Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New Lutheran Chaplain at MIT

Installation of Timothy Seitz
Lutheran Chaplain at MIT
February 18, 2009
Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8
Job. 32:1-10
Gospel Lesson: Luke 6:276-38

As the Season of Epiphany draws to a close, we turn our attention next week to the beginning of Lent and journey to the cross. The rhythm of the seasons reflect what is going on outside as the light lengthens. In our bones we know that spring is nearer than it once was and there are cautious blades of hope emerging from the dark of winter. Just do not talk about it. This next Sunday we will celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus and share with Peter his valiant effort to make sense of the world in which he found himself living.

Like Peter we are sometimes a bit confused. We are at the end of one season and the beginning of another. In all of this transition here is Timothy Seitz, well named, well thought of, inviting us to formally recognize his new role here at MIT. It is not as if he has not been working with Amy and the troops of LEM for months, but even at MIT we sometimes stop and look at what we are doing and intentionally say: “God help us”. And that is what we are about today: we are asking God to bless in a special way the ministry here that is Tim’s.

Given the season, the timing, we might frame the question this way: "Tim, are you a light to the Gentiles or a cause for penance?" I have, you see, listened to the texts for the evening and they give me pause. The words of Isaiah are well known reminders to the faithful of the need to go and serve where God calls us. We have seen these last months Tim’s willingness to do just that. Chalk up one for “light”

Job’s friend, Elihu, is quick to remind us that youth is not a hindrance to service. It was Garrison Keillor who noted that “Many say wisdom comes with age, truth be told sometimes age comes alone.” Tim may be the youngest of our current chaplains, but we do not hold his age against him. Tim is after all not Elihu. But I will just note the facts and chalk one up for the possibility of penance.

Our Gospel text has offered familiar comfort to both young and old with the charge to love, to serve, to practice mercy and to refrain from judgment. This is important stuff if one wants to be a chaplain at MIT; it is important stuff if one wants to be a whole human being. I spent some time recently with a student who had become a Christian only a few years ago and as she came to the end of her academic career, she found herself drawn closer to the Christ she had found in the Bible, the Christ who could suggest to his followers “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” But, why, she asked, are Christians so judgmental of other Christians? It is a good question that we all must answer.

But Tim, let me move from the reflective to the directive. It is appropriate to be clear that you come to this community as light, but it is also not inappropriate to shift the focus: you have answered God’s call by coming here. There are many gods at MIT, but you come as the servant of the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. That is an important distinction. Sometimes you will wonder who you are serving.

MIT is a place where problems are solved, puzzles completed, progress defined. The covenant is often very personal: “There is a mountain and I can climb it. There is a problem and I can solve it.” The “Why” questions: why climb the mountain? Why solve the problem? are not often asked. Having discovered new life forms and being asked on NPR how they felt when they thought about what they had done, some MIT students recently drew back in silence finally offering in response that they really had not given it much thought, they were after all only problem solvers. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “You can do anything you want to do, but not everything you do is helpful.” Your task, Tim, is to help this community ask the big questions: why are we here? Who do we serve? What is helpful?

Tim, as a chaplain who has answered God’s call to MIT, you have the chance to help us all reorder our lives around those things that are true, honorable, just and pure (Philippians 4:4). You must in Sharon Park’s words speak of “God as the gift of faith…an orienting consciousness that is both transcendent and immanent, both ultimate and intimate. (Parks, p.23) Such a God calls us away from the covenant of one into community and our commitment to one another will help us make a better world.

Now about your relative youth, Tim! It is a cause for penance only when it creates envy in those my age. You bring to us experiences in ministry elsewhere; you have zeal that is commensurate with your age, but that I am sure you do not always feel given that you are a new parent. I would like to tell you that you will get over it, but the truth is, you will never get over it. You will simply adjust. As the new chaplain you do not know what you cannot do and that means for the rest of us you can ask questions that we cannot ask since we are supposed to know the answers. Put another way, we can all benefit from your fresh insights. It is a great blessing to offer to a community a new set of eyes through which to see the world.

Even as you ask hard questions, listen carefully; there are some things that only experience can teach. If you do not listen you cannot measure the effectiveness of your work. I tell people that you will need time to get things in perspective and before you can measure how effective you are so do not be too hard on yourself. Your predecessors have served lengthy terms and done good work. You will do well to follow their example.

Finally, the Gospel text reminds us that we live in a diverse world that makes unique demands. As God’s person you do not have all the answers to the questions you will face here; you are not called to have all the answers. You are called to show up, to listen and to draw on your training, your experience and to lean on your peers. In your cooperative ministry Amy is a gift beyond measure; I suspect you already know that.

This is not a one size fits all circumstances kind of place. You will have to improvise, to think on your feet, to draw deeply from your prayer life, your devotional resources. You will not always know what to say or do; there are people at MIT who do not think you belong here. That is true in the church as well, but here they are not bashful about telling you their feelings. Be willing to be quiet and to listen.

You come to us well trained and I believe it is a blessing for you and for us that you will also serve a parish. That environment will help keep you grounded in the concerns of people some of us seldom see. They will tell you how “awesome” it is to be a chaplain at MIT and you will remind them it is “awesome” to be a pastor at Faith Lutheran.

Finally, Tim, let me remind you that your immediate predecessors here at MIT have been women of great faith and great ability. You stand on strong shoulders and I know their prayers join ours in support of your ministry.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Shoulders We Stand On

William Weed Kaufmann died in December. He had retired from MIT's department of Political Science twenty four years ago. He then spent time at Harvard. He was 90 when he died. Sitting in the quiet of the chapel and listening to the words spoken about him, I thought that it would have been nice if every MIT student could have heard about Dr. Kaufmann and his willingness to speak truth to power. John Deutch called it "speaking facts to power". Kaufmann served every defense secretary from 1961-1981; the list ran from Robert McNamara to Harold Brown. He was not afraid to criticize even policies he had helped formulate as he did with the notion of mutual destruction. He argued for a more nuanced policy that offered chances to step back from the edge of war. William Kaufmann was a man of courage who taught a generation of analysts who shaped American nuclear policy.

He had outlived friends as well as enemies, but his legacy gave me pause as I remembered how it had been to work with him on the Committee on Academic Performance in his last years at the Institute. He brought to the work of an involved faculty member the same kind of low key courage; he was interested in doing the right thing and it did not matter who got the credit. He wanted the facts to speak for themselves and they did.

MIT is a heady place and it has an impact on the wider world. That impact is more humane because of Bill Kaufmann and those of like mind. I see in our current community people he could relate to because they value the things he valued: virtue over visibility, right over might and a sense of realism that allowed bromides to mean something. As the chaplaincy evolves I think William Kaufmann would have been pleased.