Archive for February, 2012

J.O.Y.

Posted in Uncategorized on February 27, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy . . . .
—Psalm 30:11

This week, Religious Life is hosting a series of worship services meant to inspire and challenge us in our faith. Based on Psalm 30, the hope is that the joy found in our faith transforms us . . . and the world in which we live. As we start these three days of services, I turn to this poem by Longfellow as a reminder that our lives of faith are not meant to be stagnate but a perpetual labor of love, a constant exercise in transformative living into God’s grace.

Have a wonderful week.

“The Ladder of St. Augustine”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day’s events,
That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
That makes another’s virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
The action of the nobler will;–

All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern–unseen before–
A path to higher destinies.

Nor deem the irrevocable Past,
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.

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Ashes

Posted in Uncategorized on February 20, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” . . . Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

—Isaiah 58:1-12, selected verses

Like a polyrhythm song, our lives often move to multiple rhythms simultaneously. Sometimes, those conflicting rhythms are obvious. At other times, the conflict is subtle, if not virtually imperceptible or entirely absent. Calendars drive those rhythms we follow.

As we live our lives, we follow several, divergent calendars each day. We might follow a secular calendar, telling us the months, days, and years. We might follow a lunar calendar, telling us when to till and plant and pick. We might follow an academic calendar, telling us when to matriculate and graduate. We might follow a liturgical or sacred calendar, telling us when to pray or worship or prepare or celebrate. Each of these calendars may be laid overtop one another, creating the sometimes disruptive yet sometimes masterful songs that are our lives.

The Christian tradition, as it is with many religious traditions, follows a distinct calendar unique to the rhythms of the faith. That Christian calendar turns another page this week as we move from our post-Epiphany wanderings to the intentional journey of Lent that ends at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. That page’s turning is marked with the ashes of a Wednesday service of humble reflection.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day journey, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by stripping away those unnecessary parts of their lives, reshaping themselves into the broken down, refined form that will be their essential addition to the ever-changing body of Christ. Parker Palmer intuitively senses the import of the sacred found in breaking.

I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility. It is a blessed etymology.
—Let Your Life Speak

Like in a winter wood, fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new. Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt; they breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.

Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence. Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.

Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down during Lent so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves when our shared spring arrives.

In the passage from the prophet Isaiah above, we hear Israel’s complaint against God that God has neglected them. Yet, in reply, God responds that Israel has gone through the motions of fidelity and righteousness, attending to ritual worship and fasting but ignoring the purpose of such worship and fasting. That purpose is the redirecting of their lives away from themselves and toward their God and their neighbors, hence the validity of prophet’s complaint that their fasting has not lead to feeding the hungry. This re-centering is a humbling act, breaking down our self-perceptions, self-aggrandizement, and rigid preconceptions. The ashes of this Wednesday are a reminder of this need (and ability) to be broken down in order to be remade into something else. And, as any gardener will affirm, the value of ashes to a fertile humus cannot be overstated.

Like Israel, we are all in need of such purposeful humbling—me included. That is the gift of the liturgical calendar. Despite my inevitable resistance to such painful and breaking introspection, the calendar rolls around to Ash Wednesday inexorably, demanding my attention and reflection. My prayer is not to let the painful yet necessary gift of this season’s arrival go without attention, without my taking advantage of being broken down so that a renewed someone might grow out of the ash-scattered soil of my life.

The good news of ashes is that in the burning there comes new life. What better news is there than the rhythmic arrival of new life? Have a great and holy week.

Profession

Posted in Uncategorized on February 13, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

Jesus has a job to do. According to Stanley Hauerwas’ interpretation of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John, we get a glimpse as to the unique nature of the job Jesus is about to undertake.

We might remember well the threefold temptation Jesus endures, there, in the wilderness on his 40-day job interview. Jesus is asked to turn rocks into bread to satisfy his hunger, to throw himself from the temple to be rescued by God, and to worship Satan in exchange for ruling the world. And, following each temptation, Jesus successfully resists.

Hauerwas reads this text as not just a way of demonstrating Jesus’ fidelity to and clarity for his mission and work. Hauerwas sees in Jesus’ resistance a sophisticated literary presentation by the gospel writers, outlining the vocational character of Jesus’ work.

In resisting the temptation to speak rocks into bread, Jesus demonstrates that the nourishing power imbedding in speaking the word of God is not to be self-serving but to feed the powerful the truth of their abuses and to feed the oppressed with the hope of liberation. In resisting the temptation to throw himself from the temple, Jesus acknowledges that his mediation of the Divine to the human is not to link himself to God but to serve as a conduit that connects God and humanity to each other. In resisting the temptation to worship Satan in exchange for ruling the world, Jesus recognizes that the kingdom he is to rule is not an inheritance of power. Rather, his ruling is but part of an entirely new kingdom yet to be made visible, a kingdom characterized not by present standards but by radically different conceptualizations of power.

In other words, Jesus’ job is uniquely defined by the characteristics of prophecy, priesthood, and kingship.

This week, our College focuses on ethics in our professions as part of our annual Ethics Awareness Week. As a diversion into this college-wide reflection, using this week’s iChapel to focus upon Jesus’ ethical adherence to the virtuous mandates of his profession seems most appropriate.

Our word “profession” originates with a Latin word professus, meaning “to declare publicly.” Thus, someone’s profession is what one claims she is committed to doing. And, the degree to which one is ethical in her profession may be measured against the degree to which she adheres to the virtues and attributes associated with that profession. For instance, an ethical teacher is someone who carries out well the tasks associated with teaching, including the virtues she might require to enable teaching and learning to occur. If a teacher is to be judged faithful to the task of teaching, she needs to be knowledgeable in her field, understand techniques of communicating information, and create a trusting relationship with students that enable challenging instruction and exacting but affirming evaluation. As an example, if a teacher makes her students feel disliked or disrespected, then those students will not trust their teacher, preventing students from opening themselves up for the necessary vulnerability required for new instruction, expression of personal thoughts, and critical evaluation.

For Jesus, his job requires prophecy, priestliness, and kingship. As such, he is professionally ethical in his work to the degree to which he serves those roles and (in some respects) the degree to which he helps redefine them to accomplish his chosen tasks.

As prophet, Jesus routinely speaks truth to power, the task associated with prophets. Recall his encounter with Nicodemus, a leader in the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus, a leader meant to guide the Jews in the light of God, meets Jesus in the dark. In that meeting, the light of the world found in Jesus enlightens this leader with a declaration that leading is done more through self-sacrificial service than anything else.

As a priest, Jesus regularly mediates humanity with Divinity, the role of the priest. In his ministry, Jesus explains and bodily demonstrates that the link between God and humanity is found in their intersecting love. Consider his conversation with the Pharisees, love serves as the origin and nexus of life, a life defined by a love that gives more than receives, lets in more than keeps out, and expands more than contracts.

As a king, Jesus rules with power. Yet, his rule is defined by a power that seeks not to dominate but to empower the powerless. Jesus encourages Mary’s position as a disciple; he lifts up Zacchaeus who was thought low; and, in the end, he authorizes his followers to embody the creative—not restrictive—power “exuding” from a life found through rebirth in him.

While unorthodox, in Jesus we find a model for the ethical life in our professions that both conforms to our standards as to what we might expect and the realization that ethical fidelity to our work does not demand mindless inflexibility but assumes some innovation to execute our work. Underneath Jesus’ entire ministry, a singularly important virtue seems required, a virtue we might call flexible constancy. Flexible constancy is that capacity to remain committed to one’s task while nimble enough to adjust as needed.

Recognizing the importance for flexible constancy as a cardinal virtue is important as we move toward the embodiment of our individual professions. To be ethical in our work does not mean we cannot innovate, as long as our innovations always keep our proper end or goal in mind. Such fidelity to the vision of who we are called, destined, or hoping to be will ensure that we arrive at our goal and do so virtuously, faithfully.

Like Paul might have suggested to the Corinthians, the faithful life requires our ability to bob and weave, as long as we keep pressing forward toward our final goal.

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

—1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Place

Posted in Uncategorized on February 6, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
—Deuteronomy 6.3

Place is important. This notion is imbedded in our very language. It is no accident that our words “culture” and “cultivate” sprout from the same Latin word, a word meaning “to till.” In other words, culture grows not just in a place but also out of a place. Scripture echoes this claim. Repeatedly, the land defines the people of God and what they believe.

Working in a community inextricable from its enchanted valley, the significance of land and place to the shaping of identify and thought needs little justification. Yet, drawing this significance of place to the forefront of our conceptual imaginations seems only appropriate, today, as our college begins a weeklong celebration of this land and its import for our college, our people, and our beliefs. In celebrating our second annual Festival Appalachia, I encourage us all to spend some time this week ruminating—as my maternal Appalachian grandmother might have said—on the powerfully nourishing conditions of this place that have contributed to what make us who we are as a college community.

To start, enjoy this poem from George Ella Lyon as an ode to our Appalachian place and to cultivate our week of celebration.

“Where I’m From”

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Have a great week.