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And a Child Shall Lead Them

Yesterday at noon the Drury community gathered for its annual holiday luncheon.  As always, the meal was delicious and the conversation was fun.  But this year was special.  Angels visited our gathering.  About 70 second and third grade children from McGregor Elementary School came to give the winter holiday concert.  It was magnificent.  When the children arrived, the applause was thunderous.  When they finished, the standing ovation would not stop.

The children giggled.  Several kids put fingers in their ears because the applause was so loud.  Some were brave beyond belief and gave mini-solos as a part of the show.  All were perfect pitch as far as we were concerned. Indeed, no one could resist their innocence, excitement, or joy. They put us into the holiday spirit like no prior year.  (Kudos to the folks in the education department and the library who were originally chosen to do all of the entertainment.  To throw us off guard, they initiated their “concert” with such off-key singing that we were all wondering if we were going to survive.  It was a set-up, of course, and we fell for it until the children arrived to deliver the real concert.)

This Christmas I pray that you will be as surprised  as we were when the children entered our holiday luncheon.  As adults, we can be a cynical bunch.  We have been around.  We know what’s up.  We don’t trust the season because we know that life is not always joy-filled and happy.  That is why we need Christmas concerts by small children.  In particular, I hope that you will be blessed this season with childlike innocence, joy, and trust.

Innocence: While it might be hard to return to that time when you awaited Santa Claus with images of sugar plums dancing in your head, questioning what you “know” can be valuable.  We know that the powerful rule over the weak; the strong survive; there’s never enough for everybody. Yet it may change our lives to question that knowledge.  As Leah Hamilton read from Isaiah 11 at our Christmas Vespers on the first Sunday of December, there is another way.  “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”  May you become so “naive” and “innocent” this Christmas to join children in believing that peace on earth is possible.

Joy: Young children are spontaneously joyful and open to experience.  When small children are asked whether they can dance or sing, they say “yes.”  Of course.  They have not yet learned that they can only do some things well.  Their minds are not so full of worry.  They enjoy the present and are amazed by the world with all of its novelty.  May we choose that way of being – living fully in the present without guilt about the past or anxiety about the future.  May we taste of joy this year by loving and being loved.  There is nothing more important.

Trust: Finally, may we trust.  For six years, since the Great Recession began in 2008, we have received a barrage of bad news.  The economy was hit badly and still has only partially recovered.  Liberal arts colleges have experienced some enrollment declines.  Even Drury has experienced a time of belt-tightening.  In the face of such challenges, some of us are tempted to allow our lives to be dominated by anxiety, worry, and fear.  That is a mistake.

Children certainly can be afraid.  But they also have a marvelous capacity for trusting – trusting their parents, trusting their teachers, trusting their world.  May we learn from that.  We sometimes think that trust is about others.  Are they safe or reliable?  Will they help or hurt me?  But I think trust is really about us.  In what do we most believe?  What really matters for our lives?  When we place our trust in deeper values such as love, compassion, justice, generosity and community, we allow ourselves to breathe.  Worry becomes less consuming.  Hope grows.  Nothing can take those values away from us no matter how cold the winds.

This Christmas may you hear your own group of “angels.”  May you be innocent enough to believe in peace for yourselves, your families, and the world.  May you find yourself breaking out in joy by living in the presence of God who came in the form of a child.  May you trust in the gift of hope and the beauty of life together no matter the challenges.

And, like the beloved members of the education department and Olin library, may you sing off-key, knowing that your singing is more important than the perfection of your performance.  Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Peter Browning

Happy New Year 2014 – A Sabbatical Wish

A few hours ago I gave my first – and last – sermon at chapel for the spring semester.  It was my best shot at a new year’s sermon  (however late).  And its message was simple.  In 2014 I encourage you to live with grace; honor the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love; and find peace.  In fairness, I may have an easier time doing the above than most.  I am starting my sabbatical.  By tradition, professors are encouraged to take a sabbatical semester off from regular teaching every seven years to focus on research, writing, travel, and (not unimportant) rest and renewal.  There is some Biblical support for this act.  In Leviticus 25, we read of the sabbatical year when the ancient Israelite farmers would allow their fields to lie fallow every seven years to give the soil a chance to be renewed.

I am about that task of renewal right now and I welcome you to join me.  However, you don’t need to wait seven years.  Indeed, I encourage you to find some of that renewal in your life right now.  Here are three paths. In 2014 consider this approach to life:

1.  Choose grace: New year’s resolutions usually hammer us with expectations. Lose weight. Clean the clutter off of your desk. Get your schedule better organized. Save money.  Plan ahead. Be more efficient. Do more. Be more.  All of these recommendations are worthy, there can no denying.  But they aren’t life-giving when taken too seriously.  Remember that you are loved as the flawed human beings you (and I) are.  Live with gratitude and focus on small not grand changes.

2. Embrace the “theological virtues.”  In I Corinthians 13:13, St. Paul tells us, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  The ancients wrote of virtues such as courage, temperance, justice and prudence.  Paul embraced faith, hope, and love.  All can be powerful, but Paul’s list comes as a form of grace.  As Hebrews tell us, faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Having a faithful sense of trust – not fear – as you venture forth this year can be freeing.  In Romans 5, Paul tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produce character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us…”  Trust that you can learn from life’s experiences.  Be gracious with your failings and optimistic about the opportunities for growth in the future.  And remember, love is what matters in the end (I Cor. 13:13).  Spend less time focused on your academic/professional resume and more time on your loving relationships.

3.  Nurture inner peace: Paul was convinced that faith and a deep awareness of grace led to peace.  In Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book, Peace, Love, and Healing, he lists the “symptoms” of inner peace shared by Dr. Jeff Rockwell, a chiropractor, and his wife.  They have twelve “symptoms.”  Let me list five.  They include: “An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment; loss of interest in judging self; loss of interest in judging others; loss of interest in conflict; and loss of ability to worry.” (p. 212)

Choose the graced life. Embrace faith, hope, and love. And, in the midst of the crazy schedule, take time to nurture inner peace.  Know that sabbath rest isn’t just for the sabbath every seven days or the sabbatical every seven years.  It can be now, today, this year, this life.  God bless!

Merry Christmas

The students have taken their exams.  The faculty have graded them.  The semester is over and we are all ready to celebrate the holidays.  This past Monday the Drury family gathered in the Commons for a holiday luncheon.  In the entertainment which followed I got cast in the role of Charlie Brown.  At one point in this madcap play, I was asked the “WWJD” question.  What would Jesus do?

I told the gathering that answering this question is both difficulty and easy.  It is difficult because there are multiple images of Jesus in the Bible.  Each gospel has a distinctive take.  In Matthew Jesus is represented as a great teacher who shares wisdom in his Sermon on the Mount.  In that sermon, Jesus asks us to try to live perfect lives.  We are not only to love our neighbors but to love our enemies.  

In Mark, we encounter the crucified Christ and a vision of Jesus as a suffering servant asking us to take up our own crosses in sacrifice for others.  In Luke, Jesus is envisioned as the Christ who bring “good news to the poor.” And in John, we encounter a gospel which is structured by a series of miracles.

My prayer for us this Christmas is to receive a blessing from each one of these gospel visions.  May we experience this holy day as an occasion to teach ourselves again the Matthean lesson of loving everyone (not just those we like and with whom we agree.)  May we be empowered by Mark to sacrifice for one another.  May we learn from Luke’s depiction of Christ the joy of a life formed by the habits of charity and justice-seeking for the poor.  And may John help us to see a truth: when we live life grounded in love of God and love of neighbor, life itself can become miraculous. 

The easy part of the WWJD question is one word – love.  May you have it, give it, feel it, and know it this Christmas and in the year to come.  Merry Christmas to you and yours!

God bless.

Peter Browning

Spiritual Resolutions for the New Year

A few weeks ago “Newsweek” featured the top 10 new year’s resolutions.  The top five were “have more fun,” “relax and reduce stress,” “spend more time with family,” “eat better,” and “exercise more.”  As the author noted, most of us start out with the best of intentions, but fail in our efforts within weeks.

I want to offer my top three spiritual resolutions for the new year.  They are to 1) do less and be more, 2) wake up by slowing down; and 3) live with more gratitude.

Do Less and Be More

Every May at Drury I do my “growth plan review” to list all of my activities as a professor and chaplain over the past academic year.  After more than 20 years of such reports, I have come to a conclusion.  Growth is not always more.  Sometimes it is less.  I have seen this lesson in my own  frenetic effort to cram as many activities into a day as possible only to find everything unraveling.  I’ve seen it in students who work full-time while going to school full-time.  They often miss papers, fail to study for tests, and then hate themselves for not being able to “do it all” on 4 hours of sleep a night.  I understand its origin.  We are all trying to succeed and in some cases just survive.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work and it might even be unfaithful.  St. Paul tells us to live in a spirit of grace.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages us not to be anxious about our lives.  To be who we are meant to be is to be a particular person with a particular set of abilities and a limited amount of time.  We need to breathe, eat, pray,  laugh, and live.  Most of all we need to be ourselves and not try desperately to be someone else.  This year may we do what we are called to do and nothing more.

Wake Up By Slowing Down

One of the most popular courses in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Drury is taught by my colleague, Dr. Lisa Esposito.  It is called “Buddhism and the Joy of Being Awake.”  For the Buddhist enlightenment emerges when a person awakens to the reality that is behind much of the illusion of our lives.  One of the biggest illusions is the idea that fulfilling our desires will make us happy.  Many new year’s resolutions fail because we desire a new state of being right now.  A better way is to recognize the goal but slow down in achieving it.  This Christmas my step-son James gave me a book on “Chi Running.”  I have read a little section before going out on a running/walking schedule James has devised for me.  On each run I have focused on keeping a relaxed form and moving slowly.  I walk a minute and then run a minute, walk a minute and run another minute.  The point is not the goal.  It is the gentle, gradual building of habits that lead to a non-anxious transformation.  By slowing down, focusing less on the distant goal (e.g. running a 5K at some point) than the present change in habits, and being patient, long-term transformation is far more likely.

Live with Gratitude

Most of all I pray that we all live with more gratitude this year.  Years ago my friend Toby Meeker, a former medical ethicist at St. John’s Hospital, had a screen-saver with this message. “Begin with gratitude.”  It was the first thing he saw when he turned on his computer in the office.  I hope we will follow his good advice.  When we give thanks for the ones we love, the meaningful work we get to do, and the opportunities for service we are given, we can begin to see the light.  We have been given much.  Beginning every day with thanks can bring great joy.

Have a happy new year and remember.  Do less. Slow Down. Live with Gratitude.  And know that you are not meant to do or be everything.  God has a purpose for your life.  Fulfilling that purpose – not the purpose given to others – may make all the difference.

May God’s blessings be with you in 2013.

All the best,
Peter Browning

Spirituality and Elections

The results are in.  Obama 50%.  Romney 48%.  While we all give thanks that we won’t have to listen to another negative political ad for a while, it is worthwhile taking stock.  What can learn from this latest slugfest?  Some pundits says the answer is obvious.  We are a divided nation and we don’t know how to discuss our differences without anger, derision, and occasionally rage.  But I want to suggest a spiritual perspective with a different message.

  1. We are more united than we think.  In “One Nation, After All,” Alan Wolfe tells us that the culture war divide is overstated.  As he suggests, the polls which dominate debate divide us along the lines of “modernists”  and “traditionalists.”  The assumption is that these two groups have nothing in common.  But that is a mistake.  The truth, says Wolfe, is that most people are “traditional modernists” or “modern traditionalists.”  They are a mixed bag.  On one issue a person may be conservative, on another issue moderate, and on still another progressive.  Yet the rhetoric and ads confuse us into thinking that we are “culture warriors” are one side or another of a line.
  2.  We need each other more than we think.  St. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12 is familiar but often forgotten.  We are one body and each part of the body needs the other parts.  Some of the best conversations about politics I had over the past several months came from people with different perspectives.  We are less, not more, when we fail to listen and learn from one another.  I try not to have too many absolute rules, but I have one when it comes to communication:  never trust a person’s argument who isn’t willing to consider fairly and generously alternative points of view.
  3. Achieving our Separate Visions of Justice Can’t Be Done without Concern for those who Disagree.  In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  He then follows that up with a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  We often separate out these two commandments.  Jesus puts them together.  To “love God” by fighting for your image of a just world is a good thing.  But waging that battle becomes a bad thing when it is done in a way which fails to love the neighbor who disagrees.  After all, Jesus doesn’t just ask us to love neighbors.  He encourages us to love our enemies.

When red and blue states are, respectively, licking wounds or rejoicing, these three lessons are worth remembering.  We are not as divided as we think.  We actually need one another to discern the truth; and achieving our vision of the good society has to include attending not only to justice as God would have it but also to reconciliation.  As the famous South African theologian John De Grucy said, justice has to point toward reconciliation.  We can’t get God’s way (often really an effort to get our way) without connecting to others in compassion, empathy, and friendship.

I’m not perfect.  I often fail to follow the words I have just written. But this way is a better way. May we choose to follow it.

~ Peter

The Spirituality of Grades

It is that time of the semester. The first assignments have been completed and the grades returned. If you are like many students, you may be asking yourself a question: Are grades really necessary? Sitting at a desk with three stacks of papers from three classes, that is also on my mind. Indeed, it is an odd situation to be on the other end of the evaluation process. I love to read student papers. I enjoy knowing what students think, feel, and understand. It is also a delight to see how students become more effective expressing themselves over time. So, why are grades important? And what would spirituality have to do with them?

I offer three theological insights:

  1. St. Paul: “We All Fall Short of the Glory of God:” This passage in Romans 3 is a source of consolation. It reminds us of our failings. If you start the semester and bomb an assignment, take this passage seriously. You are human. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Perhaps you didn’t start in time. Maybe you missed some classes. Perhaps you didn’t read as carefully as you could have. Maybe your job, your participation in athletics, or a budding relationship got more attention. That is okay. Managing multiple obligations – even good ones – is a part of life. As Martin Seligman recommends in Learned Optimism, “de-catastrophize.” Don’t assume that this failure is defining. Visit with your professor. Work harder. Ask for help from friends. There is hope. The gift of a grade is that it can help you see where you need to improve.
  2. Jesus: “The last will be first, and the first will be last:” Grades can nurture humility. When Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who come to work at different times but all get paid the same, he closes with this line. If you are successful in the academic life, remember: it is not about you or me. It is about us. One of my favorite things to see in a class is when a top student goes to the aid of a person struggling. Both benefit. As Seligman suggests, the greatest joy in life comes from using our own talents and gifts in service of others. Jesus’ admonition in the Gospel of Matthew reminds us to be mindful of the last when we are the first.
  3. St. John: “God is love:” In I John chapter four we get one of the most important passages in the New Testament. We are loved. When done well, grades can be a surprising source of love. They can affirm our gifts, point us in the direction of our talents, and help us find our vocation. In Generation Me Jean Twenge suggests that the self-esteem movement of recent decades has harmed young people. Getting high marks for average work isn’t a gift. It is a trap because it doesn’t help a person know where that person’s abilities really lie.

The next time you get a grade you don’t like, take heart. We all have our moments. The final word is grace (not “grade”). And the most important grade is often not ours. It is the grade of the person having the hardest time. Help that person out. Finally, remember that grades can be a source of love. They can help us to celebrate our gifts, feel good about our hard work, and gain a deeper sense of the vocation which God has for our lives. May God’s blessings be with you.

~ Peter

Spirituality and Facebook

Last night a group of Disciples on Campus students met at Potter’s House, a local Christian coffee house. The topic was the “spirituality of Facebook.” “So,” I asked them, ”what do you like about Facebook?” They laughed. It has become an important part of daily life for most college students. They mentioned the value of staying connected with family, the fun of knowing what friends were doing, and the simple pleasure of doing something other than studying.

I, then, asked, “What don’t you like about Facebook?” One lamented the time drain. Another complained about the bullying. A third worried about the pressure on kids. Teens and pre-teens often spend hours concocting inflated images of themselves for their Facebook pages. They regularly shift short-term relationships in and out of “Facebook official” status. As one said, kids need to be kids.

Can Facebook be a good source for our spiritual lives? Theologian Bruce Epperly thinks so. In a brief essay, “The Spirituality of Facebook,” Epperly extolls the virtues of social media for our faith journeys. As Epperly contends, Facebook helps us to celebrate the “radical and dynamic interdependence of life.” When we connect with others, we have a lived experience of community. Facebook also reminds us of the “incarnational nature of life.” It is full of all kinds of basic activities which can be sources of spiritual insight. Finally, social media can help us see “the importance of daily life as revelatory of the holy.” We often dismiss our daily living as mundane, yet it is often the habitual which reveals what we value most.

There is another gift in Facebook. It helps us to find our internal voice. Saying what we think requires courage. We spend much of our lives being silent. Facebook forces us to express ourselves. It can also nurture empathy. Not long ago I saw a Facebook sight of a former student. She had lost her two beloved dogs. As a dog-lover myself, I identified. Our pets are full members of our families. When we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves. The Facebook post was so eloquent and heartfelt, it could have been taken out of the Biblical book of Lamentations. By reading those remarks, I connected into an experience of common humanity, life tragedy, and the fragility of our relationships with all of the most important people and animals in our lives.

So, post away and do it with spirit. Know that your communication can be a source of transcendence, hope, consolation, and connection. When used with balance and discretion, it can remind us that the spiritual life is very much a part of our lives right now, in this moment, on this day, and that those daily experiences matter.

Peace be with you.
~ Peter

A 9/11 Remembrance

Today marks the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The images are still clear in our minds – of twin towers crashing down in NYC, of a plane barreling into the Pentagon, and of another plane which crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers tried to overpower their captors.

The memories for me are also personal and indelible – of a colleague who waited for word of a sibling near the World Trade Center, of a student in my “Spiritual Life” class who had to leave class that Tuesday morning to see whether her boyfriend was safe who had just arrived in NYC on a bus, and of a student of my wife’s whose uncle was assumed lost until three days after the Pentagon attack when he woke up in a hospital and could identify himself.

The years after are also clear. I remember the 2 a.m. call from the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house. A fraternity brother had been injured in Iraq by a roadside bomb. Five hours later I gathered with the fraternity members and this young man’s girlfriend to say prayers. Fortunately, he recovered and returned to Drury. And finally, just a few years ago, I remember a prayer gathering for a similar reason when the soldier son of one of our staff members was hit by an IED. He, too, recovered.

Of course, others have their stories. Two wars were ignited by this event. Many lives have been lost in the United States and around the world.

Just an hour ago we met for prayers in Stone Chapel. We remembered the victims and asked for blessings upon their family members and friends. Juan Franco, vice president of diversity in the Student Government Association, gave his perspective as an international student from Venezuela. In particular, he remembered the victims and celebrated that Drury has continued to welcome people from around the world to study in this place. The university has not chosen to build up a fortress against the world but instead to call for an education celebrating global community.

In my own remarks, I suggested that we had a choice in the words of Deuteronomy 30:19 to choose death or life. I prayed that we would choose life. Colossians 3 helps us to understand what that might mean. In an eloquent passage, Paul suggests that we can respond to the challenges of life by clothing ourselves in virtues. He included compassion, kindness, patience, love, harmony, and forgiveness.

I, then, offered this prayer: “May those ways of being touch our lives on this day as we remember the victims, ask blessing on the loved ones they left behind who miss them the most, and pray that we might see a world which puts on the beautiful garments which Paul described.”

May it be so on this 9/11 anniverary and in the days which follow. Peace be with you.

~ Peter

Your Faith Life in College

In Virtual Faith:  the Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, Tom Beaudoin writes that more than half of younger people say they are “spiritual but not religious.”  They think about the ultimate questions of life, but they are not involved in a faith community.

Now that you are at Drury, why should you pay attention to your spiritual life?

  1. College life can be tough.  Faith helps us endure.  In Romans Paul writes, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Spending time drawing from the resources of our sacred traditions can give us much needed perspective.
  2. College life can be confusing.  Faith helps us integrate the old with the new.  James Fowler is the author ofStages of Faith.  As he argues, in each stage of life we develop a different view of our core values and beliefs.  When we are young adults, we often start to “individuate.”  That is, we take the faith tradition of our parent(s) and we begin to ask a question:  “Which part will we continue to affirm and which part will we modify?”  If we take that question seriously, we will begin to merge the old and the new.  That merging may take years, but the effort will be worth the work.  It is a journey of the soul that will help us become more integrated people.  As a result, we will be able to spend less time focusing anxiously on ourselves and more time connecting in life-giving ways with others.
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  4. College life can be complicated.  Faith helps us to simplify.  Sometimes the papers, the tests, the lab reports, designs, and studio projects are too much.  We get our circuits overloaded.  A faith perspective helps us to breathe, slow down, and remember what really matters.  The great spirituality writer Thomas Merton has a wonderful perspective.  “We do not live more fully merely by doing more, seeing more, tasting more and experiencing more than we ever have before.  On the contrary, some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience less than usual.” (No Man Is an Island)  Merton goes on to say that we often spend our lives trying to “be great” but we should consider rather trying to “be little.”  That is, we should try to be ourselves.  It is all God expects.  When we let go of perfectionistic ambitions and move in that direction of humility, life starts to reveal joy and peace.

May this academic year be a good one.  May it be a year when you find strength for the journey, an integration of the old and new which feeds your spirit, and a simple path which allows you to give the gifts which you are asked to give and no more.  That will be enough.  Peace be with you.

Peter Browning