I attended a college commencement recently and sat through the usual round of graduation speeches, mostly a garden variety of idealistic “carpe diem!” and “full-speed-ahead!” charges to the new graduates.
When I graduated from college many years ago, one of the adults in my life told me, repeatedly and enthusiastically: “The world is your oyster!” I never quite understood what that meant or why it would be a good thing. I wonder if graduation speeches really mean anything to the graduates or if they just provide a bit of filler before your name is called and you get to walk across the stage?
What these particular speeches did for me was to start me thinking about this past year at the Chapel Center: what progress we have made and what lessons we have learned.
Starting with what we have done this year:
We celebrated the Eucharist together every Sunday night. The cornerstone of our community life is weekly worship. There is sometimes a bit of levity–ask anyone in our group about the “goldfish of Christ”–but worship is lively and participatory. We’ve added new songbooks this year and are experimenting with the various liturgical odds & ends excavated from our sacristy.
We shared an evening meal together each week. We practice kitchen fellowship in cooking and cleanup. Souper Bowl chili, Shrove Sunday pancakes, and a few other favorite recipes such as “Mediterranean Medley” (the secret ingredient is cinnamon) are becoming traditions.
We filled the Chapel Center with residents. Our single student scheduled to live in the Center last August quickly became a houseful with all four bedrooms rented. As we finish this term we have three new renters moving in to fill graduates’ spots and we now have a rapidly growing waiting list.
We started a weekly book discussion group. We started “Dig Deeper” as a student book club but it quickly evolved into an intergenerational mix of adults from a neighboring parish and students from USF. So far we have read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” and Joan Chittister’s “Uncommon Gratitude.” The conversation typically covers everything from Death to blueberries.
We built a garden. Yes, I know that should be “planted a garden.” What we actually accomplished was building raised garden beds in the shape of a Jerusalem cross. (Such a cool design!) The planting and nurturing has been less successful, though we currently have some Feed-Me-Seymour-sized kale plants running amok and untended in the midst of our beds.
We hosted a successful lecture series, panel discussion, and musical event. We learned that topics like sustainability and female spirituality&sexuality are a draw for our university community. We learned that we can talk about fairly controversial subjects fairly well.
So, what does this mean for us in the year ahead at the Chapel Center?
We need to plan for growth.
I dearly love our Sunday night gatherings but I think it would be REALLY easy to get comfortable and clique-ish with our current attendance. For example, when I recently started going meatless in my own diet, I realized that we really didn’t have a vegetarian option for the occasional visitor who is not a carnivore. And, while we comfortably feed our current crowd, shouldn’t we plan to accommodate more? Are we welcoming the newcomer who happens to drop in or does our full table seem to hang a “No Vacancy” sign on our door? I think there are 40,000 students currently enrolled at USF. We need to invite a few more in on Sunday nights.
We need to build an intentional community.
While our house has been filled with a variety of really nice students, we have maintained a sort of “Union Station”–lots of trains coming and going with everyone following his own agenda. A community needs to be, well, communal. Shared work, shared play. Learning to get along with others in the same household. We can do so much more together.
We need to be good stewards of our resources.
We need to figure out what we do well and focus. No more shotgun approach, which is sorta what we have tried this year. Like many other campus ministries, we are SO limited on staff and budget. What can we do that will be truly meaningful and useful? What will make a difference?
Also, we need to take good care of our building and grounds, knowing that they represent the physical presence of the Church on our campus. Dilapidated building and forlorn entrance? How can we welcome visitors into the house of God if the very front yard is untended and unappealing?
We need to plan carefully and follow through, holding each other accountable for the tasks we undertake.
It is easy to make plans. The tough part is putting feet on them, deciding who will do what to actually follow through on those really great ideas and how will that person be accountable to the rest of the community.
We need to look to the future and work towards long term sustainability.
The Chapel Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year. The history of the Chapel Center has included times of growth and expansion but also periods of decline and inactivity. How do we get off that roller coaster?
A recent cartoon in our local paper depicted a man in full bishop vestment, miter perched on his head, merrily pushing a lawn mower across his front lawn. The caption read: “Herschel mows the lawn religiously every Saturday.” The humor, of course, comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of two very different definitions of the word religious: the religiously routine task of mowing the lawn being performed in garb usually reserved for highly ceremonial, religious occasions. It’s a simple joke but perhaps it’s worth considering the meaning of spiritual practices religiously done.
Our recent young adult retreat was entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious?” and offered participants a chance to explore both what it means to be spiritual and what it means to be religious. How do we practice spirituality? (And if it is something that we “practice,” does commitment to the habit become more important than the practice itself?) Why do some people resist the idea of being “religious” and why is conformity to the “spiritual” practices found in organized religion often seen as “uncool” in our culture?
In our discussion at the retreat, attempts to define spirituality elicited images of peace, harmony, awareness, mindfulness, and the sense of connecting to something greater than ourselves. This experience of being calm, centered and well-ordered usually comes through the framework or guide of spiritual practice, a practice not left to chance or whim but developed through habit or discipline. Spiritual practices mentioned by the group included prayer, meditation, and studying scriptures–practices commonly found, not surprisingly, in organized religious services.
Of course, just going to church doesn’t make you either spiritual or religious. You’ve probably heard the old one-liner that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in your garage will turn you into a car. Many Spiritual-But-Not-Religious folks would assert that you can certainly feel more spiritual in solitude, communing with nature (or the golf course) on a beautiful morning. So what’s the point of corporate worship?
First of all–like it or not–human beings are social animals, made for community in general and specifically for life in the God’s communal household. Most active church members will describe “church” in terms of their experience of congregational support and fellowship. It is rather amazing to consider that Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) worship is one of the few experiences left in our society in which all generations come together under the same roof for the common purpose of study, song, and prayer. In church families, as in our biological families, we grow through mutually expressed support and nurturing.
And, just as in our biological families, we also grow through the occasional friction of rubbing elbows with other members of the congregation who differ from us in their outlooks and opinions. It is relatively easy to feel spiritually warm and fuzzy about your fellow-man (or woman) in the abstract, but you learn more about Christian behavior by dealing with the curmudgeon grumbling in the next pew or the fussy child wiggling in the seat behind. We learn about forgiveness and grace by giving it, usually after we have also received more than our share of the same.
The Church provides us with the opportunity to learn and grow with others, developing our spiritual practices within a larger structure guided through history and tradition by the Holy Spirit. One member of our retreat group referred to the framework of “checks and balances” the Church offers us as we daily decide how to live our lives. No, the Church won’t have all the answers all the time, but there is a larger picture for me here, a kingdom view of God’s relationship with his people through time and space, and that enlarges my circle of understanding beyond my own ego-centered self.
While at the young adult retreat, we went outside just before dark to walk the Dayspring labyrinth. The labyrinth design in the pavers was very faint in the rapidly fading light, requiring all our concentration and even just a bit of imagination to discern the path. Mosquitoes swarmed around us, buzzing ears and biting ankles. I was having a hard time trying to meditate while swatting at bugs and peripherally keeping my fellows in view, not only so that I wouldn’t run anyone over but also to follow their lead in finding my way. It was not a particularly “spiritual” experience until we returned to our cabin and one member of our group commented that our labyrinth walk was a good analogy for church itself.
There we were, each person trudging back and forth, each concentrating intently on his or her own steps. To an outsider, the scene would have been almost nonsensical, just a collection of seemingly unrelated and rather self-absorbed people, moving randomly about in an open space. Perhaps to an outsider, this is how church appears. But a closer look reveals the pattern, the outline that shows us the Way to follow. As believers we are within the circle of the Church which provides the guidelines for a common path in a collective journey. And even though we are all at different points on that trip at any given time, it is a journey that will ultimately bring us all safely home.
Our upcoming Young Adult retreat at Dayspring, our diocesan conference center, is entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious,” referencing that ubiquitous label many folks use today to indicate having an interest in matters of the spirit without making a commitment to traditional organized religion. Both the phrase and the acronym (SBNR) have become commonplace in today’s lingo, on the web and Facebook. It has even been used as the title for a book on alternative American spirituality, in which author Robert C. Fuller states that one out of every five Americans currently describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
The label is perhaps a little misleading. After all, both “spiritual” and “religious” start from a similar premise: a belief in a Higher Power, the desire to connect with that Higher Power, and an interest in some sort of ritual or behavior having to do with that connection. In today’s society, however, “spiritual” is often used to refer to private or personal belief, while “religious” generally involves public membership in a religious institution (i.e. church). In comparisons such as “spiritual but not religious,” the word “spiritual” tends to carry a more positive connotation than “religious,” which is used to imply blind adherence to the outward rituals of belief without the underlying commitment, rather like the difference between playing a rhapsody (“spiritual”) versus practicing scales (“religious”).
The word “religion” may be derived from the Latin re (“back”) and ligare (“to bind”). Thus, to be “religious” can literally be interpreted as “being bound” and, in this sense, SBNR reflects a desire not to be bound by traditional beliefs, rules, and community. Baptist seminary professor Timothy Paul Jones says: “‘Spiritual’ has, in some sense, come to mean ‘my own personal religion with my own individual creed.'”
In a Christianity Today article (“Faith Unbound: Why Spirituality is Sexy but Religion is Not“), author Mollie Hemingway goes a step further: “Being spiritual but not religious is the perfect fit for people who don’t like the demands of religion but aren’t quite ready to say they have no soul.” Is SBNR perhaps just “Burger King” spirituality? (Have It Your Way?)
A look at the SBNR website just might make you wonder. Under a banner of “Love is the answer/You are the question” you will find the following statement of purpose:
Dedicated to serving the millions of people worldwide who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion. We honor your personal journey and offer inspiration, education, and entertainment to aid your experience of being human.
Not exactly something you will find in the Book of Common Prayer, though after reading this I did wonder how many times I myself have come to worship on Sunday morning hoping to be “inspired, educated, and entertained”! I also wondered what it is that Young Adult seekers are looking for in church and how it is that so many of them leave to become “spiritual but not religious”? What do we as the Church need to do to “pull them in”? Should we add that “Contemporary Worship” service to the church schedule? Do we need to plug in guitars, roll out the drums, and add some upbeat music with snappy Jesus lyrics? Should we ditch time-honored liturgies for some trendy, relevant sermons pulled from today’s headlines? Or does this carrot-on-a-stick approach only do more harm than good?
In “Spiritual But Not Religious: Reaching an Invisible Generation,” author Roland Martinson describes young adults as the “invisible generation,” mostly ignored by the Church and left alone to sort out the larger issues of life (i.e. foundational choices of career and mate). The prevailing laissez-faire attitude of the Church towards young adults seems to be that they are “too busy”at this point in their lives for church and that they will “be back later” when they’ve finished this part of their life journey. Many young adults are certainly “pilgrims” in our midst, here temporarily on their way to other schools and jobs. However, as Martinson writes:
The church does well with settlers but not nearly as well with pilgrims, that is, people living in transition theologically, morally, relationally, and geographically, who ask tough questions.
How do we change this? In examining the young adult who have stayed in church (the “YA remnant”), a number of “faith factors” emerge, common denominators that strengthened ties with the faith community:
Martinson asks: “Will our faith have children? Will our faith have adults? Will our faith have leaders?” The answer to all these questions lies in the young people in our midst. We need to designate the resources–as individuals, as congregations, and as the Church–to develop the role of YA’s in our congregations, making sure that they do not feel invisible and do not become “spiritual but not religious.”
We hear a lot these days about carbon footprints (your ecological impact on the environment) and digital foot prints (your virtual trail on the internet). What about your social footprint? How will the brotherhood of mankind be different from your having been here? How will you change the world?
You can, you know, and you don’t have to be rich or powerful to do it. Ordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things. They change the world. They help usher in the Kingdom every day.
And some of them are college students.
Recently I attended the American Library Association conference in New Orleans and was privileged to hear film maker Stanley Nelson speak about his new documentary Freedom Riders. The film is the story of six months in 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans traveled together on buses and trains in the Deep South, deliberating breaking Jim Crow laws and, through nonviolent protest, ultimately forcing the federal government to formally end segregation in American buses and train stations.
Mr. Nelson introduced the film to us through the story of Diane Nash, the daughter of a middle-class Catholic family in Chicago. In 1959 she became a transfer student at Fisk University in Nashville. After witnessing the extent of segregation in Tennessee, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960. When the Freedom Rider members were met with beatings, imprisonments, and deaths, she urged her group to continue:
“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.”
John Seigenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was interviewed in the film. He recalled being directed to contact Diane and advise her to call off the Freedom Ride to Alabama. He remembers that, while his own voice grew louder and more agitated, Diane Nash remained steadfast and calm: “She in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.”
What she told him was that the Riders had all signed their last wills and testaments the previous night. They would not abandon their plan, even in the face of certain violence and possible death.
As I listened to the story of this remarkable young woman and her fellow Riders I thought about how our society tends to underestimate college students. Think for a moment about the stereotypical ways that college students and young adults are portrayed in the media! Contrast that with the young men and women you know: those who are serving in the military, those who are committed to social justice here and abroad, and those who, like many of the rest of us, are bravely facing a very different world than any of us were counting on just a few short years ago. There is a tremendous hunger for social justice among our young adult population and a tremendous resource for positive action.
Margaret Mead reminds us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Let us commit to being the Church on our college campuses, bringing “thoughtful, committed” students together, empowering them to work for change in the world and helping to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our intrepid mission team left for KY last Monday aboard a brightly colored Hispanic ministry bus. Such a vehicle at first seemed overly spacious for such a small group; however, we planned to carry some of our groceries. Plus towels and bed sheets. Also pillows. And, after a quick peek at the week’s weather forecast, jackets and sweatshirts instead of Florida shorts and tank tops.
Basically, by the time we left predawn the bus looked like we were scrambling for an emergency evacuation.
Mapquest set the total driving time at 13.5 hours but Mapquest does not take into account a lunch break (Subway), supper break (Cracker Barrel, of course!), and multiple gas&potty stops. It was a long day but as the terrain gradually became mountainous and the temperatures continued to dip cooler, I was excited. I had lived in south central Kentucky for fourteen years and was seeing more and more that was familiar as we approached the state border. I was also hearing more and more that was familiar with each and every conversation at rest stops, to the point that, when we finally pulled into Irvine’s Walmart just before midnight, I walked into the store and thought: “I’m home!”
We actually still had miles to go, of course, even from Walmart. St Timothy Outreach Center sits high up on Barnes Mountain. The midnight climb up the mountain was somewhat less daunting than the next morning’s ride, when we could see how sheer the drop was below us! The first building pictured on the right was our home for the week and featured dorm style rooms with bunk beds, a large kitchen and common room. For our group, it was a comfortable base camp for meals, hot showers and lodging.
The second picture is a newer log cabin, still under construction, located behind the first building. It promises to be a beautiful house for future visiting teams.
Our host for the week was Fr Bryant Kibler, who is the Priest-In-Charge at St Timothy’s as well as serving a parish of his own and working in diocesan administration. We found Fr Bryant to be, quite honestly, rather amazing. Every morning he would gather our crew in a big truck with an even bigger van attached. After transporting us to a job site (no small feat on narrow muddy roads and driveways!), he would divvy up the various duties, keeping us all busy, teaching the less construction savvy of us the tricks of the trade, and jumping in to do the more skilled jobs as needed. During our lunch break, our team ate while Fr Bryant gave us a fascinating overview of Kentucky history and culture.
Work at St Timothy’s varies according to the time of year and the size and skills of the group. We were fortunate enough to be working inside during a week that was unseasonably rainy and cold. We were able to continue painting and flooring that had been started in a house currently occupied but without electricity or running water. We also repaired the floor and painted a room in our new friend Manfred’s house.
A community meal is served at St Timothy’s on Tuesday night. Local children gathered for games and pizza. Kids are, of course, pretty much kids wherever you go, from the vivacious, giggly preteen girls to a pair of young brothers, very shy, who would not play skittles with the rest of us but watched very closely and later went back to play the game on their own.
The trip home went more quickly and efficiently than Monday’s long ride. The people I’d met and the work we had shared have stayed with me. I carried the joy of the journey with me back into my work place this week.
“Did you have a good vacation?” I was asked.
Our mission trip to eastern Kentucky is just hours away! We will be leaving some time before the crack of dawn to begin our long trek up I-75 to the mountains. We are traveling in a diocesan bus. (I haven’t seen it yet but am told that it is colorful.) In the midst of my pre-departure jitters, I’ve had a little poem on my mind that I saved years ago. It’s by Michael Chitwood and I believe I ran across it in Poetry magazine:
ON BEING ASKED TO PRAY FOR A VAN
My evangelical brethren have let me know,
via the quarterly fundraising letter,
that they can’t get the gospel around
because their van has given up the ghost.
God in the machine, help them.
I lift up their carburetor and their transaxle.
Bless them with meshed gears and a greased cam shaft.
Free their lifters.
Deliver their differential
and anoint their valves and their pistons.
Unblock their engine block
and give them deep treaded tires.
Their brakes cry out to You. Hear them, O Lord.
Drive out the demons from their steering column
and come in to the transmission
that they may know the peace of passing.
Minister even unto the turn indicator.
Creator Spirit, Holy Maker of the Universe,
give them gas.
All joking aside, please keep us in your prayers, as well as all the other folks who are heading out this summer for the great privilege of mission team work.
Thanks for reading. Will let you know how the journey goes….
OK, so I must confess that I’m a Trekkie from way back. I could quote you lines from many Star Trek episodes and movies but my absolute all time favorite Star Trek scene happens to be from the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In this particular passage the crew has traveled (with much action and many adventures, of course!) to a planet beyond the Great Barrier and the landing party has finally come face to face with what appears to be the Face of God–or at least an Old Testament prophet sort of giant talking head. “God” is in the process of welcoming his “children” and asks that they bring their spaceship just a little closer to the planet when a hand goes up from the back of the group. The ensuing dialogue goes something like this:
Kirk: Excuse me… Excuse me… I just wanted to ask a question. What does God need with a starship?
McCoy: Jim, what are you doing?
Kirk: I’m asking a question.
“God”: Who is this creature?
Kirk: Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?
Sybok: He has his doubts.
“God”: You doubt me?
Kirk: I seek proof.
This past Sunday was the second Sunday of Easter and most of us heard again the story of Thomas and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances recorded in John’s Gospel. Because Thomas is not with the other disciples when Jesus first appears, he does not believe their witness, saying instead that unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and puts his hand in his side, he will not believe.
He seeks proof.
Thomas is commonly known as “Doubting Thomas,” though the label is misleading. After all, having found the proof he needed, Thomas was himself a powerful witness and went on to preach the Gospel as far away as Persia and India. He is the patron saint of architects, builders, construction workers, masons, and stonecutters–solid professions all. Proof, perhaps, of the foundation of faith established by his relationship with Jesus, a relationship strong enough to tolerate questions. Said Pope St Gregory the Great of Thomas: “Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed?….In a marvelous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief.”
And what does all this have to do with campus ministry? One of the great offerings we have as the church on campus is to create an environment where it is safe to ask questions. What better place to find a community in which you can wonder, explore, seek proof, “touch and believe”? Today’s college campus in fact seems to be a perfect place to find healing for our “wounds of disbelief” and to build a strong foundation of faith.
As always, thanks for reading. More to come….
The USF Chapel Center mission trip is just a few weeks away!
It’s a funny thing about mission trips. If you’ve not been on one, the idea may seem to you—as it did to me at one time—perhaps a little foolish. After all, I’m not a carpenter, plumber, electrician, or of any other profession that would be at all useful at a building site. So, what’s the point in me traveling cross country for a service project? Wouldn’t the cause be better served if I opened my checkbook rather than packed my suitcase?
On the other hand, once you have been on a mission trip, you see things differently. Usually there is something about the experience that opens your heart and just stays with you.
My first real mission trip was traveling several years ago to New Orleans during the summer. Our church crew worked with Episcopal Relief and Development on a variety of houses in the 9th Ward and nearby neighborhoods. It had been quite some time since Katrina but the remains of the destruction and the enormity of the recovery work still ahead was overwhelming. We spend our first work day mucking out debris from a house that had been destroyed twice–first by water and later by fire. By the end of the day we were exhausted, filthy, hot and very thirsty.
We stopped on the way back to our lodgings to gas up the van and went into the store to buy cold drinks. Two well dressed African American women ahead of us in the line at the cash register sized us up with a glance as we waited. They finished paying for their purchase and before heading out the door, turned around to us and said simply:
“Thank you for the work you are doing here. Thank you for coming to our city. God bless you.”
Ask me why, of all the memorable experiences we had that week, that one exchange with strangers remains especially with me and I cannot give you an easy answer. Perhaps it is God’s foolishness that we head out again and again to mission trips, knowing that there is really little we can do to help in some situations but knowing it’s important that we try.
It’s not just the work we do on the mission trip but our presence for others there that lets them know they have not been forgotten. It’s not just the experience of a short summer trip but the witness we carry back to our own community as we share stories again and again of what we have seen and experienced.
There are lots of web options now for finding volunteer work and mission opportunities. The following are mostly from an excellent recent issue of US News & World Report (Nov 2010) focusing on public service:
Episcopal Relief & Development
Catholic Charities USA
So, what about the foolishness of mission trips?
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:25
More to come. Thanks for reading!