By Anne Kerhoulas
The semester winds down, celebrations, endings, farewells, and fatigue sweep us into the early summer days. June always felt like a surprise. The summer had arrived. But the flash flood of the semester left me cleaned out, leaves and branches in my hair, and trying to reorient myself to where I had landed.
June always felt like a surprise. Surprise! The turning of a season. Surprise! You are another year older. Surprise! You have neglected your spiritual life. Surprise! You don’t actually know how to slow down.
I worked in college ministry for almost 6 years, and the first few summers were unbelievably challenging. I found myself showing up for our annual staff conference feeling apathetic, undisciplined, and certainly unprepared to lead younger women in their faith. But it turned out that I was rarely the only one. Colleagues struggled too, but students also rarely came back to campus exclaiming about their summer filled with rich community, deepened love of the Word, or fuller joy in Christ. No, summers were a desolate place through which students, and I, staggered.
As my second summer approached, I found myself dreading the downtime, the lack of rigorous structure, and the relational solitude, but also knowing I couldn’t continue at the sprinter’s pace of the semester. A classic catch-22. I needed rest. I needed solitude. I needed to take a spiritual inventory. But I was afraid of what and who I would find apart from my identity-giving tasks of preparing Bible studies and having discipleship meetings. The cycle of weeknights out teaching on campus, mornings in the office, and ongoing emotional care was taxing. And yet it gave me tangible meaning. Who was I when I wasn’t doing those things? And for my students, who were they when their google calendars were empty, they moved home to mom and dad and felt their student rhythm screech to a halt. Though I said it regularly to them, we were not so different.
It wasn’t until the third summer that I got serious about figuring out why I dragged through the off-season. Sure, there were the obvious snares of my identity being too closely-knit to my work, the challenge of actually slowing the train down (objects in motion tend to say in motion, after all), and struggling to know how to practically use my time with so little structure. But those were only the lid to the box. As I started to pray, think, and ask the Lord about why this should be so tough, He answered by helping me see unhealthy habits that land me with my annual June surprise.
Calvin famously began his Institutes with, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Though this might sound like a welcome dive into self-discovery or the spiritual validation that our Enneagram number really is critical information, Calvin is suggesting that to know God, we must know the depravity and desperate state of our fallen nature. We need to know our sinfulness to know God’s righteousness. But the fast pace of the academic calendar invited me to ignore stillness and solitude thinking I could slow down later. It is all too easy to be too busy to come face to face with the reality of our sinfulness.
Solitude is a faithful friend. It is something Christians must pursue regularly, not just when it is forced on them by a season change. Solitude forced me to watch myself wrestle with sinful patterns that had become so ingrained in my daily rhythm that I stopped questioning them. It was, and is, uncomfortable. It was painful to see myself. And yet, as Calvin reminds us, it is essential for our salvation to see our ugliness so we might see the splendor of Christ, and the staggering gift of grace. The author of Hebrews exhorts us, “to lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” Heb 12:1-2. But how can we run the race God has set for us when we are too busy running our own course? We must be people who actively slow down (stop even) to fix our eyes on Jesus who both created and will complete our faith. When we are still enough to catch a glimpse of the splendor of Christ and our need for him, we find the hope and desire to strip off the extra weight that clings to us.
Postponing emotional pain
Each semester brought emotional bumps. From bearing burdens with another sister to being wounded by them myself, knowing and being known will inevitably cause some pain. When I am hurt or upset or sad, I know I have a tendency to postpone my emotions simply because I have other stuff to do; another meeting to attend, another lesson to prepare-- I am the queen of compartmentalizing. But this is not wise. Ignoring emotional pain does not make it go away. It buries it and makes it more difficult to dig up and understand when you finally return to it. It is easy to pretend to be ok, it is hard to allow yourself to feel grief, betrayal, loneliness, or anger.
Rather than letting a few months worth of emotional processing surprise you, commit to creating space to be honest with how you feel, to bring your hurts to the Lord, and to pursue reconciliation quickly. As 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us, God reconciled himself to us so that we would take up the ministry of reconciliation. When we ignore emotional pain, we deny ourselves and our community the gift and practice of reconciliation and choose to harbor anger, resentment, and bitterness. We create a home for disunity. And it will eventually catch up with us. Summers were hard because I found myself trying to unravel a bundle of emotions that seemed indecipherable. I needed to unlearn the habit of compartmentalizing my emotions and pursue a faith that was presently embodied--a faith that didn’t deny the necessity of communication, honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If we are in Christ, we have infinite hope for reconciliation, but we must choose to show up for it.
A few years ago a friend of mine said to me at a coffee date that she really wanted to be my friend--wanted to see me more, talk about difficult things, deepen our love for one another. Maybe that sounds like a strange proposition--friendship in our culture is often nothing more than surface-level shared interest, but friendship should (and can) be so much more. Our relationship did grow. It flourished actually. In the busyness of life, I knew she was someone I could call on, be honest with, and who would show up for me. I think about that conversation a lot. Her intentionality in wanting to pursue a friendship with me made me want to be a better friend, made me want to check in with her, follow up on how a hard week had been, pray for her---all trappings of genuine Christian friendship.
One of the most disorienting realities of the summertime was the dramatic fall-off in social and relational connection. Despite what student’s often thought, being in their lives was an incredible blessing to me, not just to them. Hearing about challenges small and large, being in scripture together, talking about theological doubts, laughing about how far they had come--all the makings of friendship wrapped up in a mentoring relationship. What I realized over summer was how much I preached the gospel and the word of God to myself simply by reminding others of who Jesus was. Encouraging them encouraged me. I got to live in the story of the Bible day in and day out. I might be feeling discouraged in my own faith, but I found that caring for others, be interested in their lives, and pointing them to God inevitably deepened my own faith.
I have heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to friendship. But when you enter a few months of being away from your primary community, that is a time to be intentional, tell them you want to know them over the summer, hear how they are doing and deepen your spiritual friendship even in a season of being apart. Talk to a friend, ask them to pray, ask how they are growing in their faith, ask how they are struggling. Let the word of Christ dwell in your friendships richly.
Remember who you are and hold fast
Author Paul Tripp coined the phrase “functional atheist” to describe Christians who find themselves living as if God doesn’t exist when something trivial happens. Especially when I am moving quickly and my schedule is full, minor frustrations can turn into day-ruiners. But why? When I am living a “my kingdom come, and my will be done” lifestyle, my identity is primarily defined by either what I do or how I feel, and not by who God says I am. This is dangerous turf. When the busyness stops, I feel down and unproductive, suddenly I am wondering if God even loves me. If He did, why would he let me feel this way? Another dangerous step. When my identity is driven by my performance and emotions, I naturally start to relate to God based on how I feel or perform.
I need to remember who I am and hold fast to the truth. I love the refrain in Hebrews-- let us hold fast to the profession of our faith, for he who promised is faithful (10:23). If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ. You are who He says you are. You are a chosen person, a saint, forgiven, loved, made holy. I once heard a sermon on just the word benediction. It means “a good word.” God speaks a good word over you. But, as I heard almost weekly in college ministry, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel like I am loved or forgiven. What then? We need to actively choose to live in the story of the gospel rather than one that is about me. We might know God loves us, but we need to whisper it to our hearts, we need to massage the love of Christ into our uncertain chests. We need to decenter the story off of us, recenter it on Christ, and choose to agree with what our God says about us.