Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christian Hope

This semester in chapel we have been looking at the importance of having hope during hard times. Last week, I watched a PBS special about how deregulation policies led to the fall of our economy. The economic experts placed too much confidence in the market to correct itself, and so advocated for a strong separation of state and the economy. This confidence in the market was based on a hope that there were large amounts of money to be made. Greed and a lack of accountability led to fraudulent activity, so we find ourselves in a recession.
God’s intention for His creation, this world and society, is described by the beautiful Hebrew word shalom. It is translated into English by the word “peace,” but it is much more than just the absence of violence. Shalom means flourishing at every level, economically, agriculturally, ecologically, psychologically and spiritually. But this is not a picture of our world and society today, is it? Things are not the way they are supposed to be and the problem doesn’t just lie in global forces that affect the economy. In the early 20th century, the British newspaper The Times invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" One of the invited authors was G.K. Chesterton. He responded:
Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton
As a Christian, I think Chesterton rightly understood that problems of the world lie ultimately within each of us. This resonates with me. When I place other things in my life—even good things like financial security, professional success, my children’s welfare—above God, shalom is broken. My kids resent me when I try to live my life through them. My ministry to college students becomes a means to make a name for myself rather than God. Service becomes self-oriented, a means of justifying my existence rather an overflow of joyful desire to serve God. When we put secondary things in Gods’ place, we become out of tune with God’s intent. We become like instruments in a symphony doing their own thing, rather than following the lead of the conductor. Now, economic, political, social and technological solutions are needed in the world, but the human heart needs to be re-oriented so that the right solutions are applied for the right reasons and in a right manner. Most essentially, we require a spiritual solution.
One of my favorite passages from my Christian tradition that gives me hope for the human condition (especially my own) is found in Hebrews 6:19-20: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever.” Jesus is personified as hope because of two essential roles he plays. One is that of high priest. By his life and death, he paid the penalty we owe for how we have vandalized shalom. In Israel, a high priest would make atonement in the temple for the sins of the people annually. Because this was a continuous cycle had no end, the question remained, “Are my sins forgiven?” But Jesus died for the sins of the world, once for all. God wants us to know that in Christ, we are forgiven and have free access to Him. This brings me levity, because the guilt and burden of my sin is gone. But there is more.
Secondly, Jesus plays the role of forerunner. That is, he has gone before. He is very much like the character Andy Dufrense in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Andy, played by Tim Robbins, befriends another inmate Red, played by Morgan Freeman, in Shawshank prison. Red has been in prison for the majority of his life and he struggles with hope. Andy repeatedly attempts to give Red hope, but he fears hope will let him down. Andy tells Red of his plans of restoring a boat and sailing it in Mexican waters. He tells Red that he will leave a stash of money hidden under a stone in local field. If Red were to make parole, he could pay for the bus fare to Mexico. One day, Andy escapes from prison and eventually crosses the border of Mexico. Andy sends Red a blank postcard, post-marked from a particular border town, letting Red know that he has found freedom. Red finally does make parole and the end of the movie, pictures Red walking down a Mexican beach towards Andy, who is sun-tanned and working on restoring a boat. Andy was Red’s forerunner. The Christian hope is that Jesus is our forerunner. He has conquered death and returned to the Father’s presence. Because he has gone before us, he can guide us, helping live not only without the burden of sin but with hope—a hope that recognizes that the restoration of shalom is at work now, within us and around us, and that this hope will be realized at a future time when shalom will be fully restored when Jesus ushers us into God’s presence. Then, we will flourish at a global level and at a personal level as God intended.

Mike Bost
Campus Crusade

Monday, November 16, 2009


Morning Prayers * MIT Chapel * November 10, 2009

In the fall of 1995, I arrived at the seminary I was to attend excited to meet my classmates. As it turns out they were an impressive bunch: lawyers, professors, a professional calligrapher, most graduates of fancy universities, most accustomed to succeeding at whatever they set out to do. We studied Church history together, we ate together, we prayed together in the chapel three times a day, we planned Holy Week services together, we did service work together, and we socialized together.

By the middle of our second year of seminary, none of us were speaking to one another. We were entirely fed up of one another. Rivalries had bred resentments
and disagreements had festered into deep irritations. We had frustrated one another's project (which was, generally, to shine like a star wherever we went). The ego is the last idol, as Anglican theologian John Macquarrie writes, and we were each clinging to ours like a life bouy.

The mutual, seething silence didn't last forever. Eventually, by the grace of God, we let go of those idols, we forgave one another for the sin of being
human, and we slowly helped one another recompose themselves as a more authentic human being. By the time we graduated, each of us had survived the shipwreck and were able to look back, see how far we had come, give thanks for one another's role in building up one another's capacity to love, and move out into our ministries much clearer about what we had to offer and what we didn't. We spent the next year and a half traveling all over the Midwest attending one another's ordinations, so committed were we to one another's ministry.

Community is the frustration and the fulfillment of the individual (John Macquarrie). We become who we are in community, and that is by design. My Christian faith teaches me that we are created by love, for love, and so we are necessarily relational. Our very personhood is never autonomous, and it is in the rough and tumble of real families, real friendships, real communities that we are shaped into the fullness of ourselves. It is unusually much less romantic than it sounds. But it gives me hope.

One of my favorite things, as a chaplain, is seeing how community mentors a student. In our Lutheran Episcopal Ministry community, we have lots of mountain-top
Experiences -- winter hikes, hymn sings, deeply moving sharing of stories, healing prayers. And all of that is great. But what is even more great, I think, is when things go wrong, when heated words are exchanged or anger voiced, when students are tempted to give up or walk away, but by the grace of God they stick with it, they stick with one another, they are honest about
their feelings and they work back towards relationship, a relationship that feels different now, bringing a self that feels different, too. This process helps them to be less fearful, to trust their voices, and to trust that they will be loved regardless.

Community like this is the real deal. It gives me hope. More than that, I need it. Living as I do in our "Bowling Alone" culture, I need social capital
that will not disappear if I dare to cry or yell or mess up. Communicating as I do in a Twittering world, I need people who will listen to me blather on from
time to time. Working as I do in a time when employers demand super-metrics and double overtime, I need people who will affirm that my value as a person cannot
be measured on a spreadsheet. Bear one another's burdens, Paul wrote to the Galatians. That's really what Jesus was talking about. That's really what
Amos and Hosea were talking about. That's really what God has always been talking about. That gives me hope.

I want to end with an excerpt from one of my favorite essays by one of my favorite authors. This is from Anne Lamott's "Why I make Sam go to church." It's not really about church; it's about communities and hope.

"[My son] Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church -- who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly
true: the truth is he never wants to go. What young boy would rather be in church on the weekends than hanging out with a friend?

You might think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make
this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say.

I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.

But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want -- which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy -- are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, "A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning." Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food.

It's funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools -- friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty -- and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they're enough."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Created from the same dust

Tuesdays in the Chapel
October 27, 2009
O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all fromthe same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.
-from The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh

In this passage, our redemption as spiritual beings is linked to our realization that we who live on this planet are indeed one family. And yet how far we seem at times from heeding His counsel to live as one human family.

Today I would like to share with you some insights from my tradition, the Bahá’í Faith, on why we should have hope when there is so much going on that can be cause for despair. The Bahá’í writings propose that the human family, collectively, has passed through stages of maturation analogous to infancy and childhood in the life of an individual. The “adulthood” will be a world civilization that functions according to principles of justice and unity. Right now we are passing through an adolescent stage, which is an extremely turbulent period. Teenagers, as we know, often learn the wisdom of adulthood the hard way; so it is with humankind. In this phase, we see both constructive and destructive process. Institutions that function
according to archaic values decline and collapse; this leads to hard and painful times. But it also clears the ground for the building up of new institutions and the cultivation of new ways of life. The processes of decay and destruction grab the headlines, while the constructive processes often go unnoticed, at least in the short run.

Consider race relations in the United States. I live in Cambridge, a city with an African-American mayor in a state with an African-American governor in a country with an African-American president. 150 years ago, slavery was a legally sanctioned institution in the US. Many back then, I am sure, thought that slavery would be around for a long time, that it’s abolition was a “pie in the sky” idea that does
not really accord with human nature. 150 years. Think about that! On a historical time scale, that’s blazingly fast and profound social change. This did not come about through some smooth and orderly progression of rational reforms. There was a lot of turmoil and struggle and sacrifice. But the point is we did succeed in moving forward, not only in terms of the outward legal and social changes,
but also in terms of our inner struggle against prejudice and alienation.

Now we are experiencing an economic crisis. I suggest that this is a blessing in disguise. Indeed the word crisis means a turning point; the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the idea of “danger” with the idea of “opportunity.” Where is the opportunity in this economic crisis? For one thing, it makes us ask important questions that we would otherwise not be motivated to ask. How can
we devise an economic system that has the dynamism and flexibility of the market, while at the same time fostering the pursuit of something greater than a myopic and narrowly defined bottom line?

How can we learn to talk about such issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect and open-minded investigation, rather than rancorous debate among adherents of rigidly defined ideologies? I obviously don’t propose to answer such big questions in a seven-minute chapel talk. My point is we are asking such questions. And each of us, motivated by the enobling teachings of our faiths, has the power to make a difference and to help the world get to the right answers.

In it’s 1985 statement on peace, the international governing council of the Bahá’í community makes the case for having hope in hard times: A candid acknowledgement that prejudice, war and exploitation have been the expression of immature stages in a vast historical process and that the human race is today experiencing the
unavoidable tumult which marks its collective coming of age is not a reason for despair but a prerequisite to undertaking the stupendous enterprise of building a peaceful world. That such an enterprise is possible, that the necessary constructive forces do exist, that unifying social structures can be erected, is the theme weurge you to examine.

Brian Aull

Monday, November 2, 2009

Richard Yamamoto Memorial

I wanted to talk today about the word “grace”.
When we see something sublime or beautiful, we say it is graceful.
But, as a noun, a grace is a favor granted us by the world.
All around us, every day, there are hundreds of graces, large and small. Little beautiful things everywhere.
We stop and look at them if we have the time; sometimes we are too busy to notice them.
Richard Yamamoto was seldom too busy – he saw the wonderful things around him, appreciated them and gave thanks.
I will always remember that my conversations with him inevitably began with a remark about some little grace: a tree, the well executed experiment in Junior Lab, frequently a car. There was always something he had just seen or done that had made an impression.
He always seemed grateful for the graces the world had given him and was always ready to share them.
And now, today, I see his life as a grace granted to me and the rest of us.
And today, with you, I am grateful for the life of Richard Yamamoto.

Prof. Peter Fisher