Saturday, January 26, 2013

In the New Year

In the New Year

The end of a year is always a bit melancholy. I feel it most keenly when I update my Christmas card list. This year is no exception, but the early weeks have been a bit hectic. Jan and I have been on the road since Christmas with a lot of driving, some times of reflection, a near family wedding, a near family memorial service and a lot of time to think “what if?”

The wedding reached back to a church I served while in seminary. With parents now dead, we stood at the creation of a new blended family. We were a parental presence, and the officiate serving the state and offering the presence of the church and the blessing of God on the occasion of this second chance at marriage.

And why? Because to the couple marriage mattered even if they had not done it so well the first time around. The work now is no less hard than it was when there were twenty-five, but they still thought it important to go public with their affection and desire to make it work this time.  Despite  mistakes, poor decisions, and the battered reputation of the institution itself,  they believed it important to say before their families and children that they wanted to make this marriage work.

There are many who believe marriage is in trouble because same gender couples want to crash the traditional party. My experience tells me that marriage is in trouble not because the players have changed but because we have all forgotten what hard work it is to create a new family and make it function over the long haul in the service of our best intentions. Rather than support these intentions and offer our support we want to keep the club closed in the name of tradition.  We are better off when we offer new families our care and blessings. God can sort out the details.

The memorial service reached back to the heady days of undergraduate study 50 years ago. Our friend had a successful career as a surgeon and teacher of medicine. He died from a disease that was a variant of a foe he had battled for his whole career.  He had answered Matthew Arnold’s contention that the world “so various so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor help for pain;…” (Dover Beach) by offering however imperfectly his life and his friendship as a joy for over fifty years.

His students spoke of his high standards and his integrity. He turned his back on the certitude of religious commitment aware of the humanity of the church and attracted by the promise of science that might right the wrongs tolerated by God and excused by those who explained away the hurt.  In his final illness the irony was that the practitioners he depended on misread the signs and cut short his life. Science failed him. I remembered a friend who gave his life in the service of humankind and offered help for pain.

In the background we have returned to office our first black President and heard him articulate a vision of the future that is as hopeful as it is bold.  His words were heard on a day celebrated as a memorial to the martyred Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Fifty years ago  there was no holiday and the thought that one day there might be a black President stretched the imagination of the most hopeful. Those details have been sorted out and I am persuaded God’s hand is on his able servant.

What if in this new day the story can be one of working together to build a better future for us all?  Barack Obama has made it clear that he will commit to the possible rather than demand the perfect. I share his vision of the common good. The Republican Party has made it clear that they will risk nothing that might enhance his legacy, but now that they have not defeated him it is time for them to commit to common ground where we can work together.  Shared effort will benefit us all and confirm that the progress of the last fifty years is a shared endeavor. God will sort out the details; our fears need not hold back our hopes.  In the New Year melancholy can give way to joy.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What About Newtown?

What About Newtown?

We will likely not ever know what drove Adam Lanza to commit the horrific acts of December 14th. However, we can and must respond to them and as a result the assault rifle ban will probably be re-imposed. That will be a good thing.

But stark against the backdrop of Newtown is another reality harder to change. A well landscaped, nicely appointed house does not cover the chasm between what appears to be healthy and what is in fact was a terrible void in the Lanza family.

We have not heard from Adam’s father or his brother. We do not need to hear.  We know his mother spent a few nights each week in a local tavern. We know she was afraid and having guns may have given her comfort. Her neighbors seem not to have known her well and the emptiness of her life may well be  the reality for many Americans.

Gun reform is needed but a larger conversation is called for. We may begin with guns and what can be bought and sold, where and by whom. More importantly we need to be talking about the dimensions of our communities and the daily toll violence takes in America.

Here in the university we work hard at community building. How do we talk to one another? How do we care for one another? When do we intercede in someone else’s business? When do we ask: “Are you all right?” “Can I help you out?”

Sandy Hook Elementary School paid attention to such details and lives were saved because of what they did. We commend their preparation and bravery. Can we be as brave when we carry these issues to the next level? How do we do that in our neighborhoods? In our small towns? On our blocks? In our cities? In our housing projects?

The religious communities in Newtown and the surrounding towns seem to have things together. Maybe the conversation begins there? Our chaplaincy here at MIT carries on conversations about well being in the community across boundaries of faith and privacy. Sometimes folks get offended and charge that such concerns are violations of personal space.  They are, but sometimes we have to ask and answer hard questions about the well being of one another. I don’t think anyone did that for Nancy Lanza.

Today for many Americans a basic value seems to be the desire to be left alone. I have seldom heard so much talk about freedoms lost or threatened. I do not think the status quo can be allowed to continue. Being left alone is not enough. The measures of success in our culture betray us. The large white house with the manicured landscape cries out.

Dr. Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts