Archive for November, 2013

(re)Imaging Thanks

Posted in Uncategorized on November 25, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;

let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!

Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration

—Psalm 95:2

This week, we struggle to balance our thoughts of papers and reports and assignments with dreams of turkey and stuffing and pie.  Such a balancing act is not easily done.  So, in an effort to tip the scale definitively toward a dream that culminates at warm pumpkin pie topped with a freshly whipped cream, I offer this historical morsel I found, reminding us how we arrived at this point in our civic calendar as a day set aside for food and companionship and thanks:

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag tribe shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.  For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. culminates at warm pumpkin pie topped with a freshly whipped cream, I offer this historical morsel I found, reminding us how we arrived at this point in our civic calendar as a day set aside for food and companionship and thanks:

In 1817, New York became the first of several states officially to adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each state celebrated it on a different day, however.  The southern states remained largely unfamiliar with the tradition.  In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians.  Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”  He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during The Great Depression.  Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition.  In 1941, the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

As you prepare to share time and food with those you love, let us remember that the day, while a singular moment, is meant to fulfill many duties.  It is a time to remember, celebrating what has transpired over the past year.  It is a time to treasure, enjoying moments with loved ones.  It is, also, a time to challenge, spurring us from complacency to action as our thanksgiving for what we have stirs our compassion to be concerned enough to help those who cry out for what we take for granted.

Have a wonderful week, joyous celebration, a Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy these thankful lyrics from a great American hymn writer.  

“For the Fruit of All Creation”

by Fred Pratt Green

 For the fruit of all creation,

thanks be to God.

gifts bestowed on every nation,

thanks be to God.

For the plowing, sowing, reaping,

silent growth while we are sleeping,

future needs in earth’s safekeeping,

thanks be to God.

In the just reward of labor,

God’s will is done.

In the help we give our neighbor,

God’s will is done.

In our worldwide task of caring

for the hungry and despairing,

in the harvests we are sharing,

God’s will is done.

For the harvests of the Spirit,

thanks be to God.

For the good we all inherit,

thanks be to God.

For the wonders that astound us,

for the truths that still confound us,

most of all that love has found us,

thanks be to God.


(re)Imagine Thanks

Posted in Uncategorized on November 18, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

Charlie Brown ThanksgivingIn the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  (Genesis 1:1-2)

This week in Religious Life at YHC, we curiously merge several occasions: (1) we hold our annual thanksgiving chapel service, (2) we collect the Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, and (3) we celebrate our annual Interfaith and Multicultural Thanksgiving Celebration.  In addition to all the other events and obligations swirling around campus, these merged occasions make for a busy week.  Our theme for Religious Life tries to embrace this chaotic complexity, (re)imagining what we have into something new, dynamic, and transformative.

As the familiar text from Genesis cited above evidences, there is a theology derived from this narrative underpinning, claiming that out of seemingly formless chaos miraculous creation occurs.  As this text implies, the most interesting creation might not take place within order but through the ordering of disorder into something profoundly new: new in form, function, presentation, and possibility.  In fact, scholars like Jeremy Bigbie argue that the claim that humanity is created in God’s image—a claim made within the same chapter from Genesis as cited above—is an allusion to our capacity to create, to imagine.  Our creativity is God’s divine image, an image most clearly evidenced each time a novel is penned, a song composed, a watercolor scumbled, or a sonnet formed.  This creativity as divine manifestation is not limited to the traditional arts.  Rather, it is an expansive category embracing many notions, such as the crafting of new economic systems or conceiving of inventive experimental protocols or executing an as-yet-unimagined athletic maneuver.

In this sense, art is primarily a verb.  In part, our word “art” comes from a Greek root—artios—meaning “complete.”  Yet, that idea of completeness also carries with it a concept of immediacy, of a present reality that is perpetuated and sustained.  Art is related to but not the same as an artifact.  Art is a present enactment while an artifact is a past representation.  With art, there is an emphasis upon the present action rather than the eventual or past production.  There, also, is a related connection between the action performed and the actor and those perceiving the action.  By experiencing the action and the action’s results, we indirectly encounter the actor.  A mysterious trinitarian community is formed between actor, act, and those experiencing the action.

Moreover, there is an implicit notion that the perceived result represents something beyond itself, causing the artifice of the action to become a dynamic icon.  And, all good icons direct their focus way from themselves and toward the primary actor that inspired them.  Our creations become icons.  They do not refer only to themselves but to the fact that they were created.  In this way, they are conduits to something greater than themselves, echoing Creation’s function as the Icon directing our gaze not solely to that which is created but to the profundity of the Creator.  Therefore, to create is to make immanent the transcendent by way of iconic reference, transforming the present into a point of contact between the mundane and the divine and making a short-lived community between the actor, the act, and the recipient of the action.

Ok, I get it; thus so far this iChapel has been a bit esoteric.  Let me try to draw my thoughts together and bring them back down to earth.

In order to (re)imagine, we must change how we understand what we make.  As icons, what we make speaks about us and about what we think, believe to be important, and value.  Our creations point back to us.  In addition, we in turn, point back to our Creator.  In the end, the most important thing we create might just be our lives.

So, to what does the art of our lives point?  What does the art that is “us” claim is important to us?  What does it illustrate we consider to be of value; of importance; and of personal, communal, and sacred worth?  What “complete” picture do we hope our lives to illustrate?  Also, how does the art of our lives affect the present around us?  Is it detached and devoid of practical connection?  Are we abstracted from reality or are we creatively engaged with the “now” seeking to bring it to its “complete” and good end?  How do we turn our iconic representations of ourselves and our Creator into practical representations of the world to transform the world?

Making is an inherently creative process.  It is, also, inherently artistic.  The same Greek root that means “to make”—poyeo—lies at the heart of our word “poem.”  A poem is a crafted icon pointing the reader/hearing to something greater than just the poem, i.e., to an idea, a concept, a belief, an emotion, and, in some respect, to the writer of the poem.  As something made, a poem is a representation of what is important and of value to its writer.  If our lives were a poem, what emotion would they provoke?  Would our lives’ poems be a sonnet of love, a playful nursery rhyme, an ode, or an epic tragedy?  What or who would serve as our muse?  Would our lives’ poems point only to us, or would they point beyond us to something greater, more profound, more telling of reality, of live, of existence?

Join us this week as we conflate poems with faith, life with icons, art with inspiration, trying to make order out of our, localized chaos.

Have a wonderful week and see you along the way.

(re)Imagining Others

Posted in Uncategorized on November 11, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

stop hunger nowIf you had not noticed, the world is changing.  In many ways, the steady flow of time laps at the banks of our lives, persistently cleaning and removing and transforming all at once.  Some of the changes are minor, simple yet pervasive.  Take the cell phone.  Consider my modest panic experienced the other day when I found myself driving to a meeting and discovering I had left my cell phone at home.  All sorts of curious, unnecessary thoughts rushed through my head.  Is it safe to travel without a phone?  What if my car breaks down?  Should I go back and get my phone?  Rather curious to have this string of questions rush through my head given the fact that for the first decade or so of my driving-life I never traveled with a phone at the ready yet somehow managed to survive to this moment both intact and, relatively, stable.  These shorts of alterations to our lives—like my realization at the ubiquity of, integration with, and (co)dependence on a new form of technology—illustrate this kind of minor change to life.

While some of the changes to our world might have broad impact, they are minor relative to the totality of our existence.  However, accompanying these minor changes, major ones are happening, too.  Consider the events of March 2012.

What happened in March 2012?

While I am certain many things happened in March 2102 that are of note, what I am referring to is an important line that was crossed in the demographic makeup of The United States, an occurrence that slipped past most of us—accept those like me with a somewhat unhealthy obsession with religious data and trends.  That demographic crossing marked for the first time in our country’s history that we are no longer a nation with any single religious group claiming a majority of adherents.

Until that March date, our nation’s population had always been majority Protestant, e.g., Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.  March 2012 did not suddenly announce that our country was unexpectedly filled with divergent and rich religious expression.  To the contrary, before March 2012, our country had many, many religious communities and great diversity of religions and faiths and belief expressions.  What changed in March 2012 is that for the first time no single religious community could claim that a majority of Americans were in their particular religious community’s box, as if it were ever that simple in the first place.

Now, I want to be clear that I offer this bit of information neither as a wistful reflection on days gone by nor as a clarion call to action to restore some previous position of privilege for my team—I am one of those Protestants.  I simply wish to highlight a fact for our consideration, a fact that has been and will continue to shape our world in the present and into the future.  For the first time, we live in what demographers call a pluralistic society.

It is important to note how these demographers are using this idea of pluralism.  The claim that we live in a pluralistic society is not a claim that we are all saying the same thing in a different way or looking at the same (religious) ideas from different perspectives.  Both of these notions might be either true or false.  Nevertheless, such testimony to the truth or fallacy of these claims is a theological conversation and not a sociological one.  In this sociological context—in which I am interested, pluralism is used to describe the reality that all religious positions now hold a minority position, numerically, and that we need to learn to live into this new reality as demographic trends suggest that our country’s religious patchwork will only become more colorful and complex over the coming decades.

Pandora’s Box has been opened; the cat is out of the bag; the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube.  Pick your metaphor.  Pick whichever one will help you adjust to the need to learn to think differently about the world in which we live, to imagine our world from the perspective of this diverse and complex, rich population we call our national community, and to develop the skills and resources essential to living in a pluralistic world.

Diana Eck, a religious scholar long committed to assessing and understanding these demographic trends, offers her own explanation for what pluralism is and how we might imagine living in a pluralistic world.  For her, pluralism is not just the recognition that we are now a majority minority nation, but pluralism is a kind of disposition, a positive attitude with which to approach this newly forming world.  She writes, “First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.  Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them.  Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement.  Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.”  In other words, pluralism, along with being a description of present demographics, is, also, an intentional mechanism for engaging in robust and direct ways with persons of other faiths and no faith to create healthy, connected communities.

Moreover and possibly more important, Eck insists, “[P]luralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments.  The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments.  It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”  Since pluralism is not an exercise in relativism, pluralism is an intentional engagement with persons from various communities, offering a true, authentic expression of ourselves and willfully encountering those other communities’ true, authentic expressions, respectfully noting our differences and capitalizing on our commonalities.

Pluralism, it turns out, is not just something that Eck has noticed “out there” nor is it a way forward for “someone else.”  Rather, it seems that pluralism has happened “to us,” “right here.”

Our college has not had a single religious tradition constituting a majority for some time, while our level of religious diversity has only increased in the past decade.  In many ways, we are a microcosmic reflection of the larger national portrait.  What’s more, for many years now, we have worked deliberately to cultivate a climate of understanding, appreciation, and engagement between persons of different faiths and no faith.  Because we are a United Methodist campus, such cultivation is second nature, given the denomination’s commitment to promoting the religious and spiritual explorations for all who call Young Harris College home.

This coming week, we have the opportunity to further our own community’s intentional enterprise in pluralism.  On Thursday, persons from across the campus are invited to share in a few hours of common service, working with Stop Hunger Now to pack 10000 meals to be distributed around the world to those who are hungry and in need.  To help prepare our campus for this moment and to expand our own cultivation of true, authentic expressions of ourselves, noting our differences and capitalizing on our commonalities, the college’s Inter-Religious Council has commissioned a poster campaign.  The campaign, called The Better Together Campaign, uses the teachings from several different faith traditions and spiritual dispositions to indicate why those individual traditions find it important to serve the community.

These posters will, hopefully, serve several purposes.  First, they will remind us that pluralism does not require or expect the abandoning of who you are but the authentic expression of your beliefs in a respectful, open way.  Second, that pluralism assumes we will be authentic in our differences and cooperative in our significant intersections.  And, third, that truthful expression of who we are might prove to be educational and transformative.

So, keep your eyes open for the Better Together posters, learning why Atheists, Humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians each find community service vital to their expressions of faith, and sign-up to volunteer on Thursday.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

(re)Imagine Knowledge

Posted in Uncategorized on November 4, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

puzzleWhere faith seeking understanding connects with life

 As mentioned in a recent iChapel, for more than four years, these seven words have accompanied nearly every email from my office.  Borrowed and appended from a nearly one thousand-year old maxim by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, these words capture an environment I seek to cultivate through the work of Religious Life on our campus.

Stereotypically, religious experience is approached from two directions on the college campus.  One, religious experience and practice is seen as a subjective phenomenon to be observed and evaluated from an external perspective, noting the variety, the distinctive characteristics, the developments, the constructs, and the mythos emergent from and shaping that experience and its practitioners.  Such an objective adjudication of a religion has great intellectual and academic value.  However, the kind of knowledge acquired through this engagement with religion is always and self-consciously limited in scope.

Two and conversely, religious experience and practice happen regularly and are engaged in enthusiastically by members of the academic community but in such a way that either assumes that their practices are irrelevant to their scholarly pursuits or should be protected from their intellectual probing.  Such a subjective yet isolated practice of faith may enable the faithful to know incredible, rewarding personal experiences.  However, this deliberate isolation inadvertently renders faith as something irrelevant to higher pursuits or intellectually underdeveloped, defined by naivety and assumption.

In the first instance, religious practice is something seen from the outside but only known in part.  In the second instance, religious practice is something seen from the inside but only exposed in part.  The first seeks to protect the mind from faith, while the second seeks to protect faith from the mind.

Now, admittedly, I have painted my canvas of religious experience on the college campus with rather broad, generalizing strokes.  Nevertheless, I feel these broad brushstrokes paint a general yet useful portrait.  In examining this portrait both from the outside (as someone trained in the academy to look at subjective experiences and supply objective observations) and from the inside (as a trained practitioner instructed on how to lead the fellow faithful on spiritual journeys), I have always felt that the portrait could use a little refining, a clearing up of some of its blurry, scumbled edges.

Religious practice, I think, needs to be an active participant in the intellectual enterprise of the academy—not simply because religious folk are already on campuses and need some direction or that spiritual angst seems an inevitable outcome of deep inquiry or that by advocating for religion’s role in the campus I help shore up some much appreciated job security—but because I hold an abiding conviction that the practice of faith supplies a type of knowledge of the world only acquired through habituation in the rhythms and rituals of a faith tradition and that faith traditions only deepen and expand when committed to rigorous examination and friendly yet skeptical interlocutors.  Or, to use terminology given to us by Aristotle more than two millennia ago, religious practice provides a kind of phronesis, a practical wisdom about the world, a wisdom that provides additional insights and perspectives absent the ponderings of the academy should religious practitioners be either absent from the campus or so cloistered upon it by its practitioners as to be effectively irrelevant to it.  This phronetic knowledge may only be acquired in the doing of something, allowing those who acquire it to see the world from the inside out or the bottom up, as it were.

It is for these reasons that I labor to create space and opportunities on campus where practitioners are encouraged to perform their faith and explore it in safe, welcoming environs while exposing that faith to the intellectual scrutiny it deserves.  Simultaneously, I look to created moments and places where the faithful might converse with those of many perspectives, offering the wisdom acquired through faith to be coupled to other, equally valid wisdoms about the world, enriching and broadening all who enter this open and inquisitive conversation.

Out of this desire to link faithful practices with rigorous inquiry and to occasion and promote their interaction, I use this modified form of Anselm’s maxim, recognizing that faith pursues understanding from a slightly different perspective and enriches both the faith and understanding in the process.  Such an enriched, faithful, wise means of viewing the world is found, it seems, only from this kind of inside-out, bottom-up approach to knowing.  Grounded in the complexities and dirt and brokenness and beauty of truly lived life, knowledge of the world in real and tangible ways forms.

This real, tangible knowledge is where my modification of Anselm’s maxim finds its traction.  For Anselm, he was committed to a kind of understanding that might occur when that pursuit of knowledge took seriously the intellectually formative habits bound to our most dear and enduring practices.  Anselm understood the inherent link between doing and knowing and wanted to explore and honor that link.

In a similar way, I want to preserve that link by creating a “full circle of knowing,” exploring and honoring the connection between doing and knowing and doing some more as newly intellectually enriched practitioners.  By embedding faith in the academy, it is my hope, that the academy will gain a new set of voices with unique sets of wisdom and that faith will gain meticulously examined habits and commitments.  And, both the academy and the faithful will appreciate the compelling necessity to always retain a direct and lively link with the material, gritty, real, and practical world of our everyday lives, knowing that such living in connection with the world is the only way to retain this practical wisdom.  Without this connection, our wisdom becomes abstract and our faith becomes ethereal, both are emaciated and diminished.

So, I encourage everyone over the coming weeks to find ways actively and intentionally to link the intellectual life with the faithful life and to link both with real, material ways of engaging the world.  Come to a panel discussion this Tuesday sponsored by IRC on divergent perspectives on the afterlife.  Sign-up to volunteer next week with YHC S.E.R.V.E. at our Stop Hunger Now event to pack 10000 meals in three hours.  Share in an evening of conversation and food as we celebrate our fourth annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration near the end of the month and learn how different faith communities and cultures give thanks.

There are many ways to connect what each of us believes with what each of us knows with the world in which each of us lives because, after all, we are a place where faith seeking understanding connects with life.

Have a great week and see you along the way.