Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Paradox of Interfaith Dialogue

The Paradox of Interfaith Dialogue

When the Religious Life Center opened in 1995 here at MIT, a Board of Chaplains was established. A Covenant of Mutual Respect was/is signed by all chaplains serving here and the document explains how divergent faith communities are to live together in the Institute.  Proselyting was expressly forbidden.

In the early days of the RAC harmony was a concern as the Institute was a bit shy when it came to public conflict. It had been through the days of rage during the anti-Viet Nam War protests and other demonstrations for the different causes that roiled the Cambridge community.

Some were concerned that moving all of the chaplains into shared space was an invitation to conflict. I thought better not believing that adults could not learn to live together. Within a few hours of moving in we had our first crisis. The student members of the evangelical Christian movement on campus had hung a psychedelic picture of Jesus on the door to the Christian Fellowship Lounge. The space was theirs and corresponded to the unique spaces occupied by the Muslims and the Jews, but the only folk who could see Jesus when the door closed was the staff of Hillel! The director wanted to know what we were going to do about it?

The Baptist chaplain rose to the occasion and managed to get the assorted Christians occupying the lounge to see that their gesture was not without implication. Jesus was placed on the inside of the door where he could look with compassion on the interior of the room and might even remind amorous Christian students of their personal norms. It was a minor success but laid the foundation for future interfaith responses to community crises after 9/11 and the events in Mumbai. Then we gathered as a community to express grief. The unspoken question that remained was could we yell at each other or did civility trump everything else?

The paradox of interfaith dialogue is that the differences that lead to conflict are not on the table often and overt conflict is still avoided most of the time. The reason that is true is because the differences that cause overt conflict are not religious but at the points where religion and politics converge.  The aftermath of 9/11 was more easily managed because relationships had been formed that valued human life. Whether or not sinners still were held in the hand of an angry God was not the issue. The issue that divides was whether those sinners had a right to live together in Israel and on the West Bank.

We can talk about religious differences.  The other day Jon Levenson from Harvard talked with the Addir Fellows about the different perceptions of Abraham held by those of the “Abrahamic Faiths”. Questions were raised about how shared texts were understood, but at the end of the evening no blood was shed. Stephen Prothero in similar fashion talked about his book, God is not One and all understood the point he was making. Religious communities have differences over who/what God is that can be talked about and out of those differences come the conversations that educate strangers about the other.

The Addir Fellows, our interfaith dialogue group has for seven years created communities of conversation that have helped small cohorts of students get to know one another. Civility reigns and this the face of our interfaith community.

When the chaplains get together for public conversations about what they hold to in their communities, they are able as well to talk about differences. Muslims are clear that there is a day of judgment even if mainline Christians are no longer sure.
The Buddhists are content with “whatever” and the Catholics offer details where others accept generalities. Attitudes toward social customs can raise fierce argument when it comes to the treatment of women and those who are gay.  But no one goes for the jugular.

It is dialogue of a sort and in this season of acrimony in Washington where our elected leaders can find numerous ways to call one another worthless bastards, I guess it will have to do. The test will come when MIT students graduate and take up their roles as leaders of the next generation of technocrats. Can that they have learned to value one another as human beings who draw on different religious traditions for guidance be enough to allow their leadership to be virtuous and effective?

I do know that it is not enough to pretend that there are no differences that divide and the question that remains is one that goes to the heart of our humanity: in the quest for power can we learn in the classroom the worth of the other so that in times of conflict we are able to not turn the abstract into a tool of destruction? Can those who unleash the dogs of religious difference understand that whether they are right or wrong about their theology will be less important than knowing they are accountable to the judgment of history if not to the anger of a wronged God? Or to put it more simply, when blood is about to be shed, can you move the picture of Jesus from the door?

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

We Learned to Love

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It's the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”
Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers

It’s been said there are no accidents in life, there are only divine coincidences. Is it a coincidence that I was asked to speak during this Lenten season about In My Family we…? Lent, a time for reflection, prayer, penance, and doing good things.

We grew up approximately 9 miles from Cambridge in the town of Arlington. In my family (3 brothers and one sister and parents) we went to church together, ate dinner together, were taught that it’s better to give than receive, and that there is always someone worse off than we are. We lived and learned a modest life, with no discussions of college for any of us. My mother made the girls clothes which were often matching, although we aren’t twins, and hand-me-downs were acceptable wear. I attended parochial school and spent some of my “formative” years there. I was taught by nuns and these women led a life of devotion to God, but what was their real reason for becoming a nun?

In my family we were told about the many people who had less, who were starving, and often were told during a meal that we didn’t like, “there are children starving in Biafra”.  As children we didn’t know where Biafra was but would have been happy to send an unwanted meal there!

I moved out when I was 21, thinking I knew what was best. This was a time of discovery for me. I never felt that I belonged, I felt different. I didn’t know what it was about me, but knew I was different. I was taunted in high school with “are you a boy, or a girl?”  I knew I wasn’t interested in men, but didn’t know there was any choice in life, so thought I’d become a nun. In my family we didn’t talk about people having choices in life style, or who you married. In my family we don’t handle communications well, we don’t argue, we just don’t talk about a lot of things.

It was somewhere around 1973 that I realized that I was gay and that it was ok to be different. I discovered who I am, although it was a huge learning curve, and it certainly wasn’t an acceptable lifestyle, it was/is who I am. In my family we didn’t talk about it.

I began my career at MIT in October of 1984. One day I was crossing Mass. Ave. I was joined by a woman who held a position of authority here, who said to me “Cheryl, there are some people here who have a hard time with you being so openly gay.” I was not only taken-aback but responded with “and these same people probably have a hard time with you being black but they can’t say anything”.  She too was shocked but it opened a friendship and respect for our differences. I was created this way, it’s not a choice. As the saying goes: I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not living life.

In my family we were taught core family values of respect, giving, helpfulness, and looking after others. My siblings were raising families and I am “single” in their eyes. I felt it was important for me to move back to Arlington to be close to my aging parents. I felt it was the responsible thing to do, as the eldest daughter and the only sibling with no children. It has been a good thing in my life.

I seldome go to the Catholic church any more. I believe it is much more important to be true to yourself every day. To practice random acts of kindness that little acts of kindness can add up to a lifetime of happiness.

In my family we learned to love.

Sgt. Cheryl Vossmer,  MIT Police

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success."  
                         ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Families Are!

Reading: Heretics, by GK Chesterton

Some sages of our own decadence have made a serious attack on the family. They have impugned it, as I think wrongly; and its defenders have defended it, and defended it wrongly. The common defence of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.

It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

Falling in love has been often regarded as the supreme adventure, the supreme romantic accident… Love does take us and transfigure and torture us. It does break our hearts with an unbearable beauty, like the unbearable beauty of music. But in so far as we have certainly something to do with the matter; in so far as we are in some sense prepared to fall in love and in some sense jump into it; in so far as we do to some extent choose and to some extent even judge — in all this falling in love is not truly romantic, is not truly adventurous at all. In this degree the supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.


Our topic for these chapel times has been family. Well, the subject of family has been on my mind a lot, probably because my wife Mary and I recently became parents. Incidentally, I somehow tricked my very lovely wife into being here today and I can’t resist pointing her out.  So we have a 14 month old little girl named Lily. We managed to survive the first year of parenthood which I think could be summed up with the frenzied expression “Oh my gosh! we have to make sure this thing stays alive!” 

Now, in this second year, we have a little human toddling around our house and it brings a rather stunning realization to Mary and me. Lily’s best hope--and her only hope I suppose--of becoming a healthy, well-adjusted, productive member of society is us. She doesn’t really get a say in the matter. She doesn’t get to shop around, interview various candidates and then choose the best, most-competent parents. It’s us. We are the “brigands in the bush” “lying in wait for her” to use GK Chesterton’s words. She’s stuck with us.

And as Chesterton points out, this is the situation all of us found ourselves in when we came into the world. We were all dropped down a random chimney and essentially stranded with whoever was down there.

And, of all things, this idea reminds me of the 5th commandment of the famous 10 commandments, which is printed on your sheet:

Deuteronomy 5:16: Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

To explain why these two things are connected in my mind, let me tell you about my family growing up. 

In terms of being dropped down a random chimney, I was very fortunate. I had two hard-working parents who loved each other very much and had a VERY high value for family.  My sister and I had a very stable suburban childhood. If I think through the valuable life lessons my parents taught me, I’m sure they’d be too numerous for me to name right now. 

Like many teenagers do, I had a rebellious streak as a kid. So I think I was actually fortunate to have a minor run in with the police when I was 13 (sorry, I don’t have time to tell this story now, but you can ask me about it sometime). This was actually a good thing for me because it scared me onto the straight and narrow... mostly. But I think there were certain ways that my rebellious streak lasted well into my early twenties.

Maybe rebellion isn’t the right word, maybe it’s too strong. I loved my family, but I wanted distance. I wanted to move onto bigger and better things than my very normal, average, hum-drum American family. It seemed like a lot of kids found themselves stuck in my hometown after finishing high school and I wanted out pretty badly. I didn’t apply to any schools in Texas, my home state and I had my sights set on either coast. I had wanted to go to MIT since I was in 5th grade. 

I loved my family, but what I really wanted was acheivement. I measured the value of my life based on what I could achieve.  And MIT seemed to offer limitless possibilities in this realm. So I came here to Cambridge and didn’t really look back.

My parents taught me the value of hard work and that was actually what got me through MIT. But once I graduated, I couldn’t help but notice something. The achievement strategy wasn’t really working out so well for me. I was forced to admit (and believe me I resisted this), but I was forced to admit that I was walking around with a pretty profound feeling of emptiness (not to mention lots of student loans).

The story of how I found a way out of that emptiness is actually my story of coming to faith in Jesus and the story of how I ended up being a chaplain here. That’s another story you can ask me about later. But a significant narrative in that story was my realization that relationships are more valuable than achievement, by many orders of magnitude if they can even be compared. 

Which meant, I had made a major miscalculation in most of my significant life choices because I had not factored my relationships into the mix at all.

Having this mental paradigm shift was one thing, but I had to decide if I was I going to do anything about it. Restructuring your life around a whole new set of priorities isn’t something you can do overnight. It was a scary prospect for me.

It was at this time that I started taking the 5th commandment seriously. I realized that If I was going to move forward into healthy relationships, I was first going to have to go backwards and sort out the frayed mess of my relationships with my family. It was time to undistance myself from my family, emotionally at least. 

This was not immediate or easy and is probably still ongoing in some ways. But I gotta say, that 5th commandment was super helpful in the process.  I think because it didn’t really feel like a commandment.  As the apostle Paul points out in the New Testament, it’s the first commandment with a promise. So in that sense it didn’t really feel like a duty or a moral obligation, but more a statement of reality.  Do this and it will go well with you.

That provided much needed motivation for all the difficult conversations I needed to have as I was learning how to be vulnerable and emotionally available to my family.

The surprising thing about this commandment is that it seems to be indifferent to the quality and competence of parents. It seems to be saying that our parents always have something good to offer us, regardless of how good at parenting they are. I’m sure there are undoubtedly heartbreaking exceptions to this, but within normal limits this is pretty interesting. It reminds me of what Chesterton was saying about the random chimneys. 

So even though I was pretty slow in coming around, I can really say that I’ve experienced that promise coming true in my life in the last decade.  Clearly, it’s too soon to tell whether or not I’ll get the “live long” part, but the promise seems to communicate something about God’s provision and abundance and I’ve felt that in a big way, beyond what I deserve or could have hoped for.

But you probably wouldn’t see it on my resume or in my bank account. The abundance didn’t come in the form of achievement. It came in the form of relationships: friendships, supportive community and most of all, family. Now that I have my own family, I’m starting to understand how much hard work and sacrifice and intentionality it takes to maintain a healthy marriage and a thriving household. It’s very humbling. 

But so far, God’s promise for abundance has really come through. Even though I spent all those years taking my family for granted, somehow I still had access to the benefits of the healthy family life that my parents worked so hard and so long to pass on to me. And now I have the opportunity to build upon that legacy and pass it onto my daughter. 

And, even if the day should come when she has her own extended season of wanting “distance,” I find myself trusting that she’ll still be endowed with this inheritance and find her way home.

Adam Reynolds
Chaplain, The Vineyard