Tuesdays in the Chapel
February 8, 2011
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?
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