Monday, September 29, 2014

One Alumna's Prayer

I rather unexpectedly spent my afternoon at St. Peter's, Chelsea, at a meeting of the Faculty and Students. At first I wasn't sure I should attend, as I'm neither faculty nor a student, but as an alumna who loves the institution, and after speaking to a faculty member about what was going to happen, I believed that my presence could be helpful in communicating to fellow alums what is going on, at least from the faculty's perspective. I understand that Bishop Mark Sisk is hosting a meeting this evening at GTS, and wish I could be there, but I have a 5 year old who needs me tonight. I hope the events of that meeting will also be public.

I'm glad I went. The official correspondence between the Faculty and the Board were read aloud, and while I cannot say I have a complete sense of what is going on, at least I have a much better sense of it. I know and love and respect many faculty members, while some of them are strangers to me. One faculty member I know, love, and respect is not participating in the groups's actions. I know and love and respect many board members, and some of them are strangers to me. It grieves me that people I know and love and respect are in such conflict with one another.

What I walked away with was this: both the faculty and the board are now in positions that it will be very hard to walk back from. The faculty said that they would be unable to work with the present Dean, and the Board took them at their word and understood that as a resignation. I'm not a lawyer, so can't say whether the exact wording used in the letters constitutes a resignation. To me, it feels like both the faculty and the board have jumped off a cliff, with both believing that the other group pushed them.

Is there some way for someone to take charge and help both sides take a deep breath and climb back onto the cliff? Rowan Williams used the metaphor of Jesus writing in the dust when asked to pass judgment on the woman caught in adultery (John 8:6) as a way to create a breathing space in the midst of tension where people can reflect more deeply, step outside of themselves, and see a situation through another person's eyes.

Are there those among the alumni of General who can write in the dust of this trauma? Are there alumni who will care for the current students' needs? Are there alumni who will invite the community as a whole tomodel the virtues listed on the chapel floor? Humility could mean both sides backing off; Justice is listening to everyone; Love is putting the mission of the seminary (educating students) ahead of the investment in self that each side has made. Prudence, temperance, hope, faith, and the rest are wrapped up in this, too.

Are there alumni who will work to secure:

1) An immediate return to classes and worship by all faculty and students
2) A rescinding of the Board letter "accepting" the faculty members resignations
3) An agreement for the Faculty to comply with the investigation of their allegations by the law firm of the Board's choice
4) An agreement at the October Board meeting, for some sort of special conversation to happen between faculty and board, facilitated by a trusted and neutral party (not sure who this would be… a Bishop alum who is not currently on the Board? Martha Horne? Neil Alexander? The Presiding Bishop?) to allow faculty to be heard by the Board and the Board to be heard by the faculty. A small group at that meeting including all interested parties could be appointed (elected?) to come up with a process to develop and continue a formal process of reconciliation or recommendation.

Certainly alumni can be distracted by things like the change in chapel worship schedule and our own intractable and beloved memories of what GTS was like when we were there, and wanting to return it to our own particular golden era. But I don't see who else can take any action when the Board and Faculty and Dean have reached this point. And we, too, love General and are part of its beloved community.

Keep your Brain. Lose your Mind.

I broke the law on Friday night.

To be clear, that’s unusual for me. But Jonathan and Nathan and I were driving home from a wonderful afternoon of apple picking and shopping, and decided to take the Palisades Parkway back from the Thruway to get on the George Washington Bridge. We checked Google maps—there was a little traffic, but all the routes were basically the same. And then, at mile 12.8, it happened.

The sign said, “Palisades Parkway closed 5:30pm.”

And the traffic stopped. And some people drove on the shoulder and turned around and went north. We told Nathan that doing that was against the law.

And one hour later, after travelling 1.5 miles in a WHOLE HOUR… I did the same thing. And I don’t regret it. At all.

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."

Changing your mind can be a very, very good thing.

Both Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the Gospel today speak to the mind, and the need for change. The gospel is clear: both sons change their minds, one from bad to good, and the other from good to bad. When you are headed in the wrong direction, it is good to turn around. Changing your mind can be the sign of a mature mind; and it’s even linked to repentance, or turning around. Changing your mind isn’t just an intellectual activity, it’s an experiential and moral one. There was so much anxiety on the highway as Jonathan and I discussed whether to turn around or keep going… What should we do? Which way was best? As soon as we made the turn, it was amazing how good we both felt. After an hour on the wrong path, to start going in the other direction made me feel like I had wings. I wonder if the first son felt that way too—he walked away from his father, and just felt worse and worse and worse until he turned around and headed to the vineyard. And as soon as he got there and got to work, he felt better and better because he knew he was on the right path.

Of course, the second son changes his mind, too… although I wonder about that. Maybe he just lied to his dad and never intended to go to the vineyard. But if he did change his mind, it’s a good antidote to a simplistic message of being open-minded. Constancy of mind, even through challenges, is also a virtue. If you say you are going to do the right thing, and then it’s hard, it’s important to keep on going.

To the community at Philippi, the message about the mind a little more complicated. Paul asks them to “make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Here it isn’t changing your mind in the sense of repenting and turning in a new direction, it’s about the entire community having the same mind. I want to leave aside our science fiction fascination with mind control—if you’re a Star Trek fan, think about the Borg, acknowledge the creepiness, and then let it go. We are called to have the same mind as Christians. But not just any mind—it’s not about conformity, per say, it’s about losing your own mind and taking on the mind of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Now usually when you talk about losing your mind it’s a bad thing…. In fact, while writing this sermon, I started to think about all the phrases with “mind” in them… Open mind, closed mind, mind-control, mind reader, hive mind, losing my mind, mind meld, blow your mind, make up your mind. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Some good connotations, some bad connotation. But the idea of the mind as unique and personal and autonomous is pretty deeply ingrained for us today. So a priest saying “lose your mind!” might be a little threatening.

A set of popular posters for the Episcopal Church in the 1980s boldly proclaimed, “You don’t have to check your brain at the door.” Totally true. We bring our full intellect and reason and backgrounds to our faith and identity. So I think my theme today is: keep your brain. Lose your mind. Having the mind of Christ doesn’t mean setting aside our discernment and knowledge—we need those to discern if we are in need of turning around and repenting; it means setting aside our ego and our selfishness. Keep your brain—lose your mind.

And like most things, we know that we are to lose our minds because Jesus does it first. In the great Philippians Christ hymn, which we read today, it is Jesus who is emptying himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Jesus empties himself, he loses himself, to make room for us. We empty ourselves to make room for Jesus. There is a great spiritual tradition of this self-emptying; it’s called kenosis, and it’s particularly a focus in the Orthodox church. Kenosis is emptying our own will and following instead the will of God.

What would happen if we were of one mind, and that mind was Jesus? But how would you live differently as an individual, and how would we live differently as a community, if we shared the mind of Christ? And why stop at just sharing the mind of Christ? Why not also the eyes, and hands, and feet and hearts of Christ, as we bring his Gospel into the world?

In my church growing up, we closed every service (Morning Prayer, Rite I, of course) by singing the hymn “God be in my head.” There’s only one verse, so it became one of those texts, like the Prayer Book, that I knew not just by heart, but almost by body response. It begins, “God be in my head, and in my understanding,” and continues from there. It’s prayer for kenosis—to be emptied of self, and re-filled with God.

A few years ago, I learned a more uptempo version that we used at the 6pm service.

God be in my head, and in my understanding…
God be in my eyes, and in my looking,
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking
God be at my end, and at my departing
God be in my head, God be in my eyes, God be in my mouth, God be at my end….

May prayer today is that God may be in our heads, and eyes, and mouths, and at our end. Amen.