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