Monday, December 19, 2011

Eugene Chamberlain

Tuesdays in the Chapel
December 13, 2011

First Reading

“The 120 miles of I-44 that I needed to travel, before the freeway peters out south of Lawton, are not very interesting, though I was cheered by the sight of the bumpy Wichita Mountains as I came into Lawton, an army town mostly noted for having been the last home of two nineteenth-century Native American leaders, Geronimo and Quanah Parker. Both were remarkable men, but Quanah managed more remarkable transition. He was, in his youth, a formidable war chief, leading many raids; he was almost killed at the second battle of Adobe Walls—yet he survived, surrendered, and led his people, the Comanches, into a fairly stable relationship with the White government and the twentieth century.

Geronimo, by the time he was housed at Fort Sill, really had very few people—many of the eighteen warriors who had surrendered with him in 1886 had died in captivity. Geronimo survived twenty-three years as a prisoner, nineteen of them at Fort Sill. Though he longed for his native desert and petitioned every white leader he could find to send him back, he was never allowed to return to Arizona. Finally one day he got very drunk, spent a cold night outside, and died of pneumonia. In his last years he and Quanah had formed a friendship—two men who had seen their time, and their people’s time, end.”
Roads Larry McMurtry, p. 46.

The readings for the day are eclectic. I wanted on the one hand to speak about what we do not know about historical figures as a way of illustrating what we also do not know about one another. On the other hand I wanted to speak to the difficulties that are connected to knowing God. In the season of Advent and Christmas we approach Bethlehem with both uncertainty and hope.

In real time we also grieve. My friend Eugene Chamberlain died last Thursday. I was scheduled to visit with him on Friday. He had lived 91 mostly good years; I cannot speak to the recent days. His wife of nearly 60 years had gone before him. He once told me that when he got his new contract from MIT each year he would put the unopened envelop on her pillow so she could open it to see how they would do in the year ahead. The gesture was a window into his way of being. He was a gentle and good man.

When I came to MIT he was nearing the end of a long and storied career and was serving as the Director of the Foreign Student Office. He had previously worked in Admissions. Shortly before he retired, in 1985, he was given the Billard Award for service to the Institute. The exact words are: The annual honor is bestowed on an individual working inside or outside MIT who has performed “special service of outstanding merit” for the Institute.

In about 1982 I woke up one morning to discover I was an Associate Dean of Student Life charged with overseeing the organizing of the Counseling Office. And by the way, they said, the International Student Office will report to you. I was stunned, a relative new comer, I was now in charge of Gene’s world.

He was gracious about it all even as I felt like I was drowning. He did not lend himself easily to supervision. He did things as he had done them for over 30 years. He did not type, was not computer literate, who was?, but he did not think he needed to learn. He communicated in the language of care for students, particularly international students and all over the world there were graduates of MIT who loved him for his kindness.

Love is not too big a word in this case. He had guided and cared for them in a time when MIT felt it was enough to have them here. Letting them come was the norm; care was exceptional and Gene cared. It was not enough to Gene to give them a place at the table, often his table, he thought we ought help them be successful and he did all he could to make that happen.

As my new responsibilities evolved I came to understand who Gene was in his world beyond MIT. In the growing world of international offices at American colleges and universities, Gene was larger than life. He had helped bring into being the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) and served as its president. Gene was iconic and deservedly so. He did not wear his role on his sleeve, but when International Student Advisors came to MIT for their regular meetings or chance visits, they gave him homage.

If I had one thing to change about the MIT I know today, it would be for us to understand better that everyone of us has a life beyond these walls where we also have standing. And sometimes like Eugene Chamberlain we are outstanding. I was embarrassed to have him report to me; I had too much to learn, but it was his grace and patience that taught me and gave me the opportunity to learn from him.

I wish we had been able to talk on Friday. I would have told him what I had learned from him namely that work done well lives forever when done in the service of others. It is something worth remembering in this season and in all seasons.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Second Reading

A Grace

God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence:
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.

By Donald Hall

Thursday, December 8, 2011

If I ...

Tuesday Talk at the Chapel
November 29, 2011

If I could change one thing about …

the way we determine who has something to offer, who is worthy of being visible to us in our lives, I would sprinkle some enlightenment throughout the universe that would move us toward rethinking the checklist or the metrics that shape our view of who is important to know, who is worthy of our graciousness and kindness, who we can learn from, who is deserving of opportunity, who is smart, and who has potential.

How limiting it is for me to value you on the basis of what you wear, or your academic pedigree, or the neighborhood you are from or in, the country of your birth or ancestry, the language you speak or the accent of your words, the job your parents have or the job you have… how limiting it is to deem you worthy of my attention because of the color of your skin or your eyes or your hair, because of your religious affiliation, because of whom you love.

If I choose not to see you because of what I cannot see, what opportunities might I miss? If I dismiss you as irrelevant, or at least non-essential, since you and my checklist appear incongruous, might there be some insight, some enriching experience, some priceless encounter just beyond my grasp?

Now, I am not suggesting that it’s wrong to have standards. My standards help me makes sense of how I am doing in my world; they are related to my values. Sometimes, though, standards can get in the way of forward movement; they can get in the way of openness to exploration and discovery; they can get in the way of just being in the moment. Measuring others, their value or whether they have something to offer, by the standard I’ve invented for myself may just block my blessings.

Judging another by my standards can undermine rather than support the other’s productivity. It then becomes about my agenda, my biases, and does not necessarily reflect the capacity of the other; it does, however, emphasize my limitations.

What might happen if instead of the negative judgment, I could be more open to the perspective, the style, the way of being of the other person? If I really listened to a fresh voice? Perhaps, I would learn something new, or make space for possibilities- even miracles; perhaps, I would provide an opportunity for a mutually beneficial or life enhancing interaction; perhaps with respect instead of judgment, I open the door for the other person to make a contribution or realize that which is great within herself/himself.
If I measure your worth by my checklist, I may miss your beauty, your unique gifts, your gentle spirit, the benefit of knowing the person you will become; I may miss a world of possibilities. I may miss a pivotal moment…the chance to transform or be transformed.

What might happen if I set aside the barriers, the disparities that I have either invented or bought into that distract me from or inhibit my interaction with you? What might I gain? What might you?

What are the possibilities for enrichment, creativity, development, if we shatter the walls we erect to protect ourselves and replace them with more common spaces for uncommon interactions with people who experience life differently, who think differently, or if we substitute the narrow lens through which we may have learned to view fellow humans with a multi- dimensional lens that captures the depth and breadth and complexities of our lives?

A few Sundays ago, I was watching Sunday Morning on CBS, and a young man whose job is that of a server/waiter in a restaurant was talking abut how he feels he and his work are viewed by many who depend on his service. He mentioned the demeaning way customers sometimes treat him, the comment ”why don’t you get a real job” to which he has been subjected, and the disrespect and disregard he has experienced or witnessed in his work. I thought of the many waiters/servers I’ve met, not all wonderful certainly, but most have been extraordinarily kind and caring. They have taken great pride in the quality of service and they have wanted me to have a good experience. From some, I have learned about wines, the art of cake decorating, places I have never been; I have learned about resiliency and determination; and I have walked into a restaurant and been greeted by a waiter with a huge smile and a hug just when I needed one most.
Recently, I met a former marine, a new hire in a local restaurant who had returned not long ago from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was so engaging, and I was fascinated by the stories of his life journey, and he is only 22. He said a few things that led me to think that I reminded him of his mom. Long story short…he brought over a napkin on which he had written a list of things to experience…He handed it to me, and told me it was my bucket list…new experiences he thought I would love and would enrich my life. He included things to do with my best friends, because he had listened carefully when I mentioned how important they are in my life.

Oh the possibilities that emerge when we let go of our preconceived notions about who we can learn from, who has something of value to offer.

I must say that I am profoundly grateful for a lesson from my father, who himself was a waiter as a young Black man trying to make his place in a world where, in the 1940’s, he was often invisible or looked upon with disdain. He would say that we should always leave a good tip and not make assumptions about who a person is because of the work he does. Treat a waiter with as much respect as we treat the folks in church, he’d say.

If I could change one thing, I would invite you to bring your checklist by which you judge the value, potential, contributions of others to a very special ceremony where together we light a fire and offer our checklists in exchange for admission into the realm of possibility.

Blanche Staton

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Value of Saying "I do not know"

First Reading: On The Virtue of Admitting Ignorance
Young people, and especially young people of high ambition and learning, gain the mistaken impression as they go through school that the goal of life is to have an almost unlimited supply of secure knowledge which one can explain, defend and use in many contexts. This is a very good thing, to be sure. Not only is knowledge useful and enjoyable, but an ability to explain things precisely and lucidly is almost as important as learning to be gracious and loving towards others. I live for knowledge and I love putting it together in ways that have not yet been done.
But what I am learning as I mature is that you actually learn more and are more useful to yourself and others if you are constantly aware of what you don't know and if you are willing readily to admit to others the nature (and scope) of your ignorance. No one will ever tell you that a successful interview should consist of statements of your ignorance; but I will tell you that the most successful way to learn and develop your mind to its greatest potential is to live in your ignorance, readily admit it, and know how to use your ignorance to leverage knowledge at a deeper level.
Essayist and author, Bill Long

It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

If there were one thing I would change at MIT, it would be to be more accepting of the answer “I don’t know”. This is a suggestion that I heard from former President Bill Clinton just two weekends ago, when he came to Tufts University for the Issam M. Fares Lecture in Eastern Mediterranean Studies. I was offered tickets by a friend and eagerly agreed to go. My wife Deena was thrilled to go as well.

We had forgotten how brilliant this man is. The President talked on Middle East and world issues for an hour and a half – without notes. It was a tour de force and, at least for me, made me proud that this man was the leader of the Free World for 8 years. And what he has accomplished since leaving office! Besides being there for his incredible wife Hilary, he has devoted his talent to helping millions around the globe. Here is but one example: the Clinton Foundation was instrumental in forging a workable business model with drug companies on the AIDS epidemic. The result was drive down prices for AIDS medication worldwide and thus literally millions of lives.

After his talk, he enthusiastically addressed the many questions from the audience. He expertly dissecting some various world issues in a direct, insightful way. He has an incredible array of experience, insights, historical perspective, and friendships with people and leaders all over the globe.

Maybe it was the fourth question from the crowd that caught my attention. It was complex as all the others before it. The President easily could have snowed the hundreds in the audience with data and his own vast experience. But instead he said simply “I don’t know”. An unexpected laugh rippled through the crowd.

Then he followed that up by saying, “I try to say ‘I don’t know’ at least once each day”. And then he elaborated on how important this admission was to him.

If a proven world leader can say this, maybe I can, too. So this got to me to thinking how vital this simple admission can be. There are at least 3 ways we can use in our own lives:
First – as a check to intellectual arrogance.
Second – as a prelude to science and honest inquiry.
Third – as an antidote for ideology and extremism

First – as a check to intellectual arrogance
MIT Community has lots of smart people, and smart people can sometimes get ahead of themselves. The mastery of one discipline hardly means we know everything. Indeed, expertise in one field does not necessarily extend to another. As we age, the old saying of “the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know” really takes on meaning.

This is not a new or original observation. With some help from Google, I tried tracing this thought back in time. The search led as least as far back as the famed Greek Philosopher Socrates, who some 24 centuries ago observed that “the first step to wisdom was acknowledging how little one know”.

At its best, ability to admit that we don’t know, can add a measure of humility to our conduct, and enable us to be more open to listen and to dialogue with others. And it can set us for learning.

Second – as a prelude for real science and honest inquiry.
As Rabbi Fisher noted, science begins with “I don’t know”. We then can go on to ask “What is the why, the how, the when” and all the other questions that flow from this basic admission. People at MIT and other scholars around the globe are very good at devising research to delve into such questions. We are blessed to be in a time in history and in a community that has the will, the talent, and the resources to do so. There are something like 2,200 labs at MIT, and a large number are doing basic, leading edge research. They are not seeking the known. I think it was Einstein who put it so well when he said “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be research!”

By the way, it seems President Clinton has a really healthy interest in science. He likes to spice his remarks with some of the very latest scientific discoveries. Some of you will remember back in 1998 when he was MIT’s Commencement Speaker, and he mentioned the then new and startling experimental result that the neutrino has mass. This was the first mention I had heard of this momentous discovery – from the President!

At his recent talk at Tufts, Clinton prefaced his Tufts remarks with another profound scientific discovery, that we humans all have traces of Neanderthal genes in our DNA. But this time, I was not so surprised. Several months before, I attended one of the informative “Leading Jewish Minds” lunchtime lectures. Professor Bob Weinberg let us the audience in on this as-yet-unpublished revelation. This lecture series is yet another of those gems that we in the MIT community can enjoy. Every month or so, Joel Moses recruits an exceptional thinker and researcher, and you are guaranteed to hear something new!
Third – as an antidote for ideology and extremism
Ideologues and extremists are certain of truth. They don’t need to admit “I don’t know”, since they know the answers, and can readily fit any trend or event in their intellectual architecture. The rest of us, the people of faith, are not so sure. (That’s why our regions are called faiths).
With the increasing polarization of political discourse and fragmentation of information sources, we could use more “I don’t know”. At the least, maybe we can suspend judgment long enough to understand what the other side is really concerned about.
And we can never too smug. As social scientists have discovered, however, most of us are not immune to fitting an observation into our particular world view. We tend to selectively search and gather “facts” which support our point of view. Again, some humility seems appropriate for all of us.
So it does seem that to gain knowledge and wisdom, it really does seem we need to often step back and concede that that we don’t know.

Robert Ferrara

Concluding Readings

From the Jewish Sages
"Seven things apply … to a wise person. A wise person does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom or years; she does not interrupt her fellow; he is not rushed to respond; she asks relevant questions; he answers accurately; she discusses first things first and last things last; on what he did not hear, he says 'I did not hear;' and she admits to the truth".
From the Mishna, Chapter 5, Verse 10: Pirkei Avot (sayings of the Fathers) compiled about 200CE
Amidah, a Jewish Prayer
You graciously bestow knowledge upon humankind and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.

From the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chariots of Fire

The movie Chariots of Fire tells the story of two world-class British sprinters in the 1924 Olympics, Eric Lydell and Harold Abrahams. A quotation from each represents their different motivations about racing and about life. Eric Lydell says, “God has made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” Contrast this joy with Abrahams desperate comment: “I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.” One identifies with whom God has made him to be; the other by his accomplishments. One man is free; the other is enslaved. One man lives by grace; the other by works.
This season in chapel we are addressing things that we would like to change. These quotes from Chariots of Fire represent what I would like to change for myself and for everyone else—that we would be freed from having to justify our existence in making a name for ourselves and be freed to live out our calling by God’s grace in making a name for Him.
In Ephesians 2:8-9, the apostle Paul captures these divergent ways of living, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We all recognize that boasting has an arrogance about it, but there is also a desperation to it—and God wants neither of these to exist in his people. When we boast about something, we exaggerate our strengths and hide our inadequacies, trying to stay “one up” on others. This is what often motivates the public behavior of the school-yard bully or the domineering manager at work, but we all have a tendency to do this. Why? Because we try to build an identity based on measuring yourself against others. Someone’s success (moving “up”) or our failures being made known (moving “down”) threatens our identity. I see this in my own life by over-identifying with my children’s success or failures or by over-identifying with praise or criticism in my professional work.
But God’s grace—His loving acceptance and commitment to us—can change all that. When we learn to find our identity in him, comparison with others or living up to others’ expectations becomes more and more unnecessary. God’s grace humbles—it is a gift that cannot be earned. And God’s grace frees—it releases us from the desperate ladder of justifying ourselves to a new identification and calling. Paul goes on to say in Eph 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” My hope for us all is that we walk in these good works—not out of compulsion or desperation but out of joy and freedom.

Mike Bost
Campus Crusade for Christ

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mary has chosen what is better

First Reading:

Luke 10:38-42 38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Asked to speak about something I'd like to change, many things came to mind. The question reminded me of how my husband likes to ask people what they would do if they were dictator for a day. His response is that he'd ban double-wide strollers in Cambridge to make taking a walk easier, but I realized that might not be the best answer to the question. I decided that I'd talk about something that is close to my heart these days; something on which I've been trying to work for awhile.

The thing I'd like to change the most about myself is how busy I let myself become, and the passage about Mary and Martha with Jesus is a great reminder to me of what I miss when I get too busy. Our MIT community is probably missing out on quite a bit by being too busy, too. We often talk about the freshmen drinking from the fire hose, but that is the case for everyone at MIT. We are all bombarded with work, research, etc; and we take pride in being the most busy. I've often heard people bragging about just how busy they are, and when I read this Bible passage, it reminds me that there is much more to life than being the most busy.

Let's take a look at Martha.

She's focused on an important task - hosting Jesus. She obviously wants to impress him and just like her, most everyone at MIT has important work to do. But in the end, she's missing out on time to interact with Jesus. When you look around MIT, you see many people missing out on time with God, family, friends, and others because they are too focused to see what is really important

When we look at Mary, we see something different.

For this one evening, she chooses to sit and talk with Jesus, and she benefits from setting aside the busyness. She may be behind in tasks, but in the end, time spent with Jesus is far more rewarding. We could all benefit from setting aside the busyness once in a while to focus on things that have more eternal or long term impact.

I'm challenging myself to take time each day to spend more time in prayer, to put aside the busyness of my day for a few moments. The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh said

“In modern society most of us don't want to be in touch with ourselves; we want to be in touch with other things like religion, sports, politics, a book - we want to forget ourselves. Anytime we have leisure, we want to invite something else to enter us, opening ourselves to the television and telling the television to come and colonize us.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh , Being Peace

I encourage you to take a few extra moments in your day to slow down, spend time with God, or friends, or family, or even quietly by yourself.

Second Reading:
"We must never forget that the mindful practice of daily affairs is also a path into the realm of the spirit. The Japanese have long known this, and hallowed the ordinary moments of life by elevating them into art. The Native Americans have also understood this, and consecrated everyday actions by surrounding them with ceremony and prayer.
"But ours is a transient life, lived on the run, with an endless sense of process, of movement, of chasing the future. We seldom pause to shine a light upon the ordinary moments, to hallow them with our own attentiveness, to honor them with gentle caring. They pass unnoticed, lost in the ongoing rush of time.

"Yet it just such a hallowing that our lives require. We need to find ways to lift the moments of our daily lives — to celebrate and consecrate the ordinary, to allow the light of spiritual awareness to illuminate our days.

"For though we may not live a holy life, we live in a world alive with holy moments. We need only take the time to bring these moments into the light."
— Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn

Summer Hutcheson
Daper, Special Assistant to the Dept. Head

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The politics of public education

MIT Chapel Reflection

First Reading: Daniel 1:1-7

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.
Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

I have no doubt that in subsequent weeks I will find myself in agreement with most every topic presented wishing I had chosen that topic. Or at the very least that maybe the answer I should be giving to the question, “If I could change one thing…” should qualify me for the Miss Universe pageant and be something like…world peace.

But, my answer to the question, at least as of 9/27/2011, is that if I could change anything, I would change the politics of public education in the US.

There has been a general narrative in our country that public education, especially in our urban centers, is suffering.

Just this past week, President Obama stated in his weekly address, “Today, our kids trail too many other countries in math, science, and reading. As many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. And we’ve fallen to 16th in the proportion of our young people with a college degree, even though we know that sixty percent of new jobs in the coming decade will require more than a high school diploma. What this means is that if we’re serious about building an economy that lasts – an economy in which hard work pays off with the opportunity for solid middle class jobs – we had better be serious about education. We have to pick up our game and raise our standards.”

The passage from the book of Daniel reminds us that with the King’s best food and wine, also comes a selection of the stories and language that will give identity to a community and a nation.

The story reminds us that with the King’s food and wine, comes a change in the language and stories that define a culture, and when you change a communities language and stories, you change their names…you change their identity.

Inherent in our funding strategy of public education has always been a concretizing of the socio-economic stratification of our communities.

The question and politics of why we educate is increasingly more complex in our multi-cultural society.

What started as religious and even sectarian education in the 18th century, had turned toward the responsibility of raising up knowledgeable citizens for a democratic society into the 19th century.

The cold-war and nationalism provided key structures for our education narrative through the middle of the 20th century, but seems to have lost their uniting vision into the 21st.

It seems that the dominant vision of education emerging is one of prosperity. We educate not for the good of humanity, but we educate as an investment into the growth of the economy, as an investment into the potential of prosperity.

But, have we thought deeply about the human story this tells? What does this communicate to our children? Your future value and human worth will be determined by your ability to contribute to the GNP?

With the kings food and wine come the stories and language…and ultimately identity.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, basing their results on the 2010 census, more than 42% of children live in low-income families, and the total number of Americans living below the poverty line is the highest in 50 years.

And most research will show that emotional and psychological stress placed on a child living in poverty has a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn.

Consequently the gap grows wider between wealthier and poor neighborhood schools in many states during economic stress in spite of growing initiatives, financial investment and emerging alternatives.

I love teachers, and have a great respect for those who enter the field. Many of my family members are currently or have been educators.

In my last fifteen years as a college chaplain, I can recall dozens of students who have entered various teaching programs with the high-minded idealism of making a difference in the future of students caught in struggling systems.

Few remain. It is emotionally taxing and there are alternative places to work to see more immediate results. Many in the field of education research project he results of education reform could take as much as 10-15 years to bear tangible results.

Our reflections for chapel, “If I could change one thing…” as Dr. Randolph reminded us last week, causes us to examine and question the notion of change itself as much as the thing we would like to see change, as well as our own involvement in seeing change happen.

The politics and conversation of education has at its core the question, “Why we educate?” But most of the public conversation has little to do with wrestling as a society with this question.

And if we were going to change the conversation, change the politics of public education, I wonder how our children would answer this question, “Why do we educate?” I wonder what language and stories are forming their identity as we debate experiment with strategies, assessment and benchmarks for new contributors to a new economy.

Tim Hawkins, Chaplain with SojournMIT

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Tuesdays in the chapel

The invitation of our morning gatherings is to consider change. What would you change if you could about any topic you are interested in considering. The intent is to get us all to think about what change suggests and demands of us. It is also an invitation to do something we do not often do here at MIT and that is to pause and reflect.

The readings for the day lay out the spectrum. There is the Psalmist, David, reflecting on the unchanging nature of the Divine. “The Lord is my rock.” (Psalm 18) On another occasion, he declares “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” (Psalm 118)

The New Hampshire poet, Donald Hall, celebrates change. There are the trees that bud and flower only to repeat the process because ‘frost will strip it raw and barren soon”. A poet who paid attention to the nature of the passions that come with living, Hall offers the insights of experience. Loves brings change and hurt but the process is curative and may be summed up by noting that:

“The young are never robbed of innocence
but given gold of love and memory.
We live in wealth whose bounds exceed our sense
And when we die are full of memory.”

Love makes us whole and the process depends on memory. It may be that is why Alzheimers is such a dreaded specter hanging over our lives for it robs us of that which ties it all together: memory,

If I were to change anything I would ask that memory remain a constant; that the links of memory remain alive and vital. But even as I say it I know that I depend on certain parts of remembering fading with time else the pain of loss and foolishness would be too great to bear. That is why Hall links memory with love:

“yet people are not mended, but go on
accumulating memory and love.
And so the wood we used to know is gone,
Because the years have taught us that we move.”

Fall reminds us that change is the order of the universe and that the dis-ease we experience each year when the days grow shorter and the darkness deepens is bearable because we remember that the tree burning with color will repeat the process come spring and so will we as blood again quickens and life revives.

The words of another New England poet come to mind:

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still….

Robert Frost The Master Speed

That is what we do each Tuesday, pause and stand still recognizing the nature of change yet grounded by a love that surrounds us.

May it always be so.

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


As I prepare for 9/11 commemorations I have been giving thought to courage and how it manifests itself. The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 comes to mind for her willingness to demand crumbs from an unresponsive Jesus. In a meditation on this passage a woman wrote a prayer: “Dear God: forgive us when we are passive or timid…Bless the quick witted, assertive woman in each of us who trembles even as she dares to speak…” It takes courage to be assertive.

It also takes courage to speak up for reconciliation and the consequences sometimes surprise. In the Call and Response blog at Duke Divinity School Allegra Jordan, wrote this: “ I found God at Harvard in Sunday School, in prayer circles, and at the feet of Peter J.Gomes, ... I came to Harvard in the 1990s from Alabama. A bitter battle had torn apart my own denomination. I wanted nothing to do with church people. But I was urged to try Memorial Church. And there I found grace, love and Christian witness. Peter deeply believed in Jesus and prayer, and helped make it safe for me to do so as well.

The turning point for me was a shocking sermon he preached in 1991, “The Courage to Remember,” where an African-American minister from Harvard railed against Harvard’s Memorial Hall because it only commemorated Union dead from the Civil War, not the Confederates. “Humanity transcends the sides and there are no victors ultimately; there are only those to be commended to God.”
He stood on a notoriously secular campus in one of the most insular towns in America and said we should love people like me: those from the south.”

Allegra closed with this benediction offered by Peter to a class graduating from Harvard: “I wonder how many of you have ever noticed the stone staircases that lead from the first to the second floor of University Hall? They are a remarkable example of the engineering skills of the building’s great architect, Charles Bulfinch, and their particular style is called ‘vagrant’ because they have no visible means of support...they are not a miracle but a marvel.

My wish for each of you is that you have useful, elegant, and efficient lives without any visible means of support, vagrant lives which will suggest to others as well as to yourselves that you are supported by an inner strength, an inner tension, a source of support that appears to defy the laws of physics but which sustains you and supports others.

In other words I wish God for you, that peace which this world can neither give you nor take away from you but will sustain you in this life and get you to the next...We have come now to the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end, and soon you will belong no longer to us or to yourselves but to the world.

Go out there, then, with courage, grace and imagination. We give you our love—a word not used much around here, and saved for your very last moments—and we commend you to the love of one another and to the greater love of a loving God. This now, at last, is the best we can do for you. This is the best that there is and it is yours, so go for it, for God’s sake, and for your own. Amen.”

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Words for those who have fallen

August 18th, 2011

We are asked today to honor the courage of brave men and women, but at the same time to hold in our hearts the grief we feel over those we have lost. Courage comes in many forms and all of us think we know what it is. There are those who speak truth to power and weather the consequences. Each night on the news we see citizens of Syria and Libya who protect the safety of family and clan and pay dearly for their actions.

When we think of family and clan we think of our own armed services and the men and women who choose to put their lives on the line for their brothers and sisters and by extension for the rest of us.

Near to us all are those members of the Navy Seals who died in Afghanistan as they returned from a rescue operation involving Army Rangers and Afghan fighters. Today we think of those who died and remember that courage is not simply a trait called upon in moments of danger. Courage is a quality we all call upon as we live these difficult days.

It is bittersweet to be asked to celebrate courage and to mourn loss. MIT is good at lots of things, but we are not good at living with the contradictions of life and death. We solve problems; this is a problem that eludes us. What we are called upon to do today is to live with loss while honoring courage. We live with the aches we feel for the faces unseen. To wince at the memories we cannot talk about with the familiar other who has gone on.

How to do that? It may be that it is time to celebrate by completing the projects begun with others, taking the long planned trip, finishing the deferred dream. We honor those who have gone on by remembering them, but we do more than honor them when we complete their work. To finish things undone is sacred work. This is our challenge today, to hold in tension appreciation for courage and our grief over loss while completing good work begun by those who now cannot complete it. That is our challenge.

Let us pray:

God, hear our prayer for those we have lost.
Grant them peace and give us the courage to carry on.
This is our prayer.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Last Words

At the Renaissance Week-end over July 4th, I was asked to offer Last Words as part of the final session, i.e. what would one say if they knew these would be their last words. The meaning is ambiguous, but provocative. My comments follow:

Last Words

I am the first chaplain to the Institute. That I was appointed speaks to the fact that religious sentiment has not ceased to be a force in our world as many thought might happen when we moved into the 21st century. In fact we live in a time when the search for spiritual sustenance seems to be on the rise. At the same time, new data tells us that young adults are also turning their backs on traditional faith expressions in an alarming rate. So we are living in a time of great paradox.

My biases tell me that the Religious Right is to blame for the rejection of religious sentiment. My head tells me that my generation has not made a very good case for staying engaged in the search for meaning. We suffer as a result.

So my last words are to call for reengagement with the values and virtues of the religious faiths we have inherited. My office at MIT stands/sits between the Muslim Prayer-room and the space created for religious observance by the folks from Hillel. The young people from these two communities of the Abrahamic traditions have found sustenance and strength in their faith. They are challenged to heal the world and engage in acts of charity as a major commitment expressing their beliefs. They are not a majority of their peers, but represent a bit of leaven in a very large loaf.

Christian students are scattered in their seeking having suffered from the curse of being the establishment. They expect the benefits of status without the work needed to understand how they got where they are. Self-understanding is needed before meaningful service can occur.

I paint with a broad brush and I am not suggesting that at the end of the day Christianity, Judaism and Islam are essentially the same thing. I know the strengths of other religious communities as well. What I am suggesting is that it is worth our time to become reacquainted with the values and virtues of our faith traditions. To know what is demanded if we love God and neighbor and to know the value of a self-correcting community will give us the substance needed to ask the next great question: How then shall we live?

So I challenge you to draw from the deep wells we have inherited. It is not enough to be smart, we must be wise. Reengagement allows us to ask the hard questions about differences. It also means we are setting an example for those who look to us for guidance and wisdom. Trust me, they are watching.

Robert M. Randolph

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Science and Religion

Opening readings:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth.

Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?

Some of you who have served on the Board of Chaplains with me have heard me say that the topic of science and religion is my favorite topic. Today I’d like to share with you a little bit about how this has defined my journey of faith. But I would also invite you to consider a simple proposition: the vitality of our civilization will depend on these two great knowledge systems working in concert rather than fighting each other.

When I was in eighth grade at a Catholic school, I was given a poor grade, the equivalent of a D, in religion by a parish priest who had been brought in to teach us the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine. He claimed to my parents that I had not completed the homework assignments. I believe the real reason was that I was asking questions – quite skeptical questions – in class that were a challenge to the dogmas he was teaching us. It became clear that I had questions to which the Church had not given answers that made sense. For example, why would a just and loving God hold us blameworthy for the sins an ancestor had committed? Why would He reveal Himself exclusively to one particular tribe out of the whole world?

This priest had clearly showed an opposition to critical inquiry when it comes to spiritual questions. The reaction against this as I progressed into my high school years was to categorically reject religion as intrinsically superstitious, and to embrace reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. This ethic was best expressed by Bertrand Russell, who stated that “a habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering.”

Of course, as my experience of the world and of the scientific method expanded, I realized that reason cannot by itself provide values. Even Euclidean geometry, which is the most rigorously logical thing you’ll ever encounter, starts with postulates, which are unproven assumptions. There is no way to prove through reason alone that a society rooted in compassion is better than one based on harsh social Darwinism. You need to start out with some basic moral postulates that accord with our experience of the universe we live in.

So what kind of universe do we live in? One whose physical constants are finely tuned to mandate intelligent life, to allow for the existence of beings who ask questions about purpose, who yearn for transcendence, who find the mere satisfaction of survival needs unsatisfying. A universe that is described by exquisite mathematical laws. This brought me to the conclusion that consciousness is not an artifact resulting from the firing of neurons or the buzzing of particles; if anything, it’s the other way around. Mind or Spirit is the cause; matter and energy are the effects.

This leads, of course, to the question of purpose. I ultimately came to the conclusion that when the religions of the world are shorn of superstitious accretions, they reveal a unity of purpose. They enable us to fulfill the greatest commandment of love, but also to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization based on forbearance, compassion, and the other virtues Baha’u’llah mentions in the opening quotes. From my Catholic upbringing, my journey brings me full circle. I love Jesus Christ because He suffered on the cross to set me free from the grip of sin. I also love the Buddha because He taught me that we make ourselves unhappy by craving those transient things that don’t really satisfy the human spirit. I love the Prophet Muhammad as a great peacemaker and one who elevated the status of women. I see no conflict of loyalties here.

That’s my personal journey, how my scientific self reconciles with being a person of faith. I want to return to the proposition that reconciling science and religion is important for our civilization. As a society, we are now embroiled in shouting matches. The great issues that require insightful discussion are instead reduced to slogans and sound bites. Disagreement degenerates into rancor. Partisan ideologies inspire a blind loyalty that has a life of its own, and becomes the greatest obstacle to solving our problems.

This is why the dialogue between science and religion is so important. We need the greatest commandment and the Golden Rule. We also need to listen to each other, to investigate reality in a spirit of fair mindedness, to be willing to test our ideas. Only then can we build an enlightened civilization.

Closing readings:

The virtues of humanity are many but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue. It is a bestowal of God; it is not material, it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God.

Religion is not intended to arouse enmity and hatred nor to become the source of tyranny and injustice. Should it prove to be the cause of hostility, discord and the alienation of mankind, assuredly the absence of religion would be preferable.

Religion must conform to reason and be in accord with the conclusions of science. For religion, reason and science are realities; therefore, these three, being realities, must conform and be reconciled. A question or principle which is religious in its nature must be sanctioned by science. Science must declare it to be valid, and reason must confirm it in order that it may inspire confidence. If religious teaching, however, be at variance with science and reason, it is unquestionably superstition. The Lord of mankind has bestowed upon us the faculty of reason whereby we may discern the realities of things. How then can man rightfully accept any proposition which is not in conformity with the processes of reason and the principles of science? Assuredly such a course cannot inspire man with confidence and real belief.

Brian Aull
Baha'i Chaplain

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lavender Graduation

Lavender Graduation

Abigail Francis suggested when she asked me to do this that I try to be inspirational. That is the challenge for all of us at this time of the year who are marking transitions. How can we say something worth hearing at a time when everyone is talking and everyone is trying to do the same thing? It is a hard task.

So I decided to be serious and if inspirational, it will be the by-product of taking this festive occasion as important enough to try and say something that might be worth hearing and remembering. I have been concerned that graduates arrive at this point as whole men and women. There are lots of things you learn here, but nothing is more important than knowing ourselves and being comfortable in our own skins. That is what being whole means. I hope that is the way you feel this evening and I know that what I hope may not be true, but it is a goal worth working toward as you prepare for the next step in your life.

If you are whole, then the next concern has to do with the quality of the life you are setting out to live. And it is important that there be some intentionality as you move on. Spontaneity is a good thing, but when it comes to setting life goals, it is better to think seriously about the consequences of your decisions. I say that to you as someone who moved to Boston planning to be here for one year. That was 43 years ago on the 4th of July. We did not think of the implications of our initial decision.

When I talk about the quality of life, I am talking about the values you are willing to live for. What are they? What are the values that will inform your lives? Common to nearly all religious traditions in our world is something like what we call the Golden Rule. “Do to others what you would wish them to do to you.” We call it the Golden Rule and living up to its expectations is not as easy as it might seem. It is a difficult challenge because we are often able to deceive ourselves and if we are honest, looking back we may note that we often “Do unto others what is good for me.”

So my hope for you is that if you are whole people who wish to live whole (holy) lives that you take the Golden Rule as your bench mark. And it follows that if being whole, comfortable people is our lot, and if living by the Golden Run is our intentional mantra, what are the virtues I wish you would cultivate in order to be quality people. Notice, I did not say happy people. I did not say successful people. I said quality people, people of worth. Success may elude you; pain may be your lot, but if you are person of quality, you can manage failure, and sustain life in the presence of pain.

Let me suggest four things that will make a real difference. They are in the words of Carter Heyward, “overlapping pieces of a whole cloth, the tapestry of creation itself.” The Reverend Carter Heyward was in 1974 one of 11 women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church paving the way for the acceptance of women as priests two years later. The four virtues she endorses are: wisdom, passion, justice and prayer.

To be wise means to see the whole. It is the perception of wholeness, it is an aspect of the Divine. It is not the same as being smart because knowing the answer to a question may well mean having only a piece of the picture or puzzle. Those who are wise know that there is more to life than their corner of the world, more to living that pursuing happiness. The wise person sees life for both its beauty and its terror and is able to deal with the nuances of the experience. For the sake of your health and your future, seeing the wholeness of the world, is terribly important. May you be wise.

May you know passion. You need to dive deeply, to dive into creation the very realm of God to express your passion; may you be immersed in the whole of life and may you be able to cut to the heart of matters and in so doing find God.

Value justice; make it one of the qualities that you embrace and are willing to go to the mat for. Justice means that people know right relationships whether they are rich or poor, well educated or rustics. Just as smart people are not always wise, powerful people are not always just. Justice presupposes community as fundamental to human life and the wise, passionate person knows that.

Finally I wish that you will cultivate prayer. You may want to call it meditation or centering; you may engage in your own form of reverie but it is only in opening yourself to the other that socially active people can gain the perspective they need. Prayer is opening your life to that which is beyond the intellect; it helps us ground our passion, avoid the disillusionment that comes when we are not just and the hollow intellectualism that counts angels on the head of a pin rather than the hungry on the streets of Calcutta.

So I wish for you lives that are whole, intentional in your ethics and lives that cultivate wisdom, know passion, love justice and are willing to pause and ask for the help and perspective you need. If you can do that you do not need my inspiration

May God bless you!

May 4, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Journey

First Reading:
Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe,
Whose word brings on the dusk of evening.

Your wisdom opens the gates of dawn;
Your understanding regulates time and seasons.

The stars above follow their appointed rounds,
In response to Your divine will.

You create day and night;
You alternate darkness and light.

We call You “Lord of the heavenly hosts”…
The heavens proclaim your glory.

And we, Your creatures on earth,
Behold in wonder Your endless miracles.

Help us recognize Your guiding power
In distant galaxies and in our own souls.
Teach us Your law of righteousness and love,
So that Your spirit may govern our lives.

May our gratitude for Your wonders
Lead us, in love, to Your service,

So that, like the changing seasons, the days, the nights,
Our lives, too, will proclaim Your glory. Amen

Selections from Maariv Aravim, the first blessing of the Jewish evening service

This Chapel is home to many faiths and people of all faiths. So I am going to add something about one. And I have to tell it as a personal story, because that is how I experienced it. I wish I could easily explain how an Italian kid from Chicago came to become a Jew. Indeed this was the last thing on my mind growing up in a heavily Catholic city neighborhood. If my Dad’s faith was not always his defining characteristic, my Mom’s certainly was. She was always saying novenas and praying for people. Her faith was a great source of strength for her. My twin brother Ray and I, plus our three sisters all went to the local Catholic parochial school and Catholic high schools. All of us have many fond memories growing up. In fact, the summer before last we had a hugely enjoyable 50th grade school reunion with a lot of those kids we grew up with in St. Ita’s parish.

The key event though that started me on the current path toward Judaism occurred in this building back on August 1, 1971 when my wife Deena and I were married. In those days, nobody supported mixed marriages between a nominal Catholic and a Jew. But MIT was welcoming and Deena found a Unitarian minister who would preside.

Neither of us expected the other to convert. She knew my cultural background and I respected her deep commitment, especially since many of her relatives had died in the Holocaust. Her mother was smuggled out of Warsaw in a sack, and all the relatives left behind died. She never said much, but that reality was there.

So we raised kids, went through our ups and downs of marriage, and she thought we should move to Acton because of its schools. So we did in 1977. I was not terribly religious, but she began to become more involved in the local synagogue because she loved singing in the choir. So I found myself going more often, frequently to hear her sing.

In the late 1980s, she somehow got elected maintenance chair of the congregation, a job to which she was not particularly adept. Then I really got more involved, getting to know the HVAC, heating, and other creaky subsystems. One thing led to another and I moved up over the years 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 to convert, she knew it had to be my choice. Also you have to put some effort into conversion, which requires over a year of study. Once I discussed the idea with my mom and knew she was OK, I proceeded and converted in May, 1998. Mordecai Avraham Ben Avraham is my Jewish name. Several years later, along with nine others, we all had our Adult Bar Mitzvah in March 2004.

So what is that I love so much about this faith - besides a building and some nice people in Acton? A lot. The history, development, the folk tales and its durability are inspiring. But for today, I’ll pick three aspects that I find especially appealing: First is its true respect, and wonder, for nature; next is its living traditions, making each person a part of Jewish history; and thirdly is the sense of community and communal responsibility.

Let me try to give some examples of each.

1) Respect for Nature: I hope the first reading captured some of that. I am often stunned by how compatible the core beliefs of Judaism are with modern science. If anything, they promote and embrace the inquisitive, searching science that characterizes MIT and its sister institutions. Some of you might enjoy how Gerald Schroeder, a MIT-trained physicist describes a world where both science and religion reinforce each other. His book is called “The Hidden Face of God”. The science alone is absolutely informative and encouraging.

2) Respect for traditions, but with the living tradition being an active part: In the Judaism I know, revelation and understanding the meaning or Torah and why we are here is an ongoing process. Every generation must participate. Moses’ job was to get it started, not provide the final answers. And if fact, this current generation is doing pretty well at this task. Jewish studies and scholarship are flourishing, in the US and other spots around the globe. In fact, one of the great thinkers of 20th century Judaism, Joseph Soloveitchik, lived next door in Brookline. Another great Jewish author and thinker, Harold Kushner, was the rabbi in Natick, MA, where my wife grew up.

Another aspect of this living tradition may be familiar to those of you who have participated in a Passover Seder. It is not when Moses and the Israelites escaped Egypt, it is when we did so and became free, when we escaped slavery. This quest for freedom is not something that happened once in the distant past, it is intended to be part of our own experience.

While Jewish tradition may respect antiquity, there is much more going on than simple linear progression of time. In a moment we will read a section from the Talmud, which has to be, on first encounter, one of the most confusing books ever created. The page layouts are like nothing before seen, and then you find out they illustrate a conversation among rabbis and sages over many, many centuries – all trying to answer the question of how to live a good life.

The Talmud is itself an expansion of an even more basic but comprehensive work, the Mishnah, completed about 200 A.D. It codified, in 66 tractates, Jewish practice and guidance up to that time. We will also see a brief section from it as well.

3) Sense of Community and Communal Responsibility:

You can certainly see this communal idea in the next two selected readings. And in many, many other aspects of Jewish life. For example a proper service requires 10 people – a minyan. You can see another aspect of communal responsibility on Yom Kippur, when prayers mentioning “confessing for our sings” and “forgive us” are said in the plural. Forgive “us” not “me” for a transgression. Communal responsibility extends to charity towards others. It is a mitzvah – a command, not an optional act – to extend charity. Rabbis talk of this as “tikkun olam” – fixing the (broken) world. Each of us has a role in fixing the world – and an obligation. I think our two following readings express this.

Second Readings, taken from the preliminary blessings before the morning service :

The following are commandments for which there are no prescribed measures: the crops on the border of the border of the field to be left for the poor and the stranger, the gift of the first-fruits, the pilgrimage offerings brought to the ancient Temple on the Three Festivals, deeds of lovingkindness, and the study of Torah.
Mishnah, Tractate Peah, Chapter 1:1

In fulfilling the following commandments one enjoys the yield in this world while the principal remains for all eternity; honoring father and mother, performing deeds of lovingkindness, punctually attending the house of study, morning and evening, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending the dead, praying with devotion, and making peace between individuals. And the merit of Torah study is equal to all of these.
Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 127a

Robert V.Ferrara

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Prayer

First Reading:
Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out

Prayer, therefore, is far from sweet and easy. Being the expression of our greatest love, it does not keep pain away from us. Instead, it makes us suffer more since our love for God is a love for a suffering God and our entering into God's intimacy is an entering into the intimacy where all of human suffering is embraced in divine compassion. To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity. To the degree that we have descended into our heart and reached out to God from there, solitude can speak to solitude, deep to deep and heart to heart. It is there where love and pain are found together.

Tim Hawkins:
To lead a reflection on prayer for an interfaith chapel gathering, I started to wonder last night, might be navigating too close to theological shores.

But, on the other hand…when most surveys of American religious life indicate that between 95-99% of people would describe some part of their engagement of the spiritual life as “prayer” (I’m sure there is not consensus on what this means exactly), it certainly would seem that prayer would offer a deep place for us lower the anchor for a moment.

So, think less about this reflection as having a thoughtful takeaway, and more of this as prompting a conversation.

Dallas Williard, Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in LA, has described prayer this way, “Prayer is the method of genuine theological research.”

I wish I had known that before going to seminary, I would have saved a lot of money and time.

And that is the ongoing tension of prayer…it is both as simple as that…and as complicated as that.

It is at the same time, profoundly personal and effectually public.

It carries our most ecstatic shouts of gratitude and our deepest groans of sorrow.

It anchors us in troubled waters and disturbs our selfish tranquility.

It is both sounds that we cannot speak, and articulate words spoken and written by others that say what we feel.

So, when I think about prayer…and our ongoing theme of whole or holy lives, I do find, at least in my own life, tension over prayer.

I remember being in second grade at Linn Co. R-1 playground with my friend Shane and Ray. Shane and Ray were as cool as they came in my book. And, Shane and Ray could swear as naturally as the adults around me…without reservation or hesitation.

I remember thinking, “I wish I could swear like Shane and Ray.” At which point I remembered something I had heard in Sunday School. “Whatever you ask in Jesus name shall be given to you.” At least that is how I remember tucking that prayer away in my head.

So, I did what any 2nd grade boy wanting to be more like his buddies would do, I prayed. “God, please help me to swear like Shane and Ray.”

And, God answered that prayer.

Before I knew it, swearing was as natural to me as Shane and Ray, and flowed in inappropriate places that left me questioning why God would answer a prayer that would get me in so much trouble.

The story is true, and I would like to think that this many years removed from being a second grader that my prayers reflected a maturity from the 2nd grade playground.

And at times, I suppose they do…and then the tension of prayer reminds me of that 2nd grader.

Like many who grew up in our around the Christian tradition, we have tucked away in our head…at least a general outline of something called The Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father.

I sometimes resonate with the comedian Jim Gaffigan who complains that church is too much memorization and he confesses, I’m not very good at it. “I'm always like, 'Our Father who art in heaven without the approved written consent of Major League Baseball.”

Which, is not exactly how that prayer goes.

It is certainly one of the more well-known prayers and goes like this:

“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]
but deliver us from evil.

When the gospel writer tells us this story, it is that Jesus is telling his disciples, “This is “how” you should pray.

And, I’ve been stuck on that word for awhile, because this seems like a “what” to pray.

And maybe there is not much difference.

But, I also know that “how” I speak to others is radically different than “what” I say to others.

The word “how” is full of potential!

What we pray is limited to a reflection on language.

How we pray brings the fullness of life experience to the conversation…and that life has been shaped by and continues to shape the world around me.

How we pray, calls for an integration of language and orientation to the world around us.

It is in this sense, I think about Willard’s words that prayer is our personal theological research. And maybe the extension of that research is that our lives become the published biographies of holy prayer.
Second Reading:
Shane Clairborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove in Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers

The first word of the Lord's Prayer is Our. That's important. The prayer Jesus taught us is a prayer of community and reconciliation, belonging to a new kind of people who have left the land of "me." This new humanity is an exodus people who have entered a promise land of "we", to whom "I" and "mine" and "my" are things of the past. Here our God teaches us the interconnectedness of grace and liberation in a new social order. Here we are judged in as much as we judge, and forgiven as we forgive.

Tim Hawkins
Sojourners Collegiate Ministry

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Peter Gomes

March 7, 2011

The death of Peter John Gomes of Harvard marks the closing of a chapter at America’s oldest college. Peter and Archie Epps, the last and long time Dean of Students at Harvard, were the vanguard of racial change at the University. Beginning in 1970 they were the face of what we now talk about as “diversity” in the academy. Good friends, they touched the lives of thousands of students during their time as officers of Harvard. Epps died in 2003. For Peter his passing was a great personal loss. Peter felt he was witnessing the passing of a revered old guard. With Peter’s death the inclusion mantel is given to others; beyond the classroom few will have the impact on student life at Harvard that The Reverend Professor had.

A graduate of Bates College, Peter came to Harvard Divinity School in 1965, graduated and spent two years at Tuskegee Institute (now University) learning the ways of the South and returned to Memorial Church as Assistant to Charles Price. When Price left and Derek Bok assumed the Presidency, Peter navigated a time of uncertainty and emerged as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church. Pictures tell the story. Price, monochromatic, pale and dour, Peter, youthful, black, a modest afro complemented by facial hair that in retrospect is noteworthy as the only time he ever tipped his cap to contemporary trends. The times had changed.

He was not a radical, but he was a Christian and sometimes those things go together. He preached regularly to large crowds, mostly white, each Sunday during the school year. He challenged them by reminding that being Christian meant more than going to church on Sunday. He encouraged them by telling truths that others often ignored. Being mighty was not always being right; being at Harvard did not mean you did not have much to learn. Privilege was a grace and to whom much was given much was expected. In return they loved him with a broad affection that allowed him to be one of Harvard’s premier fund raisers. He would tell Harvard audiences across the country that he knew their secrets and they believed him. They needed, he said, to give back and they did.

In the pulpit he had the support of Harvard Presidents, the advice of Divinity School professors who reminded him that they needed to be told they were sinners as well as saints, and the love of students who listened to him as they prepared to leave Harvard. He could tell them what they needed to know and they heard him at Senior Chapel. When they came back as alums he celebrated their fallen and as the years passed he was the constant presence who remembered who they had been. An old alum asked the other day “Who will do that now?” That is a tough question to answer.

As an author he wrote a number of books widely read. His sermons travel far in print and are good for a sharp insight or barbed quip. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart changed the lives of many for its practical theology that made the Bible relevant again for many who had forgotten its wisdom. The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need argued that sometimes failure was a great teacher. For those who had cut their teeth on only success, it was a lesson needed.

For all of his wisdom and for his pastoral skills, he will be remembered, but it is for his courage that he rises above the crowd. At a moment in 1991 on the Harvard campus when homophobia was pulsing, Peter had the courage to tell people he was gay. It was not thought to be a career enhancing move. His words shocked his more traditional Christian friends who were forced to deal with a man they knew to be Christian, but who now told them he was gay. Celibate himself, he supported the right of gay men and women to enjoy the pleasures and burdens of marriage. His stature and measured words were heard by many who otherwise would have tuned him out. His reputation grew.

A son of Plymouth, Massachusetts, he called himself a black Puritan; born to Peter Lobo and Orissa White Gomes, she the daughter of a Baptist minister, he was nurtured in the Baptist Church of Plymouth on Sunday morning. But he went as well to the small African Methodist Episcopal congregation. He was always a bit puritanical in the way he noted rules and traditions. Immersed in the waters of baptism as a young man, he always was wary of other baptismal traditions fearing he might drop a squirming infant. He would remind me that he had learned to baptize the right way! The rules of dress also mattered. The decision to wear a straw hat in his presence before Memorial Day or after Labor Day was not a decision to be made lightly. The economic argument did not carry much weight and he had no experience with western heat in May or September. It was simply not done.

His memory will fade but he will not be forgotten. He has joined the line of Harvard immortals called up over sherry and on moments of reflection and celebration. To be remembered with the likes of Nathan Pusey, Mason Hammond, Elliot Forbes and Zeph Stewart would surprise and please him. The awkward little boy from Plymouth who went from being an outsider to the President of the Pilgrim Society is now at rest and at home. Harvard is better, we are all better for having been in his company.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Friday, February 18, 2011

Saying Thank You

Tuesdays in the Chapel
February 15, 2011

Be Thankful
Be thankful that you don't already have everything you desire,
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?
Be thankful when you don't know something
For it gives you the opportunity to learn.
Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.
Be thankful for your limitations
Because they give you opportunities for improvement.
Be thankful for each new challenge
Because it will build your strength and character.
Be thankful for your mistakes
They will teach you valuable lessons.
Be thankful when you're tired and weary
Because it means you've made a difference.
It is easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who are
also thankful for the setbacks.
GRATITUDE can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles
and they can become your blessings.
~ Author Unknown ~

The Power of Saying Thank You
So as I contemplated what I might say today I reflected on Bobs charge of talking about the things in our lives that make us Whole, like the , family, work, friends
So like any modern person I turned to Google for inspiration.
My search for being whole led me to links on, “Prepare and Believe – Gods words makes us Whole - to Whole foods makes us lazy cooks.
So having my inspiration somewhat jump started by the internet I turned to the next best thing my own thoughts
Recent incidents made me begin to think about gratitude and in fact the act of saying “Thank You” as important elements in making our life whole.
With this inspiration…. I tried Google again and found that saying thank you is indeed powerful. The links I found this time ranged from “fulfilling yourself and those you praise”, to becoming a more powerful sales person”.
Needless to say my comments today will be around how saying thank you helps us become whole
For this moment I want to make the distinction between being grateful and saying thank you. Again for this moment , the act or art of being grateful has profound effect on how you live your life day to day.
Gratefulness ranges from being thankful for what you have and what you don’t have both views can lead you to contentment. Being thankful for peace as well as adversity can lead to contentment, and wholeness.
But saying thank you is both self fulfillment as well as an empowerment of others which in turn helps to make you whole
I have been struck lately by the simple acts of kindness that I have seen in traffic letting another driver navigate a snow drift and then letting them move “ahead” in Boston no less, and the return of a “thank you waive” is, Amazing.
Since I have been thinking about this topic of thank you I have taken the time to listen to my own “thank yous” and to those who thank me rather than just letting it disappear in the normal discourse of the day.
I often would tell my teams, and my children that if someone gives you a complement you must say “thank you” (humbly) because it takes great strength, energy and commitment to give a compliment and as you take that energy in you want to give it back balance.
They become whole you become whole.
So my message today is that wholeness which is a journey and not a destination can begin with grateful contemplation and saying “thank you”
I suggest that we all take a moment today to think about who we may not have thanked most recently and maybe begin with our family members and work out from there.
because it is those who are closest to us that we all too often take for granted but if we believe in the power of thank you we must begin with those that mean the most to us.
Then look outside your family circle and find that person who says hello every day that performs every day , day in day out that we hazard to take for granted let them know how they make a difference in your life.
We all have a person in our life like that, find them tell them thank you.
And remember…The power that is given……….. is also received…………..
So it is impossible for me to end this morning without sharing a sporting quote or two of inspiration
My first is from John Wooden who said about gratitude–
Things turn out best for people…………. who make the best
of the way things turn out.

And finally an anonymous quote that I like very much –
People don’t care how much you know……………..until they know how much you care……….
Show someone how much you care today………….tell them ………Thank You

Thank you for joining me today.
John Benedick
Assistant Director of Athletics

When we face the fact that every life worth living has its discouragements, its own “unfairness” if you like, we have then taken a giant step towards happiness.
We are no longer crushed or consumed by the injustices and discouragements of life. We expect them. We learn not to let those discouragements distract us from focusing on the great goals we have set for our lives. When I asked a varsity football player this fall if he was discouraged by a nagging injury, he said to me, “Yes, sometimes it gets to me. Then I think, well, this is football, you have to expect that you’ll be hurting a lot of the season, and then I think about getting up for next Saturday’s game and it really doesn’t bother me that much.” In any life worth living, we will be hurting much of the time. But as we mature, we acquire the faith, the perspective, that the discouragements, the injuries, cannot break us, cannot make us lose sight of the great things we are determined to achieve. With our minds on the goal of winning Saturday’s game, we are able to endure the injury. That faith grows stronger and stronger every time we overcome discouragement and pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and go on. That’s why Sanderson could write at the end of his time as headmaster of Oundle School: “Faith is the belief in the ultimate triumph of right-doing, [faith is] not a formal assent, but a living belief acquired by endurance, by ‘hardness’ of life. It is belief which is forced slowly upon the individual; it is the result of experience, of actions tested in the past. It becomes the basis of his future.”

~ F. Washington (Tony) Jarvis, former Headmaster, Roxbury Latin Academy, from With Love and Prayer: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation ~

Thursday, February 10, 2011

//Wholly (Holy) Presence//

Tuesdays in the Chapel
February 8, 2011

Opening Reading

Occupation and not empty space is what most of us are looking for. When we are not occupied we become restless. We even become fearful when we do not know what we will do the next hour, the next day or the next year. Then occupation is called a blessing and emptiness a curse. Many telephone conversations start with the words: ‘I know you are busy, but…’ and we would confuse the speaker and even harm our reputation were we to say, ‘Oh no, I am completely free, today, tomorrow and the whole week.’ Our client might well lose interest in a man who has so little to do.

We indeed have become very occupied people, afraid of un-nameable emptiness and silent solitude. In fact, our preoccupations prevent our having new experiences and keep us hanging on to the familiar ways. Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty. Our fears, uncertainties and hostilities make us fill our inner world with ideas, opinions, judgments and values to which we cling as to a precious property. Instead of facing the challenge of new worlds opening themselves for us, and struggling in the open field, we hide behind the walls of our concerns holding on to the familiar life items we have collected in the past.

~ Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, pp. 50-51

Defining the term culture is a lot like defining the term “love”. Definitions are varied, complex and sometimes personal. So, at the risk of oversimplification…I offer a couple of broad definitions to anchor what it means to speak about “culture”.

Culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society, acts rather like a template, shaping behavior and consciousness within a human society from generation to generation.
University of Washing Dept of General Education

Culture is a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior -- an abstract "mental blueprint" or "mental code.
Eastern Oregon Dept of Education

Though thorough and academic I prefer the more evocative definition offered by Philip Bock, Prof. Emeritus, NM Univ.
Culture is what makes you a stranger when you are away from home.

Culture is the framework, or the mental blueprint that makes one place familiar and easy to navigate and another place that almost holds us out…keeps us at a distance. The first we feel at home, like we are belong, like are presence is welcomed. The latter we feel like a stranger, and often unwelcomed.

Which brings me to an intersection of our topic this morning.

What does it mean to be wholly/holy present?

The Gospel writer, Luke, chronicles a story of Jesus visiting the home of a woman named Martha and her sister Mary.

It is a relatively quick story…so, I’ll read it to you from Luke’s gospel in chapter 10.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

That the template of our modern Western world is one that values production and commodies is reflected in an experience I had as a young minister serving in my first church. (And, I found this church is not the only one.)

Churches, appreciating the work ethic of Martha created “Martha’s Meetings” to attend to the hospitality work of the church. It tells us something that these churches did not have Mary’s Meetings.” I don’t mean that as a criticism of great people, but a reflection of our cultural template. Valuing production and commodity over presence.

Hospitality and presence become jobs of the head and hands…problems to solve and things to do, which quickly becomes a service to offer.
Hospitality, presence, helping someone be at home when they are a stranger, is no longer a way of orienting our lives, it is an industry. And once there is money to be made, once a virtue becomes a commodity doesn’t it change the way we think about offering it?

Now, Martha does not have money to make…but a reputation to uphold…much like Nouwen describes. What would happen if I spent the next week answering the phone saying I had nothing going on and nothing to do?

Having worked as a chaplain for 14 years, I’ve witnessed students lives dramatically changed when professors and administrators go beyond providing a service for students and allow themselves to be present WITH students.

Often conversations about life/meaning/vocation/family/depression are relegated to the counseling center or spiritual care-givers who have a limited amount of time and are being present as part of a system of care rather than out of a virtue of presence.

It is easy for us to be somewhere and not be present.

Often, I’m in one moment but thinking about the next meeting. Often while I’m with people I have access to text messages, emails and Facebook messages and Tweets from others. I do believe social networking can increase the quality of presence, but they are often a diversion from presence.

Jesus emphasized the holiness of our presence with others when He says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

This is a compassionate and personal presence.

To talk of the spirit, the heart or faith in a science and technology context…may not always be the language of currency in the classroom…but our lives are not lived within the confines of the classroom or lab guarded by formulas and equations.

Eventually, we will face issues of the heart and soul that cause us to ask whether or not the head and the hands can solve all of the world’s problems without the heart.

Will global justice prevail, will compassion prevail, will mercy or peace prevail because we have stumbled upon an algorithm for them or because, (even in academia) we begin to create a culture of personal presence that celebrates solidarity over production?

Closing Reading

We cannot truly care for those who are oppressed without being moved by their suffering. But mercy as a principle also requires closer proximity to those who suffer. We must struggle alongside of the suffering in the pursuit of justice-making, knowing that by being in closer proximity relationally and physically more may be asked of us than we had anticipated.

~ Brita Gill-Austern, Injustice and the Care of Souls

Tim Hawkins,
Chaplain, SojournCollegiateMinistry

Thursday, February 3, 2011


February 1, 2011


A friend of mine wrote the other day to tell me of an illness he was dealing with. We have known each other for over 50 years and our parents had been friends before we were born. My life has been enriched by his friendship and I can remember several times when his wisdom and thoughtfulness has had a qualitative impact on actions I have taken.

I am sure you all have had similar experiences and I invite you to think about them this morning. With my own sensitivity to the topic heightened, it seems recently that every time I turn I have been touched by comments and insights about friendship. Weather and cold has given all of us a bit of time inside and as a result I have watched more than my share of new and old movies. In Kevin Costner’s film Wyatt Earp (1994) the occasion of his meeting with the legendary dandy, gambler and alcoholic, Doc Holiday is framed by Holiday asking Earp, “Do you have any friends?” and Earp responds, “Not many.” Holiday tells him he will be his friend and a thread in this dark retelling of a legend is that whatever else he may be, Holiday, is a friend to Earp.

But over the holiday break we also go to movies and see a few films before they go to Netflix. One of the films we saw was The King’s Speech a tale I had never heard about the travails of George VI dealing with his stammer. The threads are many: the relationship of fathers and sons, the burdens of leadership, the love of family, the developing friendship between Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and the King (Colin Firth).

“What do I call you?” asks Logue? “Your Highness, “ says the King, “then Sir.” “What about Bertie?” asks Logue. “Only my family uses Bertie”, says the King. “Bertie it is then” ,says Logue. His notion is that for the treatment to be effective they need to be equals working on the same problem. The treatment is effective, friendship grows despite travail and the power of relationships is clearly depicted. It is an inspirational tale in the time of The Social Network.

The Social Network is, as many of you know, about the founding of Facebook. It may well make you think twice about friending anyone. Both The King’s Speech and The Social Network are nominees for the best film of the year. As a tale of how to make money, as a story about randy escapades up the street, the film succeeds brilliantly. But would you want to be friends with any of the main characters? We probably all know folk like the characters in the film. My favorite scene is when Mark Zukerberg learns he is being sued by his friends.
The take away from the tale is that friendship is fragile and costly and finally that it can be bought if you have enough money. But in fact it is clear that such friends do not have your back nor your best interests in mind. It is a cautionary, if entertaining tale.

Emily Dickenson wrote: "True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island….to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing."

It will not surprise you that I find Dickenson compelling. My best friends are folks with whom I can begin conversations in mid-sentence where we left off the last time we visited. Life it seems to me is made whole by good friends who both watch our backs and enrich our futures. Good friends tell you what you do not want to hear and what you need to know. May you be blessed with such friends.


by J. Barrie Shepherd from Diary of Daily Prayer

Friends were with me today, Lord,
people I love,
and who love me,
people I trust,
and who trust me,
people I enjoy being with,
no matter where, or how, or why.
Friends were with me today.

I thank you for my friends
and for all they bring to my living.
For the way they give of themselves to me,
for the way they help me give of myself,
and even be myself, and more than myself,
I give you my deepest thanks, Father.
I thank you, Lord, for the simple
but real kinds of support,
and comfort, and strength I can draw
from my friends.
But most of all I thank you
for the ways in which you reveal yourself
to me through friendship,
for all of the moments in which,
through frail but wonderful human instruments,
you sing to me of grace and mercy,
of the risk of commitment
and the challenge of response,
of the strong, sure knowledge of acceptance
in the heart of a true friend,
in the heart of a true father,
in your heart, my God and my Redeemer.

Grant me now a restful night,
that grace to rise refreshed tomorrow,
and the faith to be a friend to all I meet.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
at Tuesdays in the Chapel

Friday, January 14, 2011


Mark Miller recently wrote in The Washington Post: "Sensible responses to senseless violence come more from preachers than pundits. I suppose that's because clergy are called on routinely to comfort their flocks in the face of life's inexplicable horrors and loss. Wisdom, they seem to know from experience, lies in accepting that there are few answers, only questions and fears."

Miller offers a worthy challenge for those of us in the God game. Response does not come easily. It is a mark of our world when violence touches us. It is always been that way. We have just passed through the season when Christians point to the coming of one who promised peace on earth and yet we do not experience such. In fact the followers of the Prince of Peace often justify violence as a means of advancing their agenda. You have only to remember a Sunday morning in Kansas to know what I mean.

I for one am inclined to the notion that the Divine Presence we seek to discover and understand is a bit beyond our reach. We see God's hand in the journey of Abraham, the ministry of Jesus, the message of Mohammed and maybe even the work of Joseph Smith. There are others reaching out with mind and hand and we are left always still looking. Note the doctor who recently reminded us that we needed to have room for miracles in our understanding of the world.

I affirm the notion that the presence of God in our lives is in fact best seen in our willingness to give miracles a place in our world view. We are not all powerful. What we will and wish we often cannot make real but we continue to try--and to know--and I believe that in so doing we walk anew with Abraham who left father and kin to pursue a dream. We learned in Tucson that like the ministry of Jesus, suffering is part of our lives.

There is much to know and part of learning is living. And living sometimes hurts terribly. It is not enough to say there is no meaning nor is it enough to say we are not God and therefore will never understand. We must role back the edges of mystery, and by living well, creating a world worthy of our children. That is, as our President reminded us, good work. It may even be God's work.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute