Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Growing Up Well: Reconciling Piety and Engagement

The May/June 2008 issue of Relevant Magazine features key thinkers in the Christian community answering questions about “burning issues” like war, consumerism and homosexuality. Question number one is, “Is our focus on social justice out of balance?” A theme in the responses, particularly in comments made by Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne, is that social justice and evangelism should not be considered separate things that Christians need to attempt to “balance;” rather, they’re both part of an all-things, wholly encompassing faith in Jesus. Talking about balance assumes that one without the other can be complete. Wallis explains, “If we’re not calling people into deeper levels of personal relationship with God, we’re not taking the Gospel seriously. If we’re not engaging the world, bringing empowerment to the marginalized and addressing the specific injustices of our time, we’re also not taking the Gospel seriously. It’s that simple.”

For me, related to the question of balancing things that shouldn’t be separate in the first place is the false dichotomy of personal piety and cultural engagement. In my work with students at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I’ve met many Christian students who want to take personal piety and leave cultural engagement. These students, the Devotees, are kind and diligent and thoughtful. They attend chapel regularly and they strive toward daily disciplines like prayer and devotions. They are leaders in their dorm communities who readily head up mission trips and start Bible studies. I’ve also met many Christian students who want to take cultural engagement and leave piety. These students, the Engagers, tend to be well-read intellectuals with broad artistic taste. They like to do wonderfully nerdy things like discuss films and go to museums.

While both types of students are passionately living into a vision of Christian faithfulness, they’re both lacking a particular type of rootedness that threatens the fullness of their identity as followers of Christ. The Devotees have grown a deep taproot through scriptural study, service and spiritual disciplines, but lack the nutrients that can be gained by sending roots out into the soil around them, which eventually starves the whole tree. The Engagers, on the other hand, continue to send horizontal roots further and further out into their cultural context, but risk being blown over by a strong gust of wind because they have weak centering rituals reinforcing their primary story of faith.

Do you identify yourself with one of these types of believers? Most of us tend to have a bias one way or another, but a healthy, mature tree has both a strong tap root and diverse, widely spreading horizontal roots that help it flourish, different kinds of roots that all feed the same healthy organism. Mature believers, that is those who see the interconnectedness of all things in the Kingdom of God, contribute together toward a healthy, diverse forest of believers that serves the whole world as a manifestation of the Creator.

So how do we become such mature believers? Praying unceasingly might be a good place to start. And by unceasing prayer, I don’t mean only on our knees in the chapel where the Devotees might gravitate, or through exclusively intellectual exercise that is the specialty of the Engagers (though both activities have their places). Rather, unceasing prayer is a communal orienting of all of our branches and growth toward the Light. Eugene Peterson offers some clues about how to do this in The Message: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (from Romans 12:1). What would it look like if our choice of transportation to work were an offering to God? How could a meal itself—the shopping, the preparation, the eating—communicate our love for Jesus, in addition to a prayer of gratitude before we eat? What rituals can help us turn off some of the noise from both inside and outside of ourselves to discern the voice of the Spirit?

We all have unique callings in the Kingdom. However, what we all have in common is the call to devote our whole selves—heart, soul, mind and strength—to the God whose Kingdom has implications for every square inch of life. Personal piety and cultural engagement, social justice and evangelism are all aspects of, as Wallis puts it, “taking the Gospel seriously.”

--Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma and her husband Rob share the Research and Program Coordination position in the Student Activities Office at Calvin College.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Right Use of School Studies

"Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer… To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.

The second condition it to take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed, seeing how unpleasing and second rate it is, without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake or any of our tutor’s corrections, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great temptation to do the opposite… Most of us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation."

--Simone Weil (1909-1943), Waiting for God

Monday, June 8, 2009

Finding Calcutta and a FREE Book

One aspect of college life that is pretty central to the experience is reading. There’s a lot of reading that is (supposed) to go on during the university years. Recently, it seems, reading has taken a hit. According to some studies, fewer and fewer people, especially young people, are reading. This is sad. Books can be transformative.

One of the best books I read last year was Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service by professor Mary Poplin. I had a chance to interview her about the book and when the interview was finished this thought occurred to me: Finding Calcutta should be required reading for all college students. Poplin tells the story of spending a sabbatical with Mother Teresa, learning what it means to serve the poorest of the poor. Poplin then explains how she integrated that experience with her work as a university professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Finding Calcutta is a powerful story with this central theme: All work should be done in service to Jesus and others. That would include academic work as well as future occupations. This book has transformative power. It’s the kind of book that I wish I read in college. Here’s the good news: I have one to give away for FREE!

Here’s how it works: First, “comment” to answer the question below. Second, if there are more than 10 comments, I will select a winner randomly (I typically put all of the names in a hat or ask someone to pick a number between 1 and however many people commented). Third, I will announce the winner in the near future and explain how to receive the free book. Here’s the question:

What do think was the most important book(s) you read in college?

Please, only one comment per person.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Academic Fruits of the Spirit

While there is some overlap, the gifts of the Spirit that are listed by Paul (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4) display a considerable range. Add to those lists the gifts of craftsmanship given to Bezalel and Oholiab for the making of the tabernacle (Exodus 31), and a picture of God’s lavish and diverse generosity is revealed. I am convinced that the college years ought to be a time for students to discern and develop the gifts that they have been given. Unfortunately, educational institutions are generally designed to provide a common education, not gift discernment and distinctive opportunities for each peculiar student—like you.

Instead of developing an approach to education based on gifts, let me make a more modest proposal. Let’s imagine an approach to education based on the fruits of the Spirit. There is really only one passage that employs this phrase, the fruits of the Spirit, and that is Galatians 5:22. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. The Holy Spirit wants to produce these attributes, these virtues, in every believer. Can you imagine academic work with these virtues in full view—where our studying is done for the sake of love, and it is done with joy, and pursued patiently and kindly with others? And I don’t imagine that these are the only virtues that the Holy Spirit is interested in producing in us.

Recently I was talking to some students, and we were trying to imagine a different list of the fruits of the Spirit, one that Paul might have written (in our imagination) for an academic community. No doubt the fruits listed in Galatians 5 apply, but what other virtues do students need to develop in order to honor the Lord of learning? We came up with a couple, and perhaps you will be able to imagine a couple more.

Humility. People who think that they know everything are not prepared to learn anything. Good learning doesn’t begin until one becomes a student—curious, open, teachable.

Industry. Learning isn’t like falling off a log. Granted, we do learn a great deal quite effortlessly. But by the time college rolls around, most of what we are trying to learn requires a good bit of effort. Good students work hard.

Collegiality. Good students not only work hard, but they work together. A number of qualities need to come together for you to become a good partner in the learning process. Humility and industry, along with kindness and gentleness seem like a good start. But I imagine that you can have these qualities and still be a bit of a loner. Being collegial first requires this—valuing your partners.

Wonder. Too much learning is merely instrumental—to get a good grade, a good job, a little prestige. And much learning is certainly instrumental—to solve a problem, to reach a goal, to benefit a community. These are more selfless goals. In my experience, however, learning comes alive when it is not merely a means to an end. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—or so the Proverbs remind us over and over again. Awe and wonder before God, and in the playfield of all that God has made, adds a depth and richness to learning. Sadly, much about our own education has wrung the wonder right out of us. It isn’t too late to find it again.

It may seem strange to think about the connection between the Holy Spirit and academic work. I don’t think this connection is at all strange. In fact, I think that God’s Spirit loves to connect people to truth, and to the one who is the source of truth and wisdom and knowledge (John 14:6; Colossians 2:3).