Saturday, December 10, 2016

Book Review: Humble Roots

Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul by Hannah Anderson
Moody Publishers, 2016

Hannah Anderson has a way of getting to the heart of certain struggles in my walk with God, so when I had the opportunity to review her latest book, I couldn't pass it up. Humble Roots is a continuation of the conversation started in her earlier work, Made for More, which is about being made in God’s image. (I shared some reflections on it here.) Her second book is about learning how to flourish as those created in God’s image, by being grounded in our dependence on Him.

To put it more directly, “The goal of Humble Roots is to understand how pride manifests itself in anxiety and restlessness; and how humility frees us from the cycle of stress, performance, and competition.”

In her own life, Anderson realized that, implicitly, she “believed that finding rest comes from both simultaneously learning to let go and keeping your act together.” As she reflected on Matthew 11:28-29, she saw that neither of those things yields rest. Humble Roots explores those things that cause restlessness and how becoming rooted in Jesus’ humility frees us from them. 

In chapter one, Anderson describes the familiar scenario of lying awake, feeling overworked and overwhelmed, and “also tired of knowing that I had absolutely no right to feel the way I did.” This was so painfully resonant for me: “The truth was that I had no large looming problems, only small ones that felt large. I had no major life crises, only minor ones that felt major. I had no monumental difficulties, only trivial ones that felt unbelievably monumental. I was stressed and unhappy with a very normal life.” She suggests that maybe the little things rankle us so much because they reveal our larger helplessness: “Failure at small things reminds us of how helpless we are in this great, wide world. When little things spiral out of control, they remind us that even they were never within our control in the first place.” Jesus understands these mundane sorts of worries and never shames us for having them. The only thing we can do is seek Him, trusting that He knows both our troubled hearts and our limits better than we do and that He will take care of the rest.

One of the things I’ve most struggled with since becoming a Reformed Christian is being told to rest in my identity in Christ. I find it difficult to know what this means in everyday life, especially when anxiety and shame continue to make themselves felt. Is it mainly a matter of (ironically) trying harder to think the right way?  I appreciated Anderson's sensitivity to this. She writes, “[I]f we’re not careful, telling someone to ‘seek God’ without explaining how and what that looks like can actually compound her stress…when she tries and, for whatever reason, doesn’t experience the rest she expects, she will feel more confused and more burdened. Apparently, not only is she incapable of finding time to cultivate her current relationships, she’s also incapable of finding the largest Being in the universe.” I can’t tell you how often that has been the story of my spiritual life over the years. So what does seeking Jesus’ kingdom look like?

It starts with humbling ourselves and submitting to His yoke. If we’re “plowing” under our own strength, it’s possible we are operating with a messiah complex. I admit that I struggled at this point in the book. Reading some of her diagnostic markers for pride, I found myself thinking that I’m not really a solve-other-people’s-problems, save-the-world kind of girl. The things that rob me of peace tend to lie much closer to home—I can’t even keep my own kitchen clean, much less worry about someone else’s. I’m not disputing that pride may be just as much at the root of that; however, I did wish that Anderson had unpacked this a bit more. Is it setting myself in God’s place to desire a baseline competence in “adulting,” and to grieve when I can't get there? In any case, I take her point that striving to have it all together does “reap stress, restlessness, and anxiety.” This year, for example, the more I have accepted that I’ll never get "on top" of things, the freer I’ve felt to serve Christ and my family in the midst of daily routine instead of longing to jettison my responsibilities. (To save space, I’ll just point to some of my perennial wrestling with striving, grace, and sanctification in this old post. If you have the answer, please spell it out for me.)

I appreciate Anderson’s repeated emphasis that humility is not a commodity, that there is no technique one can master in order to attain it. It comes of being grafted onto Christ such that His humility is truly ours, allowing us to walk in the knowledge of Whose we are and where we come from. It is a “correct sense of self.” It’s acknowledging that God is God and we are not. When we lose track of this, we begin to think of ourselves as deserving of greater glory and honor than others. This is counter to the way of Jesus, who never fought to prove His worth, sought to fulfill Himself, or pursued His own comfort (cf. Phil. 2:3-11). As Anderson puts it so well, “What Paul is describing is not simply a checklist of good human behaviors. Something about Jesus’ very existence—about the way He moved through the world as a human being—radically altered humanity.” In this sense, Jesus’ humility is not an ideal to be copied in our own strength, but a historical fact that is saving in the same way as His death and resurrection are saving. The more we are transfixed by who Jesus is, the less we will care about protecting our own glory. We will be able to appreciate God’s glory reflected in those around us rather than perceiving it as a threat to ourselves. 

Having established the roots of humility, the remainder of the book explores what it looks like to be transformed by humility. As Anderson puts it, “This is no quick fix. What we’re after is sustainable growth.” (Though I couldn’t help observing that she uses the word “suddenly” often in this book! Though I don’t think it was always being used in a temporal sense.)

Anderson devotes chapters to our physical bodies, our resources, our desires and gifting, suffering, and death. While I could pull wonderful excepts from any of these, there are two areas I want to comment on in a little more detail. First, when it comes to our emotional lives, we don’t overcome distress by focusing on our feelings, which only reinforces our angst; instead we remember that God is greater than our heart, that “we don’t have to obey our emotions because the only version of reality that matters is God’s.” He is the only one who really understands our hearts and sets us “free to see the world from a perspective larger than my own heart,” to continually refocus on the Object of our faith instead of our shifting subjectivity. After all, “When you play Holy Spirit in your own life, you’ll quickly become comfortable playing Holy Spirit in other people’s lives as well.” (Talk about convicting!) Anderson does not endorse stoicism, arguing that bringing our feelings before God frees us to enjoy the depth and variety he gifts us in our emotional lives. Perhaps this, more than any other chapter, contains the most fodder for another whole book. I would love to read further discussion of how humility liberates us from emotional turmoil, and I’m sure I’m not alone! It would also be great to see more interaction with Christian forebears who wrestled with these questions—to begin with, many Puritan pastors wrote extensively on the relationship between faith and the “affections.”

Secondly, humility trains our intellect, insight, and perspective. A humble person is teachable, aware of the limits of her own mind. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our grasp of the right answers—but if, instead, we are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus’ rightness (and righteousness), then we are safe. We can be okay with our inability to know everything—“your mind can be at ease. You don’t have to worry and fret and stay up late searching out every possible detail before you make a decision.” It’s not that arriving at the “right” answers is unimportant, but—here Anderson uses the rather brilliant metaphor of vine-ripening tomatoes—in humility, we can be less concerned with knowing the answers and more concerned with learning the answers.  Jesus did not want his disciples to have all the answers at once, and the same is true of us; he has set things up such that “the very process of learning binds us to Him in a way that simply knowing the answers cannot.” We may never know everything we yearn to know—but we know the One who does know. This may have been the most freeing and satisfying chapter for me. I love the idea of “[letting] knowledge ripen on the vine,” and this could have such interesting implications for discipleship and pedagogy!

Throughout, Anderson keeps with the “roots” theme by drawing on images and metaphors native to her Appalachian upbringing (she’s Pennsylvania-raised like me and currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains in which I spent a blessed season). I won’t dwell on this, except to say that it does work uncommonly well—each chapter is framed by a concept, story, or historical anecdote related to something like heirloom vegetables, herbal remedies, local honey, and berry foraging. These frames are sometimes brilliant and never strained, even when I wasn’t particularly excited about them for their own sake.

This is a lovely and challenging book I certainly recommend. I like that, for Anderson, humility isn’t solely a matter of mental habit—one can certainly pick up on bodily and social dimensions throughout the book. I would have liked to see some of this teased out more, since I am so prone to get stuck inside my internal world.

In that vein, one of the things I appreciated most is that this is a quietly churchly book. Woven throughout are illustrations drawn from the small country church pastored by Anderson’s husband. As much as I appreciated Anderson’s avoidance of “technique,” I wondered if more discussion of the concrete means of grace—the practices of corporate worship, the sacraments, and Scriptural study—could have bolstered her rightful emphasis on focusing on Jesus. How do these things work to ground us in Christ’s humility, even when we are subjectively ravaged by anxieties?

I admit, when I read, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," I still feel a clench of anxiety, not peace. It rarely feels true, and I feel guilty that I somehow can't let it "work." But Hannah Anderson cuts through that knot of self very effectively, and I suspect her book will be working on me (ripening) for a long time. I hope it will do the same for others who long for rest.

I received an electronic copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: A Bird, a Girl, and a Rescue

A Bird, a Girl, and a Rescue by J. A. Myhre
New Growth Press (2016); 128 pp.

I wasn't into adventure stories as a kid, but A Bird, a Girl, and a Rescue might well have been an exception. I certainly relished it at the age of 33!

While there's riveting action, the novel isn't limited to Kiisa's rescue expedition on behalf of an abducted classmate. Most of all, this is a story about character, trusting God, and growing up. Without being moralistic or heavy-handed, Kiisa models walking in obedience, even when the path is unclear—even when obedience isn't fun.

In brief, A Bird, a Girl, and a Rescue is the story (a creation of seasoned missionary J. A. Myhre) of eleven-year-old Kiisa as she begins studying at a culturally unfamiliar boarding school. In addition to loneliness, Kiisa must deal with bullies, being the girl on the boys' football (soccer) team, and the threat of rebel forces who have no scruples about terrorizing children. There are even appearances by talking animals (the Messengers) who accompany Kiisa on her journey. I admit, this latter detail almost discouraged me from reading the book—I don't always enjoy fantastical elements. But I thought the bird Njili was a clever addition to the story, rather than the distraction I'd expected. Even with Njili's encouragement, Kiisa still has to walk by faith and figure out her next steps for herself!

Aside from simply talented storytelling, what I admired most was Myhre’s ability to forge a setting that felt both familiar and very new. For instance, for all the parts of Kiisa's world that were unfamiliar to me, I could identify with her anxieties about fitting into a new community. This meant that the plot sucked me in from the first pages, and I think the same would be true for lots of kids.

While I'm not an expert on middle grades/young adult literature, I think this book would be enjoyed by many preteens, as well as those a little older or younger. It could also be a wonderful story for families to read and talk about together (indeed, given some of the frightening events, that might be a good idea for younger kids). By all means, enjoy this story for yourself, then pass it along to a niece or a kid at church. You'll both be edified as you see God at work among the Messengers and in Kiisa’s courageous heart.

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

Friday, May 6, 2016

Choosing Academia: Some Cautionary Notes

Awkward prologue, because I don't feel like making it a separate post:

In recent weeks, I've been surprised by the grief I've felt over my student years coming to an end. Until now, I'd mostly focused on the relief of putting this fiasco behind me, not to mention enjoying our new puppy and attending to other life stuff. But a couple things have brought a pang of sadness. 
A student who has been here longer than I have, someone I've considered a model grad student and one of the few women to graduate recently, just successfully defended her dissertation. I'm so pleased for her, and it has also reminded me how I used to imagine my triumphant dissertation defense, the sense of camaraderie with my professors-turned-colleagues, and the celebration with friends afterward. That picture became less triumphant and celebratory as the years went on, until I didn't really have a picture anymore.

I've also had coffee recently with a history scholar who impressed me very much -- not only is she a professor, she's also a young mom, a rare female academic from my Reformed circles, and involved with the founding of an interesting new theological institute. (In other words, a rockstar in my eyes!) Talking with her reminded me of things I had hoped for myself -- which reminded me, in turn, that I have no idea what my next steps are, what I have to contribute. Generally speaking, I am not anxious about this. However, that doesn't mean I'm not still grieving . . . thinking about how things might have been different, if I had made different choices and received different mentorship.

The two hardest things, I'm realizing, are the relational aspect and the sense of falling short of my potential. Far from a sense of camaraderie, there's a sense that, with a notable exception or two, my relationships with faculty weren't what I thought they were. And then, the sense that I do have a decent piece of historical scholarship in me, but I couldn't bring it to fruition. I'd still like to write it someday. I'm just not sure when, what about, or under whose guidance.
Anyway, there's just a lot on my mind as graduation looms. (I don't plan on attending commencement for my consolation Masters, for a number of reasons.)


There are many posts and articles out there (and even entire blogs!) giving reasons not to attend graduate school. Some are well worth reading and taking under consideration, and I'll reiterate one or two similar points here. However, that's not the type of post I'm primarily interested in writing. Instead, I want to raise some questions I believe are worth asking, and cautions worth considering, before committing to grad school in general, or to any specific program or mentor.

Keep in mind that my advice is colored by painful experiences that are quite fresh, that I am only familiar with programs in the humanities fields, and that things vary widely from program to program. It's always important to gather a variety of input when considering a Ph.D. These are simply things I wished I had known, or had taken more seriously, at various points in my journey. (Note that I am glossing over major issues such as funding and the job market, as discussion of these topics is easy to find online.) All that said, here are several thoughts I've collected over the past few months.

Choosing Grad School

--It is hard for me to encourage anyone to enter graduate school driven solely, or even primarily, by love of their subject. Certainly, passion is important, but "I could read theology for hours" might not sustain you if other motives, like the desire for an academic career, are flagging. Keep in mind that, for most people, the demands of a graduate program do not allow the time or flexibility for leisurely absorption of books that interest you. While graduate seminars can sometimes be invigorating, they also involve a lot of glorified book reports as you and your peers stumble through classroom facilitation. Consider whether you could read more deeply in your areas of interest on your own. If the "guild" issues are important to you, you can always purchase a scholarly journal subscription or two. I realize I sound cynical about the value of a graduate education. I don't mean to suggest that it's worthless -- only that the romanticized image of "the intellectual life" ought to be laid to rest.
--Are you determined to teach on the university level? In many ways, this is the only compelling reason to pursue a PhD. 
--Are you good at seeking out mentors -- even to the point of making a slight nuisance of yourself? I had never struggled to connect with mentors in the past, so I didn't realize this was a problem until rather late in the game. The difference was that, at earlier stages of my education, I was swimming in smaller ponds and drew mentors to myself with seemingly little effort. I took it for granted that I would always find someone who understood my goals, with whom I could communicate well. In grad school, however, I never learned how to take the initiative to find that person. It never occurred to me to drop by a professor's office unless I was seriously struggling. So, I'm not a great person to advise on this, except to suggest that you enter grad school with a networking mindset instead of expecting to be taken under someone's wing. (This may have something to do with the male-dominated environment of many programs. I don't know.)

--If you have struggled with depression and/or anxiety in the past, remember that grad school offers triggers aplenty. Get a support system in place from the very beginning, even if that simply means finding a general practitioner you trust. Try to take these steps before you'll need them, because when you're in the thicket of a depression, reaching out for those resources will feel like a monumental task. Please don't take it lightly -- a Ph.D. isn't worth wrecking your health. Even if you aren't especially susceptible to these things, learn to be comfortable asking for help and making a distinction between your academic success and your self-worth.

Choosing a Program (a.k.a. Departmental Politics)

--A cheerful campus visit doesn't necessarily tell you much about the culture/dynamics of a department. Consider that disaffected faculty or students may not be hanging around where you can see them. If a demoralized student must come to campus, trust me, she'll try to avoid the entire half of campus where she might run into colleagues and be forced to exchange academic pleasantries. (You can sometimes spot these individuals -- they're the thirty-somethings slinking shame-facedly across campus with tote bags full of overdue library books.) It's hard to suggest a way around this, except to encourage you to seek contact with students who have been in the program for several years; don't just have coffee with some starry-eyed first-years and assume you have a read of the campus climate. (More seasoned students are probably less plugged into campus activities and therefore less likely to be involved in outreach to prospective students.)

--Any department committed to placing graduates in jobs will give you opportunities to gain teaching skills. Will your department offer you work as a Teaching Assistant, at minimum? At whose discretion are these, and adjunct positions, assigned? Are there any invisible hoops you'll be expected to jump through, or people whose good opinion you'll need to secure, in order to get these assignments? Again, these are questions to raise with students who've reached Candidacy status.

--Has the department redesigned its program recently, or are they in the process of doing so? Ask questions and proceed with caution, especially if this has occurred multiple times in recent memory. (Over the course of six years in my program, the program was restructured numerous times depending on who was in charge. This meant that a student handbook was never completed, and things like exam reading lists were difficult to get one's hands on in a timely manner. It produced needless frustration and anxiety among students.) If a program is seeking to increase their profile among other programs, or if even a few faculty have this ambition, it becomes easier for struggling students to fall through the cracks.

Choosing an Advisor

--Picking an advisor can be so difficult, because your classroom interaction with a professor isn't necessarily the best indicator for how an advising relationship will go. Simply hearing them talk about their standards and expectations for the advising relationship isn't enough, because reality doesn't always match aspirations. The more relevant question is: do they have a track record of successful advising?  Don't hesitate to ask a potential advisor up front how many dissertations they've advised to completion -- you have every right to know. Can you speak with some current and former advisees about their experiences? Remember that you can always ask a relatively untested faculty member to serve on your dissertation committee, and even work closely with them, without banking on him or her to be the gatekeeper for your future career. In general, be cautious about asking a freshly tenured faculty member to be your primary advisor, even (or especially?) if they're a rising star.

--Be very clear with your intended advisor about such things as frequency of meetings, amount of written feedback to expect, and his or her availability over the summer.

--Encouragement is important. There is a well-known ex-academic blogger who writes something to the effect that you should avoid choosing the kindly advisor who remembers your birthday and bakes you cookies. There may be some truth to this, especially for the career-minded student in a ruthless market. However, an advisor should be a fundamentally decent human being with a teaspoon of empathy (e.g., he or she recognizes that there is life outside of academia), or it's probably not worth the suffering.
--Do you have at least two (TENURED) backup possibilities in case something goes awry? One backup in case advising goes poorly, another in case someone retires abruptly, etc.?

--Are there procedures to follow if something goes poorly with your advisor? Especially if your advisor is someone you like and have enjoyed working with in the past, it's easy to think, "That won't happen to me." Not to mention, this person is probably a major reason you chose this Ph.D. program (i.e., you basically uprooted your life for them). But consider having a conversation about what to do if things aren't going well, and at what point to make that determination (hint: earlier is better!). Though it will be awkward, your professor and department should be willing to let you switch to someone else, if it means the difference between your finishing or not.
--Even if your intended advisor says they don't want to give you a topic, don't take that at face value -- they want you to work on something that's interesting to them and that's in their methodological wheelhouse. I suspect that much can be forgiven or glossed over if you're writing something they're personally invested in seeing published. Take this into account when deciding who to work with.
--If your advisor was a "golden boy" (or girl) in graduate school and is relatively young in career, it's worth thinking about whether they understand what it is like to struggle academically. It's a bit galling to hear from a tenured, much-honored, up-and-coming professor that "You tried, there's no shame in walking away," or "Sometimes it's the more courageous thing to let go."
--Will your advisor be sufficiently invested in your success to vouch for and support you if your path to scholarship doesn't unfold in a traditional way, or in the way they would prefer? Again, sadly, this can be difficult to discern at the outset. Going back a couple of years, I recall being asked things like, "Is this what you really want to be doing?" or "Does the thought of quitting bring relief?" Not bad questions, in and of themselves, but I now see how they helped to undermine my confidence from an early stage. I don't recall hearing things like, "This is a bit of a mess right now, but you've put a lot of effort in, and we'd like to see you graduate, so let's figure out how to make that happen." Hearing something like that would have meant a great deal to me and possibly been a turning point toward graduating. I was actually a bit shocked when I heard that advisors who say such things allegedly exist!

--To put it more succinctly: don't pick an advisor who will make it their business to decide if you belong in the field/on the market or not. Find out up front--will they do what they can to help you finish your degree, even if your dissertation isn't Oxford University Press material? Do they recognize that not everyone wants the same things from their academic experience and future career?
Again, so much of this is reflective of my own particular struggles and disappointments. Plenty of people have had dramatically different experiences. To sum it up, though: don't be idealistic about the dynamics you'll encounter in academia. Only you can decide if the Ph.D. is ultimately worth it to you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Final "Dissertation Notes."

When I last updated about ten weeks ago, I was coming to grips with my advisor’s rejection of my dissertation drafts and the dilemma this presented. It was the beginning of a slow, stressful, at times surprisingly gracious process of figuring out what to do next—both what was possible and what I actually wanted.

To simplify the story: I felt it worthwhile to try to find common ground with my advisor, but we couldn’t come to an agreement about the way the past year or two have unfolded, much less the advisability (…in more than one sense) of my trying to forge ahead. I spoke with various people both inside and outside the department, trying to determine if there was a way around the impasse, but also just wanting others to hear what happened. (I’m aware of a couple instances of greater injustice my colleagues have experienced, and it doesn’t seem there’s been much help for them.) While I hope these conversations won’t prove entirely unfruitful, they didn’t yield a clear fix for my situation. This was largely what I had expected. While I could have gone through a review process that didn’t include my advisor, it became clear that this wouldn’t solve much, and that I was unlikely to receive much guidance toward finishing my dissertation, even if I somehow won approval to keep going. By March, it looked like my options were to withdraw from the program “voluntarily” or be dismissed. At the last minute, I asked if I could at least wrangle a Master’s degree out of the deal, which met with a surprisingly positive response, and let me avoid the pain of officially dropping out. So I am graduating, just not with the degree I wanted. It’s certainly a better outcome than I had come to expect, and I am grateful for that. Leaving with a diploma is so much better than walking away with nothing to show for my time at this university.

I am almost unbearably conflict-averse, so facing this ordeal was really, really difficult, even when parts of it were conducted over email. (Seriously, I've never felt so physically ill over hitting "Send" before.) A few years ago, I would likely have let myself be strung along indefinitely, or pushed out without a fight. I certainly don't think I would have asked for the Master's. So I hope my overall handling of the situation is itself a positive.

I do not want to suggest that I was faultless in the way this mess unfolded. There are numerous things I could have done differently and better, dating back to the spring of 2012. I’m also certain that, in his mind, my advisor did everything he reasonably could to support and motivate me toward finishing. I suspect it was a glaring mismatch from the beginning—something I couldn’t have known when I moved here to work with him in 2010. If I could have found a way to get a different advisor (something that faculty turnover made virtually impossible), things might have turned out very differently. There were unwise choices, as well as a series of unhelpful developments that just happen in graduate programs.

Not all of those were without unintended blessings. In 2014 a (different) department chair had made a unilateral decision, based on his classroom interactions with me, that I shouldn’t work as an adjunct instructor or even a Teaching Assistant. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of his assessment, perhaps God used that disappointment to prepare me for later ones. At that point, I started detaching myself from the fantasy of becoming a college professor; I settled into my library job and didn’t really look back. So when it became clear that I wasn’t going to graduate with a Ph.D., it was easier to accept the closing of the door on one avenue of employment. It was even a bit of a relief—the academic job market is terrifying! Still, I might have made a good teacher, or learned to be one—will I ever have the opportunity to find out for sure?

Similarly, I probably won’t have the opportunity to publish a book in my favorite series of academic monographs, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Whatever my advisor’s estimation of my abilities, I think perhaps I could have done it. These are the kinds of things that are especially painful to reflect upon, and make me wonder if I will ever be able to think back on the failed dissertation and doctorate without sadness. It isn’t so much about the loss of the title and status of “Dr.”

Some of this ties into the way that graduate school and the academic vocation colonize your identity. I was always adamant that this would not happen to me, but it’s quite difficult to resist assimilation into that mindset, and to extricate yourself from it when it proves necessary. People have often lost jobs and/or changed careers by the time they are my age (multiple times, even). But somehow, after sinking your entire young adulthood into academics, you become convinced that it’s the only thing you can do, and you reach a point where it’s hard to say which is the more horrible prospect: prolonging the struggle in the slim hope of landing that teaching position, or breaking free into the unknown. The latter takes on an aspect of existential failure that is absurd on its face, yet so difficult to shake.

I can say that I am feeling more hopeful than bitter or ungrateful. The dream was to pursue a Ph.D., and I got to do that, and gain much in the process. It brought us to a life in St. Louis in which we are content. There are disquieting moments when I ponder that I am 33 years old, yet my sense of what I am truly good at, and what I genuinely like doing, is possibly more clouded than it was in my youth, not less. But I am trying to be thankful that I am not in charge of the bigger picture; and, in a way, it isn’t even my business how God will ultimately use me. It isn’t about finding an idealized “fit,” or even about me, but about God being glorified in my weakness and failures. And about serving him with thankfulness, even if it doesn’t measure up to the peculiarly overhyped notion of “doing what you love.”

This is not to suggest that I consistently wax philosophical about this. My emotions don’t always reflect what I think—or hope—is the truth of the situation. I’m still struggling with anxiety. But—the Lord is faithful. That means something real, even when it doesn’t feel like much. As my pastor Ben wrote to me awhile back, "Who knows how much satisfaction we'll get out of it in this life, but whatever we may say, we can know this: it will not have been futile.  He is putting futility in the grave and redeeming every last wincing effort on our parts. . . . If that's not true, then none of it is."

* * * 

I really enjoyed the weekly dissertation blogging last fall. I always looked forward to it and never found it a burden. From where I sit now, it’s difficult to imagine coming up with enough ideas to sustain a weekly blogging habit. It might be that this season of life just doesn’t lend itself to this particular medium. Still, I hadn’t imagined that writing about my dissertation would temporarily revive my blog, so I guess we will see. I appreciate everyone who took the time to follow along—I’m still kind of amazed that more than three people read those posts!

I do have some lingering thoughts about graduate school in general (what can I say . . . it's hard to let go!), so I will probably write those soon.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

January 7 dissertation notes (week whatever).

The first full week of January is probably the low point of the year for me. After spending weeks anticipating Christmas break—an island of respite in the midst of the academic year—the stretch of restful family time is quickly past, and then there are no “islands” in sight for many months. Creaking back into routine can feel so dispiriting. The fact of it being a new year isn't particularly interesting or energizing. (I'm such an Eeyore.) But I’m thankful for the two weeks of peace I got. At the time of my last dissertation post, I was downright sick with the anxiety, but it subsided not long after, and it hasn’t reached the same pitch since then, even when I had to return to campus this Monday. Very thankful.

I don’t have a great deal to update you on, really. After the December 21 post, I did take some intentional space away from the whole question of finishing the Ph.D., and that was helpful. As the new semester gets underway, I’ve been talking with Kevin, and begun reaching out to a few people for counsel—both classmates and professors (not ones on my dissertation committee), and people who know me well outside of academia. I have been leaning a certain way, but Kevin agreed with me that talking through things with people won’t hurt, if only as a “sanity check” to make sure I’m asking the right kinds of hard questions, and not overlooking some obvious recourse that may be available to me. The common observations I’ve heard have been 1.) I’ve often been miserable, and the past three years have clearly taken a toll; 2.) It looks like I haven’t been advised very well, and it’s hard to see how that will change; and 3.) It’s a lot of hard work to walk away from. All of which I knew, of course, but it’s useful to hear what comes up consistently.

Anyway, I’m still in a sort of data-gathering/reflection mode, at least for the next week, and I don’t plan to post about all of that while it’s still in process. (Don’t worry, I am not going to drag out the decision indefinitely, if that were even possible.) In the meantime, I truly am glad to continue hearing from friends—it all helps, trust me.

Now for something a little different—have you guys read Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung? It was actually in my queue of things to read soon, and it’s proven to be more apropos than anticipated. Heh. It’s a short little book, probably targeted to adults a bit younger than me, and it really packs a punch. DeYoung’s argument is that Christians of my generation tend to overspiritualize our decision-making, which makes following God more mysterious than it is meant to be. It isn’t God’s way to show us the future; he tells us over and over again that he wills for us to seek wisdom, becoming more Christlike as we walk in obedience. That’s what it looks like to be in God’s will. It’s not that God isn’t sovereign over all of our lives, but it doesn’t follow that we are supposed to agonize over what his specific plan might be—when facing an important life decision, we should study Scripture, pray, seek counsel, and feel free to choose one way or the other.

There’s more to it than that, but I suggest just reading it. I knew this stuff, more or less, but it’s surprisingly difficult to retrain the fretful old habits.