Monday, November 25, 2013

When God Speaks

Whenever something dramatic happens to you, some freaky thing that you can’t explain, you should examine it for a postmark from the heavens. Maybe somebody’s trying to get your attention. Even though I stopped traffic in Northampton two weeks ago, something just as meaningful happened to me thirty years ago: I signed up for a para-church campus ministry job, one in which I would have to raise all my own funds, and something happened on the way to almost quitting that job. The signing up is the fun part: the glory of para-church ministry is similar to that of the para-military: it’s not the officious arm of the church that does everything by the book and looks good in uniform. No, para-church ministry is the sexier black-ops side of the church – blending in with the locals and then targeting enemy facilities like MIT and Harvard. So, raising money for what you do comes from folks in the church who are tired of the blah blah blah of normal church life, looking to invest in something more exciting, something fresh. Again, something sexy. The signing up part is fun, but then came the fund-raising side of things: the tough task of raising money changed my life but it was one special incident that kept me in the game.

When I was new staff with Campus Crusade for Christ – now known simply as Cru – the methodology we were supposed to follow was what I adhered to faithfully: meet with church friends, ask them to be involved, and then ask them if you can talk to their friends too. My first meeting was with two of my favorite friends and fellow church members, Don & Laurel. It was the first week in August and I went to Don & Laurel’s in my new navy blazer and refused to take it off. Why? I wanted to prove that I was cool as a cucumber and that the heat and humidity of a hot August night was nothing. Up to that point, what I thought was supposed to be the “difficult” part of support raising: keeping a smile through your sweat, wasn’t difficult at all.

Six weeks later, it was the lack of action that was eating my lunch. Only a few donors were on board and I had so many miles to go that I was losing the vision and ready to cash in my chips. My wife was working so we had a little money coming in, but it wasn’t the money – it was the not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. The often talked about assurance that support development would only be a hard thing at first and then would slip away and never be that hard again was not happening. One morning, after my wife went off to work, I decided to walk to the church and tell Pastor Rayner that I was going to quit. He was the nicest guy on earth, full of empathy and understanding. If anyone could make my quitting easier for me to swallow, it was Ken Rayner. After walking to the church, I found out he wasn’t there. The whole church was locked up. Now what? I’ll walk back home. Oops. I locked myself out. Now I had to spend the rest of the day with my own down-in-the-dumps thoughts. I decided to walk down to the train station to wait for my lovely bride to come home. I had no wallet, no money, what else was I going to do? It was going to mean several hours of waiting with my dark thoughts.

However, here’s how God worked in a way that only I could have ever understood. I sat on the bank of a creek and from a meaningful distance I tossed a pebble into the very narrow creek’s water. But before I made that one toss, I took great stock in the mental game of whether or not I should even attempt the toss. I never hit things I’m aiming at, so why make myself more miserable than I am now? After a few minutes of over-thinking it, well, I threw – and hit the creek dead-center. Not in ten or twenty tosses would I ever expect that to happen. Without thinking too much about it, not 10 seconds later I threw a second pebble: dead-center again.

To you, this is just dumb luck or coincidence or pretty decent skill. But to me, what I’ve just done is the impossible upon the impossible. You know what I’m thinking: if God wants me to keep me in that crazy fund raising, I’m going to have to hit this creek a third time, a kind of thing I could never do once  - but I’ve just done twice. Y’know, no one else is present. No one can say whether I’m lying or telling the truth. Thoughts lingered in my head between my ears for a good while. Mind you I do not look for miracles behind every bush, I just do not go there and think that if you do there’s something wrong with you. And I seriously do NOT want to hit the creek, because I do NOT want to go back to fund raising, but now I also do NOT want to face the nicest pastor in the world with quitting. Before I can think my way into or out of anything else I fling that third pebble, and it goes in again, dead-center.     

Thirty years later, I have a theory. God Himself knows that some of us are our own worst enemies and that we shouldn’t pray. We’d drive Him crazy and other people crazy too, because we’re too determined to tell everyone everything and not listen to anything. So, to protect God and man, whom we would only mow down with our mental machine guns, God sends ridiculous events into our lives that only we would understand. And it’s then that the praying and the sharing can commence in clarity.

I gently stood up and stepped away from that creek bank like it was a minefield. My poor wife got off the train several hours later and heard about the miracle over and over as we walked all the way back to the house. She was the one person with whom I achieved closure with over this incident, and it brought us closer together as a result. Did she know how miserable I felt before the pebble incident? No, until then, no one knew. I’m the guy who won’t take off his blazer in a 90 degree kitchen, I’m too cool to let you see me sweat. Anyway, we agreed together to give the fund raising three more days. And, things turned out okay. How much did the pebble incident mean? Did I wizz through support raising in record time? Not even close.

Over the years, while other gorilla movement mercenaries like me with Campus Crusade were enjoying their campus ministry experience, I was out raising support a lot of the time. Literally half the time. By the time I passed through a five-year assignment at Penn, and then come back to Boston to be at MIT, I’d spent four years of my first eight years in ministry raising support. If you told me that would be my destiny eight years earlier, I wonder if I’d ever made it. But, that’s what three in a row after a lifetime of missing can do for you. There is an old saying in the Bible: you reap what you sow. After those first eight years of sowing, the next twenty were some pretty good years of reaping, or good enough: I just had to put in the first eight. Incidences like those need sharing with someone for the sake of your own personal closure, for bonds to be made, and for lessons to be learned. Two weeks ago, closure with the farmer who knocked me over in Northampton reminded me of similar lessons. You may not know how to pray – but that’s okay. God will get your attention somehow.   

Dave Thom, Chaplain,
The Leadership Connection

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Friends I have lost

From Proverbs:

The Memory of the righteous is a blessing…

Blessings are on the head of the righteous….

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely….
Proverbs 10

Two friends who exerted great influence over me died within the last three months. Memorial services were held last month.  They were about the same age, in their mid-80s, had lived very good lives and made a great deal of difference to a lot of hurting people.

One was a psychiatrist, the other was a banker. One was a child of privilege in New York City; the other grew up in a small dust bowl town in West Texas. Both had professional degrees from Harvard.  It was a long way from Throckmorton, TX. to New York City.

I first met the banker when he came to Harvard for graduate study. It was said in his obituary that he had gone to church with his wife of 60 years every Sunday of their life together. One  Sunday while at Harvard he came to the church where I was preaching. He was the chief officer of a bank  and later when he retired they called him the greatest banker in Texas.

So he showed up on Sunday, I preached the sermon, we observed communion as we do each Sunday and women presided at the table. This was 40 years ago and it was uncommon for women to take leadership positions among congregations in our tradition.  He noticed and when I took him back to the business school he asked how we had arrived at our practice. I explained. He listened. When he returned home he wrote me a long letter suggesting that we ought to rethink the matter. I explained again why we had reached the conclusions we had reached.

Later he told his son, a medical student in his final year of study, about us and when the young doctor came to do a rotation at a local teaching hospital he worshiped with us. Later when offered a residency in Boston the son and his new wife came and were part of our community. A trained accountant, his wife served as the treasurer of the church. Over the years our lives have intertwined through children, shared experiences and conversations.  His church home in Houston never found a public role for women but his son got the message.

My friend the psychiatrist, also studied at Harvard. We worked together for over a dozen years doing what I called community psychiatry. No matter how ill the patient, he never forgot the person. He was a humanist in the best sense of the word. He loved the outdoor life, the beauty of mountains, the power of a sunset but he was a stranger to the vagaries of church.

He was a highly ethical man, who listened carefully to the words that were sent his way and was invariably kind when helping parents work through tragedy. I counted on him in different circumstances and contexts.

When his final illness began to overtake him, I listened carefully having learned from him and reminded him what he had left as a legacy. I think I could have shared the 23rd Psalm with him, but the moment was never right.  I often felt I should have been able to give him more since I had received so much from him.

My banker friend wrapped himself in the flag of our country; my doctor friend talked of progressive politics and eschewed platitudes. Their extremes left me some middle ground to explore.

Both men were remarkable fathers, both men lived with integrity. As different as they were I knew I could talk with them and get a straight answer that I might or might not like. Their contrasting world views  broadened my world and gave me room to grow. They challenged me to think carefully before acting; they cautioned me to avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. They took seriously my conclusions even as they expected me to defer to theirs.

The virtue of these two men is captured by the writer of  Proverbs; I benefitted from knowing them because they both challenged me offering a vision of integrity lived out in real time. They would have liked it if I had chosen their conclusions, but they were able to hear my own take on questions they had already settled. I have been blessed by their presence in my life and they are missed.

Let us pray:

Almighty God,  we give thanks for the varied voices we have heard in our lives. May we always appreciate those who challenge us and listen to us, those who take us seriously and those who have no room for our self-importance.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On Humility

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.   (Christianity - Luke 1:52)

Successful indeed are the believers
Who are humble in their prayers.  (Islam - Quran 23:1-2)

Be humble, be harmless,
Have no pretension.   (Hinduism - Bhagavad Gita 13.7)

The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;  the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed.    (Buddhism - Dhammapada 63)

Be of an exceedingly humble spirit, for the end of man is the worm.    (Judaism -  Mishnah, Abot 4.4)

A Dream to the Wise is Sufficient

Today I will tell you about a dream I had when I was 24 years old.   This was a time in my life when my own successes in the academic and professional realms had perhaps gone a little bit to my head.   I felt that I had control of my destiny because my high level of skill and competence would enable me to have such control.    This dream conveyed what would turn out to be an important message.

I found myself in the midst of a lush forest.    But I knew that this was a special place, sort of like a zoo with no cages.    The animals were free to roam.   In the distance,  I discerned the motion of a large animal concealed by thick brush.    No problem.   Conveniently enough, there was a stairway that led up to an observation platform built around the bole of a large tree.   I ascended and looked out at the scene.   Sure enough, a grizzly bear was making his way toward me.

The other unusual thing about this dream was that I knew I was dreaming.   This increased my confidence that there was no danger in the situation.    As the bear neared the bottom of the stairway, I nonchalantly jumped onto the handrail and slid down to meet him.   There we were, the bear and I, our faces about two feet apart.  He looked up into my eyes and, in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, said, “I had a damn good lunch today.   Now get out of here.”   At that point, I took the grizzly bear’s advice by waking up.

At first, this dream was something hilarious that I could laugh about with my friends.     As the years have gone by, the dream has become rich in meanings as I have reflected on it.    In my state of youthful hubris, I showed a lack of respect for the bear’s power to have me for dessert.   In retrospect, I know this was the message of the dream:   the vital importance of humility.

In a culture that glorifies the superhero, humility is often confused for self deprecation.    So what is humility?  And why is it so important?    One way I would state it is this:  to be humble is to realize that one achieves greatness by being a part of something greater than one’s self.     We are parents, we are mentors, we are co-workers and collaborators.   In these roles we rejoice in our ability to contribute to the success of others.   We are students in the school of life.   In this role we see the opportunity to learn from those who don’t agree with us.   We are citizens, we are voters, we are residents of a city.  In these roles, we see our own benefit in the health of the body politic.   And we are members of the human race – our extended family.    And as spiritual beings, we become awake when we seek relationship with our Creator.

If the grizzly bear had time to elaborate, he might also tell us that not only is humility a personal virtue that affects so much of one’s life, but also one without which we can’t build a civilization.

O CHILDREN OF DESIRE! Put away the garment of vainglory, and divest yourselves of the attire of haughtiness.  (Baha’i -  #47 from the Persian Hidden Words)

Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation.   (Baha’i – Epistle to the Son of the Wolf)

Brian Aull, Bahai Chaplain at MIT

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Between Certainty and Skepticism

“At the most obvious level it [the method of Descartes] has created a prejudice in favor of doubt over faith. The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd. Both faith and doubt are necessary elements of this adventure. One does not learn anything except by believing something, and – conversely – if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as i have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith an not visa-versa.”

Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 24

As I was driving my two daughters to school this morning, I was asking them about our theme for Tuesdays at the chapel:  an event or a book that has changed your life.

I was most interested in which they would choose.  When my 16 year old looked at my 11 year old and said, “You really haven’t had much of a chance to have your life changed at age 11!”

Which, of course, is a statement about her particular life, rather than the age.  Because we all know many young people who have had their lives radically changed by the age of 11…for good and ill.

But, choosing one event of book that has changed your life is like being told that you must select one of your children (we have four:  2 boys and 2 girls) to be your favorite!

But, I will attempt to clear a bit of space for one event that had impact beyond what I might have expected.


As I sat in my Senior Seminar for History finishing assignments with a sense of obligation and routine to fulfill a graduation requirement the professor revealed the final paper for assessment.  We were to read Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman and answer this question:  “Is this good history?”

This work was neither a primary source, nor a detached attempt at recounting historical events from an objective distance.  It was not so much written as it was illustrated by the son, a cartoonist, of a Holocaust survivor.  How do you determine the historicity of a first-hand account?  How do you dismiss one person’s experience of tragedy and suffering? 

I had been taught that good history was distant, objective, primary-source driven, with language analysis and synthesis.  Recounting the events, the action, the moves, places, times and motives to as close to 0 degree of variances as possible was what good history was about.


After an idea takes some currency in popular language, it can have a diminishing return on effective use.  Currently, I would say that the question opened to the door to post-modern thinking, or questioning might be more accurate.  I do not use the term “post-modern” as an all-encompassing term that may have lost some weight, but as a specific move from the pursuit of certainty to doubting it’s attainability.

I found myself pushed toward two polarities of thinking:

1.     Certainty – Historicity was about removing the unknown.
2.     Skepticism – Historicity was about questioning who gets to write history

This tension forced faith into action.


I had practiced faith most of my life without every calling it “faith”, or at least not in a religious sense.

I imagined all of life lived in polarity between certainty and skepticism, but it was human relationships that seemed to thrive, breath and have the most life when lived in faith.

I could not imagine living all of life seeking certainty with people.  Nor, could I imagine the experience of happiness or joy living with chronic skepticism of all people.

Faith was already something very real in my mode of operation on a daily basis.

Faith became a way of life that I named and embraced.

Faith is alive at a place like MIT as well.  We do not get far in our learning without some faith…moving forward without certainty, not paralyzed by chronic skepticism.  We do not go far in our community or our care to solve problems without living in some sense of faith with people.  I do not know anyone who lives with full embrace of certainty or in the way of complete skepticism.  We cannot live there together.

Even MIT is a place of faith.

Do Not Worry
 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Reading: The Gospel of Matthew 6:19-34
 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Timothy Hawkins, Sojourn Collegiate Ministry