Saturday, September 15, 2012

10 Grad School Lessons

Ben and I had a really intense end of the semester last May. During the final weeks of the semester, both Ben and I completed our grad school work, I organized our college's board of trustees meeting, Ben closed down his dorm, we traveled to Philly for our graduation, hung out with some great friends, and then got to experience a wonderful and utterly refreshing trip to Florida for some major resting and relaxing.

I thought I would take this time to share some of our lessons on graduate school:
  1. The first lesson is know that you will eventually want to read a book again. It took a few months for me, but Ben was immediately drawn into some great books that we had put in our "read after grad school" pile. 
  2. Graduate school is hard. It is intense, overwhelming, encouraging, exciting, fulfilling, draining, etc. But at the end of the day, those two pieces of paper are something that you can smile at and be proud of. For those in the thick of it, all I can say is persevere. 
  3. Working on master's degrees at the same time as my spouse was intensely tough. The divorce rate for people getting their masters and doctorate degrees is insanely high. It was not easy. We both were stressed and overwhelmed and never felt like doing housework. We operated for two years in our shadow modes and well, that ain't pretty. (For those of you unaware of what a "shadow" is, stay tuned to an upcoming blog post about personality types). Benefit to you both completing yours masters is that you each get to be called "Master Swihart" around the house and that is pretty great.  
  4. If you have the opportunity to partake in a cohort based, residency program, we highly recommend it! We have made some solid, lasting friendship during our three weeks each of the two summers we spent in Uganda. I tried a limited residency in the US and while those friendship were great, they were not as strong as two solid years of working through the program together. 
  5. Know that the pursuit of His work brings forth great blessings. The abundance of support and knowledge that we experienced was life changing. 
  6. That being said, no, not everyone knew what it was like to balance work, being newlyweds, new jobs, full-time school, family, friends, etc. We heard the lines of "we miss you. Why aren't you guys ever around?" which I don't think our friends ever meant harm by saying, but it was tough not to feel guilty. We dearly wanted to hang out on the weekends, go out for dinner, have late night convos, but we honestly didn't have the strength. Not that school consumed us 24/7, but just the thought of our 25 page papers looming over our heads made life exhausting. We had to cut some things out of our lives in order to manage this short season of our lives, and after God, each other, and our work, our lives didn't have much energy left to give. 
  7. You learn a lot about yourself in graduate school. For me, the course I was most afraid of taking (applied research and evaluation) was one that became one of my favorite. And coincidentally the one I was most excited to take, and part of the reason for switching to the Africa co-hort (advocacy and human rights) was not one of my favorites. Don't let your expectations get the best of you.
  8. Build relationships with your professors and classmates from the start. The support of your peers is like nothing else. No one knows where you are in the process like your classmates. They all understand your hatred of numbers during your practical finance management class and are there to talk you through it. They are the ones who can explain the confusing assignments, or better yet, vent with you on the unclear instructions that sometimes occur because of the online learning format where you have to converse questions over email not in person.  
  9. A few months after you complete your degree, you may miss the intellectual conversations, books, challenging papers, etc. This is entirely normal and frankly, the sign that you did grad school the right way. If you reach this stage, connect with your fellow masters on Facebook or email chains. You can have a bond with these people for the rest of your lives, but it takes work. Send them encouraging TED talks, share troublesome areas, give them a chance to read a proposal your wrote. Give them a chance to get back "into" the knowledge fest and I am sure they will do the same for you. 
  10. Be sure to save up money to take breaks and quiet vacations. It is hard to do knowing that your student loans are piling up, but we found it helpful to have a fun activity to look forward to at the end of an eight week class. 
Overall, grad school is what you make it. And despite how it feels in the thick of it, time passes by so quickly. Savor it. Learn from it. Leave stronger and wiser.

The RedHead Did It

It was at a bachelorette party. It was a little odd. I was sort of a party crasher. My husband's two cousins (and also our great friends who we were in town visiting) were friends of the bride and invited me to tag along for the bachelorette party. The introvert in me was really tempted  to decline, but I knew the men wanted some "man time," and the party was going to include  getting pedicures, something I had never experienced. So, I tapped into my extroverted reserve and off we went to get our toes fancied up, eat some nice italian food and provide some fun lingerie to the bride.

During dinner, I was learning about these new people. Three of us were married, one was divorced, a few were single or had boyfriends, and then their was the lovely bride to be. Not that I typically focus on a person's marital status, but it is relevant to the post. As customarily happens at bachelorette/wedding showers, talk turned to marriage and giving the new bride some marriage advice. Then it happened... the red-head did it... with the candlestick... in the parlor... Or something like that. No, what she said was that she didn't understand why people said marriage was so hard. She said something along the lines that marriage between she and her husband is really great, that they never fight and are just "sooo" happy in the short years they have been married. AND WOW. All I could do was sit there in utter shock, picking up my jaw up off the table as this woman has just said everything I wish my marriage could be and never thought possible. Inside jealously stirred up and I just sat there thinking, "why can't my marriage be like that?!" And when she was asked why or how they could be so happy, she didn't have this great answer filled with wisdom. Rather, she just simply said, "we just don't fight" and all I thought in my head was you "lying *****. Is this possibly true? How is she so lucky!?"

The conversation went on as a few more people shared, but for many months now, the words of the red-head still fill my mind. The more I think about it, to me, she seems to be having an easy road...a way too easy and unfortunate road. Which has made me think and actually treasure my moments of conflict with my spouse. Why? Because I think conflict is productive. I don't run away from it. I am not inclined to avoid conflict. Rather, I am inclined to "talk about it" and sometimes to my fault, I spend much too much time talking and not listening to the other person. But yet, at the end of my long talks, I typically feel the Holy Spirit nudging me and revealing more about myself and how I can continue to become refined.

I utterly love my husband. And he drives me utterly crazy sometimes. But most of all, I am utterly thankful for the unconditional love that he gives me and his gentle nudges that show me how to a better person. And I hope I can become a little more gentle in my nudges too. Because without that gentle nudging, I don't think I will become a better person. At least not as quickly.

Maybe the red head and her husband have the gentle nudges figured out. And I really mean it when I say I hope she does. Because the beauty of marriage is having your best friend, the person who knows you so intimately, nudge you to become more like Christ each and every day.Marriage isn't easy. Marriage isn't always fun. However, to me, marriage is the best example of Christ's love on the face of this earth. It is a continual journey of growing and developing into a person worth of being called a Child of God.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Unity of Togetherness

In the middle of the summer, I got to experience being a mother for a short week to the sweetest, most enthusiastic little tomboy girl. It was a completely different experience from my typical selfish, "I want to do when I want to do" moment. The husband's cousins, and some of our dear friends, allowed us to take care of their little one for a whole week. Yup, an entire week in the hands of some rookie parents.

The husband and I took turns taking care of her every whim and desire. Perhaps the husband took a few more turns as I was at work from 8-5 and well, this little one has had him wrapped around her finger since pretty much her first breath. Be they nightmares or simply, "I am in a weird place and can't sleep" moments, we were there, together, comforting her sweet little heart. We got a short taste of what it means to literally take care of another being who cannot fully take care of themselves. We had a few midnight wakeups, some awkward "this is not my kid, I'm not sure how to handle this moment!" moments, lots of laughs and plenty of smiles that came with living with one of the smartest five year olds I have ever met for an entire week.

I will never forget that first moment when that sweet little girl bent forward to give me a goodnight kiss smack dab on the lips. My heart felt confused. Doesn't this little one know that I am a selfish human unworthy of her apparent unconditional love? Doesn't she know that when she woke me up in the middle of the night, it was Ben's turn to get up with her? Doesn't she know that I missed getting to watch my TV shows when she put on Spiderman and his Amazing Friends? No, she probably doesn't know that. All I know is that to this is the sweetest little thing I have ever come across and that she is so loving and trusting of us. All I know is that she, in this moment, was freely giving me love. All I know is that in these little moments, she chose to tell me "I love you" and my heart literally felt like it was melting deep inside of my chest.

And at the end of the week when she and her family drove away, we realized that the only way we got through it was together. Each of us paying attention to our God given strengths (and our different weaknesses) meant a unique experience of learning how to grow in harmony with a small human life that is so utterly aware of life's hardships, pain, challenges and, most importantly, life's love. Together, we saw the unconditional love of a sweet little one with a crazy amount of strength and energy. Together, we experienced a much more exciting week. Together, we tackled living with a five year old for a week... and here we are on the eve of her brother coming to experience his turn at the Swihart House. At least this time we know the secret. The only way to survive is doing it together because two are better than one.

p.s. I am totally going to be one of those mom's that tells everyone how amazing their kids are or how cute they are. For instance, my favorite moment of our time together:
Me: (after find crumbs in her bed) "E, did you eat a cupcake in the middle of the night?!"
E: "Yes... But I was jumping on the bed while eating it!"
How do you not smile at this little one?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hatred within our Christian Communities

I have recently stumbled upon Relevant magazine's social justice website "Reject Apathy.” As a student growing up in what I am calling my generation's social justice awakening period, Relevant was always a really great (and challenging) resource of progressive Christian culture. It also helped that their subscriptions only cost $14 a year which made it oh, so affordable for a 20-something year old. So when I stumbled upon their social justice publication's website, I was immediately hooked. Now, you may be wondering as a Relevant magazine fan, how could I have waited this long before learning of such a wonderful piece of the Relevant family? Well, all I can do is blame grad school and not being able to read anything that I wanted to read for the past two-and-a-half-years.

One of the articles I just found (and one that was ‘most shared’) is called "12 Hours with a Sex Tourist."  The article, written by Gaz Kishe, chronicles a conversation between two very different people on their way to Bangkok, Thailand. The first is a Christian, and the second, a sex tourist on his way to celebrate an anniversary of his divorce by visiting many of the Thailand's sex bars. This was his fourth trip to the area and the conversation between the two of them is just well, heartbreaking. Unbeknownst to the sex tourist, this Christian wasn't going to part-take in the bar scene. Rather, he was just there for a layover. The tourist's assumption that almost everyone on the flight was going to Thailand for the same reason make me cringe as I, myself, have been one of those passengers flocking to Thailand. However, my end goal was a bit different. The goal for my team and me was to spend time with the women to build relationship, be ambassadors of Christ's love and show them that they have other options for income, rather than selling their bodies to disgusting, perverted men.

We flew to the small island of Phuket where we spent our late evening hours on Bangla Road, the main strip or red-light district of the island. Reading this article, memories come flooding back of the heavy air filled with evil and pain…the nausea that I, and many others on my team, felt as we prayer walked… the hours of conversations as we went bar to bar talking to girls with their plastered smiles, the struggle to build relationships as we fought through the darkness (both metaphorical and actual)…the stench of sweat and beer mixed with heavy incense… and the pain in our hearts as we walked passed room after room knowing what sad horrors were taking place behind each door. I am proud of our team. Together, we grew in our understanding of the Lord. Together, our dependence upon Him was strengthened as we did our afternoon prayer walks in preparation for the evening "working" hours. Together, our hearts were broken for His children, both the women and their many customers. Together, I believe we did bring just a glimmer of light into such a sinister place.

Now, you may be thinking I am writing to discuss the horrors of the sex industry and how disgusting and utterly sad it is that people plan sex tourism trips, and while that is all true, I am not. I am merely drawing a contradiction by paralleling the degradation of humanity found in what most of the world identifies as extreme horror (sex tourism) to the shameful way we treat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ on a day to day basis. 

Gaz Kishe wrote, "For those of us who live in places where our fellow countrymen are booking sex holidays, we must re-sensitize ourselves to the humanity of these wonderful, beautiful and precious people. We must spread the word that these women and girls are someone's daughter, sister or mother. Let’s work to abolish myths that tell us they are less than worthy of our high regard and respect. Let's tell th
eir stories. Let's honor their lives. Let's sing and shout about their humanity."

I want to take Gaz's challenging call a bit further. I say "For those of us who live in places where our fellow countrymen Christians are booking sex holidays hurting each other, we must re-sensitize ourselves to the humanity of these God's wonderful, beautiful and precious people. We must spread the word that these men and women and girls are God's sons and daughters sister or mother. Let’s work to abolish myths that tell us they are less than worthy of our high regard and respect. Let's tell their stories. Let's honor their lives. Let's sing and shout about their humanity."
So in following Relevant's call to reject apathy, let us reject being apathetic to the hatred in our Christian community. Let us rather, do as we were commanded in Luke 10:27 - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself." For the only way to fight against the true hatred is to realize that pain and hurt fills each and every inch of this world unless we actively fight using the best tool we have been given, God’s unconditional love.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spiritual Formation Memoirs: Conclusion

Conclusion:  “What the Heck am I Doing Here, Anyway? A young girl’s journey down His road of Life complete with numerous missed stops signs, speed bumps, car crashes and airbags deployments.” 

My calling and role in life has been one of little direction. Not that I haven’t been shown things by the Lord, but rather, I haven’t, as the colloquialism states, “kept my eye on the prize.” Unit 13’s directive to develop a mission statement and core values for my life was challenging. My husband and I are planning to develop something for ourselves. This directive will help move us forward in our lives and help us to not stay in complacent, easy places. Rather, it is my prayer that it will push us. Personally, I see that it will help me in my everyday life make decisions as I reflect upon the person Christ has made me to be.

In light of what I have learned in this course, I have concluded that I need to…write a mission statement for myself and my family as well as identify the core values that God has given me. 

Spiritual Formation Memoirs: Chapter 4

Chapter Four: “Fasting: There Ain’t No Skinny about It.” 

Most of what I gained from unit four was not what the workbook shared, but rather what my professor, Dr. Gittens, lectured to us about. This lecture was really comforting because he shared different ways for us to fast in different periods of our lives. He shared what fasting can do, as well as what fasting is not. Bottom line: Fasting is not an “easy” spiritual diet. Rather, it is a way to help us eat our way through the “meats and bones”and obstacles of this world through surrendering our fleshly desires for His heavenly touch.
In light of what I have learned in this course, I have concluded that I need to…pay attention to seasons of my life that are calling me to fast. What do I need to give up, in order to surrender myself more fully to the Lord and His ways? I need to prayerfully ask this question. 

Spiritual Formation Memoirs: Chapter 3

Chapter Three: “Shut up and Listen: Hearing Aids the Christian Way.”
         The first unit that I experienced was with solitude and silence. During my late teens, early twenties, I was noticing the Lord’s gift of prophesy show up. I dismissed it as coincidences and often shrugged things off. However, it wasn’t until I went on a leadership retreat that had us spend time in silence and solitude, that I actually saw a real manifestation of prophesy and my role as one who has been given this spiritual gift. I am given the chance to be God’s messenger. I was given a vision that couple, who had struggled to become pregnant, was being blessed for their faithfulness and would conceive. It was only in “forced” silence that I realized how I needed to spend more time listening to God, rather than talking at/to God.
        In light of what I have learned in this course, I have concluded that I need to…keep shutting up. I still, to this day, get frustrated at my lack of using my spiritual gift only to be reminded of a simple lesson. The best way to hear God is by using His gift of silence simply because no one likes to yell to get someone’s attention. It is hard to listen to someone else when I keep talking. The best hearing aid comes from simply being quiet.