When I started this crazy college journey, I wrote a post with my top ten lessons from the first two weeks. In it, I share, with the honesty of an eighteen-year-old, some of the things that I hadn’t realized would be so prevalent in my transition away from home and into autonomy. Some of them are particularly nuanced to my specific move into a Christian, higher education space, but some of them are universally applicable when it comes to general transitions. The fact that relationships take time, small talk is necessary, and it’s important to be real with people are things that feel and have felt important beyond my first couple weeks in a freshman dorm.
Some transitions are more daunting than others. Going away to college is a big one, especially as teenagers stand on the precipice of the “emerging adulthood” life stage. It is an incredible experience, in every sense of the word. Incredibly hard. Incredibly rewarding. Incredibly formative. Going away to a Christian college is a sort of experience in and of itself – full of its own trials, quirks, and blessings. You may not wake up to someone’s 3am hangover vomit in the elevator (a frequent experience for my sister at a secular school); it’s more likely that you’ll awkwardly pass an affectionately termed “lobby couple” breaking up or making out as you go back and forth to get your laundry. Or will find yourself most silenced when a guy throws a poor exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:12 in your face and says you probably shouldn’t go into ministry. Or when spirituality gets mixed with hormones and you don’t know how to proceed with a crush when you’re trying to simultaneously “step out in boldness” and “trust God’s timing” (the sort of things I was thinking about when I wrote posts like 5 Truths I Learn when I have a Crush) – because let’s face it, there’s nothing sexier than when the intelligent guy in class, who also plays on your intramural sports team, happens to walk into the prayer chapel with his guitar. Those are the kinds of strange things you wrestle with when you transition into a Christian college.
I’m graduating from Wheaton college with my undergraduate degree in three weeks. Even though I have another year to finish my masters at the graduate school, I’ve come to acknowledge that Wheaton won’t look or feel the same next year. I’m entering into a period of transition, not just over the next few weeks but into the upcoming year. The past four years in this place have shaped and formed me in more ways that I can express. If someone had asked me to picture my life in 2017, way back in the fall of 2013, it would not have looked like this, by any stretch of the imagination. There are places where the Lord has done above and beyond what I could have anticipated and places where I’m face to face with my own failure, disappointment, or unanswered prayers. That’s the tension of transition. With that, it felt fitting to bookend this time with more lessons that I’ve learned over the past four years in the special, broken, amazing, crazy place that is Wheaton College. . .
1. Remember that wherever you are maintains a level of imperfection, full of imperfect people and imperfect circumstances.
I came into school with a level of expectation – most of which I hadn’t realized. Some of it came out of season of boldness in prayer, believing the Lord and expecting certain things of Him. Some of it is just the nature of entering into a new space. We hold dreams, desires, and visions of what a place will be, of who the people we’re in relationship with will be. The hopes are important in driving us to particular things and in giving us a sense of expectation for the Lord’s movement. The problem becomes when we weigh everything against our sense of expectation, when we’re unable to cope when things fail us. Because they inevitably will. There will be rejection, hurt, and things that we thought would or would not happen that did (or didn’t). We need to learn to acknowledge unmet expectation and grieve the loss of our dreams in a way that doesn’t hold those things as offenses against God or others.
2. Don’t forget to give yourself grace; failure isn’t a bad thing because it leads to humility.
With that, it’s also important to remember that you’ll face a level of personal failure. I don’t know that there’s been anything more formative in my pursuit of humility than the ways I’ve failed at Wheaton. There were relationships that I royally screwed up, classes that were a weekly struggle to get through (shoutout to calculus), times where I was wholly dependent on others, opportunities where the door was slammed in my face (which happened as recently as this morning), places that I dropped the ball, hurt others, and altogether missed the mark. In a world where it often feels like I’m balancing spinning plates, I’ve broken my fair share and often had to watch as they crashed to the floor. It’s easy to question your worth, the Lord’s desire to use you, and your general sense of competency. It’s easy to compare and to feel behind. These are the places that either become debilitating moments of paralyzing inadequacy or springboards for humility. Because when we ask the Lord to make us more humble, for “His power to be made perfect in our weakness,” that means we have to step into those places of weakness. Where we can’t do it, where we face rejection, inability, and inadequacy. In these places, we have to choose whether to make it about us or dwell in the grace He lavishes on us and rest in the trustworthiness of His glory.
3. Lean into the discomfort of identity (re)formation.
Not knowing who you are, where you’re going, or what you have to offer is a terrible feeling. When you’re stripped of all confidence and the things that used to make you “you,” it’s easy to feel like all the lights have been turned off. It can feel like you’re groping around in the dark for what once felt secure regarding your sense of identity. In my experience, transition seems to catapult this experience faster than most other things; once minute, you feel confident, comfortable, secure, and rooted, and the next you’ve been put in the middle of something unfamiliar and unstable. Who you are feels different because the setting is different; more than that, who you’ll be at the end of an experience will be different too, if you allow yourself to engage in the often uncomfortable process of growth. It’s important to establish a sense of core identity – who you are at the foundation of your being. The sort of things that are true even when you look back on home videos from your childhood; the pieces of your heart, personality, and strengths that go with you in every situation and relationship. And then with the rest of it? Be okay watching it shift and change in often uncomfortable ways. It’s like when a kid gets braces put on – it’s the gradual and often painful mechanism that is shifting the position of the teeth. We have the constant potential to change and shift, even more so when we put ourselves in new situations and relationships, putting on a new pair of metaphorical braces, and allowing it all to change us.
4. Don’t be afraid to let your worldview, ideologies, and opinions change.
If there’s one thing that’s changed in the past four years it is my views on things. I think that’s how it should be when you are encountering new people, settings, and experiences that should put your previous opinions in disequilibrium. My view on things surrounding sexuality, LGBTQ+, and gender have changed as I became friends with new people, wrestled with people through their questions, and engaged in Biblical exegesis from a different lens. I have different opinions on how we should respond to the refugee crisis and immigration because of my work with a resettlement agency and interactions with Muslims and our local Islamic center. I don’t read the Bible the same way I did four years ago. My thoughts about abortion, alcohol, and “calling” are more nuanced and complex than they were in 2013. I don’t view ministry, economics, or people who live in suburbia the same way. My views on feminism, gender roles, race, cultural appropriation, and the history of the church is different than it was back when I graduated highschool. For as many questions as the past four years have answers, they’ve caused me to ask a million more. There’s a humility involved in acknowledging that you may have it wrong. But that’s the tension we’re called to walk – holding positions with conviction and being able to argue for them with sound reasoning, good Biblical exegesis, and deep roots of wisdom, but also, holding them loosely. That’s not to say that we’re relativists or don’t stand on truth – it means that we know what is absolutely core and we’re able to dialogue with humility, civility and open-mindedness about everything else. There are things that four years ago that I would have stood by as unshakeable truth but I’m so glad there was a level at which I was willing (or, if not willing, able) to engage with an open mind. New perspectives, experiences, and relationships have shaped me and my worldview for the better and into a more holistic (albeit still flawed) picture of the Kingdom of God.
5. Comparison really is the thief of joy (and comparison gets a lot easier when you’re around a bunch of really talented, beautiful, spiritual people who have things that you want).
People gave me advice before I came to Wheaton, cautioning me to be aware of the particular tendencies towards comparison at a Christian institution. Everyone was valedictorian of their graduating class, everyone has a heart for the marginalized, everyone runs marathons on the weekends. Everyone is the best, the smartest, the prettiest, the most athletic, and the most passionate. Everyone is also “the most spiritual.” When your identity formation becomes a measurement against the people around you, you’re wading into dangerous waters. The problem is this often happens subconsciously. Half of the time, you don’t even realize you’re waist deep in the waters of comparison because it’s so subtle – it’s the passing thoughts about someone else’s looks, the quick jab in your mind about their intelligent answer, or the eye roll when you find out so-and-so is in a relationship. Then when you find yourself drowning in questions of what makes you worth loving, special, and valuable, it’s harder to fight for truth because the lies have snuck their way into daily thought patterns. It’s hard to fight for joy when you’re feeling less than everyone else. Not as caring, pretty, intelligent, attentive, deep, or funny. . .which is probably why you don’t have the job, the boyfriend/girlfriend, bank account, relationship with God, or instagram-worthy life. Those are the kind of thoughts that take up heart space and kill confidence, joy, and any sort of real movement forward in what the Lord is doing in your life.
Also, if I’m being honest, a corollary to this would be that overthinking is often a nicer word used to justify comparison. Just saying.
6. Prioritize well.
Sort out what your priorities are before everything starts competing to be one. Writing out priorities at every level of life – overall life priorities, priorities in this season, priority of relationships – can be helpful in offering a continual litmus test for where your time, attention, and heart space is oriented towards. We talk about this all the time in teaching ESL: every course, unit, and individual lesson needs objectives and those objectives need to be measurable. Give yourself a list of goals, intentions, and priorities when you transition into something new. Vague priorities will be helpful in giving you a general sense of where the track is (i.e. saying that you’re prioritizing academics can mean any number of things but is clearly measurable if you’re failing classes). Specific priorities are helpful in giving you tangible markers and tasks that you’re committed to executing. Realistic goal setting. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to establish both. Asking myself what my objectives are, who do I want to be or have accomplished at the end of a season, gives me a better sense of specific things that I can prioritize, engage with, or pursue to achieve those specific ends. What are you doing, why are you doing it, and what are you ultimately oriented towards?
7. Loving well means being listening actively and attentively, asking hard questions, and caring without pretense.
I’ve spent four years in close, intense community. I’ve learned how to confront conflict, bring up minor grievances, and speak honestly about how I’m doing. As someone who used to tend towards passive aggressive confrontation, I’ve learned that loving doesn’t mean shying away from things that feel tense or difficult. Asking hard questions and not being afraid to challenge others, in ways that are humble and appropriate, is a profound way of expressing love. I’ve also learned that there’s nothing better than feeling known, especially when it’s in a context something like sitting around a table laughing uncontrollably. We’re called to care deeply for others and to engage in committed, intimate relationships where others feel known and loved. That doesn’t come from sweeping things under the rug or pretending that life is always rosy. Listening to others in a way that makes them feel heard doesn’t mean that you’re just a person with working ears; attentive listening means creating a space that allows people the time and safety involved in sharing what feels most helpful to them. It means valuing stories as the most precious thing we carry with us – things that are deeply personal and emotional. Knowing whether someone needs space to cry, verbally process, or just watch a movie in silence takes listening, discernment, and a selflessness that prefers someone else’s needs.
8. Caring for people doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t create emotional boundaries.
I used to think that caring for others meant that I needed to be fully emotionally available. That I could carry any and all problems that they would throw at me – feeling the full emotional weight of them in prayer, thought, and interactions. I assumed that having deeply empathetic sensitive meant that I was being called into emotional and empathetic engagement with everyone, at all times. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was emotionally exhausted and oftentimes feeling things at a level that the person themselves might not even be feeling. I assumed this meant that I was loving well, doing real and hard ministry; so much of it was just that I had refused to set up emotional boundaries and rhythms of personal soul care. Carrying things for people is important and heavy and a part of engaging in deep relationships with others, but it doesn’t mean that people should be allowed to put everything on you. There’s a difference between being the person that someone could call at 2am if they need you and being the person that someone is calling at 2am every night. Setting boundaries, in terms of personal time, physical space, and emotional weight, ultimately helps you better care for others and lead them into caring for themselves.
For example, a year ago I had a conversation with a friend where I confessed to her that it was getting hard for me to hear her verbal processing about her dating relationship; there was this sense of anytime something happened, she’d text, call, or tell me. It was becoming a daily thing I was being asked to carry, in the midst of my own emotional prayers about singleness and submission of personal desires for marriage, companionship, and dreams of mutual ministry with a husband. I’d hesitated having the conversation, afraid she’d stop talking to me about her personal life altogether – it wasn’t that I didn’t want to hear about her life or her relationship, it was just the frequency and intensity was becoming too much and too one-sided. She needed to know where I was at. It proved to be one of the most mutually beneficial conversations. Not only did it give her the chance to love me well, it also convicted her in the level at which she was depending on me over the Lord. We’ve been able to carry each other’s emotional burdens better and in mutually healthy ways since then. Establishing emotional boundaries walks a fine line, but it’s worth wrestling with, since it’s impact on relationships pays dividends.
At the end of the day, all of life, including transitions, are about being near to the Lord and knowing Him. If I’m not learning how to love Him more, receive His love for me, and love others better, then what am I doing? As I face the impending transition into my future, I’m taking these lessons with me. I’m not who I was four years ago – praise the Lord. There’s been a lot of life lived within the 60187 zip code and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for my faithful, gracious Savior who has moved, loved, and sustained me in this place.
As a Christian Education and Ministry major (the best decision of sophomore year), I have the privilege of going to department chapel in the Billy Graham Center museum. We meet in the rotunda, a dimly lit circle where we congregate to worship, pray, and listen to a 30-minute message, tailored to us as CE students. It’s one of my favorite chapels of the semester. Although, it should be; if any department would know how to do chapel right, it’s the one devoted entirely to cultivating spiritual formation in students.
Last semester, our chapel speaker was an education professor who works with special needs students. He is also a messianic Jew. Drawing from his roots, he spoke on the shema and the significance behind that prayer. It was a beautiful talk, but then again, we have lots of those at a place like Wheaton College. You could say we’re a little spoiled when it comes to the breadth and variety with which we hear and engage the Gospel.
While what he said was interesting and thoroughly presented, and I still have his beautifully printed handout hanging on my wall, months later I don’t remember the specifics of what he said. It wasn’t the uniqueness of his message that touched on a deep heartstring. It was how, or better yet where, he delivered it from. He sat in the middle of the rotunda circle. Sat, not stood. He planted his PhD, tenured professor rear end in the middle of a circle of undergraduate students because that is where his son was sitting. This professor had brought his entire family along to chapel, a wife and several kids. They helped him lead worshipped and proceeded to work on felting craft projects as their dad spoke. All except for the youngest.
Probably two years old, the youngest little boy, with his curly blonde hair and toddling legs, found himself thoroughly amused with the marble slab in the center of the rotunda. Toddling on unstable legs, he’d dance around a bit until losing his footing and falling over. A little crying, a little laughing would ensue in the distracting show that this little fellow was putting on. The undergrad students were giggling under their breath too. The irony of hearing about this reverent prayer on God’s holiness, albeit a communal one, was not lost on us students.
Growing up in contexts where kids are often viewed as nuances or distractions, I was subconsciously prepared for one of two responses: either this professor would just ignore the shenanigans of his child, waiting until he got bored with being the center of attention and rejoined his older siblings (all the while, secretly hoping students would retain something from his presentation that we obviously weren’t focused on) OR he’d motion to his wife to take the unruly child out of the room (another classic response in my heteronormative church experiences).
Yet, this professor did something that I hadn’t anticipated. He went and sat down next to his child. Putting his arm around the squirmy two-year old, the education professor shifted his tone, his attention, and his gaze to his child. Speaking in smaller words, looking at his son, he began directing parts of his talk towards the two year old. Words about God’s love for us. His nature as One. The call to bind His words on their bodies and doorposts.
It was in that moment I understood the shema like no lecturer had explained it before. No longer was I focused on the words or the Hebrew, but I was getting a tangible example of what it looks like to be loved by the God of the universe. To have Him come and sit next to me in my mess – with all it’s joy and all it’s pain. To have Him speaking both to the entire nation, entire body, entire community and to just me simultaneously.
Because the Lord, our God, the I Am who I Am, is also our Abba. And he loves us so very, very much. It’s not always about my deep processing or fully understanding all that He’s doing – sometimes, in my desperate, and often prideful attempts for Him to notice me, to be pleased with me, He invites me to just be with Him. To just be near my Abba because at the end of the day, that’s all my soul is really aching for.
I’ve been reading through the Bible over the past few months, but during the past week of spring break, I took a little hiatus. Galavanting across Europe and changing hostels every night made it hard to find moments alone with the Lord, much less in a state where I was awake enough to pay attention to a text. With the phrase “your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness stretches to the skies” stuck in my head, I decided I’d spend the next week meditating on whatever psalm that was from. It would be a nice change of pace from my four chapters of Old Testament a day (currently in the middle of Numbers) and manageable, given the pace of our travels.
Turns out, that phrase is from Psalm 36.
1 I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes.
2 In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin.
3 The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good.
4 Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong.
5 Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
6 Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep. You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
7 How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights.
9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
10 Continue your love to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart.
11 May the foot of the proud not come against me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
12 See how the evildoers lie fallen— thrown down, not able to rise!
The first time I read through this psalm, curled up on my borrowed sheets in a Brussels hostel, I found myself skimming down to verse five. After all, what had initially drawn me to this chapter was the call back to the Lord’s unfailing love. As I continued reading, I was captivated by the imagery of the highest mountains and great deep; I found myself re-reading those verses as we literally drove up the mountains of the Alps. How great is His righteousness, a word here which is synonymous with justice – and how meager is my understanding of that!
Yet, I wasn’t five minutes into my exploration of the beauty of this chapter when I was overcome with a sense of conviction. It was gracious, but firm: Maddie, you haven’t even read the first five verses. My eyes had found the word “wicked” and then immediately skipped down to “love.” It wasn’t even a conscious avoidance of the verses; I had unknowingly and subconsciously bypassed them because that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was here to sit in the love of the Lord, not read about His condemnation for the wicked – what relevance did that have to me, enjoying the spoils of a spring break with my best friends? Also, I was reading for personal meditation and communion with Jesus, not exegetical bible study or teaching; skimming over context seemed to matter less.
Imagine my chagrin when scanning back up to the first five verses, I was met with this:
In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin
That describes me and the posture of my heart everyday. Not only that, it cut to the heart of why I skipped over those verses in the first place. My ability to flatter myself into thinking that I’m not capable of being a part of the “wicked” people this psalm is describing means that I’m, by definition, living into that. What’s more, I’m assuming that I can jump down to the Lord’s love and righteousness without acknowledging my own sin. Except that I can’t. It leaves me with a skimpy picture of just how deep and pervasive that love and justice is. It puts it on my terms, something that I can control and comprehend. It’s only when I realize just how deeply flawed I am, how quickly I turn from the Lord that I love, and how easily I delude myself into thinking that I have less need for forgiveness, grace, or redemption, that I better understand His steadfast love. It’s only then that I can truly look upon mountains in wonder, knowing His justice spans higher and wider. It’s a convicting reality, one that clearly I’m not always great at leaning into – but such is the nature of this journey.
What a beautiful psalm that gets at the truth of who we are and who He is (even if I was initially a little hesitant about acknowledging it).