Each year, my church hosts a “Student Welcome Sunday” at the beginning of the fall term. I’m picked to preach on that day, for obvious reasons. I’ve pasted below my sermon from this year, rooted in Philippians 3.
I’ve found that my sermons are becoming ever more “churchy.” Maybe that’s not the best adjective. What I mean is, the “application” portion often points toward the body of believers as being the tangible, earthly place to encounter the transforming grace of God. Maybe it’s my latent Catholicism, or something, but I’ve a much higher view of the institutional church these days, compared to my early twenties. I think it’s good though: A high view of the church is a strong way of rebutting the evangelical heresy that says you get to make God up on your own, with out a magisterium or tradition. It’s also a good antidote to the similar secular heresy: that you get to make *yourself* up.
Anyways, here ’tis:
The Race is On
Student Welcome Sunday – September 12, 2010
“It is we who are the circumcision.”
Not exactly the sort of slogan you’d see on a church sign as you drove past. “The Church in the Woods” is maybe a safer description, insofar as it might cause fewer traffic accidents.
But the language of circumcision meant a great deal to this fledgling Philippian church, and to Paul, who was, as we read, very well-versed in the ways of the Jewish people.
Paul is writing to combat some fashionable teaching that’s been taking place in Philippi. For some people – church historians call them “Judaizers” – the Gospel of grace found in Jesus Christ wasn’t sufficient. Especially not sufficient for the new Gentile members of the congregation. They needed more – a fleshy signifier that they were part of the fold – if they didn’t have Jewish ancestry, they’d at least have to endure the covenant ceremony of circumcision to set them apart and make them members of this community.
In the eyes of many of the Hebrew people of Paul’s day, the Gentiles were dogs. And it might not be hard to blame them for seeing things that way. After all, their holy homeland was occupied by an invading gentile empire, and their history in that land is composed of story after story of invading and marauding outsiders. But Paul flips the insult – he dubs the Judaizers to be dogs. And he does it because in their insistence on an outward sign of membership, they’ve joined ranks with the pagan outsiders who all find their confidence in their ethnicity and ancestry, in ancestral homelands and rituals, in their outward signs of who belongs. They’ve joined the ranks with their pagan neighbours who put all their confidence in the flesh.
And by confidence in the flesh Paul is certainly referring to the fleshy rite of circumcision, but it also to a broader sense of the term. A confidence that righteousness can be found in our own efforts, in our own capacities, and through our own will. Confidence in the flesh is a confidence that is placed in the creature, over against God. For Paul, the Torah of Moses ceased to be a revelation of God’s likeness to be lived out among God’s people, and had became mere human rules to be observed that parsed out who was in and out of the flock.
This is a scandal to Paul, because it is a firm and fast denial of the surpassing grace found in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it’s that surpassing grace of the Spirit of God which binds the fledgling Philippian church together, not any other standard they can conjure up themselves.
Nowadays we don’t put too much stock in circumcision. But we definitely have our own confidences in the flesh.
In an age where the grand stories of progress and enlightenment the “purpose of life” have crumbled, I think we’ve seen a turn inward – – a locating of confidence in the individual. I think one of the main assumptions in our culture is that we can figure out for ourselves the best way to live.
The story we tell ourselves is that we are each masters of ourselves, and that the morality of our behaviour is a non-issue, unless it hurts someone else. And if we choose what we want to do on our own terms, we’re flexing the muscles of our self-sovereignty. It’s as if the maxim “think for yourself” has been taken to its extreme — “think for yourself,” because it’s assumed that we each of us has all we need to be righteous. We can figure out for ourselves the best way to live.
We see this in the way we live sexually: We say, “it’s no one’s business who we sleep with, as long as it’s consensual.”
We see this in our economic lives: We say “the amount of money I make is no one’s business but my own.” “The amount of money I spend is no one’s business but my own.”
This is what counts as confidence in the flesh, in the year 2010.
And this confidence in the flesh thrives abundantly at universities. Back in 1850, the president of the University of Michigan wrote that the role of the university was to “contribute significantly to enhancing its cultural context by promoting beauty, culture, truth, and even moral leadership.”
How many of you were convinced to attend Laurier or UW because of the promise of beauty, culture, truth and moral leadership? I’m not trying to say that these things can’t be found at universities any more. But this is an age where market forces and lucrative research opportunities and moral relativism hold sway, they can be very difficult to find.
But universities don’t abandon all hope encouraging us to think about the best way to live. I know from talking with engineering students at UW that they’re required to take engineering ethics classes. And I imagine the same is true for business students, or medical students, and perhaps many of the other applied sciences.
But what if ethics classes are a bad idea? What if they’re a bad idea, because they encourage the people in the class to take themselves seriously as moral agents. In other words – they give life to notion that we all are capable of figuring out the best way to live?
That our hearts and wants and desires are already in the right place?
That they’re fit to deliberate on ethical problems, and come up with a righteous and moral solutions. What if ethics classes are a bad idea, because they encourage a false confidence in the flesh that’s so pervasive in our culture? That they tell you that you can make up your mind about something, even if you don’t have a mind worth making up yet?
The trouble with ethics classes is that they bring us back to where we started – that we all can figure out the good life for ourselves. What if a better lesson, for the people in the class, was that they’re not yet properly formed to think well about such things?
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that moral good is not available to any intelligent person no matter what his or her point of view. Instead, he says that in order to be righteous, to come to know what’s true and good, a person has to be made into a particular kind of person. In other words, transformation is required if one is to be righteous at all. And this means there’s no account of the moral life that doesn’t involve conversion.
No doubt, the Apostle Paul would agree 100%.
That’s why he considers all his confidence in the flesh to be a loss. He has no confidence in the fleshy righteousness he had achieved in days gone by. Because after meeting Christ, Paul has changed. Things are different, and the old way of doing things isn’t intelligible anymore.
Paul knows Jesus now, and this is no mere head knowledge. Knowing Jesus doesn’t mean just nodding your head to the proposition “Jesus is Lord.”
Paul tells us that to know Christ means to experience him – to be transformed by the power of his resurrection, and shaped by sharing in his suffering.
To know Jesus is not to reflect on some luminous moral principles, but to be refashioned, from the inside out.
To know Jesus is to gain insight that subverts the confidence we place in our own flesh.
Paul is quick to proclaim, however, that this isn’t the ticket to righteousness at the snap of a finger. Using himself as an example, he tells us that being transformed by Jesus Christ isn’t instantaneous. It’s the vocation of a lifetime – “a long obedience in the same direction,” as Friedrich Nietzsche would say.
In fact, contrary to the culture that says we all have what we need to be moral, Paul says that the truly mature person realizes that they don’t have what it takes. It’s the truly mature person who presses on toward the goal, and strain toward honing a righteous life.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas describes the development of the Christian life as similar to being trained in a craft. He was raised among brick layers, and worked as an apprentice himself. He says (in a slight paraphrase):
“To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it, or figure it out yourself. You’ve gotta learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. It’s not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar. In order to lay brick you must hour after hour, day after day, lay brick.”
In fact, when you’re learning to be a bricklayer you are not just learning a craft, but you’re being initiated into a history that’s bigger than yourself. There are techniques and disciplines and practices and an entire language that apprentices inherit. And this takes time. It takes patience. It takes endless effort. It takes becoming not just someone who has an idea about how bricks are laid, but being transformed into someone who lives it out – who understands it intuitively and automatically. Someone who has been shaped and formed to respond wisely to the different tasks and problems that the trade presents.
“But what this indicates most of all is that to lay brick you must be initiated into the craft of bricklaying by a master craftsman.”
This is exactly what Paul tells us in verse 12, where he speaks of pressing on to take hold of the goal. The only guarantee that he’ll ever take hold of what’s ahead is because Jesus Christ has already taken hold of him. It’s Jesus’ firm hand on his shoulder that gives him (and us) the grace to strain on ahead, to run the Christian race with integrity and joy. And when our own confidence in our flesh finally fails us, we find the master craftsman Jesus, pushing ahead next to us, his grace sufficient to carry us through.
The race is on.
And the good news for those of us who’ve no confidence in our own flesh: it’s a race we get to run together.
In fact, that’s the only way to do it. Because Jesus has given each and everyone of us the gift of a load of other people that we call church. A gathering of people who live according to the pattern that God has given them. To be sure, the church is imperfect, cracked, and flawed. But it still bursts at the seams with saints, and master craftsmen and women. People who know the language of faith. Who live out the disciplines and hone their craft according to the grace that has been given them. Folks who know something of what it means to practice resurrection. Folks who are acquainted the sufferings of Jesus.
And it’s in this group of people we call church that we can learn to hone the difficult task of being a Christian. Where we’re made into the kind of people we ought to be. Where we learn:
The tricky craft of confessing our sins to one another.
The art of prayer.
The selfless labour of charity.
The joyful practice of worship.
The formative discipline of loving our enemies.
The grammar of faith, of love, and of life together.
As Paul says: it’s in here we can find folks who know the pattern. May we joyfully take note of that.
And may the master craftsman Jesus Christ transform our hearts so that we find the abundant righteousness that comes from life in the Spirit.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Take a Subversive Sabbath
When I was a kid, Sundays were really, really quiet. Not a lot happened. We went to church, we came home and ate lunch, and then took a nap, or otherwise lounged around the house. The point was to do as little work as possible, because it was the sabbath. It’s not like there was a lot to do, anyways. The malls were closed, and the general bustle of the work week had more or less vanished.
My tradition contains a lot of sabbath seriousness. A middle-aged woman I know once told me about a scorching hot July afternoon she remembered from her childhood. She and her friends sought to beat the heat by jumping in the pool. The problem was, it was Sunday, and her parents weren’t sure that swimming was acceptable sabbath behaviour. After much discussion, her parents decided on what they deemed to be the most ethical solution: the kids could swim, but they had to be careful not to splash.
From our present perspective, stories like this seem laughably quaint. There was a seriousness – a legalism, even – about those sabbath practices, and, for the most part, they’ve disappeared from our collective practice.
But I’m not sure that we’re better for it. I’m not one to get wistful for the restrictive legalism of yore, but I do think it’s incredibly important to reclaim the discipline of the sabbath, or at the very least, the philosophy behind it. I say this, because a healthy sabbath observance isn’t restrictive at all, but profoundly liberating.
It’s a peculiar myth of our age that we are somehow more “free” when we can set our own schedules, choose to work seven days a week, or go to the mall each or every day. After all, it’s our choice, isn’t it? If I want to work relentlessly, or consume on demand, any time of the week, why should my freedom to do so be limited?
I’d wager that this isn’t reflective of true freedom at all, but rather a kind of indentured service to the market economy. The paramount values of that economy are growth, profits, and consumption. The pursuit of these values has given us a workaholic culture, and the resulting negative fallout: stress, fatigue, substance abuse, broken relationships, and the dissolution of a healthy boundary between work and rest.
I think university culture has bought into this quite effectively. Consider our rationale for attending university: how many of us are here for the sheer love and luxury of learning, in hope of becoming a better person, or because we can’t resist the thrill of engaging with great books and great minds? I’d say those reasons are far behind the primary motivation: to get a job.
So we work. We cram. We endure late, late night study sessions, and exams taken with caffeine jitters. We stress out about whether we’re going to get kind of grades that will make us competitive in the job market. And, strangely, we boast about our workaholism. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve run into people across campus and when I ask them how they’re doing, they say “busy.” I’ve said it myself. It’s indicative of a cultural obsession that “busy” seems to be the most appropriate adjective we use to describe ourselves.
This isn’t the way things ought to be. We’re not created to be workaholics, to be the kind of people who slavishly strive for the values of the market economy. The Judeo-Christian tradition has recognized this fact from its earliest days, which is why sabbath rest is such a fundamental component of what it considers to be a life well lived. It affirms that the sabbath is written into the very order of creation, meaning it reflects a deeper reality amid the bustle of the cosmos.
Want to subvert your capitalist overlords (or maybe just your own workaholic tendencies)? Then do nothing. For one whole day a week, do absolutely no work. It might be hard at first, but you may soon come to know the taste of a truer freedom.
No Doubt? No Thanks!
There’s a story in the New Testament where Jesus happens upon a man whose son is afflicted with terrifying convulsions. The man is, understandably, quite distraught. Jesus, enigmatic as ever, tells him that his son will be healed, if he has faith. The man, in response, cries out “I have belief! Help my unbelief!”
I love the man’s response, because I think it captures an essential quality of the life of faith: that it is mingled with doubt. This might not be obvious, given the way people talk about faith these days. On one hand, there’s a whole host of “New Atheist” types who misinterpret faith as something “blind” – untroubled by countervailing evidence, and free of those doubting dark nights of the soul. On the other hand, I often run into Christians who are excessively rationalistic, relying on empirical or positivistic foundations for their belief. Of course, faith and reason are, in many respects, good friends; in fact, they depend on each other. Yet it seems a certain segment of the faithful are looking to remove doubt and equivocation by positing overly-rational justification for belief.
I don’t think that I’m any less committed than they are to the great claims of Christianity. But I can’t declare – at least in a way that would satisfy a fastidious lab assistant – that there’s empirical proof for them. In fact, I think I would do my faith a disservice by trying to do so. To argue that my deepest beliefs are at core empirically demonstrable also makes them vulnerable to empirical critique.
I do, however, think I understand the impulse to want to have rational or empirical “proof” for faith. Doubt can be a brutal adversary, a faith-killer, the very thing that keeps you sleepless during those dark nights of the soul. Yet maybe the potential exists for doubt to be put to good use, to actually have some sort of positive effect in a life of faith. I’m coming to terms with the idea that I need to make doubt my friend, because as far as I can tell, it’s always going to be with me, so we might as well get along.
I’ve heard that Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed his faith was “formed in a great furnace of doubt.” I’ve always liked that claim, for its eloquence, but also for the comfort I get from knowing that one of the most luminously intelligent Christians wrestled with doubt. It makes me feel better about my own seasons where I’m unable to shake off the skepticism. I’ve always taken Dostoevsky’s “furnace” metaphor as a description of the pain of doubt – how it can burn intensely and unrelieved – and I imagine that’s the way he meant for it to be understood. But perhaps there’s another way to look at it. Maybe the fire that forged Dostoevsky’s hosannas was not just the agony of doubt, but the refiner of faith. Perhaps the flames of doubt fuelled the questions that pared down the nonessentials of his faith, and all the idols, the superstitions, the insipid metaphysical excess was melted away. Perhaps it was in that furnace of doubt that his faith was refined to something much more pure – a new, genuine faith rising from the ashes of the old one.
I have to admit I’m a bit uncomfortable with where this line of thought takes me, because doubt often does lead to a complete loss of faith. Then again, there are many kinds of faith, Christian or otherwise, that ought to be lost. There are many instances where unbelief may be preferable, because at least unbelief – when it is not dogmatic or fundamentalist as some forms of belief – leaves room for the possibility that something may grow in the absence. And, in the midst of doubt, I hold fast to the faith that something good can grow there.
I’m sure many of you experience your time at university to be one where your intellectual horizons are greatly expanded. This is wonderful, for so many reasons, but there’s definitely the danger that it can lead to a scorching case of know-it-all-ism. So whether you’re a New Atheist, an overly-rationalistic believer, or just confident that you’ve got it all figured out, may your certainty be shaken by tremors of doubt. I’d say that a little doubt is exactly what a bunch of know-it-alls need.
I love a good student newspaper. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of ’em out there, but the Cord at Laurier is a great one. They’ve a great vision for what a student newspaper can be, and the quality of the writing is often quite high.
They’ve generously granted me column space this year – I get to write about religious and spiritual matters on a monthly basis. Writing about Christianity in a very basic way has been fun and refreshing; it’s a challenge to get solid and distinct Christian ideas across in a jargon-free way, without resorting to cliches and platitudes. It’s also great to be able to write in a distinctively Christian way, which happens contrary to the expectations of a lot of people on campus. In my brief time here, I’ve noticed that many people think of the chaplain as a “generic holyman,” who exists to promote and articulate all faiths. I’m not sure why that’s the assumption — maybe it has to do with that subtly hegemonic way in which secularism tries to boil distinctions down into a universally palatable mush. Regardless, I’ve made it clear that I’m going to write from a Christian perspective, because I am Christian. Identity politics are huge on campus, and because of that, I think people are starting to understand that it’s ok for religious people to speak out of their particularity, too.
Wednesday’s issue of the Cord has a religious focus, and there are a few students from various faith backgrounds writing on why they are members of their respective faiths. The editor asked me to write the Christian version of the article. “Why I’m a Christian,” in 700 words – now there’s a challenge. I’m not sure I answered that question, but here’s what I wrote:
Christianity: It’s All In the Imagination
Brian Bork – Laurier Chaplain
I remember in the wake of Bill Maher’s film “Religulous,” a few non-Christian colleagues said something of this sort to me: “I don’t like how Maher picks on religious people. If religious people get some sort of comfort from their beliefs, then they should be left alone.” Part of me wanted to say “thanks for the support,” but mostly it chafed a little to hear sentiments like this. I think they implicitly suggested that faith is just a sort of magical thinking, an artifact of a timid imagination, dreamt up by people who just can’t handle the grim thought of someday being dead and buried.
As far as I can tell, my faith isn’t a fantasy conjured by my imagination to give me comfort in an indifferent universe. I like to think I can share Marilynne Robinson’s sentiment when she writes “I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him, and long before I knew words like ‘faith’ or ‘belief.’” My sense of God’s reality has been abiding and genuine, even amid seasons of doubt. I understand that this all may sound like runaway intuition, but I’ve come to trust myself in this matter, and through my life, it’s grown more and more familiar and sturdy, even though as an object, God remains ultimately mysterious.
God is much more than a figment of the imagination, yet I’d say that Christianity is all about the imagination, just not in the make-believe sense of that word. Christianity requires an imaginative vision of reality – it requires a way of seeing, of perceiving the true nature of the existential backdrop of our lives. Christianity isn’t unique in this regard, because all of us, in one way or another, make assumptions about the underlying structure of reality. But it’s the character of the Christian imaginative vision that makes it stick out in a culture where individualism, consumerism, and scientific fundamentalism are assumed to constitute reality. In a self-centred age, Christianity stands out sharply in declaring that the truth of the human condition is found not in the accumulation of wealth and prestige, but in the body of a tortured and crucified political dissident. Against the idols of rationality and the intellect (which have a natural home the university), it claims that God uses the foolish to shame the wise. In a culture where a popular career aspiration is to be “rich and famous,” it claims that it is the meek who will inherit the earth, that it is the poor who are blessed, and that the rich will be turned away empty-handed. In an age that prizes personal autonomy and individual liberty, it declares that true freedom is found in dependence on God and neighbour.
These things culminate in the most imaginative portion of the Christian vision, which is resurrection. Christians see the world through the lens of resurrection, which means that not only do they believe that Jesus Christ was once dead, and now lives, but that this resurrection is a sign post of a new age. It’s resurrection that has ushered in the real new world order, where life, abundance, and flourishing is what is hoped for, though at times unseen. That means that even though the world seems fraught with death, division, hatred, inequality and discord, that this isn’t the truth of the matter. When war and violence are justified because “that’s the world we live in,” Christians declare that no, indeed the world is not that way, because things have changed. And because they’ve changed, the possibility exists for humanity to live like things are truly different. This is how Christians see the world, in view of the resurrection.
Much of this is counterintuitive, and even quite scandalous, especially to folks who excel at being self-centered, individualistic, and vindictive. The Christian imaginative vision is a ruthless adversary of all human vanity and pretension. That’s probably why it is often reduced to mere metaphor, or a list of platitudes, or just ignored altogether, by the very people who call themselves Christian. It takes a great feat of the imagination to see the world as it truly is, and even greater courage, wisdom, and sagacity to live into that reality.
September 14, 2009
It feels sooo good to be back at it. Well, to be honest, I never really left it. But it was a quiet, monastic summer. A looong summer. The Canadian academic year is significantly shorter than the American one. Exams finish in mid-April here, and classes are just starting today, almost halfway through September. By the beginning of August, the silence was getting to me. In light of that, it’s so great to be able to walk across two bustling campuses, to get to meet great new students. Maybe the best thing is the feeling that I actually know what I’m doing, which was noticeably absent last year at this time.
I spent my summer working on a few projects, and reading a short stack of books.
One of the projects was a new website, which is still under construction. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be, though I should’ve expected that seeing as I had zero knowledge on how to create one. Drop by, and see how the rest of it unfolds.
Some Thoughts at the End of My First Year of Campus Ministry
Brian Bork :: April 2009
It hasn’t quite been a calendar year since I started as campus minister at WLU and UW, but a whole academic year has passed. I have to admit that it seems a little strange to be reflective after what is a relatively brief amount of time; everything still feels new. I feel that whatever conclusions I can make will be tentative, scrawled in new cement, subject to change over the summer, or early next fall. I suppose that’s the way it goes with this sort of work.
From the outset, I conceived of this year as a time to get to know the culture of the two campuses. Doing so has been a challenge, but also a great deal of fun. The two campuses are separated by a couple of kilometers on University Ave., but there’s an even greater cultural divide between the two. Laurier is the politically-active school with a humanities and business focus, where students talk more about their volunteer work in various student clubs than they do about their school work. That’s not to say they aren’t studious, it’s just that extra-curricular activity seems to drive them as much as their classes do. It’s a smaller school, both in terms of the size of the campus, and of the student body (though from what I hear, the population has exploded as of late). That leads to a more intimate feel on campus – it’s rare to walk across campus and not run into someone I know, even after spending just a few months here. Because of the small campus, there are also space concerns – my office is an old bedroom in a residence hall, shared with two chaplains and some coordinators from the Women’s Centre. Occasional claustrophobia aside, working in close proximity with other people has been a great way to get to know the campus and its culture, and to participate in the work of other student organizations.
UW is a comparative giant. The campus is immense, and there is definitely a feeling of anonymity when I walk the halls. The students work really hard, and I get the sense from them that they all feel that a lot is riding on their performance. There’s also this thing called the “Co-op” program, where students spend one of their terms per year off campus, working in an industry or office related to their course of study. The Co-op program puts the student body in a constant state of flux, even more than the normal two semester/summer off schedule does. I met a lot of students this fall at UW; by winter quarter, more than two thirds of them were gone on Co-op. This will take some “getting used to” down the road.
I do have a great space on campus, though, in the Student Life Centre. It’s a large office that I’ve been turning into something of a living room as of late (better lighting, comfier seating, coffee maker). Students stop by every Tuesday afternoon for tea and conversation, and it’s been great to see how they feel welcome and comfortable there. Campus ministry can’t bloom without strong relationships with students, and without generous hospitality, those relationships have little to support them initially.
When I started back in mid-August, I assumed that Laurier would be my “home base” of ministry. It was the home base of my predecessor, and I assumed that it made good sense to keep it that way (pledging equal allegiance to two campuses would be like doing so for two churches, or two families; not the easiest task). I found as of late that I’m feeling called to UW. It’s easier to be visible presence at UW, especially since my office is in a highly trafficked area. There are great facilities nearby the office for group meetings, and that sort of thing. I’ve recently also begun to cultivate a relationship with David Johnston, the President of UW, and a devout Anglican who has a heart for campus ministry. I trust that the relationship will bear fruit down the road.
There’s also the compelling fact that there are far more Christian Reformed students at UW. Calvin and Redeemer etc. are competition for Laurier in a way that they’re not for UW (if you’re interested in the humanities, Calvin is as good a place as Laurier. If you’re interested in being an engineer or a physicist, UW is the obvious choice). I don’t conceive of my ministry as being solely directed toward the CRC students, of course, but I am loyal to and commissioned by that denomination, so I feel I should be where its action is, so to speak.
It’s been a great joy to get to know the Christian Reformed students at UW (and the handful I know at Laurier). I feel like there’s a natural affinity between us – no doubt, shared world views and assumptions make good conversation possible. Of course, before the good conversation happens, I have to convince them that I’m not the grim pastor, checking into their lives and tallying up their church attendance so I can report it back to the home office. Once they know that that sort of thing isn’t why I’m there, the relationship feels easy. I’ve had great conversations about theology (I’ve three students who want to study the Heidelberg Catechism with me this summer), about discipleship (the drinking culture of the U. comes up often), and the way that faith integrates with intellectual inquiry (and intellectual integrity). As of late, some students have sought me out for more pastoral issues, relating to the anxieties caused by the pressures of University life, or the perils of romantic relationships. Of course, I don’t wish adversity on any of my students, but it does gladden my heart to know that the relationship I’ve developed with them is worthy of these sorts of conversations.
It’s been a great joy to get to know the non-Christian students at Laurier. I’ve felt for some time that my work at Laurier is a bit of a “mission amongst the gentiles,” and it’s been great to grow into that role, since prior to this, I wasn’t exactly a model student of the Great Commission. I’ve had the opportunity to develop working relationships with people in the Office for Student Diversity, the WLU Student Union, the Women’s Centre, and the student publications. I’ve had two students tell me that they “don’t get this whole young chaplain thing.” I’m not exactly sure what they mean by this, but I assume that they’re pleased that I’m not Jerry Falwell, and surprised that I’m not a vaguely-Christian Unitarian type. My opinion has been sought out in the pages of the Cord Weekly (the Laurier student paper – I was featured three times in one issue), and I was asked to be a founding member of LMAC (Laurier Men Advocating Change – a group that seeks to challenge the cultural assumptions of masculinity). I was even volunteered to be a part of a panel discussion on “Supporting Love at Laurier,” sponsored by the Rainbow Centre, just before Valentine’s day. I still don’t know who volunteered me to be a part of the discussion, but I’m glad they did. The panel was composed of folks from nearly every alternative sexual expression you could imagine, and then there was Christian Reformed me, at the end of the table. It was actually a very profitable discussion – no doubt, there’s a vast difference between a Christian sexual ethic, and the sort of ethic practiced and discussed at the university these days. But it was great to be able to articulate what I feel is so compelling about a Christian sexual ethic, and to be able to do so without relying on the authority of the church, or reverting to a suspicion about pleasure that seems to plague these sorts of conversations. Christian thought about sexuality was certainly a hard sell to the audience, but after the discussion I stuck around for nearly an hour, talking with students who wanted to tell me stories of being raised in Christian homes and struggling with faith as young adults.
I’m not sure what the summer will bring for the ministry. Laurier turns into a ghost town over the summer, but UW is more or less year-round, so I’m hoping to create some sort of fellowship over there, starting in May. I’ve big hopes for the fall, too, and I’ve a collection of plans, dreams and hopeful schemes that I’m praying will take off. I’m hoping to start a graduate fellowship between the two campuses, and I expect that my faculty/staff breakfast book club will continue. I’ve been working toward setting up a “Soup and Speaker” series at UW, where I can integrate food, faith and fellowship. Two students have signed on to help me with the project, and I hope to reward them with an “Emerging Leadership” grant from Home Missions. I’m also cultivating the discipline of remaining open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. It’s been amazing to see the ways in which thoughts and dreams have popped into my head over the year, especially at times when I feel the ministry was stuck in a rut. I’ve taken to calling those bursts of inspiration “God moments.” God is faithful, no doubt. But God is also apparently fond of surprises, showing up when you least expect him. And God often shows up with people in tow. There have been several occasions where I’ve started to feel a little lonely on campus, and it has often been the case that when I allow myself to feel that way for too long, someone pops by the office unexpectedly, or sends me an email, looking to set up a coffee conversation. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the Student Life Centre at UW, and a student came up to me: “hey, you’re the new chaplain, right?” I didn’t know who he was, but for some reason he recognized me. These things happen more often than I expected them too, and I’m grateful for each time they do.
Patience is certainly a virtue in this line of work. If you don’t have it from the outset, you’ll quickly learn to develop it. A good deal of knowledgeable folks told me that it will take three years for this ministry to completely blossom. You’d think after hearing that several times that I’d get the hint. Still, I find myself wanting things to happen, to take off, and I get a little impatient when they don’t. I’ve even jumped the gun on a couple occasions, I’m sure. Last fall I tried to start a book discussion group with some students, and it fizzled out in the new year. I should have waited a little bit – given a little while, the relationships I had with the students would have been stronger, and I think that would have given the endeavor a little more endurance. Campus ministry seems to be a weird mixture of waiting and action. I think I’m getting the hang of it.
In the times that I feel a little impatient or anxious, I’ve found a lot of support. My committee has been wonderfully open and supportive of my ideas and my efforts, and I’m really grateful for that. I feel supported by Waterloo CRC, and have had warm receptions at every church where I’ve had the privilege to preach. If I haven’t been around your way yet, I hope to drop by soon.
I’ve no doubt that I’m in the right place – campus ministry is where I ought to be, and a number of supporters, colleagues, and friends have told me so. But I’m also feeling the abiding presence of God when I’m on these campuses, and take much comfort in the knowledge that somehow this little fledgling ministry of mine is working into the mystery of God’s providential scheme for these schools.
Outside my office at UW, I’ve affixed an orange plastic envelope to the window, with a label reading: “Free Provocative Ideas.” Every time I’m in my office, I stuff it full of essays, poems, and other printable musings I come across on my daily hyperspace jaunt.
I suppose I could save paper, and just email the links around to people who I think would be interested in what I’ve come across. But people (especially students) have enough to read these days (whether they read enough is another issue), and I think those emails would more or less just be ignored.
I think the envelope works better, because it allows the potential reader to take the initiative — instead of receiving didactic “you oughta read this” emails from me, it allows her to take or leave the essay. It’s less “in your face,” I guess. Plus, there’s far more pleasure in holding what you’re reading, as opposed to squinting your way through the computer’s flickering refresh rate.
The things I stick in envelope always disappear, and I’m probably going to go through a lot of ink trying to keep up. A few good conversations have been birthed by the essays, too, and I’m hoping there’ll be more. The folks I share the office with tell me that people stop by from time to time, asking for more.
One of the mainstays of the “Provocative Ideas” envelope are the “Ten Propositions” of Kim Fabricius. Fabricius is a campus minister in Swansea, England, and from time to time composes these propositions, usually numbered 10, about theological matters. They’re published over at the fantastic “Faith and Theology” blog.
I imagine that most people who read this aren’t often on the UW campus, so I’d encourage you to check out these lively and splendid little homilies on the web. If you do happen to come by my office some day, I’d be happy to chat more about them. Coffee is always on me.