Monthly Archives: September 2012

Occupation Isolation in Campus Ministry

Recently someone shared with me the concept of occupation isolation.  In American society, we usually receive affirmation about our occupational identity outside of ourselves.  This could be through an understood job title like doctor, teacher, pastor; a shared corporate culture such as at Google, University of Cincinnati, or Fidelity; or people seeking out your skills such as a carpenter, a computer specialist, or editor.

However, some jobs just do not fit into categories that people understand or can affirm.  Campus ministry is often one of these jobs – a ministry that takes place between two large institutions – the church and the academy.  One could say this ministry exists in a liminal space on the threshold of the two groups with which it’s associated.

In my case I am serving outside of the usual model in my church body – which is a pastor leading a church or Bible study near campus.  Furthermore, without formal education in ministry, I am not considered a rostered church worker.  Even though a group of churches pays my salary, I don’t fit into any category of minister within the larger church body.  So, I spend a lot of time explaining to people what I do within the church.

On the other hand, I am seeking to connect with the university – especially within the departments where I have experience and/or am serving servants – English departments, graduate school, international students.  In this arena it can even be more difficult to explain my position that exists between the church and the academy.  This recently hit home when a paper of mine was accepted for a literature conference this fall.  I’ll be giving a paper on pilgrimage as used in the novel Little Women and am excited about this opportunity.  However, when I see my name in the midst of other presenters who have university affiliations, I again feel outside of a group.

Except for a few times that students really connect with what I’m doing or supporters send words of encouragement, I feel that I am alone in manufacturing my job.  Yes, hopefully within God’s call, but still rather alone in the eyes of the world.  When someone comes to an event at which I describe how I spend my time in ministry and then asks me what I do for a living, I cringe inside.  I wonder if I should find a job where others know what I’m doing.

Reflecting on the idea of occupation isolation highlights how much our identity within a community matters within our lives.  I like to think I’m above this need, but I’m not.  Wanting to be known and accepted is not necessarily a bad thing, we were made to live with and among other people.  Knowing that isolation is a concern in a job such as campus ministry, I’m now more actively seeking community and ways to define this work – instead of wondering what is wrong with me.

One last thing, there is an element of freedom in having the opportunity to define this ministry outside of normal structures.  In this liminal space there is the possibility of reaching others who are on the margins where God is at work in the places in-between.

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A Writing Reminder – Courtesy of Wendell Berry

Is there a neat process for writing?  Something that could fit into a daily routine and be crossed off a to-do list?  I heard that ‘serious’ writers make time to write, sitting at the desk and honing their craft day after day.  So, wanting to be a ‘serious’ writer, this was my goal for the new semester. Wake up, write for two hours, edit, share it.

However, the last five weeks has shown this isn’t a panacea for solving writing roadblocks.  Maybe such a practice has worked for others and I should just keep on trying.  Yet, as I’ve tried to develop a regular practice, the time spent writing has dropped significantly and the heart of the content is slowly leaking away.  All I’m doing is trying to get a product out – and I’ve lost sight of the product.

It’s time to regroup.  To remind myself that writing comes not from a mechanical process alone, but out of the living of life.  Wendell Berry’s poem “How To Be a Poet” brings me back to this place.  Tomorrow morning I’ll return to the desk, bringing with me the sacred places I’ve encountered and the stories within them.

But for now, I’ll rest in this reminder and go for a walk outside.  Anyone want to join in?

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
 
i
 
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
 
ii   
 
Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   
 
iii   
 
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

 

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Does Prayer Count If it’s on Your To-do List?

Yesterday I was driving down the highway to work thinking about the things on my to-do list.  It didn’t seem that everything would fit into the hours before me, so I turned on the classical music station and started praying.  Not for God’s guidance in prioritizing my time, but because this was one of the items I needed to finish.

Maybe it would have been better to wait until I got to campus, shut my office door, and quietly prayed.  But I was already running late for a weekly Bible study with students and the rest of my day was scheduled.  So there I was praying on I-75.

But does this really count?  I wasn’t in the quiet of a church or felt particularly drawn by God’s spirit. I didn’t feel especially holy.  But I was praying.  Remembering students I’ve talked with over the past week, reflecting on the Bible passage I read in the morning, and being honest about my own failings – like praying at that moment in order to cross out an item on my task list.  And then when it’s crossed off, is that it for the day?

Some days that is the extent of my intentional praying as I get so wrapped up in other activities.  But many times, because it is on my task list, I will make a point to pray between student meetings.  Every so often I even shut my door and pray the hours or just take time to be silent.

As I read the biblical admonitions to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17) and to ‘seek God’s face’ (Psalm 105) – images of a calm and focused prayer life enter my mind.  A life in which I make time to engage with God throughout the day without having to be prodded to remember.  However, that’s not reality for me at this time.  Thus, prayer remains on the list so it can remain on my mind.

 

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Encountering a Childhood Story Again – Little Women

On the other side of the kitchen door a dining room table was set for supper and a piano stood in the corner ready for someone to play.  Later in the evening four sisters would wait in the parlor for people to attend their weekly open house.  If the oblong pillow on the black sofa was vertical, then the second oldest sister would be in a mood to talk.  Otherwise, it was better not to approach her.  Listening to the guide as I stood in the parlor at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, it was easy to imagine the lives of the four Alcott daughters that had inspired Louisa May Alcott to write Little Women.  I was reliving scenes I had read as an eight-year old child who desperately wanted to follow in Jo March’s footsteps – getting up plays, going to the big city, and writing.

Over thirty years ago I first read the novel, and over twenty years ago I first entered Orchard House.  Since then I’ve been exploring how stories, novels, places, and journeys come together.  It is great fun to look back at favorite stories – and to follow in their paths when possible.  Each time I’ve re-opened Little Women or re-entered Orchard House I have similar feelings of wanting to re-engage with my dreams – whether of writing, teaching, or just playing better.  I leave the house or close the book, ready to begin.

These journeys have played a role in choices related to schools, graduate study, research, and even a renewed practice of writing.  This blog can even be linked to it.  Many other women tell stories of their connection with this story.  It’s one of those books that people read expecting a merely a story about young girls.  Something you can easily return to the shelf when finished.  However, this book refuses to stay on the shelf.

Quotes like the following from Little Women keep me coming back.

“Why don’t you write?  That always used to make you happy, said her mother once, when the desponding fit overshadowed Jo.

I’ve no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things.

We do.  Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world.  Try, dear, I’m sure it would do you good, and please us very much.”

These and similar quotes provide for me a renewed imagination of what life can be.  Writing does make me happy when other things seem to be crashing in on life – but maybe for others it’s painting or building or teaching.  Whatever it is, being able to do it within a community – whether of family or a writing group – is a true gift and an opportunity for transformation.

Now I have an opportunity to share some of my ideas about the novel, the place, and pilgrimage with another audience – a small group who will hear me read a paper at a literature conference.  I wonder how this ‘little’ paper will be received in the midst of what I perceive as cutting edge literary work.  But does it even matter?  More importantly I would like my writing to be a conduit for people to find this or other stories and places that draw them to live more fully.

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Carrying Living Water in Good Conversations

What is it about good conversations that feeds our souls?  The past week has been one of good conversations in ministry and beyond.  I had thought my time was mostly spent on-line and in planning.  But then I looked back and I see seeds of community in these times of interaction as people connect and share their lives.

  • Around a dinner table.  Enjoying a meal and focusing on one conversation with twelve people.  One topic.  Play.  Listening to one another, adding ideas, questioning statements.  Feasting on this hour out of the week.   Another conversation a week later.  Less formal, but still nourishing as friendships grew by learning about one another.
  • In a coffee shop.  Sharing stories of travel.  Seeing the beginnings of a work to engage with God’s Word through illustrating the book of John.  Hearing stories of another’s faith journey and desire to minister.
  • At the office.  Learning about the spread of Christianity in India.  Empathizing with a student returning to school after a series of job losses.  Talking about a new film group starting up.
  • Throughout the art museum.  Guiding my nieces on a scavenger hunt through galleries.  Asking them what they are drawing in their notebooks.  Seeing and hearing their reactions to the art.  Sensing their excitement.
  • On the phone.  With colleagues in campus ministry encouraging and praying for one another.

Yes, this been an unexpected series of nourishing conversations.  “Like prayer, good conversation fashions words into vessels that carry living water” reads one of many reflections on the stewardship of words in Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  Without excessive planning, life and ministry this week has been less a series of tasks and more a growing stream of this living water.  Amen.

Where did you experience ‘living water’ conversations this past week?

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The Serious Matter of Play

Play.  How does it to connect to following Jesus or to graduate school?  Both are serious matters, right?  We don’t want to mess up with either, so play should be the last thing on our minds.  Or should it?

UC Christian Grads started their series of monthly table talks with a conversation on this topic.  Not because I play well and have a lot of wisdom to share, but because I’m pretty bad at it.  I’m often putting off seeing a movie, contacting friends, or just taking time to rest and read because work needs to be finished.  It turns out that several people around the table also admitted to not often including play in their lives – or feeling guilty because of it.

Our jumping off point of discussion was David Naugle’s short essay on “A Serious Theology of Play” along with Marilyn Chandler McIntyre’s chapter on play in the book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  Both writers explore how play is a natural part of life.  We see it in God’s act of creation, in the actions of children, the practices of Sabbath and festivals, and even Jesus’ lifestyle.

Throughout the conversation we attempted to define what play is – does it have to be separate from work, does it need to include a purpose?   Or, maybe play is play because there is no end goal?  We also mentioned how play can be and is abused in society as it becomes a cathartic event following pressured work patterns.  Anything is acceptable as long as that steam is let off.  Of course, students mentioned how difficult it is to play in the world of the academy – though some did see part of their work as play.  In the end, everyone affirmed that play and some type of rest is a vital part of life’s rhythm.  Though, because it can be difficult to practice, several students  affirmed that it’s necessity to plan time for play and rest.

Looking back on it, this conversation was its own form of play.  Sitting around, enjoying a meal, and relishing community, it was an evening to rest after a week of work.  It was also a place at which participants could trust one another and throw out ideas without the fear of needing to be right.

As we closed we shared what we were looking forward to this weekend and then read Psalm 98 together – providing yet more images of play within creation.  Without formal prompting many in the group even planned a time of play for the following day – frisbee golf and walking in a local park.

Naugle ends his essay stating

“If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognized aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsches of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.”

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that UCCG danced that evening, recognizing and sharing in the life of a God who does the same – and it was a real joy.

Where and how do you play?  Is it part of following Christ?

 

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Clinging to the Lighthouse . . . and Missing the Light

I didn’t take time to think, just entered the front door and started up the 100+ metal stairs.  Step by step I quickly moved around the spiraling staircase.  People passed, but I kept going.  If I stopped, who knew what would happen?  I reached the door, opened it against the press of the wind, and walked out.  Looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, I was at the top of the Tybee Island Light Station.  Brilliant reflections of the sun shone off the water.  The blue sky allowed a virtually unobstructed view.

Immediately I sensed I would fall.  I wouldn’t be able to hold on. How could I be up this high?  My knees buckled.  To move around the walk I held on to the lighthouse, as far from the railing as possible.  If I stepped over there I may fall off.  Even now my heart sinks merely remembering it.  Would the structure topple?   My head knew this would not happen, but . . .

Once I made my way down the stairs and reached the ground, my muscles were shaking and it took awhile for my breath to reach a normal rate.  What had just happened?  For centuries this lighthouse has been a source of direction and safety for travelers up and down the Atlantic Coast as they entered the Savannah River.  It provided guidance.  It has stood strong.  But for me, it became a center of fear.

This physical experience isn’t unlike that which I encounter on an almost weekly basis.  I may not be climbing physical heights – but in my attempt to plan and get out in the world I hit this place of fear many times and I grasp back for a solid support instead of walking out towards the unknown.

I eagerly prepare to facilitate a discussion or give a talk with images of engaging the audience with questions and interaction.  Then when I stand in front of the group I freeze and hold on to the solid structure of the presentation – not venturing toward messy interaction with the people in front of me.

Or, I think about getting out into the city more often.  So I look for activities, plan, even RSVP to friends’ invitations.  Then I wonder what will happen.  I can’t spend the time.  I must work.  I’m tired.  I come up with many excuses to remain close to the supports I know.  All the while knowing there is something beyond that my even supports are  pointing towards.

As I cling to a support, I don’t trust it’s purpose enough to let go.  Instead I treat it more as a chain.  This even happens as I cling to Jesus Christ – which we’re supposed to do, right?  But we are to walk the path that he lights, not grasp the light source and hide our eyes.

This week I think I will venture a little further from the lighthouse and explore where the light is shining.  Who’s with me?  There’s a lot out there.

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Praying on the Journey

What does praying look like on the journey?  At various meetings, with students and other campus ministers, I hear the common refrain of needing and wanting to pray more – and of desiring prayer to be more than yet another task to check off that daily list.

Personally, at times I use prayer as a crutch to get through the day.  Or, more often, I forget about it.  I will get around to it when work is done and I have time.  When I talk with students about prayer I point to the ideal in the Bible, in books – but also share my own failings in this area.  That used to be where I left it.

Then last year, in my own desire for more consistent prayer, I asked three graduate students to join me each week for 30 minutes to gather on campus, look at God’s Word, and pray.  Nothing over-planned, just time out of our regular schedules to spend time with God.

I’ll admit that I”m not always into praying when noon on Tuesdays comes around.  I could be finishing a work project or reading.  But the time is set aside, so I go, never knowing what to expect.  I’m surprised at how long this has continued – even through the summer.

This week we spent time looking at Paul’s two verses of greeting to the Ephesians.  We noticed the number of times Jesus Christ was mentioned in this one sentence, the encouragement he gave the Ephesians by calling them faithful, and the extension of God’s grace and peace to this young church.  This grace is that of God.  Yet, through the very act of sending the letter Paul is also expressing a grace.

Wow.  In the midst of UC’s food court God’s Word was coming alive – and this led into prayer as we each longed for God’s grace to work through us in the relationships we have at work, with friends, and with God.

In this group, God’s Word meets us where we are each day, in the midst of life.  We take time to pray for ourselves and the needs we have.  But we also take time to pray outside, to pray for the campus, and even to be quiet.

I’m now wondering how we can increase the space for prayer.  Do we invite more people, start more groups?  Perhaps make prayer a more natural part of gatherings – not something only a ‘qualified’ leader can guide.  Or that only people comfortable praying in a group can do.

What I don’t want to do is turn this into another program, but instead build a community of pray-ers steeped in God’s Word in the world.  It’s time to pray . . .

 

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A New Year, a New Anxiety

Last year a week after the term began I was anxious because not many new students had attended welcome week activities.  A few here and there, but not the level that brought the possibility of building the groups with new participants.  I was deflated and kept wondering how to draw in people.

My strategic planning hat was on and I have to admit my focus was not so much on Christ or the students, as it was on having large enough groups so that it looked like my work was succeeding.  “I” was definitely too much of the focus.

Now, a year later, I am anxious again.  This time not because of too few students, but because of the many new students that I met last week – and their excitement in ministry. Part of me wants to celebrate and can’t wait to share these attendance numbers with others.  But then I stop.  Too much of me once again.

Prayers for missional students – students who may be interested in seeing God’s mission come to life on campus – and for students looking for community have been going up all summer.  Now it looks like God has provided.  Now what do I do?  In some ways getting students to an initial event is the easy part – as long as the information gets out.  Building relationships and involving them in the community is more difficult.

I’m going to have to step back from seeking to control and find ways to invite students in so that together we are in God’s ministry together.  Over the next weeks I think I’ll be spending time in one-on-one conversations, meeting students at coffee shops, and praying.  No longer can I just stand and observe how an event is going, how people are connecting, and how to do better next time.  I’ve got to go deeper.  It’s time to see where God is going with this.

 

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Holy Exhaustion

Days of new activities, students, planning can take a toll.  Starting with a midnight pancake breakfast and ending over a week later with a tour of Cincinnati – and with open houses, dinners, and meetings in between – outreaching to students in campus ministry is exhausting.  All I want to do is crawl in bed or curl up with a book.  But I must keep going during these first weeks so that students are aware of the ministry.

This isn’t easy when so many other things are vying for their attention – moving into dorms, finding their way to classes, buying books, wondering how their professors will grade, landing a job, preparing to teach, hanging out with friends.  Why would campus ministry be in the picture at all?  It’s difficult enough to juggle what is required to get that degree.  So, it appears the exhaustion is not only on my part.

Maybe there’s a way to connect with this mutual feeling.  How do we deal with this overload of activity?  Jesus promises that all who labor and are heavy laden will find rest in him (Matthew 11:28).   Exhaustion may bring us to that place where we can’t do anything but rely on God. But what does this look like today?

Campus ministry doesn’t have to be more club to join or responsibility to add to an already full schedule.  (Though, I will admit, many times it can feel like it and it’s tempting to call students to such a practice.)  No, such ministry can provide a way to see everything in our lives as a response to God’s grace.

Instead of fighting with the rest of the world to succeed, we can rest with our identity in Jesus. Whether students gather in small groups to pray, for worship, or even over a meal, together we can encourage one another to step out of the practices that are wearing us down and take up others that bring life.  More importantly, we can together look to the cross, the place where God wiped out everything that separates us from him.

Taking time to gather as Christians on campus doesn’t have to be just one more thing.  No, if done well, it points to the One who puts everything else in perspective and ultimately relieves our exhaustion.

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