10 July 2017

This small person God gave us

I'm not sure how I feel about being a Mom. I do know, though, that I love the small person God has given us to take care of. And for that I'm thankful.

We've been gifted with a cheerful little girl, and it's a great joy to watch her smile at me and others and begin to interact with the world around her.

03 June 2017

Learning to be an academic

An article on Inside Higher Education, "The Confessions - and Confusions - of a First-Generation Scholar," helped me reflect on my own academic journey.

I would categorize the family I grew up in to be very much in the "not academic" category. We were down-to-earth blue collar folks, a family who worked hard simply to make ends meet. We had few books in the house, and the fact that I wanted to read all the time was seen as strange. Most of those I went to school with were also children of blue-collar types, and I learned to hide my high grades from classmates because it would only ruin my already disastrous social standing.

Going to college and then Seminary introduced me to families + situations that were vastly different, and there was a phase when I was jealous of other people's families because I seemed not to have fit so well into mine. I am thankful that phase has long since passed, and even though I sometimes wish I could carry on a coherent conversation with Matthijs about classical music, I am deeply grateful for my family, especially the love of laughter and life skills that they taught me (and continue to teach me, such as buying a house and taking care of a baby).

I have sometimes beaten myself up that I haven't already finished my PhD: it shouldn't be taking so long since I'm smart enough and lots of other people finish earlier. I don't think it ever occurred to me to see a correlation between my non-academic family and my current academic progress (or why, at forty, I am not currently a tenured professor somewhere). Yet, this article argues that there is a correlation, which then also helps me extend a bit more grace to myself and my (lack of) accomplishments in this area.

One section that especially stood out to me is Herb Childress's description of his own academic progress:
"I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1989, at the age of 31. Had I come from a college family, I’d have finished my Ph.D. by the time I was 31. Had I come from an academic family, I’d have had half a chance of being tenured at 31."
It is those words that gave me the sense that perhaps my failure to complete my PhD before now was not simply about incompetence on my part. Perhaps more played a role, including the possibility that I had brought with me to the academy the sense that I did not belong - a sense that would only have been compounded by being a female in a predominantly male field and studying at a foreign university. 

Childress's words regarding how first generation scholars often do not fit well either in their home community or their academic community also resonated with me:
Every first-generation scholar becomes the butt of jokes about not knowing how to do some task like replace a toilet gasket or stack firewood, how to make a good pie crust or a tortilla, because our labor doesn’t really look like labor.. . .
As with any immigrant community, naturalized scholars are never quite welcome in their new homeland, either. We study the habits, master the vocabulary, serve on yet another committee. .  . We take nothing for granted; we always think our cover will be blown, our ruse revealed, our passport revoked. My first-generation colleagues tell me that they can never allow themselves to be seen as “that farm girl,” the former truck driver or warehouseman, pretending to be scholars like little children wearing their parents’ shoes. We master the camouflage that keeps us hidden and safe. We smooth out our jarring regional accents, stop telling jokes, take up skiing rather than snowmobiling. We are double agents."
The words also make me realize that it is perhaps not so strange that I've found a fit within campus ministry. Not only do those words above describe the unease of first generation academics, they also can be applied to some of the unease that Christians feel when they go into the academic community - or when academics become part of local Christian churches. 

31 May 2017

Learning to work with men

Billy Graham is known for his rule not to ever be alone with a woman who is not his wife. Vice-president (US) Pence came up in the news awhile ago, as he had adapted a variation of it.

As much as I can admire the intent behind the rule (to limit falling into sexual sin), it's not a rule I condone or appreciate as a female who is both a pastor and struggling biblical scholar. Most of the people in my field and my line of work are male, especially the ones having more power and authority. If I'd had to hold to this rule - or had my many mentors along the way who'd held to it - I would never be where I am now, having been challenged and encouraged by so many men up to this point.

Tish Harrison Warren, in an article at the Well puts it better than I could:
"I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for meeting with me — some of you years ago, some of you last week — to disciple me, befriend me, love me, and honor me as a fellow follower of Christ and as a human being."
She goes on to describe the specific situations and persons who had encouraged and honoured her. My list would be similar, so I will simply say 'Amen' to what she has said, including her final words that point out the sexism that this rule perpetuates:
"Thank you for seeing me as someone worthy of love and investment, and not simply as a temptation to avoid. Mostly, I thank you for seeing me as a human being, God’s image bearer, who, like you, needs Jesus and pastors and friends and good conversation over coffee.Your impact on my life is clear to me each and every day. And I thank God for you."

29 May 2017

Why I bike

I'm going through old drafts, editing and posting them. I haven't been biking lately since my bike is malfunctioning (and having a baby is not so conducive to biking), but editing these words remind me of why I miss biking.

In Amsterdam I biked because it was the fastest, most efficient way to get most places. In Lansing, though, almost everything is faster and easier with a car. Yet, Matthijs and I both choose to bike here. We do it because it's cheaper - parking on Michigan State's campus is expensive, as is car insurance and upkeep for a second car. Biking also means that I don't have to deal with many of the annoyances of rush-hour traffic or finding parking on campus. And it's a great means for me to get exercise.

As much as those are all good reasons, what I like most about biking here is how it allows me to get to know my neighbours and people around me. Because I bike by often enough, I know the house down the street with numerous cats: one is almost always sitting on the porch (I've also bumped into a raccoon near there). I can tell you when the water level has risen so high that it crosses the River Trail near Kalamazoo Street. I've greeted numerous people on their porches or walking or biking (many people will smile or say hi). I've even bumped into some of Campus Edge's grad students along my route and enjoyed a short conversation to catch up on how things are. I expect yelling hello to a neighbour's husband as I biked by after dark while he was putting out his garbage was less appreciated, but that, too, creates memories and appreciation of my neighbourhood.

Hopefully I'll be back on my bike soon, but for the next little while, I will have to make do with learning to know and love the neighbourhood more through walking and other means (The Banner magazine has a good article about hospitable neighbourhoods that I can use as food for thought). And my enthusiasm for learning to know the neighbouurhood better has been increased by the wonderful discovery that people are even more apt to greet me when I'm pushing a baby buggy.

28 May 2017

A Sort of Sabbath

On good days, I joke about how the majority of my day is filled with either feeding the baby or trying to figure out how she (and I) can get enough sleep. In the few remaining hours of the day, I can read, eat, go for walks, spend time with Matthijs and others, do laundry, and even work on a random project.

Bad days are when all I can think about is figuring out how and when I can sleep. In the minutes and hours before I find sleep again, I am mostly overwhelmed and/or praying that the little one will quiet down. Thankfully, there have been few bad days - just a couple of hours every few days.

While the list of things at the end of the first paragraph resembles some kind of Sabbath, the second does not. Having a small person, irrelevant of how much I love her, determine every hour of the day what I can and cannot do (especially with regard to sleep) definitely does not feel like any kind of Sabbath. And yet.

Dorothy Bass, in her book Receiving the Day, talks about how keeping Sabbath teaches us to step back and remember that it is not by our own efforts that things happen. God does not need us to do things (cf Psalm 127:1). By taking a break from the ministry of Campus Edge, I am trusting that those that God has put in place in the ministry will do a good job and I am living out of the conviction that God does not need me for the ministry to flourish.

And I am learning that having baby makes time and accomplishments look different. By necessity, I feel like I've learned to accept graciously all those things that can't and don't get done. At the same time, I've delighted in the things that could get done - like reading BrenĂ© Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Brown talks about wholeheartedness and worthiness and learning to accept yourself, irrelevant of what you've accomplished. The following are two quotes that begin to express this:
“Worthiness doesn't have prerequisites.”
"Here's what is truly at the heart of wholeheartedness: Worthy now, not if, not when, we're worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.”
Maternity leave might be a strange time for these lessons to sink in further, but I expect that there will be no shortage of lessons that God is able to teach me through the entrance of this child in our lives.

24 April 2017

Adding an identity, instead of changing one

As I near the end of my pregnancy, my joy in getting to meet the small person has increased, but I still have mixed feelings about becoming a parent. Part of the mixed feelings come from my sense that I've never really seen myself as the mom type. I have been open to having children, but I've also been fairly content not having a children (a feeling I considered gift when I was still single at 30).

I have no desire to stop being who I am - a pastor, biblical scholar, wife, friend, Christian - in order to become a mom. Or even to replace one of those identities with the 'mom' category. As much as I expect that I will deeply love our child - because of God's grace and the calling God's given Matthijs and me, I also don't expect that I will all of a sudden start becoming excited about babies in general.  So one of the things I wondered about through the months of pregnancy was how I would add another identity - that of Mom - especially when church culture seems to see being a Mom as taking over one's entire identity (and becomes one's sole and/or primary calling). And especially when academia tends to see being a Mom as being incidental or inconvenient.

I'm thankful to have encouraging mentors along the way: these past months I've had lots of good conversations with women who have 1-2 children and work and love their job. Online there have also been encouraging examples, such as an interview with Katharine Hayhoe where she talks about the challenges related to children: "Having a family is hard. Having a dual-career family is even harder. And the reality is that the more kids we have, the harder it is. One is very portable, two are manageable, three becomes more challenging, and four... well, with four you have to consider that at least one person’s career has to be full-time parenthood for a while."

The part of the interview that I found most encouraging was reading about her disastrous trip when she went without her 2 month child to an important conference:
it was a miserable experience: sleep deprived, still coping with some horrendous health issues and surgeries that had followed the baby, just trying to find a place in the airport where I could pump, taking milk through security. It’s more accepted now, but back then they were like, "What is this? I don't know if you're allowed to take this through," and that was when I lost it. I have a vague memory of screaming something along the lines of, "I squeezed every single ounce from my body! And you are not going to take it!" in the TSA line. It was ridiculous. 
I don't find it at all hard to imagine myself doing the exact same thing. And when I can imagine myself relating to her at a low time in her experience with being parent plus everything else, I find it a lot easier to imagine that I, by God's grace and with Matthijs's gracious and wonderful help, will be able to know best how to take on the calling of parent while not forgetting or neglecting the other things God has called me to be and do.

11 April 2017

Thoughts from Bolz-Weber on Good Friday

As we approach Good Friday, I wanted to share the following quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber about Good Friday:

"Good Friday is not about us trying to 'get right with God.' It is about us entering the difference between God and humanity and just touching it for a moment. Touching the shimmering sadness of humanity's insistence that we can be our own gods, that we can be pure and all-powerful. . . . Good Friday is a stark and unapologetic display of remorse. Remorse for the way in which humanity kills ourselves and the creation and love and God him/herself."                           Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints, 140-1.

17 March 2017

A different way to follow God

Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article articulating how her unanticipated childlessness has allowed her to be used by God in ways that she hadn't expected. As she puts it, "The contributions God has allowed me to make to the church and the world are contributions specific to being a woman, and, further, a woman without children."

I found her words both encouraging and challenging to read.

As one who spent my twenties single and my thirties childless, it is an article that resonates with me.  The church has often seemed to be very enthusiastic about people getting married and having children, and not as enthusiastic about other possibilities. It is thus deeply encouraging to hear someone share the following words, proclaiming the good of a different way of following God.
"The church often doesn’t know what to do with those who—whether by circumstance, conscience, choice or simply through the brokenness of creation—fall outside the mold that shapes this ideal of family life. There is an unspoken assumption that this failure to fit the pattern is just that—a failure. To be sure, sometimes we break the mold by our choices, even our sins. But ours is a God of great imagination and infinite surprises. He sometimes calls us out of the standard mold and into a new one."
At the same time, I also found the article challenging. As Prior puts it, "While it’s certainly true that our passions and talents hint at our calling, God sometimes calls us to things we don’t want to do and don’t have a knack for." I am not so good at appreciating God asking me to take a different path than what I had expected, no matter how good it might be or how much it might honour God and bless others (and myself.)

15 March 2017

Galavanting in Michigan

To celebrate Michigan State's Spring Break and take a break from normal life, Matthijs and I spent some time galavanting through Michigan last week. We spent a day in Detroit, explored Portland and Ionia, and spent some time in downtown Grand Rapids.

Below are some highlights:
- We explored the Detroit Historical Museum. I appreciated especially the Gallery of Culture, as it gave a glimpse of some of the more complicated history of Detroit, including some of the riots and violence that gave Detroit its strongly negative reputation. The role of sports was also intriguing, as it brought people together while also appearing to be a way to avoid the racism, poverty, crime, and other troubles of the city.
- We bumped into The Whitney, a gorgeous 1890's mansion close to the museum. We came during happy hour, so lunch upstairs at the bar was not only enjoyable but also affordable.
- We explored the Detroit Public Library with its gorgeous architecture and artwork.
Ionia Courthouse
- And then we stopped at Ikea on the way home because there were a couple of household things we wanted to pick up, and we ended up also getting a desk for Matthijs - one where the height adjusts, so he can actually get his knees under it in a comfortable way.
- We discovered that Portland, MI, isn't all that exciting: however, it has great paths both for walking and biking.
- Ionia, MI has a bit better architecture, as evidenced by this lovely house for sale and the picture at the side of the courthouse.
- Ionia, however, has nothing on Grand Rapids, especially the Heritage Hill area where we spent the night (see Logan house at the side and a map of Heritage hill houses that we followed for as long as we could handle the cold).
Logan house (plus a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish house beside it)
- We saw the musical Ragtime. The production was very well done, and it led to a couple of fascinating conversations about how the musical (and the early 1900s) has a lot of connections with today: the place of immigrants, the role of women, one's place in society, racism, and even the role of sports as both a distraction and something that draws people together.

The break was good, as was the opportunity to explore and delight in new places.

13 March 2017

Bolz-Weber on the danger of becoming closer to God

Several weeks ago I picked up Nadia Bolz-Weber's Accidental Saints (2015). It was good - the kind of book that reminds you of the joys and challenges of trying to notice how God is working in the world around us and in and through each of us.
The following struck me as being profound:

"I [Nadia] was asked by an earnest young seminarian during a Q &A, 'Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God?'
Before I even realized I was saying it, I replied, 'What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.' Half the time, I wish God would leave me alone. Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money. It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away."                              page 8.
I appreciate her honesty in naming the danger in becoming closer to God. Oftentimes as Christians we talk about how we ought to and can become closer to God but neglect to mention the cost of opening ourselves up to God.

Matthijs and I own both of her books, and we'd be happy to lend them out for others to read. 

20 February 2017

Paying attention to the details in a story

At Campus Edge we've just started looking at the Elijah and Elisha stories. These are wonderfully odd texts, so it makes looking at them more closely both useful and interesting. There's much to discover, as was made more obvious when I started reading Thomas L Brodie's The Crucial Bridge, which has pointed out a lot of the details and patterns in the text. I was so excited about what I'd been reading that I shared the insights with Matthijs, and I am looking forward to sharing them in the studies I lead.

It always fills me with delight when I can understand the Bible better because someone passes on what they've learned from paying attention to the text. Alan Jacobs's recent reflections on Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God is another example of someone whose paying attention has filled me with delight and has made me wonder further about what the Bible actually says. Jacobs suggests that, on the basis of what is actually written in the text, Solomon's building of the temple was more his idea than God's. It's a fascinating thought - not one that had occurred to me before, but one that does correspond to the disquiet I've had about Solomon and his holiness: how could someone so wise and dedicated to God spend so much more time building his own palaces than God's temple and be so led astray by all of his wives?

I encourage you to read all of Jacobs's thoughts about the building of the temple - both David's role in it and Solomon's role. He argues that it was Solomon's idea to build a temple, and that the temple was even a misunderstanding of what God wanted. Jacobs notes:
Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.
God wasn't interested in a temple: he was interested in obedience. The prophets would reiterate this idea years later. According to Jacobs, 
Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.
This fascinates me because it echoes the claim that Israel seems to have: You, God must do something for us, at least partly because we have this temple and we sacrifice to you. (Or because we took your ark with us - cf. 1 Samuel)
Jacobs concludes with the following: 
I don't mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at  what I have done for you! Aren't you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since "this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.
I don't think it takes much effort to recognize how we often relate to God in the same way: Look at how good I have been - therefore you must bless me. Fascinating how a close reading in the text can be verified by other texts and can also help us recognize some of our own bad theology.

13 February 2017

A prayer

I was asked to do the congregational prayer in church yesterday, as well as to do the offering announcement (for Campus Edge). As part of Campus Edge's mission to encourage the development of community, this semester we've been studying love and sexuality, recognizing how hard it is for us to be a loving community to each other, especially in the area of sexuality where there has been a lot of hurt both from and within the Christian community. As part of Campus Edge's desire to do intellectual inquiry, we've been studying the book of Ecclesiastes and its sometimes too realistic view of how difficult and meaningless life can seem. These aspects of the ministry are included in the following prayer, as well as other prayer concerns related to university life.

Almighty God, we come before you with our thanks and our concerns. We thank-you for the work that you are doing in this church and in the ministry of Campus Edge. We know that you have been guiding this church as we remember our identity. We trust that you will continue to be with us and with the calling you have given us and the people you have given us to encourage. 

We pray for the world. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by what is happening in the news. We pray for those areas affected by war and famine, shootings and floods. We think especially of Yemen, Somalia, Israel-Palestine, and especially Syria. Bring comfort to all those who are suffering in these places. May those fleeing their homes find a safe place to continue their lives and may these countries become once again places where people can flourish. 
We pray also for all those who are foreigners in this place – we think especially of the international students at Michigan State. We pray especially for strength, comfort, and wisdom to those whose connections to home and their own futures feel more precarious because of the recent travel ban. 

We bring before you the church. We pray for the wider church and how our witness to You is tarnished by all the ways we fight with each other about what it means to follow Christ, especially when it comes to things we are passionate about, like politics. Help us to work together to take care of the weakest among us and to protect each other from danger. 
We pray specifically for the work of your church at MSU. We pray for those who attended the apologetics event with Ravi Zacharias – may it lead to further questions and people knowing you more. We pray for all the ministries, including Campus Edge, reaching out to those on MSU's campus: that we might provide places where people find fellowship and support as well as space to ask questions about faith and know You better. 

We bring before you the communities of which we are a part. We pray for our families and friends, for the community of this church, for those participating in Campus Edge, and for the wider community of Michigan State. We pray for the illnesses and suffering that we know about and for those things we don't know about – whether that be surgeries or cancer, financial troubles or relationship troubles. Whether the suffering be physical, emotional, or spiritual. 
We pray especially for those who are questioning You – that they might not feel alone but instead be comforted by knowing that many before them – from the author of Ecclesiastes to numerous saints – have wondered about the purpose of life and your presence and role in it. 
We pray also for those for whom sexuality has been a burden and a cause of shame and suffering – whether that be infertility, pornography, one's relationship status, one's attractions to others, or other things that are simply too difficult to name. May they – may we all - know your grace in this complicated area of our lives. Give us the courage and wisdom to know how to be honest and open with each other, to listen well, encourage each other and to be a strong community to each other. 

Knowing that you hear all of our requests, we pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

14 January 2017

Un-sentimentalizing Jesus

Mary Vandenberg at her blog, Life, God, and other Mysteries, captured what I was trying to get at it in my desire to un-sentimentalize Christmas:
"Its fairly easy to worship the newborn king. The infant Jesus seems helpless and tame, his omni-attributes veiled beneath the chubby baby cheeks.

But what about the Jesus who rebukes evil spirits, tells the woman at the well to sin no more, and accuses his followers of being an “unbelieving and perverse generation”?

And what about the Jesus who instead of proclaiming peace on earth as our Christmas cards and carols proclaim, tells the people: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

Or how about the Jesus who reminds us that the cost of following him is rejection by the world? (Luke 9:23-24; John 15:18-19)

What will I do with all of Jesus – not just the warm and fuzzy parts – this year?"
I encourage you to read the rest of the blog (both this entry and previous entries).

13 January 2017

Jeremiah 29:11 in context?

The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire site, has a wonderful article on Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah 29:11 says "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (NIV). Many people find it inspiring and encouraging. Unfortunately, as the article seems to suggest, many find the verse to be more inspiring without paying attention to its context (exile and living in a foreign land). 

And so, in a recent turn of events, The Babylon Bee "reports" that

"“Everything except that super-encouraging verse is likely not canonical, added by a scribe at a later date,” one expert told reporters. “Apparently someone invented an entire fabricated context around the verse to give it additional depth and meaning, rather than letting it stand as the beautiful, context-less words of positivity and affirmation that Jeremiah originally intended.” . . .
At publishing time, scholars had also announced that a similar forgery had occurred in the book of Philippians, with chapter 4:13 being the only passage likely penned by the Apostle Paul."
from "Confirmed: Earliest Manuscripts Of Jeremiah Just Had Chapter 29 Verse 11."

It's nice to notice that I'm not the only one who gets frustrated by how this text often gets completely removed from its context. While the text is definitely one of hope and comfort, the comfort is primarily in the confirmation, not that God would make his people rich and have lives of comfort, but instead that God would be with his people despite all of the difficulties of their situation and as they did the unexpected: seeking the prosperity of the city in which they had been exiled (Jer 29:7).