Friday, March 28, 2014

Books that Changed my Life


"Greetings to you, the lucky finder of this Golden Ticket, from Mr. Willy Wonka! I shake you warmly by the hand! Tremendous things are in store for you! Many wonderful surprises await you! For now, I do invite you to come to my factory and be my guest for one whole day - you and all others who are lucky enough to find my Golden Tickets. I, Willy Wonka, will conduct you around the factory myself showing you everything that there is to see, and afterwards, when it is time to leave, you will be escorted home by a procession of large trucks. These trucks, I can promise you, will be loaded with enough delicious eatables to last you and your entire household for many years. If, at any time thereafter, you should run out of supplies, you have only to come back to the factory and show this Golden Ticket, and I shall be happy to refill your cupboard with whatever you want."
-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.” 
-Charlotte's Web, E.B. White

A Book that Changed Your Life…
Preparing for this speech, I found it hard to think about just one book that had an impact in my life. I wracked my brain through my favorites; Stephen King’s It, the Harry Potter series, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, even the ever-beloved Little House on the Prairie collection. They range in genre, indeed.

I thought no, these won’t do.  Because all books I have read have had some impact on my life, one way or another. Whether it was the Bible to senior year’s AP reading requirements to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. When I was little, I literally gobbled up books as if they were a McDonalds’ Happy Meal. Books were a smorgasboard of other worlds, other lives, other experiences. It provided a whole new perspective from the authors’ point of view. As a farm girl from a small town in Central New York, these imaginative texts and written words were able to deliver me to worlds that my parents couldn’t afford to take me to. I was in awe of any book that I picked up - whether it was fiction or biography, it transported me to the world that the author imagined to be true or real or worth talking about. To me, that was impactful.

I remember being under my covers at night with a flashlight when I was little – I was one of those kids that read deep into the night trying to be quiet while I turned the pages. I read books over and over again, just to relive the thrill of whatever was happening to the main character. For example, for those of you who read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, remember the feeling you had when he tore open the corner of that chocolate bar, and experiencing with him that first glimpse of glorious gold, that flash of metallic loveliness that made him rip the rest of the wrapper off in a matter of a second. Do you remember how many times you might have re-read that paragraph just to cheer for him all over again? I do.  I read it many times over. Or Charlotte’s Web, when the words “SOME PIG” appeared in the cobwebs that summer morning? The thrill you had when Wilbur stood proudly in front of the crowds, escaping the hand of the butcher, thanks to his good friend Charlotte? Or when Charlotte was dying and you may have found yourself crying right along with Wilbur? Even as a child the range of emotions books brought up within me was enough for me to read them over and over again. THAT, my friends, is impact. That is enough for you to go and take out all the books that Roald Dahl or EB White had ever written –  just to read more. (I Love the feature on my Kindle that recommends books for me --- it’s a never-ending list).

I still read books with the same fervor today, even when I was doing a dissertation and had to master the art of “skimming” through thousands of books and articles. That skimming never felt right to me, by the way. I was afraid I was going to miss out on parts of the book that would bring it all together. But they still are an opportunity to escape, to learn, to engage. To me, it brings all that life has to offer to words on a page.

Here are some facts:
14% percent of American adults are illiterate, that’s 32 million people in our country.
However, there are 774 million people in the world that are illiterate. 
66% of the worlds’ illiterate population is female.

I am extremely privileged that I can read, that I am in a place where books can make an impact on my life and my world; to make me think differently about a topic, make me think about my work and life differently…to me, these statistics alone are an impact. I would not be where I am today without a good book – it is hard to measure an impact of one book when there are so many still left to read. And here is where I equate reading to living life --- which was another question I was posed today– what life experience made an impact on you? Many – and I’m sure that there are many more to come that will make a larger impact. Which is why I write about my life experiences – I write because I’m captured by the magical effect that reading had on me. And I want to do that for others.  I asked for volunteers to “read with enthusiasm!” in the beginning…my first grade teacher encouraged us to do the same. We made sure to emphasis on areas of sentences and paragraphs that made sense – we made our reading come alive. I’m telling you to do both – read and live with enthusiasm.

One of my favorite things to do is to curl up with a good book and escape what ever might be going on that day.  A lot of people, I’m sure, like to read for the opportunity to escape. We all need to do that once in awhile; but there are also books that keep us grounded and ever present in our life and to gobble up those life experiences around us as if they were words themselves. I encourage you all to go home – pick up your favorite book, and read it again. And remember the ways and reasons of why you loved it. And then share it with me --- I’ll add it to my list.

Leah Flynn Gallant
Assistant Dean and Director for Student Leadership and Engagement

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Left Overs

Laying the foundation:
When I was just a boy about five years old, my mother – we called her Muemera.  I don't know why, but we did (I guess we all had a nick name of some sort as we were growing up) – my mother would have many of her friends gather at our house, and she would always, not ask, but tell, me to stand up and tell them what you're going to be when you grow up.  I would always do as I was told - stand up and say, "I'm going to be a doctor when I grow up."  Mind you, she had already decided and told them that I was going to be a doctor.
I also remember our family having barely enough to get by…I’ve never seen French fries prepared so many different ways.  One day we’d have French fries, the next day they turn into hash browns and the next day, we’d have mashed potatoes.  She would always be the last one to eat…if there was enough left for her to eat.  I didn’t know that until later on in life when I was trying to raise my own young family. Then I begin to think of us as human beings in society, as social leftovers.  If it were not for leftovers, I wouldn’t be standing here this morning speaking with you all.  I thank god for leftovers…they’re not too bad, even if I have to say so myself.  The late Dr. W.A. McMillan would always say and I quote – “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us --- so it doesn’t behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us”.
Well, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on all the life lessons she taught me and my siblings, and how she inspired us all.  Much of what was inspired by her teachings came to light when I joined the Boy Scouts:    
As a Boy Scout, I learned the Boy Scout Oath/Promise:
On my honor, I will do my best 
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; 
To help other people at all times; 
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
The Oath has traditionally been considered to have three promises. They are delineated by the semicolons in the Oath, which divide it into three clauses. The promises of the oath are, therefore:
       Duty to God and country,
       Duty to other people, and
       Duty to self
DUTY TO GOD AND COUNTRY: Your family and religious leaders teach you to know and serve God. By following these teachings, you do your duty to God.
Men and women of the past worked to make America great, and many gave their lives for their country. By being a good family member and a good citizen, by working for your country's good and obeying its laws, you do your duty to your country. Obeying the Scout Law means living by its 12 points.
DUTY TO OTHER PEOPLE: Many people need help. A cheery smile and a helping hand make life easier for others. By doing a Good Turn daily and helping when you're needed, you prove yourself a Scout and do your part to make this a better world.
DUTY TO SELF: Keeping yourself physically strong means taking care of your body. Eat the right foods and build your strength. 
Staying mentally awake means learn all you can, be curious, and ask questions.
Morally straight means to live your life with honesty, to be clean in your speech and actions, and to be a person of strong character.
Boy Scout Law
A Scout is:
       Trustworthy,
       Loyal,
       Helpful,
       Friendly,
       Courteous,
       Kind,
       Obedient,
       Cheerful,
       Thrifty,
       Brave,
       Clean,
       and Reverent.
Boy Scout Motto
Be Prepared! 
Boy Scout Slogan
Do a Good Turn Daily!
The Outdoor Code
As an American, I will do my best to -
       Be clean in my outdoor manners
       Be careful with fire
       Be considerate in the outdoors, and
       Be conservation minded.

What inspired me after all these years is that my mother, Willette, was a Boy Scout and I didn’t even know it!  A Boy Scout is simply doing all the right things for all the right reasons.  She can be summed up in one of my favorite poems:

Live Your Creed Written by Langston Hughes
I'd rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.
I'd rather one should walk with me than just to show the way.
The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Advice may be misleading but, examples are always clear.
And the very best of teacher are the ones who live their creed,
to see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn to do it, if you'll let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but, your tongue to fast may run.
I can soon learn to do it if you'll let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but, your tongue may run.
And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true but, 
I'd rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give but,
there is no misunderstanding of how you act and how you live.

I’ve been at MIT for 19 years and I’ve learned that we have plenty of leftovers among our community.  I now understand leftovers are part of the very fabric that makes MIT special. 


“Thank God for leftovers”!

Larry Anderson
Associate Professor
Head Coach, Basketball

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A process that changed my life!


Seeking God
We seek God so earnestly, Eliav reflected, not to find Him but to discover ourselves.”
from James A. Michener, The Source
Hillel and the Golden Rule
Once there was a gentile who came before the distinguished rabbi Shammai, and said to him: "I will convert on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. Later the same fellow came before Hillel, and made the same offer, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it."
Popular story from the Talmud, told of the two famous rabbinic leaders of the first century CE. 
The Miracle of Life
     This is the story of metamorphosis. In fact it is the story of yours, mine, and every human’s metamorphosis. If it were a screenplay, we would say it was fantasy, incredible.  But it is reality - it is your history. It is the story of cells dividing and producing daughter cells that take paths very different from that of their parents.
     If a caterpillar could speak, could it tell you that it was about to become a butterfly? And if you had not even seen it happen already, would you believe it? Who would believe that from eight identical cells, clustered together in the shape of a mulberry, could become a human?
From Gerald L. Schroeder, The Hidden Face of God

Our Tuesday in Chapel themes are never simplistic or superficial. For this New Year, the Chaplains have posed a challenge that really makes you stop and think – “books or events that changed my life”.

Well like the speakers before me and those still to come, I grappled with this for a while. Certainly, one very significant life changing event for me – and for my twin brother Ray was getting accepted to MIT. That really changed everything. Before then, I had always assumed I would live somewhere close to our old neighborhood - if not the same house where we grew up in on Chicago’s North Side.  That’s what our father and uncle Gene did.

The change that MIT brings to a young person’s life is not a new story, though. It has been by so many so eloquently over many decades.  Just this Sunday, we had a fascinating “Class Connections” event in which three of my ’67 classmates spoke of the respective journeys that began – way back in 1963 - from provincial towns throughout this country and the transformations an MIT education made possible in their lives.  Then we heard from freshman, today’s class of 2017, with similarly auspicious stories. 

And just a week ago, many of us heard very compelling narratives from young students at the annual Martin Luther King celebrations.  I am particularly looking forward to a film which follows the development and dreams of four African students coming here to MIT. It is called “One Day Too I Go Fly” and it is being produced by young alum from Ghana named Arthur Musah. In a year or so, Arthur’s film will be ready and, frankly, I think it will be a much better story than I could ever tell.

So instead I chose to talk about a second life changing event in my time on the planet. This was my conversion to Judaism. Unlike the “jump” to MIT as a teenager, this transition wasn’t so much an event as a decades long process. It certainly is not a very common journey, but it is one that suited me well, and I’d like to share some of my thinking on why it made sense and why I am very comfortable in the Jewish tradition and find it to be a very beautiful religion.

Though I have been married to Deena, a Jewish woman, for over 40 years, the idea of conversion never entered my mind for most of that time. Though we respected each other’s cultural backgrounds – my Catholic and her Jewish - we were busy raising kids, working hard, and getting to know our community of Acton, where we moved for the good schools.

In the very late 1980s, Deena somehow got selected maintenance chair of the local congregation, a job to which she was not particularly adept. In fact, she had no qualifications whatsoever. So I really had to get involved, getting to know the HVAC, heating, and other creaky subsystems. One thing led to another and I moved up from Assistant Maintenance Chair to be the Vice President of Operations, a job I did for a number of years. In fact, we had to expand the synagogue and it was my privilege to head that effort. We created a beautiful building for Congregation Beth Elohim, one that served us well. In any event, as I got to know the building, I inevitably got to know the people and the religion also. And I really grew to care for and respect both. My wife never pushed me in the least to convert; she knew it had to be my choice.

So in the late-1990s, just a few years after I changed employers from Raytheon to MIT, I started in a conversion class. There was a ton of very interesting reading and lots of discussion. But the book I loved the most was James Michener’s “The Source”, a brilliant work of historical fiction which traces the development of Judaism through the millennia; Like all of Michener’s novels, it is set in a particular place – in this case a town in Galilee in northern Israel – and then takes a cross-section slice of history, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary, at various times from the distant past to the present.

Michener’s wants you to experience the history of the place – as it actually lived and experienced by people. I found “The Source” gave a sense of the evolution of religion, of how practices and beliefs change to help people meet the challenges and mysteries of their eras. And he traces an admittedly speculative chronology on how Judaism itself might have evolved to from a tribal cult to a more universal religion.

I was happy to discover that this idea of evolution is not at all foreign to Judaism. It is imbedded in it. Each generation must interpret and add to a continuing revelation that develops through the ages. Even in modern orthodoxy,” the original revelation at Sinai was a start, but it did not stop. God is not revealed today through prophets and miracles. Modern divine revelation is in daily events, science, history, and the development of culture”. Moses’s role was to get this chain going, not provide the final answers Trying to understand why we are here and what we should do is an ongoing process

So it incumbent on today’s Jews to keep advancing, questioning, and inventing new applications of their faith. It is hard to be dogmatic in these circumstances. This is just one of the many characteristics that I deeply appreciate about Judaism. Here are three more aspects of this religion that I especially like.

First, Judaism is people-focused. So much of Jewish teaching is about treating others fairly. Nobody gets a free pass to salvation – no indulgences, divine intervention, or predestination shortcuts. You have to do it the old-fashioned way – being decent …even when you don’t want to. The selection we read from Hillel on the “Golden Rule” exemplifies this so well. If we can’t treat other folks well, this religion is non-starter.  

Another story in the Talmud expounds on seven questions God asks in reviewing our lives. The afterlife is not a prominent feature of most Jewish belief, but in this story the very first question God asks is “Did you conduct your business affairs with honesty and with integrity?”. On the other hand, the theology – at least for most congregations – is much less prescribed. In my home congregation of Beth Elohim in Acton, we even have a few atheists. One is a fabulous guy, an MIT alum from Burton House.

Second, Judaism seems to be a good partner with modern science. If anything, Judaism promotes and embraces the inquisitive, searching nature of science, which also is a process of continuing revelation/discovery. If anything my experience is that Judaism is quite complementary to science.  It seeks to explain and guide the areas where science really does not operate.  

Third, so much of Judaism brings an appropriate sense of awe of wonder for the created world.  You will see this in the prayers in the liturgy.  This great planet that is home to such abundant life, set in an unimaginably vast universe. Again, if anything, I think science helps deepen that sense of awe. For example, the astrophysicists explain how we are made of stardust – quite literally – as the material of our bodies was created in supernovas.

I especially resonate with the observations of Gerald Schroeder, a MIT-trained Ph.D. physicist, who wrote an engaging book called “The Hidden Face of God”. My middle sister, Gen, a very devout Catholic, found it and insisted I read it. It was great advice.

The science alone is absolutely informative and engaging. Schroeder takes the reader through the recent discoveries and the deeper questions in the realms of both quantum and cosmic scale physics. And then he investigates the far more complex tapestry of life. Computer scientists would enjoy his viewpoint. There is this molecule DNA that encodes information so effectively. As he sums it up, “The essence of life is found in the processing of information. The wonder of life is the complexity to which that information gives rise. The paradox of life is the absence of any hint in nature, the physical world, as to the source of that information”. In a word, where did all this dazzling complexity arise?  Each of us is comprised of a trillion (mostly) cooperating cells and magnitudes more neuronal connections.  

So this is my short lesson on Judaism, albeit from a fairly new practitioner.

In our final readings I’d like to share with you two absolute staples of this religion. The first conveys the reverence for life, present in all Judaism’s many variants. The second reading is Judaism’s central, most recited prayer – the Sh’ma. It reflects many of the elements mentioned here – except of course for the atheism. 

I hope you feel a little closer to the wisdom of Judaism,  a wisdom to be found in so many of the world’s other great religions as well.  And we have touched on some of Gerald Schroeder’s and James Michener’s wisdom, too. In fact, I’d like to close with a great quote of Michener’s, which seems especially appropriate for MIT.

“Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them”.

May we treasure them all - our scientists (the dreamers), and our engineers (the doers), and our humanists (like Bob Randolph and Hillel)!




Value of Human Life
“Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." 
Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a 
Sh’ma Yisrael - 
the central prayer of Judaism, to be said every morning and evening. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the Lord’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
Set these words that I command you this day upon your heart.
Teach them faithfully to your children.
Speak of them in your home and on your way,
And when you lie down at night and when you rise up in the morning.
Bind them as a sign upon your hand,
Keep them as a symbol before your eyes.
Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
From Deuteronomy 6:4-9
 

Bob Ferrara '67
Senior Director for Strategic Planning
and Alumni Relations

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

You Would Make a Great Rabbi

Readings:

Genesis 37:12-17

And Joseph’s brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.  And Israel said to Joseph, “Do not your brothers feed the flock in Shechem?  Come, I will send you to them.” 
And he said to him, “Here I am.”
And he said to him, “Go now, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flock, and bring back word to me.”  So he sent him out of the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
And a man found him, and behold he was wandering in the field.  And the man asked him, saying, “What do you seek?”
And he said, “I seek my brothers.  Tell me, please, where they are feeding the flock.”
And the man said, “They have departed from here, for I heard them say:  Let us go to Dotan.”  And Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dotan.







In the annual Jewish Torah reading cycle, the Joseph narrative always falls leading up to and during the Hanukkah holiday that begins tomorrow night.  I find this brief narrative at the start of the Joseph story fascinating and intriguing.  A un-named man finds Joseph, who seems to have lost his way.  We know nothing more about this individual, except that he asks Joseph a question and points him in a particular direction, allowing the rest of the tale to unfold with its contemplated fratricide, its selling of Joseph to slavery in Egypt, Joseph’s servitude and jail time, his rise to power as second only to Pharaoh, and finally his bringing of his entire clan to Egypt.  All set in motion by the seemingly random appearance of one anonymous individual, one seemingly straight-forward, and yet very big and deep question:  Where are you going?
When I was a college freshman, I was similarly affected by someone seeing something in me, and making a simple directional statement.  “You know, Michelle, you’d make a great rabbi.”  The woman in my case was Debbie Rubenstein, the assistant director of Princeton Hillel.  She wasn’t anonymous, and we are still close; I often still express to her my thanks.  And, my immediate response that spring day was not quite Joseph’s; I didn’t take Debbie’s advice.  In fact, I laughed, hard and long.  But, unbeknownst to me at the time, she set a series of choices and decisions, and thought-patterns, in motion.  And the old adage, she who laughs last laughs best is indeed true.  Debbie smiles and takes great pride in it being “all Debbie’s fault” that I am now a rabbi.
It was not until over five years later that I would finally apply to rabbinical school.  I had pulled myself together that afternoon after Debbie spoke to me, explained why she was mistaken, and continued along my path to become a chemist.  The seed had been planted, though.  And it’s telling that part of my later decision to pursue the rabbinate was because I wanted to know the people whose lives I would change.  I didn’t just want to create and provide others with pharmacological cures and drugs, but I wanted to know their life journeys and be part of guiding them along those journeys.
Those of us who work with emerging adults, young adults, or children know the power of a word or deed to affect them, bolster – or repress – self-esteem, forward – or crush – a dream, direct in a new or unanticipated way.  Sometimes we are aware of our actions.  Sometimes we learn, even years later, that we have influenced someone unknowingly.  Sometimes those we care about are aware of our actions; sometimes we open a door behind the scenes.  In every case, there is the possibility that we are “that man” from the Joseph story who is changing the course of history, for an individual or even a people, a nation, or the world.  It is a big responsibility and trust any teacher or mentor takes on.
That day Debbie changed my life.  Due to her, I am blessed in my career, and in the work I do every day.  I only pray that I will be like Debbie in the work I now do, and will, with insight and humility, influence, inspire, and encourage others to follow paths that allow them to become their best. 

Judaism has a blessing we recite at moments of thanksgiving and joy.  In this week of Thanksgiving, in gratitude to all those who have helped us on our way when we have wandered or not seen clear paths, who have asked us to ponder the big questions of life, and who have given us that to be thankful for, I recite it now:  Blessed are you Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this time.

 From “Corner of the Sky” in the musical Pippin

Every man has his daydreams
Every man has his goal
People like the way dreams have
Of sticking to the soul.
Thunderclouds have their lightning
Nightingales have their song
And don’t you see I want my life to be
Something more than long…

Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky


Michelle Fisher
Executive Director, Hillel
Jewish Chaplain

Monday, November 25, 2013

When God Speaks




Whenever something dramatic happens to you, some freaky thing that you can’t explain, you should examine it for a postmark from the heavens. Maybe somebody’s trying to get your attention. Even though I stopped traffic in Northampton two weeks ago, something just as meaningful happened to me thirty years ago: I signed up for a para-church campus ministry job, one in which I would have to raise all my own funds, and something happened on the way to almost quitting that job. The signing up is the fun part: the glory of para-church ministry is similar to that of the para-military: it’s not the officious arm of the church that does everything by the book and looks good in uniform. No, para-church ministry is the sexier black-ops side of the church – blending in with the locals and then targeting enemy facilities like MIT and Harvard. So, raising money for what you do comes from folks in the church who are tired of the blah blah blah of normal church life, looking to invest in something more exciting, something fresh. Again, something sexy. The signing up part is fun, but then came the fund-raising side of things: the tough task of raising money changed my life but it was one special incident that kept me in the game.

When I was new staff with Campus Crusade for Christ – now known simply as Cru – the methodology we were supposed to follow was what I adhered to faithfully: meet with church friends, ask them to be involved, and then ask them if you can talk to their friends too. My first meeting was with two of my favorite friends and fellow church members, Don & Laurel. It was the first week in August and I went to Don & Laurel’s in my new navy blazer and refused to take it off. Why? I wanted to prove that I was cool as a cucumber and that the heat and humidity of a hot August night was nothing. Up to that point, what I thought was supposed to be the “difficult” part of support raising: keeping a smile through your sweat, wasn’t difficult at all.

Six weeks later, it was the lack of action that was eating my lunch. Only a few donors were on board and I had so many miles to go that I was losing the vision and ready to cash in my chips. My wife was working so we had a little money coming in, but it wasn’t the money – it was the not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. The often talked about assurance that support development would only be a hard thing at first and then would slip away and never be that hard again was not happening. One morning, after my wife went off to work, I decided to walk to the church and tell Pastor Rayner that I was going to quit. He was the nicest guy on earth, full of empathy and understanding. If anyone could make my quitting easier for me to swallow, it was Ken Rayner. After walking to the church, I found out he wasn’t there. The whole church was locked up. Now what? I’ll walk back home. Oops. I locked myself out. Now I had to spend the rest of the day with my own down-in-the-dumps thoughts. I decided to walk down to the train station to wait for my lovely bride to come home. I had no wallet, no money, what else was I going to do? It was going to mean several hours of waiting with my dark thoughts.

However, here’s how God worked in a way that only I could have ever understood. I sat on the bank of a creek and from a meaningful distance I tossed a pebble into the very narrow creek’s water. But before I made that one toss, I took great stock in the mental game of whether or not I should even attempt the toss. I never hit things I’m aiming at, so why make myself more miserable than I am now? After a few minutes of over-thinking it, well, I threw – and hit the creek dead-center. Not in ten or twenty tosses would I ever expect that to happen. Without thinking too much about it, not 10 seconds later I threw a second pebble: dead-center again.

To you, this is just dumb luck or coincidence or pretty decent skill. But to me, what I’ve just done is the impossible upon the impossible. You know what I’m thinking: if God wants me to keep me in that crazy fund raising, I’m going to have to hit this creek a third time, a kind of thing I could never do once  - but I’ve just done twice. Y’know, no one else is present. No one can say whether I’m lying or telling the truth. Thoughts lingered in my head between my ears for a good while. Mind you I do not look for miracles behind every bush, I just do not go there and think that if you do there’s something wrong with you. And I seriously do NOT want to hit the creek, because I do NOT want to go back to fund raising, but now I also do NOT want to face the nicest pastor in the world with quitting. Before I can think my way into or out of anything else I fling that third pebble, and it goes in again, dead-center.     

Thirty years later, I have a theory. God Himself knows that some of us are our own worst enemies and that we shouldn’t pray. We’d drive Him crazy and other people crazy too, because we’re too determined to tell everyone everything and not listen to anything. So, to protect God and man, whom we would only mow down with our mental machine guns, God sends ridiculous events into our lives that only we would understand. And it’s then that the praying and the sharing can commence in clarity.

I gently stood up and stepped away from that creek bank like it was a minefield. My poor wife got off the train several hours later and heard about the miracle over and over as we walked all the way back to the house. She was the one person with whom I achieved closure with over this incident, and it brought us closer together as a result. Did she know how miserable I felt before the pebble incident? No, until then, no one knew. I’m the guy who won’t take off his blazer in a 90 degree kitchen, I’m too cool to let you see me sweat. Anyway, we agreed together to give the fund raising three more days. And, things turned out okay. How much did the pebble incident mean? Did I wizz through support raising in record time? Not even close.


Over the years, while other gorilla movement mercenaries like me with Campus Crusade were enjoying their campus ministry experience, I was out raising support a lot of the time. Literally half the time. By the time I passed through a five-year assignment at Penn, and then come back to Boston to be at MIT, I’d spent four years of my first eight years in ministry raising support. If you told me that would be my destiny eight years earlier, I wonder if I’d ever made it. But, that’s what three in a row after a lifetime of missing can do for you. There is an old saying in the Bible: you reap what you sow. After those first eight years of sowing, the next twenty were some pretty good years of reaping, or good enough: I just had to put in the first eight. Incidences like those need sharing with someone for the sake of your own personal closure, for bonds to be made, and for lessons to be learned. Two weeks ago, closure with the farmer who knocked me over in Northampton reminded me of similar lessons. You may not know how to pray – but that’s okay. God will get your attention somehow.   

Dave Thom, Chaplain,
The Leadership Connection

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Friends I have lost

From Proverbs:

The Memory of the righteous is a blessing…

Blessings are on the head of the righteous….

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely….
Proverbs 10

Two friends who exerted great influence over me died within the last three months. Memorial services were held last month.  They were about the same age, in their mid-80s, had lived very good lives and made a great deal of difference to a lot of hurting people.

One was a psychiatrist, the other was a banker. One was a child of privilege in New York City; the other grew up in a small dust bowl town in West Texas. Both had professional degrees from Harvard.  It was a long way from Throckmorton, TX. to New York City.

I first met the banker when he came to Harvard for graduate study. It was said in his obituary that he had gone to church with his wife of 60 years every Sunday of their life together. One  Sunday while at Harvard he came to the church where I was preaching. He was the chief officer of a bank  and later when he retired they called him the greatest banker in Texas.

So he showed up on Sunday, I preached the sermon, we observed communion as we do each Sunday and women presided at the table. This was 40 years ago and it was uncommon for women to take leadership positions among congregations in our tradition.  He noticed and when I took him back to the business school he asked how we had arrived at our practice. I explained. He listened. When he returned home he wrote me a long letter suggesting that we ought to rethink the matter. I explained again why we had reached the conclusions we had reached.

Later he told his son, a medical student in his final year of study, about us and when the young doctor came to do a rotation at a local teaching hospital he worshiped with us. Later when offered a residency in Boston the son and his new wife came and were part of our community. A trained accountant, his wife served as the treasurer of the church. Over the years our lives have intertwined through children, shared experiences and conversations.  His church home in Houston never found a public role for women but his son got the message.

My friend the psychiatrist, also studied at Harvard. We worked together for over a dozen years doing what I called community psychiatry. No matter how ill the patient, he never forgot the person. He was a humanist in the best sense of the word. He loved the outdoor life, the beauty of mountains, the power of a sunset but he was a stranger to the vagaries of church.

He was a highly ethical man, who listened carefully to the words that were sent his way and was invariably kind when helping parents work through tragedy. I counted on him in different circumstances and contexts.

When his final illness began to overtake him, I listened carefully having learned from him and reminded him what he had left as a legacy. I think I could have shared the 23rd Psalm with him, but the moment was never right.  I often felt I should have been able to give him more since I had received so much from him.

My banker friend wrapped himself in the flag of our country; my doctor friend talked of progressive politics and eschewed platitudes. Their extremes left me some middle ground to explore.

Both men were remarkable fathers, both men lived with integrity. As different as they were I knew I could talk with them and get a straight answer that I might or might not like. Their contrasting world views  broadened my world and gave me room to grow. They challenged me to think carefully before acting; they cautioned me to avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. They took seriously my conclusions even as they expected me to defer to theirs.

The virtue of these two men is captured by the writer of  Proverbs; I benefitted from knowing them because they both challenged me offering a vision of integrity lived out in real time. They would have liked it if I had chosen their conclusions, but they were able to hear my own take on questions they had already settled. I have been blessed by their presence in my life and they are missed.

Let us pray:



Almighty God,  we give thanks for the varied voices we have heard in our lives. May we always appreciate those who challenge us and listen to us, those who take us seriously and those who have no room for our self-importance.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute