Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Still waiting? Six reasons why Advent is important
Matthew 21:12-22
“MY house shall be called a house of prayer”; ‘but you are making it a den of robbers’

(2) Advent reminds us that religious sentiment can sometimes be exploited.

Advent reminds us that religious sentiment can be exploited. The folk at the Temple were not evil people. They were offering services for those coming to make sacrifices, to meet their obligations. Certainly they might have been more judicious but in a church such as you have here in the middle of Harvard yard we understand the nuances involved in making books and compact discs available to those who pass in and out of the doors. It might be different if we had a plethora of other offerings including a booth where you could exchange your euros for dollars at a discounted rate, but we do not.

It is not needed in this community to remind us that at Christmas we all are a bit vulnerable to manipulation. Otherwise reasonable people for the best of reasons spring for purchases far beyond what they can reasonably afford. I have some first hand experience. The other day Jan and I left Morning Prayers to purchase our Christmas Tree; I said as we began walking into the field that this was the year to be more modest in our aspirations. And we walked by several modest expressions of Balsam Fir-ness and when we arrived back at our truck the professional at the gate said: “My, that is a big tree.” Reasonable people do foolish things at Christmas. We took a foot off the top so it could fit in the room and it took the neighbor to help hold it in place.

As we venture toward the Temple of Christmas, our escape is to seek meaning and scale in what we give. Recently the Chief Rabbi of London, Jonathan Sacks, was my guest at MIT and he pointed me to a story told by Loren Eisely, the anthropologist and son of Nebraska who told of a young man on the beach observed by another. He was throwing starfish back into the sea. When asked why, the young man patiently explained that if left on the beach the starfish would die. The observer being of a practical bent, made the point that there were miles of beach and thousands of starfish. “What difference would one make?” The young man replied that the observation was true, but that it made a difference to the starfish he held in his hand and he went back to making a difference one starfish at a time.

Rather than another sweater for Dad, you may want to make a gift to relief in Darfur. Looking at the landscape of need out there, many of us are paralyzed. It is easier to bear the groans of children who once again have received something they do not need, or did not want, than it is to find some place where our gifts are met by need. Let me suggest to each of you that this year you find a concern in the world that matters to you and on your Christmas list a corresponding individual for whom you will make a contribution in their name. Give locally to those who are homeless and served here in Harvard Square by the shelter at University Lutheran Church; give regionally to environmental causes such as Friends of the Reservation-the Fells, Alewife, Breakheart—are all organizations locally that could use your support. Or you might reach out to Darfur, the West Bank, to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Use the occasion to become knowledgeable about what you are doing. Turn exploitation into education and make a difference one starfish at a time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts for Advent

December 3, 2007

Matt. 21:1-11

Still Waiting? Six Reasons why Advent is Important


A funny thing happened on the way to advent this year, the texts chosen to be read during the weeks leading up to Christmas take us on the road to the crucifixion. Today we begin with the text usually associated with Palm Sunday. Donkeys, tree branches and blankets get in our way as we try to think about the Christ child. I might have made an executive decision to shift the texts, but I thought better of it.

I did so because the texts help us move beyond the feel good Christmas story of a babe in the manger no crib for his bed. From the beginning this story is going to end badly and that it begins badly would not be a surprise had we not been fed on memories of “old fashioned Christmases” to deflect our attention. So the first reason Advent is important is that it reminds us that being a follower of Christ is serious, sometimes tragic business. Over the stable there is a cross. We do ourselves no favor when we forget that truth.

Jesus, the heir of David comes to his moment of glory on a donkey. “Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.” Humility is not a seasonal virtue but for many Americans it is a learned virtue. Many of you may have noticed that the virtue of humility seems to be a hallmark of the New England Patriot football team. And it makes people very uncomfortable to be told that the prerequisites for playing for this team are than you be smart and that you be humble. Defeated or undefeated, their coach reminds them to be smart and to be humble giving them recently tee shirts extolling the virtues of “Humble Pie”. The message is simple: do not take your accomplishments too seriously, you are only as good as your last game and another one is coming up.

Many in New England are basking in the reflected glory of successful sports teams; some are ready to declare New York road kill in our on going tussle with the Evil Empire. But our text reminds us of weightier matters. It is not the old Puritan mind set that majored in the dour and self-effacing that warns us not to be deceived. This is not a call for more bah humbug at Christmas, but simply a reminder that at the heart of our Christian affirmation is the notion that it all began in a stable—not a king’s palace or the locale of the power brokers—and that it ended so it seemed on a cross.

Advent is important because it reminds us of these realities. I grew up just a road trip away from a segregated South. Everyone I knew had come from somewhere else—Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee. That was a long time ago but the perspective the experience gave me has stayed with me and came home when we recently caught up with the film Babel. Consciously citing the story of the Tower of Babel and the decision to scatter human kind less they become like Gods, the story however disjointed tells parallel tales of folk scattered and yet connected by a weapon and a foolish act. All of us share the lonliness of loss, the alienation from those we love, the economics that foster and feed conflict. The film offers a rough challenge to embrace our common humanity and care about the other.

At Advent we hear a similar appeal, we hear of a love for us so great that is has been clothed in flesh; it is a love that has made our world its home. When we receive great gifts it is behooves us not to proclaim how rich we are but rather to in gratitude and in humility to celebrate how blessed we are.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Friday, November 23, 2007

November 23, 2007

Giving Thanks

Yesterday we gathered around our tables here in Bexley Hall and did what many good Americans do, we ate well. The group included friends and students from China by way of Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Wisconsin. It was an eclectic group. Hungry, a bit faint and definitely not poor, we were grateful for our blessings. It would have been perfect had our girls been able to join us and had I not clogged the sink with the remnants of turkey. The day reverberated with the sounds of Thanksgivings past and the hope of those to come.

While there are religious and political overtones to this holiday, it has become for many the favorite holiday of the year. It lacks the political fervor of the 4th and the religious fervor of Christmas. It is a time to be thankful, to take stock and to begin to prepare for the New Year in ways that are appropriate.

We paused Thursday and gave thanks; I have no idea what others gave thanks for, but I know that I gave thanks for good health, an extended and loving family and the opportunity to do meaningful work here at MIT.

Twice in recent days we have celebrated lives that have come to an end. One died on the edge of possibilities; another at the end of a long and fruitful career. The challenge we are left with is what difference will our lives make? That opportunity is a great blessing in itself and one we can be thankful for as well.
To paraphrase Mary Oliver:
“I woke early….
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

But the challenge remains: What difference will we make in our world? Now is a good time to be thankful for the opportunity to answer that question.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I have seen the future

One of the virtues of being a minister/chaplain is that you are often present at important moments in family life. Weddings and memorial services are the most obvious such occasions. The officiant is sometimes the lightening rod for the emotions of the moment. I tell couples that at weddings I can help deal with the anger that will from time to time crop up. If the bride's family really does not like the groom, they can dump their anger on the minister since they generally do not know me and will feel better having vented. More often the gesture of offering a place for anger is all that is needed. It is painful what we do to one another at our most important moments. Memorial services are easier since the center of attention does not speak back.

That is why at a recent wedding, I felt myself fortunate to be given a gift by the groom's family. The wedding was lovely and afterward I broke my habit of avoiding the reception to have dinner. I sat with the grandparents and aunt of the groom, put another way, the really old folk were at the same table. They were lovely people, long retired cultivators of skills that make retirement meaningful. From the mid-west, the church was the social center of their lives as was their family. Their gift to me was the description of their grand-children and the spouses they had brought into the family: Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Anglo, they loved and accepted them all and were proud of them.

I have had half a dozen weddings this fall. All have been traditional male and female unions; all have been inter-racial. One recent wedding was marked by a portion of the ceremony being in Mandarin so that the bride's family could hear this important ceremony in the language they were most comfortable with. Such gestures are not unusual and are very important.

In a time when marriage is increasingly seen as transitory, I am not sure what saying "Until death parts us" means to those repeating vows. I know what I would like it to mean. But I do know that marriages that bind together diverse cultures with vows and commitments made before communities of friends and family can have a profound impact on the world we live in. The harsh edges of ethnic pride will be ground down as the "other" become part of the family. Disappearing as well is the stereotype of the narrow mid-westerner. Not all the gifts at a wedding go home with the bride and groom.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Friday, October 5, 2007

Installation of Chaplain to the Institute

Last Sunday evening the Chaplain to the Institute was installed. Several have said that they did not know what to expect and were pleasantly surprised. Those who did not know what to expect and were disappointed have not talked with me. If you would like to view the proceedings you may do so at

At the Chaplain's Seminar on October 1, speakers dealt with the challenge of Samuel Huntington's clash of cultures thesis. Dr. Richard Hughes of Messiah College offered this conclusion:

Ironically, no one has made that case any more strongly than Samuel Huntington who cites approvingly the Venetian nationalist demagogue in Michael Didbin’s novel, Dead Lagoon. “There can be no true friends without true enemies,” the Venetian says. “Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant.” In response to this affirmation, Samuel Huntington comments, “The unfortunate truth in these old truths cannot be ignored by statesmen and scholars. For people seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential.”
Maybe so, but if there is any chance that Christian leaders might lead us toward peace and not toward war and conflict, those are precisely the assumptions they must challenge. Put another way, so long as Christian leaders assume that the imperial vision is both normative and true to life, and so long as they assume that the biblical vision of the kingdom of God is finally unworkable and irrelevant, there is no chance that they will offer leadership any different from the standard imperial leadership that has driven the world for centuries.
The truth is, Christian leaders of tomorrow must embrace a new paradigm for thinking about war and peace—a paradigm that is at the very same time an ancient paradigm, embraced both by Jesus and the early church.

Let me offer just one example of what that paradigm might mean. David Lipscomb was a religious leader in the American South from the Civil War through the early twentieth century. After the Civil War, he reflected on his own role during that conflict. “In the beginning of the late strife that so fearfully desolated our country, much was said about ‘our enemies.’ I protested constantly that I had not a single enemy, and was not an enemy to a single man North of the Ohio River.” Lipscomb’s statement stands in stark contrast with Samuel P. Huntington’s assumption that “there can be no true friends without true enemies” and that, when all is said and done, “enemies are essential.”
And when, in 1896, the United States employed the Monroe Doctrine to threaten war against Great Britain, Lipscomb offered leadership on other grounds. He wrote, “When the leading lights among politicians begin to advocate war in defense of the Monroe doctrine, it is high time . . . to commence preaching peace on earth and good will among men in defense of the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount.”
You may object that what I have said in this presentation is far too visionary to be workable. But religious leaders are not called to embrace and sanction imperial assumptions. They are called, instead, to offer a vision grounded in their religious traditions. And deep in the Christian tradition lays a vision for peace on earth and good will among all humankind—a vision that has rarely been tried. This is the vision I commend to Christian leaders of the future, and a vision I commend to you today as we celebrate the installation of Robert M. Randolph as the first Chaplain of MIT.

Dr. Ronald B. Sobel, Senior Rabbi Emeritus from Temple Emanu-El in New York City and Suheil Laher, Muslim Chaplain also offered their perspectives. Excerpts will appear here in the coming weeks.

Friday, September 28, 2007

On not being afraid.

Star Simpson a junior here at MIT got her 15 minutes of fame last week. On the front page of the Boston Herald she looked bemused. Those who know her say she feels like she was hit by a train. Wearing a name tag from an event at the Media Lab, she went to Logan Airport to meet a friend, a circuit board was on her sweat shirt with wires dangling. A few unanswered questions later she found herself the object of more attention than she wished. "So smart, so dumb." lamented a critic. Others took shots at MIT where they perceive a permissive environment that abandons commonsense. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the attention shifted to John Harvard dressed to participate in Halo 3.

I have been watching Ken Burns' The War. I am old enough to remember the times, to have felt the emotions and to have celebrated VJ Day. Watching the documentary, listening to contemporary conversations of those among the Greatest Generation, I have been reminded that we are often only a step away from high heroics and mind-numbing villany. The stories of the Japanese Americans who fought in Italy while their families were in camps behind barbed wire remind of both extremes.

Victor Frankl once remarked that being human means to be conscious and to be responsible. Now is the time to be responsible. What happened on 9/11 has made us fearful and some have used that fear to advance agendas and create climates where a college girl feared for her life in an American airport. Others decry entrepreneurial creativity as a luxury we cannot afford.

I worry more about a time where fear is our first emotion, and our default response to the unknown. That does not leave much room for building a better world and that is, what we are about. Star should have known better. So should we. Churches, synagogues, mosques and universities are meaning making communities. We offer a context in which we take the stuff of living and make sense of it. Now at the end of an eventful week we have a lot to work with. I pray we will do our
work well.

An Invitation

Join us at 5:30 PM on Sunday (September 30) for the Installation of the Chaplain to the Institute.
On Monday (October 1) at 4 PM in the Wong Auditorium (E-51) you are invited to join us for The Chaplain's Seminar where we will reflect on Religious Leadership in the 21st Century: How Are We to Avoid a Clash of Cultures? The Seminar will feature Dr. Ronald B. Sobel, Rabbi Emeritus Temple Emanu-el, NYC, Dr. Richard Hughes, Messiah College, Dr. Elizabeth Parsons, Quincy College, The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, Buddhist Chaplain at MIT and Suheil Laher, Muslim Chaplain at MIT.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Thursday, September 20, 2007


This morning as I finished my run around the Charles River change was all around me. I obviously have changed. My arms are smaller, a bit flabby. I run slower and my joints creak. When I mention that I run I am told I am foolish and need to consider low impact exercise. It used to be that when I talked of running folks thought it was cool. “You ran how far?” they would ask.

The trees are beginning to change; the air is a bit more brisk than in August. My fellow runners are different too. Used to be all men, but now from my perspective there is additional beauty to be seen. Women outnumber men 3-2 or thereabouts. I don’t count. I guess that is not a surprise now that there are more women than men in the college/university. Most must run and in taking care of themselves they once again outdo the men. I run because it allows me to think, to put things together in helpful ways. These days that has become more difficult. Some things don’t change.

Next week (September 30th) we will install the first Chaplain to the Institute. It marks a change at MIT. Attention is being paid here to the role of religion in the human experience. I will be Chaplain to the whole Institute, believers, non-believers, the uncertain. This change reflects recognition that religion contrary to expectations seems to be more important today than ever in our world lurking as it does on the edges of both conflict and comfort.

Last Sunday, The Boston Globe announced another wave of change. More young adults are declaring themselves non-religious. I might have done the same if I had to suffer through the smug God talk of many politicians without the perspective of age. We are always a bit behind the curve. I expect that before the godless become a majority another trend will develop. In any case, on Saturday at the close of Yom Kippur, Muslims observing Ramadan and Jews who have observed a Day of Atonement will break fast together on our campus. In this world of conflict and tension, that is a change for the good which we all should celebrate. Still today something good can come out of Jerusalem.

Robert M. Randolph

Friday, September 7, 2007

New Beginning

Just over a week ago the Class of 2011 arrived on campus. They are an eclectic lot, bright eyed and able. The mood on campus is electric; the Chaplains hosted a PB&J Bash inviting those interested in their ministries to drop by and get acquainted. The annual Duck Float, close now to a tradition, invited frosh to choose a yellow duck from those floating in the moat. Over 500 were taken. Having your own yellow ducky might not have the cachet it once had, but they do get attention.

Johanna Kiefner, the Lutheran Chaplain for the last seven years, leaves this month to complete her Social Work degree. she has been a valuable, caring member of our community. Her interim replacement, Diane Ranson, has the challenge of following a compassionate professional. At the same time, we are welcoming back Amy McCreath from a summer sabbatical. She and Diane will lead this year's iteration of the Lutheran-Episcopal Ministry. Known at LEM, the program has a storied history here at MIT.

While we celebrate what Johanna has done and welcome Diane to our community, we also must deal with the absence in our midst of James Albrecht '08. A former President of Baker House, James died in New York City this summer. He was a campus leader, a math major with enormous talent and intellect, and a friend to many. Services have been held in his home town, but on campus we are just now back so today led by Fr. Richard Clancy we celebrated James' life.

Our year begins celebrating the promise of a diverse and talented new class. We say good by to a good friend and caring pastor who knew how to foster and support faith in both thought and action. As well we come together to grieve and to begin to heal. It is a new year and a new beginning, but already we are reminded of the fragility of life and friendship and the value of a caring community. It is ever so.


Robert M. Randolph

Friday, August 24, 2007

From the Chaplain to the Institute

Dear Friends:

In 1955 when Kresge Auditorium and The Chapel were opened there was a good deal of conversation at MIT about having a Dean of the Chapel on the model of Duke University. The names tossed about in good MIT fashion were noteworthy. Ultimately, however, nothing came of it. When President James Killian left Cambridge to become Science Advisor to President Eisenhower, the notion died quietly. In the subsequent half-century there were always chaplains on campus serving established religious traditions. They were an outstanding group. Mike Bloy, John Crocker, Scott Paradise, Bernard Campbell and Jessica Crist come to mind.

At the same time, the Institute was well served by Dean Robert Holden, an ordained Unitarian minister, who was de facto chaplain to the Institute. He kept an eye on the religious communities on campus and on just about everything else that went on here. He was proud of the chapel and a quarter century after his retirement, there are those who call his name with a bit of reverence. In 1981, I moved onto campus with my family and became the Dean in Residence trying to fill the large shoes that Bob Holden left behind.

Now it is a new day and Dean Larry Benedict approached me last fall to ask if I would take responsibility for religious life on campus. After 28 years of service as a Dean dealing with often difficult situations, to be challenged by this new role was very attractive. On January 1, 2007 I became the first official Chaplain to the Institute.

The title is intentional. The role will serve the entire community: students, staff, faculty and research staff. In addition to the symbolism, the goal for the Chaplain to the Institute is to foster dialogue across religious boundaries while at the same time supporting the communities of faith that exist at MIT. I am an ordained Christian minister, but my role is not to advocate for one community or another, but to help create a wider community that has room for all shades of belief and unbelief, a community that nurtures and supports the healthy development of interior life during the university years. It is a daunting task.

This blog will appear regularly. On my web site information about upcoming events and activities will appear also. There will be links to articles about different ministries on campus. MIT remains a vital community drawing the best from all of us. We covet your support and encouragement.

Dr. Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute