Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Paper is White

Excerpts from The Road by Cormac McCarthy:
The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.
I cant.
It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it.
You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.
No I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?
I want to be with you.
You cant.
You cant. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
Just take me with you. Please.
I cant.
Please, Papa.
I cant. I can’t hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.
You said you wouldn’t ever leave me.
I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were.

Do you remember that little boy [that we saw], Papa?
Yes. I remember him.
Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?
Oh yes. I think he’s all right.
Do you think he was lost?
No. I don’t think he was lost.
I’m scared that he was lost.
I think he’s all right.
But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?
Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.
When I first read The Road, it hit me pretty hard. That was about six years ago and at the time one of my best friends and most significant spiritual mentors was dying of cancer. My friend Andrew was 35 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He was married and had three young boys. Slowly and steadily and quite painfully the cancer robbed Andrew of his strength and vitality and eventually his life. During that process, he had to face the fact that his boys would grow up without a father and there was nothing he could do about it.
I wasn’t a father at that time, but I am now. So let me tell a happier story in that regard. My daughter Lily is a boisterous and jubilant almost 3-year-old. I describe her as unbearably cute because sometimes I’m so overwhelmed with her cuteness that I’m sure my head is going to explode. In fact, I couldn’t help myself and brought this calendar from my office.
So, everyday, I look forward to the very special moment when I get home from work. Most of the time, I am greeted with squeals of excitement and delight.
When Lily started to become more verbal I sought to engage her in conversation when I would get home. I had to think about how to engage her appropriately, on her level. I found myself asking her the question: “Lily, did you have fun today?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a actually a very important question. In a sense, maybe it’sthe most important question.
Well, this semester’s topic for Tuesday’s in the Chapel is “One thing that’s most important”. Being a parent forces you to ask yourself this question. What are the few, crucial, most important things I want to impart to my child?
When I’m asking Lily if she had fun today, I’m essentially asking, was life a positive experience for you? Did you experience the world as a joyous and good place today? This question gets at the heart of this “most important thing” that I want to teach her.  Simply stated it’s the message: this is a good world. Life, to be alive, is good. Or another way of saying it: God, if there is a God, is good.
But honestly I can find it difficult to even physically say those words “the world is good”. Because what about Andrew? being systematically and gruesomely destroyed by his own body in the prime of life? What about Andrew’s family that has been left with an unfillable void? Three boys who, point of fact, need a father and don’t have one?
Or what about all the terrible, awful evil things that take place in our world everyday? What about the children who are starving or all the wars taking place? What about all the oppression, injustice, economic inequality, religious extremism and senseless violence? These things are clearly NOT good. Not good at all.
Well, it’s these things that make it feel like an impossibly difficult task to teach Lily that the world is good. I often have a hard enough time even believing it myself. Because the world so often doesn’t appear or feel good at all.
Most of the time, life teaches us the opposite lesson, that the world is not good. That the world, or God, is not on our side. The world is going to be quite mean to us and if we’re innocent and naive about it, it’s only going to be even worse.
I know that Lily will have to learn about how much evil there is in the world. She’ll have to face kids who are mean to her, friends who betray her, people who want to hurt her or take advantage of her. She’ll have to learn that life isn’t fair, that some things break and can’t be fixed, that people she’s cares about will die. Already she’s had to learn that her parents are not always loving and sometimes raise their voices in anger.
And yet, I still want to teach her that our world (and by virtue our creator) is good, and in fact, staggeringly, shockingly, overwhelmingly good. But there’s a paradox here because I don’t want to explain away all the evil that’s so obviously present in our world. I don’t want to wave my hands and call what is not good, good.
problem of evilThis is probably the oldest and most-often-asked theological question in history. If God is good, how is there so much suffering and evil in the world? It’s so often asked because all of us feel this question. It’s not just intellectual curiosity, we feel it. Because we have all experienced that suffering and evil firsthand. At a deep level, we want, even need to knowwhy?
I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever really heard one. But I do have another question that I think we should be asking. The question that’s always being asked is how is there so much evil in the world. But I think we’re actually better served by asking the question “how is there so much goodness in the world? What could possibly explain or justify this much good?”
Doesn’t the goodness need just as much of an explanation as the evil?
But for some reason it’s so much easier for us to notice the evil, the bad stuff, the stuff that hurts. I’m not a theologian, but here’s how I think of it. Let’s take the classic color scheme of white and black for good vs. evil. I think that life is like a white sheet of paper with black ink smudges on it. The paper can easily be invisible to us and all we see it the black smudges. We may examine the paper and say “there’s nothing here but nasty black stuff! nothing good at all!” We can miss the fact that the entire backdrop is white, that white is in fact the default.
All that said, I have to confess that I don’t usually do a very good job at appreciating how flat out good life is. And I’m woefully under qualified to teach this lesson to Lily. Usually, I’m just trying to get through my day, just trying to keep my head above the water. I tend to bevery focused on the black spots in my life, the problems that I feel like I need to solve.
So I’ve been really impacted by some of the words of Jesus in this respect. In one of his most famous teachings, he says this.
Matthew 6:26-30
Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
So Jesus is telling people not to waste their energy on worrying about things like food and clothing. But his argument is quite interesting. I think he’s saying that there’s no need to worry because God is good and will take care of you. And do you want evidence that God is good? Well look around you. Look at anything. Look at those birds over there. Or look at these lilies over here. Evidence of God’s goodness is literally everywhere. See the backdrop of the world you live in. The paper is white.
It’s as if the goodness is there, it’s all around us, but we do actually have to look for it. Not because it’s hidden, but because it’s everywhere, it’s the fabric of our existence. We have to train our eyes, we have to learn to see it.
This teaching from Jesus has been so impactful to me and my wife Mary that this passage is actually where Lily’s name comes from. She’s named after one of the beautiful lilies of the field that can remind us how good our world and our God is.
I want to teach Lily that, yes, indeed, there is real evil in the world and we can’t ignore it. But we can’t let it distract us from the disproportionate amount of good that permeates life. We can’t let it rob us of that gift.
This is what Andrew taught me in his last days on Earth. Things deteriorated pretty quickly at the end and he was struggling with a profound sense of loss. So he’s lying there in bed with a morphine drip and he says: a month ago I was able to be outside throwing a ball with my boys. I can’t do that anymore. A week ago, I was still able to walk up and down stairs. I can’t do that anymore. A few days ago, I was still able to eat, but now I can’t do that either.
He’s thinking about all the things he can’t do anymore and feeling a crushing despair. But then he realized that there was something he could do. He was able to very carefully stand up and slowly pace back and forth next to his bed and sing a made-up 5-year-old’s song of praise to God. And that’s what he did, because, even in that moment, or maybeespecially in that moment, he was able to see how good life is and express genuine thanks to God.
Singing that song did not cure Andrew of cancer, but it did do something to lift that oppressive cloud of despair. And for a man in Andrew’s situation, that strikes me as pretty significant. That’s the power of gratitude. If the goodness of the world is knowledge that I want Lily to possess, then gratitude is the skill that I want her to develop. I think gratitude helps us to put things in perspective, it reminds us that the paper is white.
On that note, I’ll close with a quote from Thomas Merton, a catholic mystic.
“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.
Adam Reynolds, Chaplain for the Vineyard Fellowship

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Good Man in Hell


A GOOD MAN IN HELL, ROMEO DALLAIRE AND THE RWANDA GENOCIDE, by Jerry Fowler, Staff director at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Please join me in welcoming General Roméo Dallaire and Ted Koppel.
Ted Koppel: We are not going to spend this evening talking about General Dallaire. He would not have it that way. We are going to spend this evening talking about events that he observed, that he tried to prevent, that he was unsuccessful in preventing. But I want to begin this evening by focusing on a day in his life that I’m sure he remembers well. I don’t know the date or the time but basically I remember the setting: winter, park bench, and you were drunk.
Roméo Dallaire Yes.
Ted Koppel: Passed out in fact.
Roméo Dallaire: Yes, on very bad scotch.
Ted Koppel: I thought perhaps we should begin with that moment in time and with that event because there was a reason for it. Before you tell us the reason, tell us just how bad things were for you.
Roméo Dallaire: The impact of the trauma of Rwanda had physically affected my brain and had put me in a state where there was no capability left of any desire for life, any desire to even consider life. I was even debating whether I should exist as I held on my shoulders, and still today, the belief that as commander of the mission in Rwanda I had failed the Rwandans. I had failed in my duty as the UN mission commander to assist the Rwandans to be able to move to a peaceful application of democracy in a rather short period of time.
And so I entered a state that got worse with time, not better. When I did come back originally I was deputy commander of the army, and I was told don’t worry about that stuff. With time and hard work it will all dissipate and those scenes of children who were chopped up just like pieces of salami, women opened up with the fetuses laying there, elderly people dying in your arms in a mass movement of 50,000, 60,000 people in the rain in the mountains looking in your eyes and saying, “What happened? Weren’t you there? How did we end up like this?”
Falling into scenes where in a church, where we finally were able to enter—the militia had convinced the people over an extremist radio station to go there, if they felt unsafe go to the church and you will be safe by conventions of Geneva and the like—only to find out that once the place was packed, and in fact one of the churches is smaller than this and there were over 2,000 people in there, they had opened up the roof, threw a couple of grenades in, and then walked in and hacked and slashed.
Now, killing people with a machete is not efficient and it is also very tiring. So one or two hits to the majority of the people and then they would let them fester and die over two or three days.
2,000 people, including priests and nuns, were slaughtered in just one of many of the missions and churches in Rwanda.
Walking literally into a pile of bodies because there’s no way around it and feeling the cold. The cold of a dead body is not a temperature. It’s a state. And all that and the continued killing and our inability to prevent it, just to watch it. My inability to convince the international community that it should stop this incredible crime against humanity simply accumulated and with time became clearer.
Your mind with time, in fact, doesn’t erase things that are traumas. It makes them clearer. They become digitally clearer and then you are able to sit back and all of a sudden have every individual scene come to you instead of the massive blur of many scenes I saw every day.
The accumulation of the spirits that would come to you at night in the form of eyes, thousands of eyes, some mad, some simply there, and others bewildered, innocent children and adults, all that accumulated to the fact that I simply totally broke down.
The Canadian forces could not use me as a three-star general any more, as I could not command troops in operations for I was unable to handle any of the strains and responsibilities of that. So what you do with a three-star general who can’t command troops and that’s all he knows how to do, is you retire him medically. That event happened a couple months after my retirement.”

I chose to speak about my country Rwanda, because back in April this year, 2014, we did mention in the Tuesday Program in the Chapel, the remembering, the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Genocide of Tutsi.
Whenever you hear about Rwanda, it’s all horrible and memories of what the media, movies said about it.
I have to mention that, I was born in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) because my parents had to leave the country earlier in 1960s following political and ethnic belongs issues in Rwanda.
After the 1994 Genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, almost 1 million people were killed and many more millions flew out of the country and most of them went to Zaire, where I was, myself and many other were the next victims, only because we’re Tutsis, or just because we look like…. It became very dangerous for us,
There was a need to help this “new Rwanda” to rebuild, then I moved to Rwanda.
Last week at MIT, we had a 15 min of All Doors Open
This morning I don’t really want to talk about death,
I want to talk about some positive fact that We, Rwandan, have made.
·      According to Forbes magazine, Rwanda is #49 Best Countries for Business
·      Looking ahead, the macroeconomic outlook points to pick-up in growth in the second half of this year as domestic demand recovers with the resumption of aid flows. For the year as a whole, economic growth is projected at 6.6 percent and 7.5 percent.
·      In 2008, Rwanda achieved a monumental milestone: the first country in the world to have a female majority in Parliament. (Women make up 18 percent of the US congress). Currently, Rwandan women hold over 55 percent of the positions in government. There ae few jobs or professions in which a woman cannot be found.
·      Donald Kaberuka, the president of the African Development Bank, is a Rwandan Citizen
·      The Rwandan Defense Forces are the elite being part of the United Nations peacekeeping, like in Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Liberia, Sudan… discipline and experience. Right now, they were chosen to guard the interim President of the Central African Republic.

To end my talk,
President Clinton has called the failure to intervene in Rwanda one of his biggest regrets.
And Romeo Dallaire: “Rwanda will never leave me, it’s in the pores of my body. My soul is in those hills, my spirit is with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered and killed.

Thank you and I invite you to visit Rwanda.

~ Speaker, Claude Muhinda, Office of the Dean for Student Life ~

I know there’s a GOD because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there’s a God.
                                                                                     General Romeo Dallaire
In all my travels, I’ve never seen a country’s population more determined to forgive, and to build and succeeds than in Rwanda.
                                                                                    Rick Warren
We appreciate the true leadership that we have been blessed with in President Kagame. Thank you for your vision and most of all for peace in Rwanda. Rwanda is one of the few countries where I could live happily, invest, raise my children and enjoy…

                                                                                    Ambassador Andrew Young

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Humility

Tuesdays in the Chapel
September 9, 2014
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Reading:  from Counting to God by Douglass Ell
This book is about a largely unnoticed consensus between the mystic and the scientist. It is about both asking us to look in the same direction, toward a glimpse of a greater reality. It is about wondrous connections among the concepts of number, universe, and God. By observing the universe, through number, we detect evidence of the existence of God.
The riddle of existence is as old as the human race. Why does the universe exist? Is what we see and detect all there is, or is there some type of greater reality, of greater truth? Why do we exist? Can we believe we were put here for a purpose, and if so, what is it?
These are “great questions.” There are many questions in our lives, many uncertainties, many doubts. The great questions are in a class by themselves, deeper than all others. Like shadows in the deep, the great questions wait beneath the surface of our lives. When things are well in our lives, when the waters are smooth, it is easy to forget the great questions. But when the waters are rough and the waves threaten to overcome out little boats, the great questions often rise to the surface of our thoughts. We may not say them out loud; we may not even phrase the words. We may be in pain, in danger, alone, or simply confused, and just ask “Why?” or “What now?” When we are in trouble, under stress, when events shake us out of our complacent lives, we have a heightened awareness of the riddle of existence. We are more likely to ask the great questions. We are more likely to step out of our daily patterns and more likely to ask why.
Although ancient, the great questions are more relevant, and more important, today than ever before. They are also deeply personal. How you live your life could depend, perhaps to a great extent, on your personal answers to the great questions. Some devote their lives to a calling they believe comes from God; others mock believers and follow no moral code. Still others invent their own moral code but doubt divine intervention or design.
The good news of this book—the good news of the third millennium—is that modern science strongly supports both belief in a greater reality and belief that both our universe and life itself were designed.

Thank you for being here  today as we begin our year of gathering. Our theme this year is a challenge to think of the one notion, trait or quality that is most important to how you order your life. Living as we do with at least one foot in the university where the search for truth is primary, I have come to believe that the single most important characteristic or quality we must cultivate in that search is humility.

Now some will respond that for me that will be easy. I expect that. It is not an inappropriate response and a good excuse to  avoid the task lest embarrassment follow, but the quest for understanding of the world we live in is a life long endeavor and it is important that we keep looking even we are convinced that we know it all. I have a standing rule that when it seems to me that I have seen it all it is likely that within a very short time something will happen to remind me that I have not.

Let me illustrate with the words of a recent book review that appeared in the magazine The Living Bird. Stephen J. Bodio reviewing a book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin writes:

Do not skip the preface, where the authors tell us why they have organized the book as they have, about the importance in human history of understanding science, and- a wonderful phrase I have never seen before- that science consists of not “the truth” but “the truth for now.”

Usually when I am confronted with something I have not run into it is behavioral, a student does something that surprises me. What we have here is a reference to a bit of humility that seems to me to set a new bar for recognizing the complexity of our quest for knowledge. The author has reminded us that there is more to know. The Apostle Paul, the most confident of Christian writers creating the New Testament had said something similar in the passage of scripture read out of context in 2/3rds of Christian weddings:  1 Corinthians 13: 12 “At present we only see puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole…”  We are comfortable hearing such words when applied to family matters such as marriage, less so when applied to our research in classroom and laboratory. Our reaction does not make them less true.

That is why I found Douglas Ell’s Counting to God: a Personal Journey to Belief helpful. Ell is a graduate of this institution and he recounts a journey that many will find worth attention. He was recently on campus invited by the Physics Department to share his journey. The book is worth a glance. He may claim too much but his sense of order in the chaos of creation and life is worth our attention.

So too the wisdom of Owen Gingerich our good friend from Harvard. I tend to shy away from those who speak loudly in capital letters. Gingerich is modest to a fault. Peter Gomes described him as “armed with often disarming understatement where others frequently hurl absolutes.”  He noted that Gingerich often quoted Einstein and reminded us that emulating Einstein was not a bad move for a scientist.
Einstein once wrote “The sense experiences are the given subject matter (of science). But the theory that shall interpret them is man-made…never completely final, always subject to question and doubt.”

There is much I do not understand in the world around us and the pace of this place still takes my breath away. I often feel on the edge of chaos and I confess that I do not understand how good people find themselves suffering terrible difficulties without seeming hope of surmounting them. Illness comes suddenly; freak accidents leave the vibrant redefining their lives. Some give up. The provision of freedom in an orderly world seems to demand the vagaries of chance that leave us gasping in horror at the results of actions taken in despair. I often cry out in anger: why?

Yet I also react to those who know too much and speak so loudly.
Hooded thugs who send messages to America remind us that evil hides
everywhere, but I still perceive an order and care for creation as I look out my real and figurative windows on the world. It is a foundational notion that helps me keep going when things are difficult and as the burdens of age and experience weigh even more heavily, I find it even more helpful.  In an environment like MIT it allows me to maintain the balance necessary to do good work.  We do not know it all and we need not claim we do in loud words that mask uncertainty, but we know some things and experience a comforting order. I am grateful.

Let me close with these words from Mary Oliver:

When we’re driving, in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown…
I imagine us rising
from the speeding car,
I imagine us seeing
everything from another place…
and what we see is the world
that cannot cherish us
but which we cherish,
and what we see is our life
moving like that,
along the dark edges
of everything—the headlights
like lanterns
sweeping the blackness-
believing in a thousand
fragile and unprovable things,
looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns…
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

COMING HOME  in Dream Work (1986)

Reading: from God’s Universe by Owen Gingerich
If we regard God’s world as a site of purpose and intention and accept that we, as contemplative surveyors of the universe, are included in that intention, then the vision is incomplete without a role for divine communication, a place for God both as Creator-Sustainer and as Redeemer, a powerful transcendence that not only can be asomething but take on the mask of someone; a which that can connect with us as a who, in a profound I-Thou relation. Such communication will be best expressed through personal relationships, through wise voices and prophets in many times and places. The divine communication will carry a moral dimension, only dimly perceived in the grandeur of creation, yet present through the self-limitation of the Creator who has given both natural laws and freedom within its structure. Here, implications for human morality are discernible, for this view implies a kenotic or self-renunciatory ethic that is at odds with the “survival of the fittest” of evolutionary theory. As Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.”