Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Signs of Health

This post can serve as a "state of the dissertation" update of sorts. When I last updated, things were pretty unsettled with my topic and proposal draft. Realizing that was less than six weeks ago, I am thankful to be able to report that the proposal is coming along much better. In fact, the proposal is essentially written. Right now, I'm basically revising.

My defense date is still up in the air. Even though I've received some excellent feedback from my colleagues at school, there's still quite a bit of work to be done, and plenty of consultation with my advisor that will need to happen, before I can meet with my full committee. Because it's so perilously close to the end of the semester, that's a lot to ask for at this point; I'm not 100% sure the defense will happen within the timeframe that's technically required. But, given where I was a couple of months ago, I'm relieved to be where I am.

The other great thing, and this is more the intended focus of this post, is that my attitude is markedly improved. I feel more confidence in what I'm doing and more hopeful that it's worth doing and can be done. It's still very difficult; I've become painfully aware of the weaknesses in my work ethic and ability to self-structure. There are days like today, when I find it next to impossible to make headway. But I think my mindset and morale on most days reflects an undeniable improvement. That's a definite answer to prayer, so thank you to everyone who's been following along.

I'll have more to write about this later, but I think one of the toughest things about this phase is that all your academic insecurities have a way of surfacing. If that starts to get the better of you, to the point that you've all but ceased believing in your project, then motivation dies. Too often, self-regard and sense of direction go with it. No matter how well you know that your self-worth isn't supposed to be determined by your academic success or failure. When you've sunk years into academia as your main area of gifting, and then you lose both your edge and your will to fight for it, it is devastating. It also starts to feel as if everyone in the world is more "useful" and is doing something more worthwhile than you. It's a terrible cycle.

However, I have been encouraged lately to see what I am interpreting as signs of health, personally and vocationally, in a few areas. The first is simply the fact that I can envision a future for my current project. A lot of the credit for this goes to my colleagues who've hung in there with me through several different drafts and offered genuinely helpful feedback. When people you respect are excited about your work, it's harder to dismiss it, no matter how much you might want to!

Second: Since I started my doctoral program, on the recommendation of a professor, I've been keeping a list of ideas for future research and possible books and articles. I have no idea how soon I will have the opportunity to pursue any of them, much less how many of them will prove viable and interesting. But the encouraging thing is that I have been adding things to the list again. For a while, I felt so burdened by the mere idea of a future in academia that I wanted to pretend that the list didn't exist.

The last thing is that, recently -- I forget which day it was, maybe it was Monday, maybe last week -- I found myself thinking, sincerely, "I am thankful to be in graduate school." I can promise you I don't say that every day. But the fact that I was able to say it and mean it, after the troubled months I've had, is a huge deal.

My feelings about where I am in my life right now remain pretty complicated. But I am glad I didn't quit.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: John Newton by John Crotts

John Newton (Bitesize Biographies series) by John Crotts
EP Books (2013); 141 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

I had the opportunity to review a Bitesize Biography a couple of months ago and enjoyed it, so when I learned that a volume on John Newton -- author of one of my favorite hymn texts -- was available for review, I couldn't pass it up.

One thing I appreciate about this series, at least in the couple of examples I have read, is the various styles of the authors. Simonetta Carr's Renée of France has a historian's touch. While that style is more to my taste, John Crotts' lively storytelling would probably appeal to readers who aren't typically drawn to biographies. His book also struck me as being just as well-researched.

Crotts has an infectious love for his subject that leads the reader to give thanks for God's gracious work in sinners, including themselves, as they move through Newton's story. It wasn't hard to share his enthusiasm for Newton: I immediately started learning new things about this remarkable pastor. Many people have heard about Newton's involvement in the slave trade, his eventual repentance, and his authorship of "Amazing Grace." There's so much more to his story, however.

I appreciated Crotts' emphasis on the slowness of Newton's conversion. I find it comforting to read accounts like this -- not everyone can pinpoint the moment when the Holy Spirit regenerated them, or they may be led to doubt the genuineness of their conversion because of later failings. It took awhile for spiritual fruit to become evident in Newton's life, but he was able to look back on his prodigal youth with gratitude for the Lord's patience and mercy.

Probably my favorite part of the book, though, was the story of Newton's friendship with the gifted poet William Cowper, who suffered terribly from depression. Even though I was familiar with the basic outline, I couldn't read this section without tears.

This book could be especially encouraging for ministers or seminarians; I was quite impressed as I read about Newton's sheer energy and creativity for sharing the gospel and caring for his flock. He personally catechized children, hosted (beside his wife) teas and prayer-meetings in his home, became an adoptive father at an advanced age, and seemed to have an equal love for preaching God's Word in rural and urban settings. Of course, he is best remembered for his prolific hymn- and letter-writing ministries, which Crotts sums up very nicely in the book's final chapters.

It's a quick read, it's engagingly written, and I recommend it. If you're anything like me, you'll be inspired to track down a copy of Newton's published letters as soon as you can. At the very least, you'll be moved to celebrate God's gracious work in sinners like Newton and yourself.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.