a fairy tale.  I asked them what they thought was behind the door.  Dresses and fairies were their answers.  Here the could see another world and imagine themselves in it.

The fun wasn’t over when we left.  Taking a short detour from the parking lot, we went to a swinging platform underneath a large, red steel-beam sculpture.  Gently rocking back and forth we rested.  What a day.  My nieces helped me see the park and museums from a new, wondrous perspective.  They explored and were ready to ooh and ah.  They didn’t enter with any pre-conceived notions of how they were to act.  At times I asked questions, but mostly waited for them to look with their eyes and curiosity.  Not a bad way to live life.

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Maintenance or Revolution – Two Possible Ministry Paths

Followers of Christ gathering in small groups, within communities, supporting one another in the ministries God has called them to in the world.  What a revolutionary idea!  At least it was 2000 years ago when the followers of Jesus started to meet.  In homes throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, believers gathered to work out this new understanding of God in their daily lives.  It was not so much about determining a set of doctrines as building a connection to Jesus.

Since that time these original communities have grown into institutions whose goals are often structured around maintenance – though the actual words they use are much more inspiring.  Of course they want to maintain the institution as a means to best help people to follow Jesus.  If the the institution continues then so will Christianity.   Somehow the two have become inseparable.  Yet, more and more I’m seeing that people, including myself, don’t want merely to keep something going that has been set up before they came, especially if there appears to be a disconnect between the Bible and practice.

People can tell the difference between the essence of Christianity – that radical call of Jesus to live in the Kingdom of God that he came to announce – and the maintenance of human institutions.  At times these institutions do carry the DNA of Christ and show it as they reach out beyond themselves.  But many times they reveal a communal view of one definition of sin – being curved in on one’s self.  Such communities eventually focus on providing a safe place for those inside and keep out others, either intentionally or not.

Returning to smaller communities seems like a need in the church. Though I have to say such missional communities are a bit scary.  I’ve been reading about the work of Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways) and Hugh Halter and Matt Smay (The Tangible Kingdom) as they revision church.  In these books are images of people gathering in small groups of people within communities – being examples of Jesus and inviting in others who may never consider stepping through the door of a church building.  They are spending time building relationships, responding to God’s Word by reaching out to others.

In my fear of starting such groups I ask  – Where is the control?  How can we be sure they will stay true to God’s Word?  What will Christianity in these groups look like? These issues and more are often the domain of institutions that have the resources and desire to attend to them.  But maybe that’s the problem; institutions are taking care of things that are essential in walking with Jesus.  These are issues that individual followers of Jesus need to meet in the messiness of discipleship.

As I think about the small realm of campus ministry, I’m seeing how my first inclinations in setting up a new campus ministry were to create institutional elements: meetings, websites, brochures, strategic plans.  All this before seeing the first students.  But what if I encourage students to gather in smaller communities around God’s Word.  Groups meeting for an hour a week, not to be fed pre-packaged information about how to live their lives as Christians, but groups praying with one another, exploring scripture, wrestling with what it looks like lived out in their lives, and then encouraging each other to go and do – all with Christ at the center.  Some groups may gather around interests such as music, an academic field, or a desire to serve the homeless.  Others may be students just starting to think about connecting their faith to the world.

In the end I’m not quite sure what these groups will look like, and that’s probably a good thing.  For that initial revolution to revive, it needs not a renewed structure to maintain, but a renewed spirit in which to live – and that is promised to us.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.   John 14:26-27

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