Tis the Season: Light Amid Darkness

In past Tis the Seasons, I’ve shared many, many holiday stories: family traditions, interesting historical tidbits, heartfelt sentiments, favorite songs, and so on.  When faced with writing a post this year, though, writers block hit and it hit HARD.  I had lots of ideas, from sharing new memories to fleshing out older stories, but every time I sat down to write, I ended up staring at a blank page.  The words just wouldn’t come.

Then, I got thinking about what my friend Rachel said in her post earlier this week about Christmas being a time of light in the darkness and hope when all feels lost.  The more I thought about it, the more it felt right.  Light in the darkness… what a timely message.

We live in days of darkness, days of sorrow, days of pain, days of disappointment.  It’s been a rough year for so many both here in America and abroad.  We live in days of horrific war, days of the displacement and death of innocents, days of bombs and destruction.  We live in days of intolerance, of cruelty, of fear.  We live in days where people are massacred and ostracized for their beliefs, for their cultural heritage, for their orientation, and for their gender.  We live in days of doubt and days of deep insecurity where truth and trust cease to exist. Continue reading

Poetry Friday: God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I recently discovered Gerard Manley Hopkins and… dang.  His poems are sometimes difficult to understand, but such a pleasure to read aloud.  I love the sounds and interplay between words–they fill my mouth like rich food and I slowly chew the sounds, savoring each bite.  I find certain lines getting caught in my head and, as the day goes on, I repeat them to myself over and over again.
Here is one of my favorites:

Continue reading

Of Faith and Refugees

My Facebook newsfeed today was filled with opinions this morning.  This isn’t unusual, as I have friends on both sides of the political divide.  I usually don’t like to engage in such things on social media.  I don’t like to associate with a political party.  Such things breed division and strife–so I keep my opinions to myself.

But in lieu of current events and the hate that has risen in their wake, I’m finding it hard to remain silent.

As I’ve been following the debates regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, I have been absolutely appalled by the response from Christians.  My Facebook feed is filled with messages along the lines of “Close the boarders because we don’t want terrorists to get in”.  I saw a comment that said, “I’m all for helping the refugees, I just don’t want to let them in.”

Or, in other words, “I’m all for helping people as long as it doesn’t impact my life.”  “I’m all for taking care of the poor and needy, as long as my comfort isn’t threatened.”

This makes my blood boil.

What, then, is more valuable?  Comfort or human life?  The ease of the rich or the despair of the poor?

To make things clear, I understand the fear.  The refugees are people who are very different from us.  They look different, sound different, and follow a different religion. Differences are unknowns and unknowns are scary.  And yes, there is a risk that the wrong people can get in.  Is this a risk we are willing to take?

A couple of my friends posted links to a short piece on Relevant Magazine titled “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees“.  I recommend giving it a read, for it is very good. It is a list of verses with little commentary, letting the Bible speak for itself.  These verses speak of loving the poor, caring for the needy, and putting the needs of others before your own.  They talk about setting aside what is comfortable in favor of preserving human life.

I’d like to add a verse to the list.  1 John 4:18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (ESV)

Is allowing refugees into America worth it, despite the risk of letting terrorists in?  Absolutely.  Because perfect love, God’s love, casts out fear.

We, as Christians, are called to love the needy and care for the broken.  It’s not an option.  Loving one’s neighbor as ones self is not only a command, it’s the GREATEST command.  So are we going to obey? Are we going to trust that, even though there are unknowns and even though we are afraid, God is in control?

I realize that I am addressing this from a Christian perspective and you may not share my worldview. This is okay. Biblical rhetoric aside, I think my questions are still valid because this is, ultimately, not only a Christian issue. It is a human issue. These refugees aren’t faceless, soulless drones. They may be different, but they are human beings with just as much right to life as I. They have the same capacity to love, to feel, to dream as you and I do.

Are we, Christians and non Christians alike, going to set aside our comfort, riches, and fears, and care for the refugees?

I honestly don’t know what this looks like in my life.  As an American, I live a life of incredible privilege. There aren’t poor and homeless people lining up at my door. The refugees are on the other side of the world. But with privilege comes responsibility. If and when the time comes to take action, I hope that I am able to do what is RIGHT and not settle for what is EASY.

It’s a complicated issue.  There are a thousand arguments and counterarguments that can be made.  It can be discussed for hours on end.  Your opinion and worldview may be different than mine, and that’s okay. I don’t mind. Differences are not something to be afraid of. They are our greatest strength.

But I’m tired of remaining silent. I’ve been given a voice and am choosing to use it. So this is me, adding my thoughts to the universe.

Thanks for reading.

  

Life and Times of a Small Group Leader: a Conclusion

Three years ago, I turned to my roommate Alli and announced that I felt like God wanted me to start a Bible study.  The only problem was I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Alli looked over at me with a sly smile.  “Here’s what we’re doing.  You and I are going to lead a Bible study together, we are going to target it towards single girls, and we are going to talk through our problems.”  (At the time, the both of us were struggling a lot with being single.  When you’re interested in dating good, Christian guys, Morris is not the place to be.)

That, friends, is how I became a small group leader.

That first year, we were known as the Single Ladies Bible Study.  We read the book When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy.  Although we had some good conversations, I really don’t recommend the book.  A lot of the content is really simplistic and cheesy.

Every year, the Bible study has changed significantly.  After year one, we dropped the “Single”, lost Alli to graduation, and our numbers dropped significantly.  I was abroad for half the year and, when I came back, the once bustling group was down to three or four core members.  We had lots of great talks, though, and really got to know each other.

This year, I co-lead with my friend Jourdan and the group changed entirely.  Last fall, when we met to discuss what the study would look like, we had no idea how many people would actually show up.  The core group returned and, to our surprise, so did a boatload of new faces.  It really was a wonderful year.  For the first time, it really felt like a community.  The variety of the group still amazes me–we had freshman to seniors, newspaper lit nerds to athletes, biology to Spanish majors.  Everyone was so different!  But we all got along and learned so much from each other.

Family-style photo of this year's group at Jourdan's house.
Family-style photo of this year’s group at Jourdan’s house.

As leaders, Jourdan and I were pushed and stretched in ways we hadn’t expected.  Before we knew it, we were each meeting one-on-one with several of the girls, mentoring and encouraging them.  We planned Girls Nights once a month and came up with our own lessons every week.  Planning lessons was a big challenge, but also an incredible opportunity.

Last week was our final meeting.  The girls all surprised me with a party celebrating my graduation.  Everyone brought treats, one girl made chicken tacos, and Jourdan made a cake.  Their parting gift to me was a little plastic box covered in quotes.  Inside, each girl had written out encouragement notes and shared their favorite Bible verses.  It’s something for me to take with as I move into the future.  Although I was pretty brain-dead the whole time (on account of the library staff party and English major picnic being the same night), their thoughtfulness really means the world to me.

Although it will continue to meet next year, I’m really sad to see it go.  Being a small group leader has been one of my favorite parts of college.  I’ve learned so much about myself and what it means to be a leader and have gotten to know so many wonderful people.  Serving and loving people is hard, but it’s one of the greatest blessings life has to offer.

Go Bold

There are friends.  And then there are friends like Jenny.

We met during my freshman year of college.  Although we became acquaintances in the first month, I didn’t get to know her until spring semester.  I was close (and still am) with her roommate, Julie.  Because the shallow friendships with my floormates began to run their course, I took up the habit of visiting Julie’s dorm in Gay Hall.  It’s then that I got to know Jenny.  After a couple of weeks, it became evident that I was no longer crashing Gay to see Julie.  I was all about hanging out with Jenny.  We’ve been close ever since.

How do I even begin to describe Jenny?

She’s the kind of person you want by your side.  She’s a wonderful listener and is always ready and able to give you encouragement.  She’s smart, insightful, and notices details that often get glossed over.  She’s incredibly funny and can drop puns like nobody’s business.  She’s gifted in hospitality and an expert in how to make an excellent cup of coffee.

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I’d post a nice photo of the two of us, but they kind of don’t exist. They’re all similar to this one. (Yes, I am in the midst of eating cheese. Cheese is glorious.)

 

Most of all, though, she has an incredible heart for God.  It’s been amazing watching Him turn her life around.  When we met, she had her heart set on majoring in biology, running a nursing home, marrying a lumberjack and settling down with kids.  Now, she’s a Morris grad (with an English degree) on the brink of moving to Japan to spend the next two years as a missionary.

Throughout college, I got to see Jenny’s faith grow and evolve.  She had her own plans and dreams, but one day, God spoke to her.  He said: “If I asked you to go, would you?”  She said yes.  The process of being called to a lifetime of missions wasn’t an easy one.  Jenny had to let go of a lot.  She had to face her struggles, her insecurities, her fears.  She says it this way:

While I can hardly believe I felt this way initially anymore, at first I felt utterly dejected. Like I said, I had other plans for myself, filled with good things that I wanted to do in this world. I knew I was going to have to let those go. So I asked God, that if this was really what He wanted for me, to change my heart, to make every other possible career choice and plan for my life be completely unsatisfying and empty. Over the course of that year He did exactly that.  Now there is hardly a thing that excites me more than active ministry and loving people. (Taken from one of her blog posts)

Although she graduated a year early, Jenny has been one of my solid rocks this school year.  She’s been living at home, floating from job to job, and has always been available to talk.  When I’m frustrated, I call Jenny.  When I’m ecstatic, I call Jenny.  When I just need someone to talk to, I call Jenny.  With her, conversation flows from one subject to the next and, before I know it, hours have passed.

Yesterday, I saw Jenny in person for the last time.  We went out for tea and, in true fashion, talked for hours.  I intended on being home for dinner, but it wasn’t long before I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  Why go home when I can be with Jenny one last time?  In a couple of weeks, she’s off for at least two years teaching English in Japan.

It’s hard saying goodbye to someone who has had such a big impact on your life.  But, with Jenny, it’s not as if this goodbye is forever.  Even though we’ll be on the other sides of the planet, it’s not like we won’t talk.  That’s the beauty of the internet.  Yes, staying in touch is challenging and definitely takes work.  But, with Jenny, it’ll happen.

If you’re interested in getting to know Jenny, following her adventures in Japan, and seeing what God does in her life, you can follow her blog, Go Bold.  If you ask me, she’s worth paying attention to.

A new perspective on sharing my faith

I loathe being told to share my faith.

I mean, it’s something that we are called directly to do.  Jesus says in Matthew 28:16 to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  We’re encouraged to share our faith, to spread the good news, to be lights in the darkness of the world.

But in Christian circles, there’s a lot of guilting that goes on when it comes to evangelism.  So often, I come from those talks feeling like, by not sharing my faith, I’m doing something wrong.  And then I feel guilty.  I feel like I should share my faith out of obligation and duty, not because I want to.  So often, evangelism makes me extremely uncomfortable.  In order to do it, I feel like I must have all the answers, like I have to start going up to my classmates, shoving Bibles in their faces, and taking them through the Romans Road.  It makes me uncomfortable and inadequate. I feel pressured and that, if I don’t present the message well enough, I’ll be a failure.  Sharing faith in these ways sounds just seems unpleasant.  I don’t want to do it.  But then I feel guilty for not wanting to do something God clearly asks of us.

The thing is, I genuinely want to share my faith.  I want to tell people about the joy, the love, the security I have in Christ.  But I don’t want to demean others and I’m afraid of being seen as the Bible-shoving stereotype.

At IVCF last night, an old classmate came and talked about the dreaded topic.  What she said really hit home.

To summarize her message, she talked about talking about faith the same way we talk about things excited about.  We don’t have to have a perfect message.  The outcome of sharing our faith does not depend on us.  We don’t have to worry about how we are received, because God is bigger than that.  He can handle it.  Instead of preaching to people, we should talk about Jesus as if He’s a real person.  We shouldn’t spew off boring facts as if he’s merely a figure in a book.  Instead, we need to be open and honest about what He’s like, what He says, what He does, and what it’s like to hang out with Him.

Boldness is key, but not to belittle.  Not to condescend.  Not to preach.  We need to be bold in sharing our excitement about who He is and what He is doing in our lives.  Because if we’re excited, then it will spread to the people around us.

The other thing that is key is trust.  We need to trust that God is bigger than us.  He’s bigger than us, bigger than our circumstances, bigger than our voices.  We don’t have to defend Him.  He can defend Himself.  He knows what He is doing.

I’m not very good at sharing my faith.  I really struggle with this.  As previously stated, I’ve always felt this sense of obligation, that I should be doing more, saying more, preaching more–and this has always made me REALLY uncomfortable.  But all this time, I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way.  I don’t have to go out and do anything.  I just have to be me.  I simply have to live and not restrict my relationship with God to my personal life.  I have to let the love I have for my savior, my best friend, my beloved show.  I have to be open about Him–open about what He’s doing and willing to tell people about my excitement.

It’s encouraging to know that I don’t need to have it all together.  More than anything, though, it’s wonderful to walk out of a faith-sharing talk without feeling guilty.  For the first time ever, I actually feel good about being open about my faith.  Which is incredibly freeing.

 

Looking to the future and finally having some answers

About a month ago, I wrote a post where I posed the question: What brings you life?

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately.  I mean, with only a few months left of college, it’s to be expected.  People keep asking me what’s next.  I keep telling them I don’t know.  Just now, though, I realized that I DO know.

I want to do something that brings me life.  I don’t want a job to pay the bills.   I want my work to be my passion.  I want to feel a sense of fulfillment at the end of a week.  I want to do something I love so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else.

I got lucky with college.  During my final years of high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to major in.  People ask me why I chose to be an English major and I answer them, “I’ve been an English major my entire life.  I just didn’t know that is what it’s called until I got to college.”  I didn’t chose English for the career track.  I became an English major because it’s the only major I imagined myself pursuing.  And, although there have been rough patches (I’m looking at you, Virginia Woolf class), my studies have spurred my passions and brought incredible life.  But it’s not what I want to do forever.

I now stand at the brink of another crossroads.  Where do I go after graduation?  What should I do?  The answer is clear: I need to find what brings me the most life and I need to do that every day until I die.

At this point, I have a good sense of what that is.

Above all else, my time here in Morris has taught me that, although English is something I love, it’s not something I want to do with my life.  When I look back what stands out the most is spiritual growth and involvement in ministry.  Over the past four years, God turned a quiet girl with her identity in a box into a confident, passionate leader.  Being involved in IVCF, prayer ministry, Bible studies, and (of course) working at camp has done more for my career than any professor in any classroom.  He’s given me a taste for service that leaves me longing for more.  All I want to do is serve God with my life.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.

I’ve realized lately that I feel the most fulfillment when I’m pouring into people.  It’s my favorite thing.  There’s nothing that brings me more joy than praying for others or meeting one-on-one and giving encouragement.  I love taking the lessons I’ve learned and the things God has spoken to me and passing them on.  It’s such an amazing experience, helping others draw closer to Him.

That, friends, is what I want to do every day for the rest of my life.

Now I just have to find someone willing to pay me to do it.

 

Leaning in

On my way out of the gym this morning, a man offered me a Bible.  I always find it awkward when this happens.  At least once a year, the Gideons position themselves around campus and hand out New Testaments.  I do my best to smile politely, not wanting them to feel discouraged, and explain that I already have one.

When it happened unexpectedly, at the gym of all places, it got me thinking.

This semester is extremely challenging in many ways.  The apartments, which have been my home for three years, suddenly feel WAY too small.  My workload is immense.  Being in three literature classes is insane.  I’ll sit and read all day long and still not feel like I accomplished half of what I needed.  Preparing for the Bible study I lead is taking a lot more time.  Speech season is coming up, which means my Saturdays will soon be spent judging meets all day instead of getting ahead.  In addition to all this, the head copyeditor of the student paper is away for the semester and requested my assistance to help the paper stay afloat.  (Do I say yes when I really don’t want to?)

Then, there’s my senior seminar, which is the most challenging class I’ve ever encountered.  I knew it would be hard going in, but good grief.  The professor is one of the most intelligent human beings I’ve ever met.  All my classmates have had him before, so they already know how to handle his intense, direct, probing way of teaching.  I know I’ll get there, it will just take time to adapt and get a grasp for the ideas.  What’s most frustrating for me, though, is that he’s very into philosophy, tied intimately with theology and religion.  I’m not irked by the fact that his views and treatment of Christianity are flawed, but by the fact that I find a lot of that strain of discourse pointless.  My brain doesn’t naturally function philosophically.  I’m much more practical.  I like to see the work before me and do it, not sit back and ponder the philosophical meanings behind things.

Last night, I woke up at four in the morning and spent an hour having a hypothetical, half-asleep theological debate with said professor.  Back and forth I went, mentally finding scripture passages that validate my points, all the while knowing he (who is an atheist) will not understand.  The whole time, I knew it was stupid and dearly tried to fall back asleep.  But the thing is, part of me knows that my professor will push me and put my faith on trial when he finds out I’m not only a Christian, but one headed into a lifetime of ministry.  He’s going to batter me with empty philosophy, wisdom of the world, in attempt to push my critical thinking skills.

That’s why the man at the gym offering me a Bible stood out to me so much.  It was a reminder–God’s on my side.  I don’t have to debate or defend myself.  Because my faith is not his business.  It’s not his job as my professor to push that.  It’s his job to teach me about American biographical novels and help me learn.  In turn, it’s not my job to try to win him over.  This isn’t the movie God’s Not Dead (which I haven’t actually seen ’cause I find the whole concept too heavy-handed).  It’s my job to be diligent, write my big paper, and move on with my life.

It’s incredibly comforting that, even though this semester feels like such a burden and weight in so many ways, I don’t have to worry or fear.  All I have to do is lean in and trust that God will bring me through.  He’s called me to a life of serving, doing, encouraging, loving, and building the Kingdom and He is going to get me there.

What brings you life?

A good friend of mine has a job at an after-school program teaching coping mechanisms to teens with depression and anxiety.  When I asked her more about what she does, she replied, “We have them set goals every week.  These goals fall into two categories: Do things that make you feel accomplished and do things that bring you life.”  She then looked at me and asked, “Amelia, what brings you life?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

The first category is simple.  I feel accomplished by doing things that are practical–by making a list and checking off all the items.  (Yes, in my Meyers-Briggs I’m a strong J).  I feel accomplished by doing a job well, by striving for excellence, by working hard.  Schoolwork is good for this, even though at this stage in my life I’d rather be doing other things.

Life-bringing activities are harder to pin down.

You see, there are lots of things that don’t bring me life.  Trudging through the bitter cold is upsetting, though as a hardy Minnesotan I hardly complain.  People bustling around disturbs my thoughts.  Trying to cook dinner at the same time as two of my other roommates tests my patience.  Overly pretentious classmates annoy me.  Having the super-bright fluorescent ceiling lights in the apartment on after dark makes my skin crawl.

What, though?  What fills me up when the world sucks me dry?

Reading for pleasure.  There’s nothing more special than curling up in bed and reading by candlelight, than getting lost in a world that exists within your own mind, than falling in love and friendship with people who don’t exist.

Deep conversations with good friends.  Most of the time, these take place over the phone.  You see, I don’t let a lot of people close (typical trait for an INFJ), so the time I have with those I deeply care about is extremely special.

Encouraging others spiritually.  I love leading Bible studies and praying for people.  I love when I can speak truth into the lives of others and help them draw closer to God.  This brings me so much life that it’s what I want to do every day until I die.

Spending time alone.  Granted, too much alone time makes me go crazy.  (Another typical INFJ trait).  But there’s something incredibly calming about being in a room with no one around and only my thoughts to keep me company.

Tonight, I took advantage of the fact that my roommate was out and spent some time doing things that bring me life.  I turned all the lights off except the desk lamp, pulled up a movie on Netflix, and broke out my watercolors.  Being a college student is a lot of work, and every once in a while, it’s important to take time to do what fills you up.

So, readers.  You now know all about me.  What brings you life?

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The life and times of a college Bible study leader

This past Tuesday was my final Bible study  meeting of the semester.  I’ve been leading the same group of girls for the past three years.  It’s been really fun getting to know everyone, forming friendships, and watching them grow in their faith.

At the beginning, I didn’t know much about leading Bible studies.  I took on the role as mediator.  I would read the text at hand, be it part of the Bible, a devotional, or supplementary book, ask questions, and make sure conversation happened.  It was fun because I was in on the action, learning with everyone else, but also managing some of the behind the scenes details.

This year, though, Bible study has taken a fun turn.  My co-leader, Jourdan, and I decided to plunge headlong into the New Testament book of Hebrews.  I’ve read through it in my personal devotions several times and knew it was a theologically challenging book.  There’s a lot of confusing stuff!  We covered a chapter a week and I was in charge of the first discussion.  I ran it like I usually do, asking questions and trying to get people talking.  It was awkward.  I came away a bit disheartened.  How was I supposed to mediate a conversation about this?

As a result, though, I’ve had the opportunity to step into more of a teaching role.  Every week, I’d spend a couple hours digging through the text, figuring out what was there, what it meant, and why it was important.  I’d consult different translations of the Bible, assemble quotes from footnotes, and scour devotionals for inspiration.  Then, after pages of scribbling notes, I’d tie it together into more of a lesson plan.  At Bible study, we would read through the chapter as a group, then I’d dive into my notes, explaining theological concepts, arguments, asking questions, and trying to apply it all to life.

The thing with teaching is that it’s a LOT of work.  I’ve been pushed and stretched this semester, but it’s also been incredibly rewarding!  I now understand theological concepts so much better and have an increased appreciation for how the Bible functions as a whole text.

What got me thinking about all of these things was an message I received from one of the girls in the group.

Hi Amelia!

I just wanted to thank you so very much for a great semester of Bible Study! You are so energetic, positive and encouraging and I really enjoyed getting to know you better these past 14 weeks! Wishing you the best of luck with all of your papers and finals.  I hope you have an incredible and relaxing break– can’t wait until next semester!

I don’t know the sender of this email very well, but getting this email brightened my entire day.  What a sweetheart!  Although I’m not in it for the praise, it’s always encouraging to receive thanks for something you have poured a lot of time and effort into.