Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Reflecting on What We Have Lost

Reflecting on What We have lost

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,
….. Forseeing by Sharon Bryan

Mortality focuses the mind and heart. Even on a university campus where we are forever young, mortality grabs us. That is what happened to me when I finally paid attention to what was happening. Thanks to Mitch McConnell’s strategy of intransigence, the hounds of hell have been released calling for action of any sort: “taking our country back” and “building a wall” seem to be the catch phrases of choice. Most know that they do not understand what it means to take something back from the American people; they just do not like who the American people now are. And the wall is nonsense. But it feels good to vent.

I understand the anger. Lots of things I thought settled by the Civil Rights Movement seem to be disappearing. What the voting rights act made possible has been gutted by flagrant political gerrymandering. Just as Mitch owned up to undermining any legacy Barack Obama might build, so too Republican state legislatures have worked to make voting more difficult for those on the margins, minorities, the elderly, the young. All in the name of preventing voter fraud.  And voter fraud translates into people not voting like the legislators would like them to vote.

I graduated from seminary in a time of high idealism.  The Movement was underway and America was changing. The media began to look like America. The most obvious shift was in television. Amos and Andy gave way to Sanford and Son and then the Huxtables moved in next door.

Our family gathered to watch them each Thursday night. We were living in urban America and we felt the problems we were dealing with were not unlike what they dealt with.  We laughed together at shared human foibles.  We had a road map for how to make it in the new America.

When our second daughter graduated from college, Bill Cosby gave the speech at graduation. His advice was sound:  He told the graduates, “Don’t plan to move home.” It was advice that many could not follow, but the economy does not always listen to good advice.

 Last I noticed Pepperdine has not taken back their honorary doctorate. Being a college with a religious heritage, they seem to understand something others have forgotten. If honorary degrees were given only to perfect specimens of the human race, they would all remain in the hands of their makers. Americans love blindly and dismantle what they find flawed with equal passion. MIT does not give honorary degrees and the policy has allowed us to avoid many awkward conversations over the course of our history.

The legal system will grind out a form of justice for Cosby. His behavior appears to have been abusive and criminal, but he is standing in for a generation that told its young men that women were objects to be possessed and conquest was the measure of manhood. Drugs to bulk the body helped with performance in sports; drugs played a role in sexual fantasies. They still do. There is an arc of accepted sexually exploitive behavior that runs from Rhett Butler, carrying a resistant Scarlett O’Hara to her bedroom, down through the golden age of Playboy. The only bad sex was no sex. There is no color line to cross when it comes to boorish behavior and Bill Cosby is a reminder of a collective societal dysfunction.  It is hard to bring a class action suit against middle-America.

Here at MIT pornography was a major fundraiser for student activities during that period. There were few who had the temerity to say that they thought Debbie Does Dallas was inappropriate fare as  introduction to the Institute. A Dean of Student Life, Shirley McBay, who knew exploitation when she saw it, and an Associate Provost, Samuel Jay Keyser, who understood that free speech was never without cost, finally pulled the plug. Their courage is not forgotten.

Now, on the national stage, the Republicans start talking about the implications of having small hands. Like school boys who want to see how far they can spit or pee, the Republican candidates remind us that we have not traveled as far as we thought. They remind us that Bill Cosby is both a product and a victim of a cultural fallacy. Sexual powers are never a reasonable measure of masculinity or leadership.

 Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

On Flags

American flags are everywhere: on campus, in churches, political rallies for sure, town halls, military bases, lapels of politicians, school rooms, sterns of many boats, memorials, caskets, burnings.
Well not so many flag burnings these days.  I was watching a flag Sunday morning while waiting to pick up Suzanne.  I watched it for a long time and thought about this vision thing.  The flag is blown around and stands out from the pole because of the wind, which is driven by the weather systems, highs and lows, caused by ice up north and El NiƱo in the pacific and the sun.  That flag was flying and it was very inspiring.  If we could only pay more attention to those little beautiful things like flags flying, perhaps we would be a better people.
Now people always know what’s best for everyone else.  I don’t want to presume that I know what’s best for you or MIT or Cambridge or Somerville, or Massachusetts or the USA.  I don’t, but I have some clues.  If we only could honor other folks' sacred texts and way of life.  If we could love and honor rats and snakes and cockroaches as much as our dogs and cats we might respect the life of all living beings and the planet.  Even the bed bugs and ticks and mosquitoes.
We are so small compared to the planet, the length of life, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.  But how great our accomplishments.  How precious are our families, friends, partners – time.  How precious our country represented by that flag.  That flag isn’t red voters or blue voters.
I wish politicians would just say they don’t know how to deal with ISIS or global warming or North Korea or poverty or the national debt, or lead in the Flint water supply, or black males in prison, or folks fleeing to our country across borders who want a piece of the pie we are so fortunate to have.  My vision of a politician is one who rents his home or lives in one valued about the same or less than ours.
If you have white feet or black feet or yellow feet or red feet or brown feet or even fungus feet, they don’t identify who you are.  Your heart does.
I would like to tell you that my vision is that I can eat ice cream and chocolate and chips to my hearts content, but then we know my heart wouldn’t like that in the long run.
My vision is that we could be ruled by our hearts, a species that honors and respects all living beings, a species that is generous and kind, a species that helps those who are in need, a species that will be on Allah's good side and Yahweh’s arm of peace and God’s care giver and a species who can ask questions and wonder at the answers. 
And within that species that we can find our way to contribute to the whole of all.

The White-Tailed Hornet
              by Robert Frost

The white-tailed hornet lives in a balloon
That floats against the ceiling of the woodshed.
The exit he comes out at like a bullet
Is like the pupil of a pointed gun.
And having power to change his aim in flight,
He comes out more unerring than a bullet.
Verse could be written on the certainty
With which he penetrates my best defense
Of whirling hands and arms about the head
To stab me in the sneeze-nerve of a nostril.
Such is the instinct of it I allow.
Yet how about the insect certainty
That in the neighborhood of home and children
Is such an execrable judge of motives
As not to recognize in me the exception
I like to think I am in everything—
One who would never hang above a bookcase
His Japanese crepe-paper globe for trophy?
He stung me first and stung me afterward.
He rolled me off the field head over heels
And would not listen to my explanations.

That's when I went as visitor to his house.

As visitor at my house he is better.

The Reverend John Wuestneck
Protestant Chaplain at MIT

Friday, March 11, 2016

Drink Coffee, Do Good

Isaiah 18:1-6 New International Version (NIV) A Prophecy Against Cush
18 Woe to the land of whirring wings[a]
    along the rivers of Cush,[
which sends envoys by sea
    in papyrus boats over the water.
Go, swift messengers,
to a people tall and smooth-skinned,
    to a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
    whose land is divided by rivers.
All you people of the world,
    you who live on the earth,
when a banner is raised on the mountains,
    you will see it,
and when a trumpet sounds,
    you will hear it.
This is what the Lord says to me:
    “I will remain quiet and will look on from my dwelling place,
like shimmering heat in the sunshine,
    like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.”
For, before the harvest, when the blossom is gone
    and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
he will cut off the shoots with pruning knives,
    and cut down and take away the spreading branches.
They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey
    and to the wild animals;
the birds will feed on them all summer,
    the wild animals all winter.

Good morning and thank you for coming. 
When I was asked to speak almost 3 weeks ago, it was not an easy decision to take, specially being the 2nd speaker this semester after Dr. Robert Randolph. 
The theme this semester being: "Vision: What I would like to see happen in the coming term" 
I first thought to talk about "never again" Never again is or was chosen by the UN with reference to genocide, but since it did happen again and again. 
Every morning I listen to the radio, and it's all about primaries in New Hampshire or Ohio or just another State talking about the upcoming president elections in November this year, I think I am not good or just I don't know much about American politics but still I can't talk about politics in African countries either... It can be very COMPLICATED there. 
Then I remembered listening to a sermon as I visited Park Street Church in Boston, the preacher talked about a very delicate, sensitive topic in the US. "RACE" 
This is February, the Black History Month, he spoke of shooting, race in schools, Oscar so white... I spent a week either seeing an exhibition of race celebrating Martin L. King Jr... Just walking into the infinity corridor, or so, for me race is still a topic that I try to not have a discussion on. 
Back to the sermon, at the end, the preacher touched on why they serve/drink the "THOUSAND HILL" coffee, this coffee come from Rwanda, the land of Thousand Hills. 
This is the story, in 1994 after the horrible genocide that happened in Rwanda, the country had to find a way to reconcile and put people back to life together again, this wasn't an easy process, and actually the process is still on. 
So the country asked help and this American company started helping farmers into coffee production and then by creating jobs. 
As you can see the picture on the back page, the story is that the guy was the neighbor to the lady before the genocide and during the genocide he did kill the lady's family and was in prison for a long time, in the reconciliation process he is now out and work as a former in those coffee farms, the lady ended up giving the land or part of their land to the coffee program. 
I am not trying to sell coffee here, but this have been a great help in the reconciliation process in Rwanda. 
What I'd like to see happen, I think I just wish we could do good... And better. 
Drink coffee do good. 
Thank you
Claude Muhinda Rwakagwa 

Second Reading:
Genesis 11:1-9 New International Version (NIV)
The Tower of Babel
11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar[b] and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel[c]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.


Monday, March 7, 2016


The origins of MIT in its modern iteration reach back to the 1930s and Karl Taylor Compton. Compton was from Princeton,  trained in Physics.  His contributions to the war effort during World War II were matched by his vision for MIT as a world class institution.  Compton’s roots were deep as well in the reformed Christianity practiced at Princeton. Members of the
family served as missionaries in India and his wife spent much of her time at MIT seeking space for a chapel.

His successor, James Killian, built the chapel she dreamed of and laid the foundation for an even more robust MIT, one that had room and purpose for the liberal arts.  In the chapel is a plaque designating the space as the symbol of the MIT commitment to creating an environment where students might explore the meaning of religious faith.

So they have done since the building was opened in 1955. The notion of educating “A New MIT Man” was Killian’s in the aftermath of the war. The suggestion that science had been
hijacked in order to win the war without appropriate attention to ends and means stung. The use of the atomic bomb was a case in point. In response, Killan thought an MIT student should be as concerned with implications of a scientific advance as they were with the advancement itself. The eyes that peered into the dark night sky should be as concerned with what they were looking for as they were with how and why they were looking because as the universe gave up its secrets there was always the cost of the knowledge obtained. 
The chapel and the larger Kresge Auditorium, “The Meetinghouse of MIT”, were the appropriate places for such questions to be asked..

Since then below the radar (figuratively speaking) physicists honed their skills and listened.  On September 14th, 2015 they heard something. They heard what Einstein said they might, but a hundred years ago he thought the prospects were dim. He was wrong.

On February 11th 2016  they made the announcement in Cambridge. Our study of the universe suddenly had a new set of sensors. We might see, but now we could hear the destructive harmonies of black holes collapsing into one another and sending their death knell across the universe like ripples in a giant pond.

It had taken nearly a century; the elders who had argued for the funding for such a study and who believed in what they were doing while others waivered, clapped their hands. Somewhere Einstein smiled. Others stepped forward confident that the discoveries were only beginning. In the same way we could say we didn’t know what we didn’t know, we could also say we did not know what we might learn.

What of the dialogue between science and religion that had been implied? I listened carefully but the conversation was muted by the joy of discovery.   There is nothing like being vindicated on a great stage. Those who thought big and carefully about LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) had paid dearly for their audacity. Thousands of folk had contributed to the LIGO effort and all felt part of a very special club. And that brings up the second thing I noted. Modern science is an international effort. The temple of science hosts a diverse congregation.

But what of the faithful? They seem unshaken. Those who reduce religion to factoids that can be ordered or reordered to match the advances of science seem to have little to say. Or maybe they have gotten tired trying to prove what cannot be proven.  Those whose confidence is grounded not in facts but in experience and a sense of mystery seem to have learned a bit from our friends in Physics.

They waited patiently for the music to begin ignoring those who had other ways to spend the money they needed.  So too wait those who think the music of the universe is divine. They hear with interest the notions that there are new discoveries to be made and wait for them. The notion that the universe is no accident remains a viable conjecture and those who think that way know as well that values such as justice, mercy, accountability and forgiveness are sometimes as hard to measure as gravitational waves.

I take comfort in remembering the words of Lewis Thomas,  “We have a wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries ahead and we will need science for this, but not science alone. Science will in its own time, produce the data and some of the meaning in the data…For getting a full grasp, we shall need.. all sorts of brains outside the fields of science, most of all the brains of poets, but also those of artists, musicians, philosophers, historians, writers in general.” (quoted in Leonard Allen, The Cruciform Church, p. 89.)

Isabel Wilkerson in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (2/14/16) noted that it was just over a hundred years ago that the family of Emmett Till began their move to Chicago  and she went on to link Till with Tamir Rice and declare them both sons of the great migration of black Americans to the northern cities in search of freedom. Real freedom has proved as elusive as the celebrated gravitational waves.

Our religious communities, concerned as they are with the values that expand the meaning of what it is to be human and what it means to reflect the values we declare of ultimate worth, need to take a deep breath and step up. The work does not stop when critics declare it worthless; it does not stop when critics say it costs too much; it does not stop when we listen and hear only the words of hatred and violence. We all pay a price when we commit to a great cause and the results do not come quickly or on our timetable. The waters of justice do roll and we must be there to listen if we are to hear.

It was an exciting week at MIT.

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Cambridge, MA