Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Challenge of Individualism

I finished reading the hot-off-the-press book, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, last night. Written by a fifty-something anthropologist who goes undercover at a large public university, it attempts to use the tools of ethnography to familiarize folks like me with the student culture (which I find grows ever stranger and more distant from my own experience). At the same time, I am speaking in chapel this semester on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, an attempt to call Christians to the hard work of community. What I have quickly discovered is that the presuppositions of American college students are deeply at odds with Bonhoeffer's suggestion that Jesus "bids us come and die."

Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym) claims that: "Community in the American university is paradoxically a private and individual decision. As Robert Putnam documents in his history of community in the United States, Bowling Alone, the private decision to participate in community life is one that individuals in recent U.S. history are making less and less. From civic and religious life to political participation and informal social connections, there is an increasing individualism in American life that is evident in our universities as well," (51-52).

Calling students (yes, even Christian students!) to such a counter-cultural perspective is no easy task. Learning that life is not "all about me" can be painful--especially for most 18-21 year olds. I worry, in particular, about students isolated or behind closed doors with their computers or video games, unengaged in college life--particularly the life of the mind and the "great ideas" which are at the forefront of a liberal arts education. In today's chapel address, Dr. Batstone used that wonderful, uniquely Marcan, pericope where it takes Jesus two tries to cure a blind man. It is one thing to see, the passage suggests; it is quite another thing to see clearly. My hope is that those who are blind will begin to discover that they are, indeed, so--that they need the rest of the community to help them interpret their experience. Further, I hope that those who begin to see (even if only partially) will learn to make less self-centered choices and begin to depend on God and the community in new ways. I pray that they will have both eyes and ears open so that they can hear God and discover their passions and vocation.

If Nathan is right in her assessment, it is not just materialism which dominates our lives, but our insistence on always being able to choose--even in idolatrous ways.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Embracing a Sense of Place

Learning to be at home in any one place has been quite difficult for me. Perhaps it is a vestige from all of those growing-up years when we would move every year or two (a practice based on the old Methodist routine of circuit-riding preachers). Given such a reality, one develops a proclivity to avoid attachments to a particular set of people or geographical markers. As a result, I have always held relationships loosely and been somewhat afraid about becoming too "attached" to any one place.

But the biblical view challenges such a nonchalant approach. As Eugene Peterson says, "Our Scriptures that bring us the story of salvation ground us unrelentingly in place," (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 74). From the desire to dwell in "the land of milk and honey," to the longing by the exiles for Jerusalem, the Bible maintains a thorough grounding in particular places as sacred ground.

After 14 years on the road following graduation at Greenville (in Princeton, London, Stillwater, and Toronto), my family and I returned to this little village where my wife and I first met and fell in love. For twelve years now, I have been pouring my energies into this particular place--longer than I've ever lived in any one place. From the steps of Hogue Hall to the weather-stained monuments against the dawn morning in Montrose cemetery, this place has become a part of me. Christian faith has become grounded, in my mind, in particular people and places.

The life of faith is never something that is ethereal and confined to "ivory towers." As Peterson goes on to say, "God's great love and purposes for us are all worked out in messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, the daily work and dreams of our common lives. God works with us as we are and not as we should be or think we should be. God deals with us where we are and not where we would like to be," (75).

So, here I am, Lord, in this particular place at this particular time. Help me to embrace all these new faces around me and acquaint them with the story of your activity at this institution over the last 150 years. May their stories be added to ours to form one long tapestry of hope and grace in this particular plot of sacred ground.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Daily Prayer

One of the greatest discoveries in my spiritual life has been that of what is called "common prayer" or the "office"--oftentimes associated by many Protestants only with monasticism. It is clear, however, from the Preface written by Thomas Cranmer that corporate prayer was meant to be an integral part of the Church of England, as well. In fact, one of the homilies from 1563, with which I worked, develops an apologetic for praying the office--which came to be echoed in the work of Richard Hooker.

My first exposure to the practice was with a group of theology students from Greenville in 1976 on a pilgrimage to St. Meinrad's monastery in Indiana. I was immediately taken by the sense of sacred space and sacred time, all wrapped up in the Benedictine motto, "ora et labora" (prayer and work). As a seminary student, I began to practice morning prayer by myself and, since then, have collected numerous materials and prayer books to assist me. It is clear from the publishing boom of Phyllis Tickle's three-volumed The Divine Hours and Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk that I am not alone in my discovery of this ancient practice.

With the possible purchase of a larger church setting at St. Paul's, I am hopeful of actually developing a place for the practice of regular corporate prayer using Morning Prayer, in particular. After much thought and prayer I have chosen to become an oblate in the Order of St. Luke, a religious order in the Wesleyan tradition dedicated to sacramental and liturgical scholarship, education, and practice. It is my hope that I will be able to keep the vows I am making today to affirm the Apostolic Hope, to live for the Church of Jesus Christ, to seek the sacramental life, to promote corporate worship of the church, to magnify the sacraments, and to accept the call to service.

In his little book, The Rhythm of God's Grace, Anabaptist theologian, Arthur Paul Boers, points out the problems of a form of prayer that is always ad hoc, self-directed, disconnected, and subjective. I need the discipline that comes from praying daily in a fixed fashion which provides spaces for me to hear and be engaged by the larger community. I find more freedom in framing my own prayers when I am guided by the words of the saints, hammered out over time. Boers concludes: "Such fixed-hour prayer helps us pay attention to God and God's realities, 'the deepest thing we know.'" It embraces the whole of one's life. It offers consistent disciplines on a daily basis," (5). Lord, teach me to pray.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Learning to Pay Attention

I am in mourning for the beautiful maple tree in my back yard which was cut down today. In the fall, it had those wonderful leaves that would turn red and gold and litter our yard with exquisite "crunchiness." Unfortunately, it had the audacity to grow into the high line wires and a few years ago the hyroelectric company came and gouged its heart out (cutting a deep bevil into the mid-section of its branches).

As a result, it became prone to entertain a host of insects and tree rot. Though its furthermost parts, the exterior branches, maintained a semblance of life, inside it was rotting from within. So it was that it had to be cut into sections, revealing the back half of our yard to the heat of the sun and relegating the role of guardian to the giant oak which straddles ours, and the neighbor's, yard.

That tree seems to symbolize, in some small way, the lives of some of the students with whom I work--not to mention myself, or the colleagues around me. The threats to our existence seem to eat away at our innermost selves, cutting the heart out of who we are. Our exteriors may remain healthy (at least to all outward appearances), but inside we are crumbling. As Eugene Peterson says regarding a life lived at second-hand: "relationships atrophy, enjoyment diminishes, life thins out," (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 336).

We must learn to begin to pay attention to the rhythms of our lives--what Frederick Buechner calls, "listening to our lives." Perhaps I am a mystic at heart; I do know that I believe that God speaks to us through the crevices of life. This new semester I want to commit to learning to listen to what is going on around me--to take time to slow down and look for signs of interior rot and destruction (whether in my life or in the lives of those around me).

So, here are my intentions for a new school year in this vein:
1. Slow down.
2. Learn to do more with less.
3. Pay attention to the rhythms of life around me.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Another Year Older

Today I celebrate a birthday with another famous American :) When I was in third grade, I told a substitute teacher that I wanted to be President when I grew up--to which she replied, "Honey, nobody from Arkansas will ever be President!" Well, at least one of us proved her wrong.

I am grateful today for the many opportunities afforded me--particularly for education and travel. Seven years living outside the country (one in London, England, and six in Toronto, Canada) enabled me to see the world through a different lens. I came to truly love and admire both the British and Canadian cultures and see them as important models for the multicultural world in which we all have to learn how to negotiate issues of religious faith and ethnic heritage.

In religious circles we oftentimes use the vocabulary of "conversion." I think that it is appropriate to talk about how the liberal arts and travel help to "convert" us out of our egocentric, provincialist, and ghettoized perspectives. This creates a true passion in me to help my students begin to see themselves and their world from the perspective of the "other"--whether someone in another time or another place. Particularly as I watched images yesterday of Jewish youth barricading themselves in a synagogue, I wondered what it might mean for them to live awhile in the shoes of their Palestinian neighbors.

Gilbert Murray, the historian, has a quote which I usually place at the beginning of my syllabus in Western Christianity: “Every person who possesses real vitality can be seen as the resultant of two forces. He is first the child of a particular age, society, convention; of what we may call in one word a tradition. He is secondly, in one degree or another, a rebel against that tradition. And the best traditions make the best rebels.” As I look back across my brief 48 years of life, I am thankful that I was given a tradition out of which to operate and have had the joy of learning to creatively, constructively, and critically kick against that tradition as a vocation. This should be enough to continue to sustain me over the next few decades of teaching, research, and scholarship. And, it is a joy today to be alive and to be able to engage such a calling.

Happy Birthday, Bill! I look forward to celebrating with you next year.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Incongruity of a Violent Death

The report in the New York Times was crisp, but blood-chilling:
PARIS (AP) -- "A Romanian woman slipped into a choir of singing monks during an evening prayer service and fatally slit the throat of the 90-year-old founder of an ecumenical Christian community in the presence of 2,500 horrified pilgrims in Burgundy, authorities said Wednesday. The slaying Tuesday of Brother Roger in the Church of Reconciliation drew reactions of shock and grief from the pope, the leader of the Anglican Church and worshippers around the world. "

For those of us who have admired the work of Brother Roger and the community at Taize, the news seems almost surreal. Known for his work in harboring Jews during World War II, the means of death appeared beyond belief. I suppose, having lived through a summer of violence not only in Bagdad but in London, as well, such a thing should not seem out of the ordinary. For those who have seen the "sacred spot" in Canterbury Cathedral where the "Death of the Archbishop" (Thomas a Becket) took place beneath the swords of a monarch, it suggests something of an age-old ritual.

Perhaps, in some ways, being murdered while singing the Psalter is not such a bad way to go. I read recently of a woman who had nightmares because the last sight she had of her dying husband was of him slumped over after having fallen off the toilet with his trousers draped around his feet. As a teenage orderly, I watched many a man die with tubes protruding from his body, his chest carefully shaven of body hair to accomodate the sensors for the EKG machine. Men used to power and prestige were oftentimes reduced to urinating in a small plastic container so that I could carefully measure output, as well as input. Death and dehumanization, whether violent or otherwise, oftentimes seem to go hand-in-hand.

But there is something particularly galling about the violence of a cold blade swept across the neck of an elderly man of God, who has given his life on behalf of others. I wonder, was he whispering to himself, like Jesus on the cross: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit"? We Protestants oftentimes find ourselves squirming when it comes to such things as prayer for the dead. But, for Brother Roger, today, I do pray that God will not only accept such a servant on our behalf of our fervent prayers, but that He will continue to bless the ministry of the community he leaves behind which represents more appropriately a humble monk's "remains".

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Challenge of the Scriptures

I hear a lot in my role about the need for recovering "biblical literacy." I can assure you that "literacy" is lacking--even amongst many who have been raised to hear snippets of biblical text. On the one hand, there are those who have never really encountered the Bible. It is, more or less, some kind of cultural icon for them; something spoken of, but never heard from. On the other hand, there are those who may hear it on a fairly regular basis--either in the setting of public worship or private devotion. But, even here, there is a lack of recognition that the Scriptures, themselves, are "strange territory". We are separted from the words by time and by space. A false kind of "literalistic" reading in the extreme (which can easily be seen in the way ancient apocalyptic is interpreted woodenly and out of context in the popular Left Behind series) means that even if the words are being "heard," they are not being understood in a way that is helpful in either the classroom or the church.

One of the best recent books on this subject which provides a helpful historical survey is by Jaroslav Pelikan, the erudite and humble Professor Emeritus at Yale. In his Whose Bible is It? A History of the Scriptures through the Ages (NY: Viking, 2005), he provides a wonderful summing-up of the issue of the strange world of Biblical language:
"To invoke a Kierkegaardesque figure of speech, the beauty of the language of the Bible can be like a set of dentist's instruments neatly laid out on a table and hanging on a wall, intriguing in their technological complexity and with their stainless steel highly polished--until they set to work on the job for which they were originally designed. Then all of a sudden my reaction changes from, 'How shiny and beautiful they are!' to 'Get that damned thing out of my mouth!' Once I begin to read it anew, perhaps in the freshness of a new translation, it stops speaking in cliches and begins to address me directly. Many people who want nothing to do with organized religion claim to be able to read the Bible at home for themselves. But is is difficult to resist the suspicion that in fact many of them do not read it very much. For if they did, the 'sticker shock' of what it actually says would lead them to find most of what it says even more strange than the world of synagogue and church," (229).

And, so, another semester is about to begin in which helping students to struggle to hear and understand this strange, foreign text will be at the heart of my task. One does so with "fear and trembling" (to borrow another Kierkegaardian phrase hijacked from the Bible!) and in the hopes that the readers will catch a view of both the holy God behind it and of the poor sinner who deigns to open it.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Appropriating the Past through Worship

I have just finished Rowan Williams' Why Study the Past, a succinct argument for reading and understanding church history. Williams claims that what he calls the "charismatic memory of the Church" is most clearly understood in our worship: "when we sing canticles, psalms and classical hymnody we express a unity across time as well as a unity in space," (92). This has certainly been my experience and part of my argument in the courses I teach in worship. In fact, this is part of the reason why I emphasize participating in that corporate worship experientially during valuable class time.

Here is how the Archbishop frames it:
"This is where the primary record of God's self-communication, the Bible, is read, not as a relic of the past but as bearing the present communication of God. This is where, from the earliest days of the Church, martyrs have been commemorated and celebrated, where transformed lives are held up to us. And the language of this event is one that is inevitably and rightly not simply contemporary, but a speech formed by generations of practice; where praise is offered not only in the words that are straightforwardly our own, today's words, but in words used and inherited."

It is ultimately this common practice, this habit of inherited speech and 'charismatic' remembering, as Williams calls it, that gives us a sense of who and whose we are. When preaching takes place within this context, it is, as Will Willimon says, "peculiar speech" that operates within a domain of distinctive discourse, (Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, 6). In a culture caught up in everything "new," however, this seems not only quaint but irrelevant. Helping students negotiate this tension is absolutely central to my teaching.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A "Holy Body"

I come from a Christian tradition which believes in "holiness"--the setting apart of one's self for service to Christ. In his recent book, Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that it was the narrative of martyrdom which became the primary demonstration of Christian "legitimacy" to the Roman Empire in the early church and that the martyr's body became a tangible construct of "the suffering body expelled from the body politic."

Having worked with Foxe's Acts and Monuments, I know something of the power of the combination of text and woodcut. But Williams goes even further, claiming that, "the martyr is the conduit of divine presence who vindicates the claim to another citizenship." Polycarp of Smyrna is perhaps the greatest example, emulating Ignatius of Antioch's belief that the martyr's killing in the arena by wild beasts was analogous to the eucharistic bread being ground up by the recipient. As such, the martyr rather literally became a "living sign" of Christ's love. "The holy body," Williams says, "must be one that is consumed by the divine."

Could it be that this ancient belief has become, in some twisted and distorted way, fuel for the fire by today's terrorists? In the early church, obviously, there was no sense of destruction stemming beyond one's own body into the horrific deaths that we see today. But this "obliteration of the self" might somehow be connected to this claim to legitimacy and holiness. It would seem to me that the church is called upon to find ways of responding prophetically to this gnostic culture of suicide and death which recognizes the power of the martyr's cult while positing a constructive notion of holiness as a counter-cultural weight.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Pastor as "Abbot"

The church where I currently share in leadership is in the midst of making important decisions regarding the future--including a potential shift in locations. One of the positives that has emerged this summer is the discussions we've been having regarding the mission of the church. Unfortunately, the idea of mission has been reduced by many to some kind of stilted, flashy-sounding, single sentence which would encapsulate who we are. At St. Paul's we have learned/are learning the importance of simply "being the church": reading ourselves into the lectionary texts, celebrating the sacraments regularly, ministering to those in need. Through this experience we are coming to re-think the role of the pastor.

Alan Roxburgh ("The Missional Church") and others have recently suggested that, "missional leadership is more about the rediscovery of the ancient work of the abbot among a people." As someone who annually takes theological students to a Benedictine community, this has a lot of appeal to me. Those of us who lead need to understand that we are novices as well and that all of us must learn to school ourselves in the ancient practices of the church. Coming under the authority of anyone or anything is very foreign to those of us who grew up in rebellion, but it has become an absolute key for me in understanding my own calling as a minister of the gospel. Learning to speak this language of community seems very foreign to we Americans but is what demarcates the early church from much of the facade which might describe contemporary evangelicalism.

An abbot, by necessity, must learn to know his community and challenge people to live up to their calling through the regular practice of prayer and work. Engaging in this role requires enormous sensitivity to those who make up the community, as well as to the Holy Spirit. This seems to me to be a much more appropriate model than the CEO-dominated rhetoric which has plagued the church growth movement. Negotiating this transition requires the willingness to not only endure pain but stand four-square against the winds of the culture and sub-culture. Figuring out how to equip my students for this transition is at the heart of my prayers these days.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Learning to Live "In-Between"

It is reported that Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, pounded the pilot's shoulder when the atomic bomb was dropped sixty years ago this week and yelled, "My God. Look at that son of a bitch go!" It was only later, in retrospect, that he recorded, "My God, what have we done?"

I have been thinking about the advent of the Cold War at that moment and how it led to the infamous "duck and cover" of baby-boomer schooldays. Did we really think that putting our head between our legs would make any difference? Even more frightening was the lingering terror that we felt as we cowered in the hallways waiting for the Soviets to drop "the big one." Is that so much different from the terror that lingered at King's Cross Station yesterday as they re-opened the Picadilly Line in London? Newspaper reports this morning suggest that subway ridership is down 5-15% during the week and even more over the weekend.

It seems to me that there are many different entities which have an interest in building up and maintaining this heightened sense of anxiety amongst us. Barry Glassner suggests in his book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, that the use of fear and diversion tactics allow politicians and power-makers to divert attention away from society's most important and pressing issues. Frightened citizens, he posits, make better consumers and more easily swayed voters.

So, on the one hand, it is important that we remember this week the horrific power let loose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, as well as the attempt to create panic and terror in London, and other major cities, by present-day terrorists. But it is also important not to give into the angst of the age and try to drown our sorrows in food, drugs, or the incessant noise which surrounds us--to learn to embrace the goodness of God's creation and the people around us who mean so much to us. Learning to live in that tension is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Tradition with a capital "T"

Every college professor has two favorite days in the academic year. The first is when students arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to start the journey. At our institution, we call this "Convocation" and we dress up in academic regalia to process into the chapel. The second is the day when students walk forward to receive their degree in the presence of all of their friends and relatives. On this day (which we call Commencement) we don the same academic garb in order to process into the auditorium and sit in front of our graduates in a special section reserved only for "teaching faculty."

Every faculty member's gown is different based upon her/his educational institution, field of study, and kind of degree. When I completed my Ph. D. and defended my dissertation, I couldn't wait to get to wear my new gear. The gown I wear bears the unique blue of Saint Louis University, with trim in red to reflect my work in historical theology (oftentimes theologians joke that the color represents the blood shed in terms of the years spent laboring towards the degree). Faculty with doctoral degrees also have a somewhat longer hood (which they wear in the back) and a more distinctive cap (in contrast to the traditional mortar board associated with master's degrees).

In another four weeks, or so, we will begin a new academic year. In preparation, freshmen and new students will gather for a period of orientation about a week before. At Greenville, we mark their entrance with a ceremony we call "planting the ivy." Students walk through Hogue Hall (our oldest main building built about 150 years ago) and through the ranks of faculty to a central location where several of them join the college President in planting sprigs of ivy. When they get ready to graduate (we hope within a few years!), they walk back the other direction through the same building bearing long lines of ivy which connect them all together. The President and class sponsors then proceed to walk around the inner part of the circle and ceremonially "snip" the ivy between graduates (being careful, of course, not to part spouses).

I'm a sucker for tradition. These events are always the highlight of the year for me. As an alumnus, I remember the day I participated in these events and, I have to confess, it never gets old to me. There is something about being a part of something bigger than one's self. That's part of the reason I see being a faculty member at a college like Greenville as not just a job, but a calling.