Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Embracing the Process

First Reading:
"I realized that it is simply impossible for a human being to be and remain "good" or "pure". If, for instance, I wanted to be attentive in one direction, it could only be at the cost of neglecting another. If I gave my heart to one thing, I left another in the cold...No day and no hour goes by without my being guilty of some inadequacy. We never do enough, and what we do is never well enough done...except being inadequate, which we are good at, because it is the way we are made. This is true of me and of everyone else." - Anna Blaman
"I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate...The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do." - Romans 7:15, 18b-19 CEB

The theme this semester is vision, what we would like to see for the year. And it's a really a very broad topic. What would I like to see? In what area of my life, in what part of the world? And how? Why that change, that alteration, that growth? 
Two things came to mind as I was trying to settle on a vision of what I would like to see different in my life this next year, or different in the world. Two thoughts were prompting and giving shape to vision I was attempting the formulate. 
The first is resolutions. Around the new year, everyone is talking about resolutions of course. Perhaps it seems weird to even bring it up now. It's February. You've missed the boat. In fact, it's mid February. It's far too late to even reference them. On the other hand, maybe this is precisely the time to bring them back up.
At the beginning of every year, we once again attempt to strengthen our resolve so as to bring about change in our lives and in the world. We want to see personal growth or professional development. We want to see the organizations we are involved with move in new and different directions. We want our communities and our cities to prosper. We hope our states to stand tall and vote for particular people in the presidential primaries. Indeed, right now visions for the future are being peddled everywhere you turn. We want to see the entire world continue to move forward. These resolutions, these visions of what might be come to us at the dawn of each new year. We ask ourselves questions like, "Where are we?" and "Where are we going?”
This making of resolutions and setting of goals is nothing new, but this year something about the conversation bothered me. Alongside the goals and desires to change, there is a counter narrative that pushes back against this apparent optimism. Late night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel throw out statistics about how many people fail in keeping their new year resolutions almost as soon as they're made. They interview people on the street, asking whether or not they have kept their resolutions. Unsurprisingly, the most common answer is "no". It's all in good fun and Kimmel highlights our sometimes overly optimistic or idealistic visions for our new year. This year, however, I found the focus upon the failure a little irritating. 
This perspective suggests that unless the change happened right away, it wasn't worth even trying. If your resolution for the year was to eat better or exercise more or read more books and if you haven't already done it a few weeks in, then you might as well give up. You've failed. This is a message of ultimate failure if you have not immediately altered or reached that goal you are reaching for this year. There is no room for process. There is no room for slower improvement. The admission of the current state of my diet or exercise routine is not allowed. Personally, I keep resolving to make those changes in the future. I've been starting a diet tomorrow for years. 
So this desire to grow is met with an immediate assertion of the pointlessness of trying, that unless the change is instantaneous, you probably didn't really mean it. This was the first line of thinking giving shape to finding a vision for the new year. 
The second influence was the inclusion of biographies into my reading. Being 29 going on 30, I've started to become much more aware of what others have accomplish at my age or younger. Biographies had not really appealed to me in the past, but this last year I made my way through a few. Namely, the books focused on Elon Musk, C.S. Lewis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Seeing where each of these very different men were at my age and where life took them beyond that was instructive. Following the course of their lives, though Musk is of course still living, it is easy to see to see who they became was not and is not an overnight change. It was gradual. It was step by step. With each open door, with each little decision, with each opportunity or victory, smaller events kept moving a life forward, which results in something bigger. Indeed, we know that Rome wasn't built in a day, but for some reason we think that a person's life or soul or career or character should be. 
So then, with these two streams of thought in mind, what is the vision for this year? That is the question. It is this: Embracing the process. Knowing that we are not where we want to be yet, but looking forward and saying "It's ok, because I'm on the way there." That even if the change isn't immediate or overnight, that we're going somewhere. That's it's ok if the growth is incremental, maybe almost imperceptible at times. Embracing the process of growing. Allowing for it to be slow, gradual, step by step. 
Two further words came to mind when thinking about how to actually go about embracing this process. The first is grace, an acknowledgment of where we are. Understanding that I am not perfect. Blaman speaks truth when she points out the persistent sense of our own inadequacies. I am painfully aware of my shortcomings and weaknesses. I start to become very aware of the person I will never be or things I will never be able to do. For example, I will never dunk a basketball on a standard hoop. It's just not going to happen. I've known that since I stopped growing at 5'6". But this accepting of these limitations not only in myself, but in others. In those same categories where we want the resolutions and vision to extend to: our communities, our organizations, students, country. Acknowledging where we are and saying, "It's ok, but we need to grow." Can you love it where it is?
The second word is courage. Rather than just sitting where we are it takes courage to continue to move forward. To "straighten your back up" as Cornel West would say. To continue to push forward in the face of adversity. I think of my nephews learning to walk. It is a scary thing and they didn't learn it on the first attempt. I loved them before they could even sit up, much less crawl or walk. But we continue to encourage them to keep trying. And how do we respond or approach their fumbling, faltering attempts to walk? Do we say, "How dare you! You failed and will never learn to walk!". How silly. The same is true for students struggling to learn a different concept. "You didn't get it right away so you'll probably never learn it?" How odd. When embracing the process, there must be both. There must be grace for where they are, but courage to challenge them to go further, to be better, to continue to push. 
That is my vision for the year. For myself, to be sure, but maybe for country as well. The current trend of trotting out accusations against others and the rhetoric seems to be focused on identifying all the problems. If any solution offered is not perfect or immediate, it must be resisted at all costs. Once again, how very silly. 
Maybe this year we need to embrace the incremental process. Maybe as we move forward, we celebrate the little victories in our self, in others, in our communities, in our organizations, in our cities, in our lives. No matter where we are on that journey, there is always something else we can offer. Let us give grace to ourselves and others in the now-and-the-not-yet of where hope to be. For there is a time and season for everything. May we accept where we are in that process, recognizing that each of us are on journey somewhere. 
Second Reading:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: 
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,  a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build, 
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance, 
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, 
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away, 
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak, 
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NIV

By Tyler Coquilard
Sojourn Collegiate Ministry

Sunday, February 7, 2016

About the Future

Tuesdays in the Chapel


Middle age refers more
to landscape than to time:
it’s as if you’d reached
the top of a hill
and could see all the way
to the end of your life,
so you know without a doubt
that it has an end—
not that it will have,
but that it does have,
if only in outline—
so for the first time
you can see your life whole,
beginning and end not far
from where you stand,
the horizon in the distance—
the view makes you weep,
but it also has the beauty
of symmetry, like the earth
seen from space: you can’t help
but admire it from afar,
especially now, while it’s simple
to re-enter whenever you choose,
lying down in your life,
waking up to it
just as you always have—
except that the details resonate
by virtue of being contained,
as your own words
coming back to you
define the landscape,
remind you that it won’t go on
like this forever.

Our theme for the coming term is envisioning what we wish for our world, our school, our lives. It is a coldly calculated effort to get us all to think reflectively about what we want in the months ahead.
So I am compelled to do the same and confess that it is not so easy a task. Memory and hope are often tied very closely and what I remember over the arc of my life is troubling.  I have a cynical strand in my make-up that rises up when I think of what I will wish for and it is caused by the high hopes that have marked moments in my life to date.

Let me illustrate. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement it seemed as if corners had been turned and gradually our nation was making good on its promises of equality for all our citizens. As someone grounded in the Christian faith I thought it noteworthy that finally religious commitments had forced change in the body politic. What ever else it was the civil rights movement was a triumph of Judeo-Christian values or so it seemed.

Rather quickly the ability to participate in the political process seemed to have been assured. The media began to look like America in ways that would have been impossible a few years earlier. Stereotypes gave way to real people of color. Sanford and Son gave way to the Jeffersons and then the Huxtables.

Some of you will have seen the column in the NYT on the 1st by Rachel L. Swarns “Trying to Separate Cliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby”.  Swarns explores what Cosby meant to America in the 1980s when he was called “America’s Dad” the article is worth a look and I can tell you that our family did gather each week to enjoy the experiences of America’s family.

The push back illustrated by voter ID efforts clearly shaped by political agendas call into question  the depth of our efforts to secure democracy. The all white Oscar nominations, while at one level a shallow measure of our commitment to equality, seem part and parcel of an effort by some Americans to take back their nation by which they mean the entitlements of a threatened and frightened Anglo majority. And Black Lives Matter has forced us face our willingness to buy security by turning a blind eye to wrongs committed on our behalf.

I have tools for understanding what happened to Bill Cosby. The deadly rise of hubris, lust and the abuse of power do not know a color line. Judeo Christian thought prepares us for the failures of the sometime righteous. And we are complicit in his sins.  For too long we have winked at notions that boys will be boys and we forget that boys can grow up to be crude and exploitive men.  And I wonder as well about other stars who have walked the same path as Cosby and who have not been called out. We have had our share of sordid politicians; other Bills come to mind and I am aware of similar scandals in England. It may be that here righteousness is only served when there is another agenda in the mix

So I am discouraged by our failure of political will and the fall of individuals I would have preferred to be unsullied, but I am also aware of those we honor who overcame the foibles of the flesh. Memory calls to us of our failures, hope sets before us our dreams. And I still dream with hope for the future that it will turn out as I dream.  Let me conclude with the words of Frost:

Thanks, Robert Frost by David Ray

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought.
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute