Improvisation in our life together

A graduate school colleague of mine once remarked that we live in a moment of great tension in the world.  On the one hand, we marvel at the globalization of our lives, the breakdown of boundaries, the ease of communication and travel, the wonderful richness of life in various countries and cultures.  On the other hand, he pointed out, this also is a time when we are fixated on our differences, the things that separate us from each other, the ways in which we are not alike.  How ironic that as we are more and more able to participate in a global community, we also are more and more fragmented by our differences.

I have learned much about how I think about difference from the elegant writings of Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist whose parents were Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  Mary Catherine Bateson’s works include “Composing a Life” (Reissued in 1990, Plume Books) and “Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way” (1994, HarperCollins).  In “Peripheral Visions,” Professor Bateson explores how “the quality of improvisation characterizes more and more lives today, lived in uncertainty, full of the inklings of alternatives.”

Dr. Bateson spent many years living and teaching in Iran.  She talks about her initial visits to the Persian gardens of Iranian colleagues and how she learned to improvise in the gardens: “That day in the Persian garden has come to represent for me a changed awareness of learning pervading other activities.  Meeting as strangers, we join in common occasions, making up our multiple roles as we go along—young and old, male and female, teacher and parent and lover—with all of science and history present in shadow form, partly illuminating and partly obscuring what is there to be learned…We are largely unaware of speaking, as we all do, sentences never spoken before, unaware of choreographing the acts of dressing and sitting and entering a room as depictions of self, of resculpting memory into an appropriate past…What I tried to do that day (in the Persian garden), stringing together elements of previous knowledge, attending to every possible cue, and exploring different translations of the familiar, was to improvise responsibly and with love.”

 

Improvising and learning—responsibly and with love—what a remarkable way of thinking about how we respond to diverse situations and people.  Read the passage again and again, let it sink in—it describes a way of life that looks a lot like reflective practice.

We are called to see things whole and to heal the world.

I preached this homily in the Augsburg Chapel on the occasion of our Fall Board of Regents meeting.

 

Scripture: Matthew 25: 31-46

 

Nothing is as whole as a heart that has been broken.

All time is made up of healing of the world.

Return to your ships, which are your broken bodies.

Return to your ships, which have been rebuilt.

[after Rabbi Nachman of Breslav; from Kaddish, Lawrence Siegel]

Here we are in this sacred space, where we gather each weekday to worship and sing and pray for each other, for our community and for the world.  Here is where we find grace – our foundation, our grounding, our purpose as we live out our mission.

And here we are at the beginning of our fall Board of Regents meeting, blessed to be governed by these remarkable individuals with us today who care deeply for this university and who are called to guide and advance its mission in times of great uncertainty and volatility for colleges and universities – times of great division and brokenness.

And here we are with the gift of the gospel for this morning that calls us to account with the great shepherd – to an account that, whether we are sheep or goats, reveals the fact that we have missed the point – to an account that shows us the way forward as God’s people in the world.

The parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates the tension that the author of Matthew’s gospel was addressing in the life of the early faithful.  The Romans had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.  The Second Coming had not yet happened.  What were these good and faithful people to do?  Matthew writes in the familiar language of his time to describe a heavenly scene when the Son of Man would come in judgment, separating the sheep from the goats, just as shepherds would do as dusk came to their fields.  The important theological distinction here – the distinction that helps the early faithful to make sense of their lives in the world – is that Christ already has accomplished their redemption and now they are called to live not as those awaiting an imminent return but as those who are called to recognize God in the neighbor, in the world, in their continuing lives together.

So, what to do?  Here, the clear messages of this day are particularly meaningful for understanding our work together – as students, teachers, administrators and board members. Here is a glimpse of our callings.

First, we confess that all has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ, and thereby we affirm that we live in the meantime, both saved and sinner (as Luther teaches us), our ways of seeing the world incomplete and fragmented.  Only God sees things whole.  Ours is an ongoing vocational journey to do God’s work, accepting that we cannot, on our own, know enough about what God intends.  We are called to humility.  We are called to live as those who need each other, who need a multitude of voices and perspectives, who need to accept that we will never be finished with our explorations and questioning of what God wills for God’s people. We will make mistakes.  We will ask new questions. We will use the gifts God has given us to seek to do God’s will.  We see through a glass darkly, the apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians, but then we shall see face to face.  What a day that will be!

[Here at Augsburg, we are blessed to have a set of principles and a planning tool appropriately called “Seeing Things Whole” that has shaped our work over the past decade.  Originally developed as a way of holding an institution “in trust” and very much influenced by the work of Robert Greenleaf, who has defined what it means to be a “servant leader”, “Seeing Things Whole” makes the same theological claim we find in our gospel – that is, only God sees things whole, but we are called to constantly seek an ever more faithful understanding of our lives together in organizations and communities.  We are called to ask questions at the intersections of our identity and core values, our purpose and the mission we embrace, and our stewardship of the remarkable resources we have been given.  There is much more to this important tool – lessons we are now including in our planning deliberations and in our classrooms – but the point is that we are called to the work of semper reformanda, always seeking to live more faithfully as stewards of God’s good gifts.]

For now, we do well to listen to perhaps the greatest prophet of 20th century Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote in his The Irony of American History (1952) these words that summarize how we might live in this paradoxical time – how hope can be found and pursued, how faith creates trust and leads us to grasp the love of the Creator, how we can seek to see things whole even when we know we will never be finished: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.  Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we are saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

The second lesson for the day is made abundantly clear in the words of the king in Matthew’s gospel: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.”  Those who have been redeemed, those who believe that all has been accomplished through Christ, those who live in the meantime, are called to be vigilant to where Christ is in our midst and to what Christ requires of us.  We are called to heal the world.  We are called to be what Luther called “little Christs” as we serve our neighbors no matter what…

Here, we have a helpful teacher in the German Lutheran theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined the resistance against the Nazis during World War II and who was executed for his role in attempts to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer wrote letters from prison during his final days to his friend, Eberhard Bethge.  On July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote these striking words: “…it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane.  That, I think, is faith; …that is how one becomes a human and a Christian.”

We are called to see things whole and to heal the world.  All has been accomplished and now we are here, in the world, the only body of Christ on earth now (as Teresa of Avila wrote).  “Nothing is as whole as a heart that has been broken.”  What a remarkable gift, what an awesome obligation.  May God grant us the wisdom and strength to be God’s faithful people in the world.  Amen.

What is required of you? Paul Pribbenow’s message at Opening Convocation 2018

This is Augsburg’s 150th academic year – and here you are the class of 2022, a class that will help us celebrate this remarkable anniversary beginning next fall. 150 years is a long time and much has changed in the world and at Augsburg during those many years. Change happens – as it always has – but I also want you to know that there are things that have not changed for this institution because they are at the heart of our identity and values and mission. You will receive the highest quality education we can offer – in partnership with each other and this remarkable faculty. You will be challenged by ideas and experiences and relationships new to you – because that is what it means to be educated. You will meet friends and peers for life – here they are. You will be equipped for democratic citizenship – because the world needs you. And here, then, is what is required of you – as it has been for generations of Auggies who have graced this campus as you do now – here is what you must do to fully embrace all that lies ahead in your Augsburg education. If you know your Hebrew Bible – and if you don’t, don’t worry, Religion 100 will help – you will recognize the allusion in my title this morning to the well-known passage from the Old Testament prophet Micah, the sixth chapter, verse eight: 6.8 He has showed you, [O man,] what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

And, if I was smart, I might leave it right there, because if each of us were to behave as Micah claims the Lord requires, all would be well with the world. Justice, mercy and humility set a high bar for God’s faithful people, but the theological claim imbedded in Micah’s prophetic words is not mine to negotiate for you. The links between your faith, your relationship with the divine, and how you live in the world, are for you to explore and work out. We will provide a rich and challenging context for you to do just that, but we do not pretend to know how you will make sense of what the Lord requires of you.

On the other hand, there are some things that we can and do require of you. And that is the simple message I want to share with you this morning as you commence your Augsburg education. And maybe – just maybe – if you do what we require of you, you will find a pathway to understand what the Lord requires of you. That would be the bold claim at the heart of our education for vocation in the world, that how and what you learn here, that who you meet and engage here, that what you find out here about yourself and your various gifts, will offer you a clearer idea of what it is that you are called to do and be in the world. Especially at the beginning of this academic year – at a time fraught with social and political division and fear – I want to say a bit about the place and space in which you will pursue what is required of you. You come to college at a time when many are questioning whether or not our democracy will survive. Throughout the past year, our city, country and world have been torn apart by violence fueled by all sorts of isms – racism, nationalism, fundamentalism. During your lifetimes, our economic lives have been marked by a growing gap between those who have and those who have not, a gap that threatens to unravel the social fabric of our communities.

In the midst of all of this volatility, you come to this community – Augsburg University – an institution that at its very core believes in democracy, not simply as a political system, but as an ethic, a way of life. And this democratic ethic means that you become members of a teaching and learning community – students, faculty, staff and partners – that believes that there are clear parameters for our lives together, in classrooms, residence halls, playing fields, in this chapel and everywhere we navigate daily life. There is, in other words, what Yale law professor Stephen Carter has called an “etiquette of democracy,” rules you must follow if we are to live and work and study in ways that live out our mission as a college.

We have always believed that a college education is about challenging ourselves with new ways of thinking, provocative questions, mind-stretching inquiry and conversations, pursuing knowledge and wisdom with abandon. And that is deeply intense and sometimes emotional work. The commitment to our academic vocation – critical thinking, openness to other perspectives and experiences, having your mind changed and your life transformed – may be even more difficult in the midst of our social disruptions. It can be frightening to learn new things; it can make us angry to be challenged by provocative ideas and experiences; it can be threatening to risk our social identities in the midst of those who do not share our paths in the world.

And for all of these reasons, the etiquette of our lives together has perhaps never been more important to the well-being of our common lives here at Augsburg. Professor Carter suggests a few rules – “Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not”; “Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we know”; “We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude”; “Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong”; and “Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.” All important markers of our lives together. Perhaps I could suggest an even more personal and simple rule – let us be generous and gentle with each other, perhaps with a portion of forgiveness and grace, not so that freedoms are abridged or opinions squashed – college is not meant to be a safe place for your minds, you will encounter provocative, even troubling ideas here – but so that we might pursue our teaching and learning in ways that advance our mission and our democracy. Gentle and generous, the etiquette of democracy – a claim upon all of us in this place we now call Augsburg University.
In this context, then, what is it that is required of you, our newest colleagues?

Show up
The first requirement is really pretty fundamental and you already have begun to live up to it. You are here – on campus, engaged in your orientation, at this Opening Convocation, about to begin your college classes.
But as the coming days pass, you will be tempted by many distractions and late nights and other obligations to not show up, to miss a class or a meeting, to say that it doesn’t matter whether you attend every class session. I know this tendency – I lived it myself, making up elaborate excuses for why I could skip every 7th class session and no one would notice. And we might not notice every time, but you will notice (whether you fully get it now or not) that it is a slippery slope to not show up. Statistics show that skipping even one class session has an impact on whether or not first year college students stay in school, let alone graduate, or perhaps most importantly whether or not they learn something.
But, of course, this is not simply about showing up for class. Showing up is also a sort of spiritual practice. It is about being present now. It is about being in relationship to a text, a classmate, and/or a teacher. It is about accompanying each other on a journey that is both solitary and social. The famous educational philosopher, John Dewey, said that genuine education is not preparation for life, it is life itself. And if you believe that – as we do here at Augsburg – then showing up, being present now, is the key factor in whether or not you get the education you need in order to live in the world.
Show up, please.

Pay attention
The second requirement is also quite simple. But the equally simple fact is that we live in a world full of distractions and paying attention doesn’t come easy.
Like you, I’m on Facebook and Twitter (follow me at @paulpribbenow, if you must). I have an I-Phone and an IPad and a laptop. I read two newspapers each morning and probably have 20 magazine subscriptions. I do my best to lead this wonderful and complex university. I have two children, a wonderful spouse who works at an elementary school and also manages Augsburg House, and a life full of things I “must” pay attention to – and it’s hard work. And I’m old. You are young and you have grown up in a time when multi-tasking is not an option, it’s an expectation. I really can’t imagine how you keep it all together. I admire you, but I also worry about you.
So here I stand asking you to pay attention. Yes, I mean put away all the distractions that you can control. Turn off the cell phone occasionally, spend some time away from the computer. Focus in on what your teachers and classmates are saying and doing. Find ways to pay attention.
But it is more than that, of course, because even when you have put away all those sources of distraction, it remains your responsibility to figure out what is most important and how you can make what is important the center of your life. The sociologist, Robert Bellah and his associates, have written that “Democracy means paying attention,” (from The Good Society) by which they mean that the psychic energy we use to pay attention is the key to the sort of person we hope to be – as individuals and as a society. If we continue to be distracted, our attention and the energy that it requires of us will also be distracted, and the values and people and ideas and causes we should care about and attend to will not get our energy. And we will not become the people we want to be. We will follow someone else’s idea of our call.
Pay attention, please.

Do the work
The final requirement follows logically from the first two. If you show up and learn to truly pay attention, you will find that there is work that must be done.
Many days, the work will be assigned to you. Read this text, explore these ideas, test this hypothesis, run this experiment, play this scale, practice this drill. You know all about doing school work already, but please know that this is college and college signals a quantum leap in the work required of you. Don’t get behind on reading and papers. Take advantage of the
support we offer to help you manage your time and learn to study. Support each other and ask for help when you feel you need it.
Because more and more, on many days the work will be yours to discern and pursue. There will be no one there to tell you what to do. You will need to seize the work that needs to be done. The profound truth at the heart of our academic mission is that the work you learn to do here – in the classroom, on campus, in our neighborhood and around the world – is the basis for pursuing the important work to be done in the world – and we need you to do it. We are counting on you to do it. It is the work for which we were recognized several years ago with President Obama’s Award for Community Service. That is why this college exists – to educate you to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers and responsible leader – not just because we think it would be nice if you were all of those sorts of citizens and stewards and thinkers and leaders, but because the world needs you. There is utility to this education, there is purpose and direction, there is work to be done by educated folks. Work they are called to do. Work that might just have to do with what the prophet Micah claimed – the work of justice and compassion and humility.
Do the work, please.

And that is what is required of you. In this university dedicated to democratic engagement, simple lessons that I hope you will remember: show up, pay attention and do the work. Lessons that should help you in college, I would argue, but most critically and urgently, lessons that will serve you for a lifetime of following your passions and calls for the good of the world. I can’t wait to see what good you will do. Welcome to Augsburg – it’s our great privilege to have you all here!

Welcoming the Stranger

Here is my homily for the opening of our academic year, addressing the theme of “Welcoming the Stranger.”

Scripture: Mark 9: 33-41

Perhaps you are like me and you find yourself occasionally asking questions like these: “Why does that homeless guy stand in the middle of the road and beg for money?  Why doesn’t he take advantage of the many services our community offers to meet his needs?”  Or, in another moment: “How can that Democrat/Republican/Independent (you fill in the blank) believe such rubbish?  Doesn’t she see what is going on and what is needed?”  Or, even this: “I respect all religions, but why are Muslims often associated with terrorism around the world?  Is there something about their faith that leans toward violence?”

We could go on, I imagine.  Silly questions, you might say – especially for good, educated, faithful folks like us.  But admit it, nary a day goes by when you and I don’t ask such questions – maybe not out loud, but surely in our inner thoughts.

The unnamed disciples in our gospel for this morning – those talking out loud among themselves about who was the greatest – are icons of our human proclivity to prideful claiming of the superiority of our own experience, intellect, political position, religious persuasion and so on.  And it is Jesus’s equally iconic response – “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” – that turns our world upside down.  So what do we do?

There is a remarkable tension in both our liberal arts academic tradition and our Lutheran Christian tradition.  At their best and most faithful, both traditions claim that genuine learning and faith, grounded as they are in humility and openness, must embrace the experience of difference and otherness.  In fact, they both argue that we are most learned and faithful when we give up attempting to control our world, when we recognize that the gifts and ideas and experiences of others are at the heart of a community that is healthy and just and compassionate, when we celebrate the ways in which our learning and lives are enhanced by the strangers in our midst.

That said, we are not always at our best in either our academic or faith communities.  How easy it is once we have been educated and formed in the faith to believe that we have learned enough, that we have found the right way to God, that our ways of seeing the world and acting in it give us a leg up on those who do not share our superior learning and faith.  And when we do engage with those we count as less learned and faithful, our behavior often leans toward finding ways to help “correct” their deficiencies at best or marginalizing and ignoring them at worst.

So here comes Jesus back at us again.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  And then to make his point, he takes a child in his arms.  Now, this strikes me as a Hallmark moment of sorts, not really the hard-edged rebuke we might expect.  It’s pretty hard to argue about welcoming in a child.  But he goes on.  The disciple John pushes the point, believing that surely Jesus does not believe that outsiders are capable of helping the cause.  But Jesus does not fall into the trap.  His response — “Whoever is not against us is for us” — points to truly radical hospitality.  Here is the claim that discipleship does not give you the right to turn your back on those whose lives and experiences and beliefs might serve God’s cause in the world.  Because that is the point – this is about God’s intentions for God’s people and creation; this is not about our human machinations to claim superiority and power for ourselves.

Professor Tim Pippert from the sociology department and I co-teach the Senior Honors Seminar on the broad topic of income inequality in America.  The course offers a multi-disciplinary perspective on the realities of income disparity by focusing on two extremes: the homeless and the wealthy.  Through a variety of readings and experiences (including volunteering at two shelters and tours of private clubs and museums), we are all challenged as educated people to struggle with our own perceptions of those who are different than we are.  And those perceptions often begin with the stigma we attach to those at both ends of the wealth spectrum.  We do wonder why the homeless live the way they do.  We jump to conclusions about their level of education, about their drug and alcohol abuse, about their mental competency, about the decisions they made in their lives.  At the same time, we also wonder about the greedy 1%, those who occupy private clubs, those who control wealth and corporate power, those who are not accountable for their riches.

For me, the inspiring thing that happens in our course is witnessing students admit these stigmas and then seek to listen to the experiences of others – homeless or wealthy.  So, for example, a student volunteering at Peace House – a drop-in center for those experiencing homelessness – sits next to a long-time homeless man at lunch and learns his story, recognizing the common needs and aspirations they share.  Or, on another night, students hear from a thoughtful member of the 1% who worries about her children and how they will live responsibly in a world marked by injustice and scarcity.  Come to find out, we can learn from those different from us about how we live as God’s people in the world.  We can welcome the stranger – even when that stranger scares us or makes us angry – and therein find our way together to serve God’s cause in the world.

So, here we are, living in this tension between the claims of our education and faith to welcome the stranger in genuine ways and our own human pride that distracts us from learning and faithfulness that serves God’s intentions for the world.  As we enter these first weeks of our academic year, each of us faces the fact that we may be challenged by a world in which those who are different from us – the strangers we will encounter – make a claim upon us that is perhaps more real and intense than it has ever been.  Whether that difference is ethnic or cultural, religious, intellectual, ability-based, socioeconomic or political, we will not escape the claim of otherness in our lives in the world.  So how will we respond to those who do not share our beliefs or privilege or education?  How will we engage the person we don’t understand, perhaps the person we don’t really like?  How will we live as thoughtful and faithful people called to do God’s work in the world?

 

We will sing a hymn this morning written for the L’Arche Community, an international network of Christian communities where people with and without disabilities share life together in a spirit of mutual dependence.  L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, a Catholic lay leader who speaks passionately about how his life was transformed by his decision more than forty years ago to live with people with disabilities.  He needed to overcome his own fears and stereotypes of those with disabilities.  He needed to deal with social myths about people with disabilities.  He did this by finding within himself what he calls the “compassion for life” that came when he faced his fears and learned to be present with another human being who happened to be different than he was.  Once he learned this compassion and felt its gentleness in his own life, he then devoted himself to building safe communities for others to be present with each other, to live day by day with each other, to seek justice for those who were often marginalized.  Vanier’s learning and faithfulness became a lifelong practice of learning to be compassionate, to accompany each other, and to seek justice where the world is not fair.

 

This challenge to make welcoming the stranger a lifelong practice was brought home to me a few years back when I spoke with a colleague and friend from here in the Twin Cities who had just begun a new job as the director of a facility for those with severe developmental disabilities.   She is a good and passionate leader on behalf of the vulnerable in our community, having led a housing services organization for many years.  She spoke quietly of the challenge she has faced in accompanying the residents of her facility in their journeys.  Clearly this has been more difficult than she imagined.  And then she told of a wise colleague, who recognized her struggle, and told her how he had come to understand those they served as among God’s greatest gifts to the world.  Surely, he said, these good folks are God’s most supreme angels, spiritually strong and mature and wise.  Because they are the only ones God could trust to live in the world with their disabilities and the stigma attached so that all God’s people could understand how much God loves all of us and how God intends for us to love each other.

 

I wonder whom else God has sent into our midst to show us how to love?  We may never know if we spend our time arguing about the superiority of our education and faith.  On the other hand, if we truly embrace the life of learning and discipleship that welcomes the stranger into our lives – no matter how difficult or messy – just imagine the riches of wisdom and faithfulness that God will send us.  May it be so according to our gracious and loving God’s will for all of us.  Amen.

Our Children

Our 14-year old Maya was confirmed this past weekend, a significant rite of passage in our Lutheran Christian tradition, the time when you claim your baptismal promise (made for you as an infant) as your own.  It was another moment for Abigail and me how much parenting our children is more and more about letting go.  I return to this beautiful poem by Kahlil Gibran to understand how and why.

 

On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Saving the Best for Last

My 105-year old Grandma Edna died in March after a remarkably long life. Our family reunion at her funeral in tiny Rio, Wisconsin was a celebration of her witness to the power of family and faith.  Grandma has asked me ten years ago to preach at her funeral and it was a privilege to bring the Word to those gathered to mourn our loss and celebrate her life.

Scripture: John 2: 1-11

“So, let’s get this out there right off the bat.  When we remember Grandma, often the first things to come to mind are the donuts, the sugar cookies, and the lefse.  Food to feed our bodies and our souls.

Oh, and then there was her steel-trap memory and mind – she could recite birthdays for great grandchildren when I sometimes have trouble remembering my own. A memory that reflected her love for what was so important to her – her family, sons Jerome, Erwin and Dennis, and all of us who knew her as Grandma and Great Grandma and even Great Great Grandma.

And oh, by the way, Grandma was a faithful member of this congregation for her entire adult life and seldom missed a Sunday service wherever she was even when she needed to tune in electronically.  Grandma loved Jesus and the community gathered in his name.

And, of course, she did live to 105 years old, witnessing first hand remarkable events and transformative trends in our world that most of us must read about in textbooks. Grandma was wise in the ways of the world.

The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman – mother, wife, sister, grandmother, great grandmother, great-great grandmother, friend, and citizen – who loved her family and loved her Lord.

So why, you might ask, on this day when we gather to celebrate Grandma’s life and mourn the fact that she is no longer among us, have I chosen a gospel story about a wedding? A good question that takes us deep in the familiar story of Jesus’s first miracle at Cana – a story that features another remarkable woman who loved her family and her Lord.  I want us to pay attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the role she plays in the story of the wedding miracle.

As an aside, I visited the purported site of this miracle a couple of years ago during a trip to Israel and was struck by how out of the way, down narrow alleys, in the midst of an ancient neighborhood, it was.  Not a grand place at all, and here was where his ministry began – here is the ordinary setting for an extraordinary event.  Imagine then, Jesus and his mother, Mary, in the midst of this family celebration…

I’m sure we all recognize the broad outlines of the miracle story.  At the beginning, Jesus is with his mother and disciples at the wedding, when the wine gives out.  The story ends with this surprising act as Jesus turns water into fine wine.

It’s the interactions that happen in the middle of the story that I want to focus on.  It’s Mary who comes to Jesus with news that the wine has run out. And Jesus’s reply is where I want to pause: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always heard this reply as a rebuke of Mary.  Go away, Mom, this is not my problem – I’m all about bigger and better things.

But I want to suggest that there is a deeper and more nuanced meaning to Jesus’s response.  Mary does not make a request, she simply states a fact – there is no more wine.  Jesus responds with a question that gets at the heart of his entire ministry – a question that proclaims the truth that we are inextricably bound up with each other.  What concern should we have for each other? Jesus points to the fact that to be concerned is to be truly human.

And the interesting thing is that Mary seems to get it.  Instead of responding with some sort of moral argument for why Jesus should be concerned, she turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them.  She understands that the concern Jesus has for the needs of others demands obedience, not arguments.

This, I think, is what Grandma also understood about what it meant to live a faithful life in the world.  Grandma loved Jesus and she lived as a disciple called to obey and walk as a child of God. And she followed her call in all of the ordinary ways she loved us – in the donuts and sugar cookies, in caring for us for a lifetime, in remembering even to the end important days in our lives, in her active engagement with her faith community, in being a good neighbor.

And here is the lesson for us in this story – here is the vocational challenge for faithful people.  The gift of faith from our gracious God carries with it both Mary’s statement that the wine is gone and the response Jesus gave to his mother: “What is this to you and me?”

Roman Catholic theologian Michael Buckley challenges us with this lesson for our contemporary lives in the world.

“Those parents who watch their children grow up without education, without much hope for a better life…they have no wine.  The millions of aged, hidden away in our cities or in dreadful convalescent homes…they have no wine.  The despised or feared or uneducated, whose lives are terrorized by the violence on our streets…they have no wine.  Women demeaned and threatened by violence and their disproportionate level of financial insecurity…they have no wine.”

Jesus calls all of us to grapple with what concern this is to you and me, to recognize our common human experience, and to get to work as those called to follow him.  Obedience, not arguments.

I love how this story is told at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, because from here – from this claim that being concerned is at the heart of the life of faith – we then are offered lesson after lesson of what Jesus calls us to be and do.  We are called to heal the sick, to free the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to comfort the heartbroken, to fight for peace and justice for all God’s creation.

What Grandma taught us in the example of her life is that a calling to follow Jesus is not simply a personal possession, unencumbered by the demands of others, an upwardly mobile life trajectory.  She taught us to be concerned – for ourselves, for each other, for our neighbors, for the world.

The message we faithful must proclaim for all to hear is that your vocation, your calling, is never separated from the needs and aspirations of the families and communities and organizations and neighborhoods in which we live and work.  Grandma spent 105 years living out the call she knew to be faithful.  Like her journey of love and peace and grace, our callings are an obedient response to those who have no wine, because we are called by our Lord to be concerned.  No arguments, follow Jesus.  We affirm the fact that at the core of our lives together in the world, our gracious and loving God intends for us to love each other as God loves us, to be concerned for each other as our God is concerned for us.

And here’s the cool thing about all of this as we return to our gospel story.  Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water, to draw some out and take it to the chief steward, who then exclaims to the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”

The story ends with this powerful lesson.  For those who follow Jesus, for those who are called to be concerned and do God’s work in the world – for those like Grandma, faithful to the end – the best, the very best, is yet to come – “one last surprise” as hymnwriter John Ylvisaker proclaims. The very best.  Thanks be to God for Grandma Edna, for all those who are concerned, for the great cloud of witnesses to God’s gracious and loving presence in our lives.  And God’s people proclaim together: Amen!”

Lenten Chapel Homily, Mark 1: 9-15

“God is good,” murmured the Imam as he stepped to the microphone, to which we people of diverse faiths and experiences responded in our hearts, “Yes, God is good, and this is not what our God intends for us.”
The occasion was a neighborhood meeting in 2008 following the murder of Ahmednur Ali, one of our Augsburg students – a young Somali-American who broke up a fight while he was tutoring children at the local community center and was gunned down outside the center.  The meeting was to address safety concerns in the aftermath of the shooting, and we all experienced first-hand the wrenching emotional impact of this shooting on our lives together.  Though we intended to talk about more security cameras and heightened safety patrols, instead we listened to urgent longing for community.  Instead of hearts breaking apart, the Imam broke our hearts open to a new path forward.  In that spirit, our community came together to rededicate itself to the well-being of our neighbors – yes, to more security cameras and personnel, but even more urgently to finding common purpose in the health, safety and well-being of our neighbors and neighborhood.  God is good, indeed.

 
Here, in these first days of our Lenten journey, it can be difficult to affirm that God is good. Horrific school shootings, polarized wrangling over the fate of immigrants, abusive behavior that traumatizes victims – you can make your own list of the many ways in which evil rears its ugly head again and again.

 
And even in the arc of the Lenten season, bookended (as we read this morning) by Jesus being cast out in the wilderness and tempted by Satan and on Good Friday by the shame and pain of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Where is the good in that?  God is good?  What evidence is there for that claim?  Recall that we don’t even use the word “Alleluia” during Lent, surely a sign that good is subsumed by the temptation and shame and pain and ashes of our human condition.

 
And yet we faithful disciples – with all our own frailties and doubts and sins – must murmur together, even in this season of penitence, “God is good, and this is not what our God intends for us and for the world.”
I think the writer of the Gospel of Mark understood this challenge for God’s faithful people.  Mark’s spare telling of the story of Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan and his being cast out into the wilderness – as opposed to the much more detailed accounts in Matthew and Luke – makes the point that there is an order in God’s mind to how God’s faithful people shall live in the world.  First, we are baptized – as Jesus was – named and claimed as God’s beloved child. And then, and only then, are we sent as God’s children into the wilderness of the world, to face the inevitable temptations and tensions, to be tended by angels and to be equipped to do God’s work in the world.  God is good and therefore we live as those marked by God’s goodness.

 
I have found further insights into this tension between God’s goodness and the brokenness of the human condition from theologian Miroslav Volf (who teaches at Yale University). Volf, in a series of essays in Christian Century, argues that humans tend to equate good and evil as two forces fighting for power and authority in our lives.  Volf claims that this is a false equivalency:  “The goodness of creation—its continuation in Adam and Eve coming together and opening up the world to the experience of new generations—is more basic than the reality of sin and evil.”  For the faithful, we believe that in creation God put an original and abiding goodness in our souls and in our baptisms that goodness is renewed.  In other words, God is good and all that God intends for God’s people is, according to Volf, is “a reality more basic than lives twisted by sins committed and endured.”

 
Here is how that insight of the fundamental goodness of God shaped my perspective on the murder of Nur Ali ten years ago and since…

 
Ten years ago, someone broke the commandment, “You shall not murder,” and now I know why God gave Moses the great gift of these commandments. Offered in a specific context to the Israelites, God spoke these commandments directly to God’s people so that they might know that they were chosen, that God loved them, that God wanted them to flourish.  And in following the commandments, the Israelites would live into God’s will, God’s reign, God’s intentions for God’s people.

 
With a nod to our own faith tradition, Martin Luther also is helpful here in his explanation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” when he says: This means, “we are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way.”  Simple and yet so remarkably helpful.  To kill someone is about much more than the sinful act of murder – the law covers the murderer – it is about our neighbors and our neighborhood.  It is about the pain and fear and injustice – it also is about the compassion and consolation and remembering.  It is about God in our midst, equipping the baptized, allowing us to go on, keeping us strong even when we don’t believe we can go on because we are sad and desperate and frightened.  The commandments are about a loving God with us.  God is good – and the commandments tell us so.  A remarkable gift.

 
And it is God’s gift that I was firmly focused on as I led a mourning community in the midst of an anxious and frightened neighborhood.  Someone broke a commandment and we lived in the aftermath.  It is clear to me that God does not give us commandments primarily to convict the sinner – we all get that, we’re broken, we don’t live up to the rules, we struggle to hold it all together.  God gives us commandments so that we might know the sort of lives God intends for us to live together.  God gives us commandments so that we might know that God is good – and live as if it were so.

 
This is what I hold dearly on my Lenten journey. As those named and claimed in our baptisms – pronounced beloved of God – we are called to witness to the good news: God is good – as Jesus traverses the wilderness with its wild beasts and healing angels. God is good – as Jesus hangs on the cross, inviting the criminals at his side and the relatives at his feet to be with him in paradise.  God is good – as school communities grieve lives taken violently and too soon.  God is good – as we all seek to rebuild the contours of a civil society.  God is good – as we experience together broken commandments and promises.

 
God is good – “repent, and believe in the good news,” Jesus proclaimed after his baptism, for God’s reign is at hand, on earth as in heaven. Amen.”

 

Seeing Things Whole

Shortly after I arrived at Augsburg, I was introduced to the “Seeing things whole” (STW) model of organizational dynamics.  Almost twelve years later, STW is based at Augsburg and we are finding ways to share the model with colleagues across our various networks.  I wrote the following piece back in 2007 and stand by its good insights that have shaped my leadership at Augsburg.  For more on STW, visit our website at www.augsburg.edu/seeingthingswhole.

“As part of our transition work between my first and second year at Augsburg, we have become engaged with the work of an organization called “Seeing Things Whole” (STW), which was founded at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, in partnership with the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.  Seeing Things Whole provides an organizational framework for planning and problem solving that is grounded in a compelling and evocative theology of institutions.

The groundwork for the program is found in an essay entitled Toward a Theology of Institutions (Greenleaf Center, 2003, by David Specht, with Richard Broholm).  The authors extend Robert Greenleaf’s call for a servant-leadership perspective on organizational life that could be relevant to any type of institution – secular or religious.  The results are engaging and practical, tangibly grounded in organizational life and clearly informed by theological perspective.  Here is the background…

There are five theological premises for those who would hold organizations in trust:

  • Institutions are part of God’s order
  • God loves institutions
  • Institutions are living systems
  • Institutions are called and gifted, they are fallen, and they are capable of being redeemed
  • Faithfulness in institutional life is predicated upon the recognition and management of multiple bottom lines

Within this theological framework, there are three dimensions of organizational life that are interdependent:

  • The identity dimension, primarily concerned with healing, wholeness and the well being of the gathered life of the organization. This dimension primarily involves those who work for an organization.  This dimension is preoccupied with how the organization structures the character and quality of its gathered life, how it creates an environment that reflects its core values, and how it draws members of its workforce toward their fullest potential.  If this dimension is healthy, the organization will be values-based; populated with workers who resonate with its values; illustrating organizational values through its private and public lives; and self-reflective about the links between values and work.
  • The purpose dimension, primarily focused outward with a compelling vision and the corollary critique that recognizes dissonance between the “is” and the “ought.” This dimension primarily involves those who interface with an organization from its external environment – customers, clients, suppliers, competitors, and the natural and human communities in some way affected by the organization. This dimension is preoccupied with the clarity of mission and vision, the processes by which goods and services are produced or offered, marketing, and service to the individuals and communities it engages.  If this dimension is healthy and faithful, the organization will have a mission that serves real needs in the world; accountability to the world for advancing its mission; and a commitment to service that empowers others and makes them less dependent on the organization.
  • The stewardship dimension, primarily focused on leadership that serves, empowers, facilitates and persuades. This dimension primarily involves management, owners and trustees.  This dimension is preoccupied with how the organization secures and uses its various resources (people, funds, etc.) in order to sustain its viability while balancing the needs of its stakeholders and the wider community.  If this dimension is healthy, the organization will make decisions and take action with confidence in the long-term sustainable future of all stakeholders; its governance will be inclusive; and structures and systems will evolve to sustain the capacity of the organization to use its unique gifts in service to the world.

 

Within and between these dimensions of organizational life, STW allows institutions to understand and practice their work with a perspective of wholeness and interrelatedness.  Organizational dilemmas, then, become opportunities for stakeholders of the organization to hold its needs in trust.  There are additional lenses within each of the dimensions (see the website for more information) that help organizations gain a deeper understanding of their critical issues and potential ways to respond.

Here at Augsburg, we have used the STW framework to think about the transition between the first year of my presidency full of promise and energy and the continuing work that we must do to sustain the mission-grounded energy and momentum even as we address pressing and sometimes contentious issues.  The gathered life of Augsburg, then, is held in trust as we focus on this transition.  Through the STW process, we focused attention through a specific lens – governance.  Our leading question was “How to hold our organization in trust, balancing contending interests that grow from mission, vision and core commitments?”  Our responses to that question ranged from provocative claims about power to assumptions about contending interests to issues of distrust and mistrust to strategies related to communication and participation.  We walked away from our conversation with a clearer understanding of our central issue and some concrete ways of responding.  Reflective practice, at its best!”

Ash Wednesday

The Christian calendar puts us in the season of Lent, a time of penitence and waiting. Poet T.S. Eliot captures the season well in this poem.

“Ash Wednesday” (1930)

“This is the time of tension between dying and birth,

The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks…

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the mountain, spirit of the garden,

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,

Teach us to care and not to care,

Teach us to sit still Even among these rocks,

Our peace is in His will And even among these rocks,

Sister, mother, and spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated.

And let my cry come unto thee.”

A Sort of Republican Banquet

I had the great privilege earlier this month of celebrating the 90th birthday of Martin Marty and the 20th anniversary of the Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion (at the University of Chicago Divinity School) by presenting the following paper at a conference to mark the occasions.  You will recognize the themes here and I hope also see how Marty’s work has influenced my life in higher education.

““God is good,” murmured the Imam as he stepped to the microphone, to which we people of diverse faiths and experiences responded in our hearts, “Yes, God is good, and this is not what our God intends for us.”

The occasion was a neighborhood meeting in 2008 following the murder of Ahmednur Ali, one of our Augsburg students – a young Somali-American who broke up a fight while he was tutoring children at the local community center and was gunned down outside the center.  The meeting was to address safety concerns in the aftermath of the shooting, and we all experienced first-hand the wrenching emotional impact of this shooting on our lives together.  Though we intended to talk about more security cameras and heightened safety patrols, instead we listened to urgent longing for community.  Instead of hearts breaking apart, the Imam broke our hearts open to a new path forward.  In that spirit, our community came together to rededicate itself to the well-being of our neighbors – yes, to more security cameras and personnel, but even more urgently to finding common purpose in the health, safety and well-being of our neighbors and neighborhood.

It is what has happened on our campus and in our neighborhood since this incident in 2008 that I want to describe briefly this afternoon, and in particular how Marty shaped my response to this event and gave me direction that orients my leadership at Augsburg University and in the world.

First, a brief autobiographical note that informs my contribution to this occasion.  I am an unusual Marty student (aren’t we all!).  I am not a historian of any stripe. I began at the Divinity School in 1978, first as a master’s student and then as a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society.  After finishing my doctoral exams, I was distracted by the opportunity to take on an administrative post in the development office at the University – a move that led me eventually through a succession of roles at the University and the Art Institute of Chicago, and further away from finishing a dissertation in ethics.  It was upon my return to the Divinity School in 1991 as the associate dean that then Dean Clark Gilpin challenged me to complete my doctoral studies – something about modeling good graduate student behavior, I believe was his point.  Given the time that had passed, none of my ethics faculty mentors were still at the Divinity School, so Dean Gilpin offered the most helpful advice I’ve perhaps ever received. Find someone who will help you finish. That is how it came to be that I am one of the 128 advisees on that card in Marty’s wallet! And I stand as just one example – as this afternoon’s program illustrates – of the diverse students Marty attracts and mentors and the influence they have across the academy, the church and the world.

I had the same experience many of you in this room enjoyed with Marty – summers on the porch in Riverside, thoughtful guidance on all things related to dissertation writing, provocative challenges to thesis and exposition – but our conversations weren’t about American religious history, instead they veered to the role of professions and institutions in American public life, in fact to our shared commitment to understanding how faith informs our roles in democracy. In that way, Marty helped me understand how my academic pursuits set a foundation for leadership in higher education and beyond – and my path forward has never been the same.

I am a social ethicist now in my 16th year as a university president, and I know that my calling as a leader in higher education has been shaped by several fundamental themes in Marty’s life and work – themes that I believe are at the heart of the Marty Center’s mission and programs.  Allow me to name three “compass points,” if you will, in Marty’s work that are relevant to my story.

In 1979, Marty penned an essay in The Journal of Religion entitled “A sort of republican banquet.” Borrowing William James’s concept of the republican banquet table, Marty offers a masterful overview of the dynamic ways in which faith and religion have played critical roles in the history of our republic. From the deism of the founders to DeTocqueville’s mid-19th century curiosity about how diverse faith communities tolerated each other to John Dewey’s “common faith,” Robert Bellah’s “civil religion” and Peter Berger’s “canopy of the sacred,” Marty suggests that the willingness (or not) of diverse faiths to come to the banquet table, share their particularities, engage in conversation and seek common purpose has been one of the markers of the well-being of our republic.  Stopping short of a normative claim, Marty concludes that “sightings” – or perhaps more fittingly, “seatings” – of the faithful at the banquet table are worthy of our abiding attention.

Hold that image for now – “a sort of republican banquet table.”

And then to Marty’s 1997 book, The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good, in which he seeks to name the threads of diverse myths, symbols and stories that enable us to craft a robust and vital body politic – not with some grand narrative of oneness or community, but with “associations” that come together in pursuit of, and grounded by, cohesive affections and sentiments. Imagine the common good pursued through an “association of associations.”

Another image to hold – “an association of associations.”

And finally to a more recent book, Building Cultures of Trust, Marty’s 2010 expansive argument for the need to restore trust in our institutions and systems – trust that makes possible the sort of common work that undergirds healthy communities and organizations and societies.  Here he both names the risks associated with building and restoring trust – risks many of us as leaders and citizens have experienced – while at the same time pointing to the need to build and rebuild trust from the bottom up, on the ground in everyday public life.

A final image – “cultures of trust.”

A sort of republican banquet table; an association of associations; and cultures of trust. I believe it is at the intersection of these themes that robust democratic engagement happens.  People of faith come to the banquet table, able and willing to share their diverse and particular stories when there is trust that deeply held beliefs will be taken seriously and that there is a foundation for moving forward together.

Now back to my story. Augsburg University, one of the 26 colleges and universities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is located in a Minneapolis neighborhood that comprises the most diverse zip code between Chicago and Los Angeles, where most of our neighbors are Somali-Americans, the largest Somali community outside of Mogadishu.

Ten years ago, someone broke the commandment, “You shall not murder,” and now I know why God gave Moses the great gift of these commandments. Offered in a specific context to the Israelites, God spoke these commandments directly to God’s people so that they might know that they were chosen, that God loved them, that God wanted them to flourish.  And in following the commandments, the Israelites would live into God’s will, God’s reign, God’s intentions for God’s people.

With a nod to my own faith tradition, Martin Luther also is helpful here in his explanation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” when he says: This means that “we are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way.”  Simple and yet so remarkably helpful.  To kill someone is about much more than the sinful act of murder – the law covers the murderer – it is about our neighbors and our neighborhood.  It is about the pain and fear and injustice – it also is about the compassion and consolation and remembering.  It is about God in our midst, allowing us to go on, keeping us strong even when we don’t believe we can go on because we are sad and desperate and frightened.  The commandments are about a loving God with us. A remarkable gift.

And it is God’s gift that I was firmly focused on as I led a mourning community in the midst of an anxious and frightened neighborhood.  Someone broke a commandment and now we lived in the aftermath.  It is clear to me that God does not give us commandments primarily to convict the sinner – we all get that, we’re broken, we don’t live up to the rules, we struggle to hold it all together.  God gives us commandments so that we might know the sort of lives God intends for us to live together.

What this has meant for Augsburg and our neighborhood during these past ten years is an agenda of work and conversation – I’m drawn to mid-20th century Roman Catholic political philosopher John Courtney Murray’s reminder that the Latin root of conversation means both to talk together and to live together – an agenda we pursue together at the republican banquet table, sharing our diverse stories as we associate, and building trust as we build a healthier, more just, more equitable and compassionate neighborhood.

And it happens in very practical, concrete, even mundane and ordinary ways – though often with extraordinary impact.  Four quick themes of our interfaith work and lives…

  • In our undergraduate curriculum, one of our required religion courses introduces our students of diverse faiths and backgrounds to the Lutheran Christian theological concept of vocation.  As our faculty report, these classes quickly turn into interfaith conversations as students share how the concepts they are learning (“thick” stories from our institutional tradition) relate, intersect and perhaps clash with their own beliefs.  A sort of republican banquet table right there in the classroom.
  • In our campus life, we have sought ways to clearly state the firm character of our particular faith tradition – daily chapel services, carrying the cross for university events, sharing how the charisms of our tradition shape our identity – while at the same time being hospitable and embracing of the diverse students we education – a Muslim chaplain in our campus ministry office and a vital Muslim Student Association, prayer spaces and dining options, orientation for residence life staff about interfaith issues, a new Hillel has been organized.  Building a culture of trust on campus and beyond.
  • In our institutional practices, our Board of Regents has adopted policies that embrace our commitments to hospitality and justice for those of diverse faiths.  We have integrated interfaith prayers, alongside our traditional Christian prayers, into our institutional rituals. A credit-bearing interfaith scholars program deploys students of diverse faith backgrounds as ambassadors of interfaith living across campus – seeking to share information about diverse faiths, build relationships between people of diverse faiths, and help shape positive attitudes toward those of different faith traditions. We monitor these efforts intentionally and vigilantly, knowing that we cannot leave the work to chance.
  • In our community engagement, we host (alongside two Lutheran congregations and two Muslim communities) weekly interfaith meals, conversations and service projects. The local Jewish federation has partnered with us to send our students to Israel for study trips. We have three Interfaith fellows (representing Jewish, Muslim and Humanist leaders) from the community serving as resource people on campus. We are seen more and more as a model for interfaith living by our sister colleges and universities who are learning from our work.  Lots of associations in association!

 

I’ll conclude here with a word of appreciation to Marty (90 years young!), The Marty Center and the Divinity School for now 40 years of forming my leadership in higher education and society. And I know that similar gratitude flows from a cloud of witnesses across the globe, for who Marty’s legacy has shaped the public understanding and practice of religion. I have the great privilege to witness to the power of “a sort of republican banquet table” – the lesson I learned from my teacher, Martin Marty – as we pursue the common good in the academy and in public. Perhaps even as we attend to the “seatings” at the banquet table – our good work as scholars – we are called more and more to take our own seat there on behalf of a more robust and vital republic and democracy.  May it be so.”