Friday, December 3, 2010

What About the End of the World? - Richard R. Crocker

What about the end of the world?
Richard R. Crocker
November 30, 2010
Mark 13:24-31

What about the end of the world? Is it something we think about? Is it something we should think about?

I seem to spend a lot of time telling students, that it’s not the end of the world. To a student in my writing 5 class who gets a B on her first paper and is absolutely distraught, I say “It’s not the end of the world.” After a student breaks up with a romantic partner, I say “It’s not the end of the world.” When someone has been found “responsible” for a violation of college policy and is suspended from the college for four terms, I say “it’s not the end of the world.” I know, in all of these cases, that it may seem as if the world they have known has suddenly and irrevocably collapsed, but it hasn’t. All of them will live and incorporate this experience into their growth and will have new opportunities for life and love.

But then, in other pastoral and personal situations, it gets harder. When someone has committed a crime and is sentenced to prison, it seems like the end of the world. When a person receives a medical diagnosis for a serious illness, it seems like the end of the world. When a child hears from her parents that they are divorcing, it can seem like the end of the world.

But then, it can be even harder. When you sit with a family whose child has died, it really seems like the end of the world. When you are in a car accident and, through your negligence, have killed another person, it sure seems like the end of the world. These are events form which there is no recovery. Sure, life continues, but the world has, in a sense, ended.

We can say as a people that our collective world sometimes ends. The world for my parents’ generation ended, apparently, on Dec 7, 1941. For this generation of Americans, things changed irrevocably on Sept 11, 2001. Life goes on; the world did not literally end, but something of infinite value was lost.

In Advent, we think about the coming of Christ, the return of Christ, the end of the world. Mark chapter 13 is called the little apocalypse, in which we commonly understand Jesus to be talking about the end of the world. Is he talking metaphorically or literally? Does it matter?

Yes. We know that this world will literally end, eventually, in fire or ice. It can go on for many generations, if we conserve it and act wisely. It could end in a much shorter time if we act stupidly.

But I think the metaphorical interpretation of the end is just as sobering. Our life in this world will end, both literally, when we die, and metaphorically, when we feel as if we have died.

In the season of Advent, we are encouraged to think about the end of the world. It is important. The teaching of Christ leads us to believe in judgment: who we truly are, apart from all our pretention, will stand revealed. It also leads us to believe in a mercy and love that transcend our finitude. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” And those words are the words of eternal life. Amen.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What about the end of the world? - Kurt Nelson

Kurt Nelson
Mark 13: 28-37
Rollins Chapel, 12.01.10
"What about the end of the world?"

Richard and I each wrote a brief reflection on the end of the world.
His will come soon.

We’ve entered, for the next four weeks,
the season of advent.
And at least for those of us who care to think about such things,
it’s a liturgical season which calls us to wait,
to watch,
to keep awake.

But in real life,
it’s a season too full of too many important things to spend much time waiting
and watching.
We have finals, of course.
And year-end paper work.
We have plans to make,
gifts to buy,
economies to bolster.
Many of us will travel,
see family,
and, I hope, get some much-deserved rest.

Besides, we know this Christmas story by heart.
So what do we have to keep awake for?
A baby is born.
He turns out to be a great guy,
and a great ethical teacher, and spiritual leader.
And, for some reason,
he wanted us to give gifts to each other,
and cut down evergreen trees,
and put colorful lights on them,
and stand around in the cold sipping hot chocolate,
listening to the Glee Club sing about reindeer and snowmen.

But advent points us not only to Christmas,
and all the weird stuff that now surrounds us,
but also points to the end.
Because though it may be embarrassing,
or confusing,
we simply can’t ignore the fact,
that a significant portion of Jesus’ message,
was about the coming Kingdom of God,
about the end of the world.
He reminded anyone who cared to listen,
and probably more than a few who didn’t,
that we are living toward something.
Something big and important, and world-changing.
And so each advent season,
we are encourage to ponder,
how we are still in a state of waiting.
To ponder the simple,
and perhaps terrifying notion,
that the world will not always be the way it is.
And that we know not the day nor the hour.
Indeed, even Jesus himself seemed a bit confused,
suggesting the world would end before the passing of a generation.
He may have been misunderstood,
or mistranslated,
but there it is.
Important, and confusing.
A time of, "Already, but not yet."

Now most often,
I think,
this notion of the end of the world,
is used to frighten.
There's a whole sub-genre of Christian literature and film,
depicting in terrifying detail those who are left behind,
when the judgment comes.
Seeking to effect, it would seem, some kind of conversion.
But we are smart around here.
We know, I hope,
that we are not ready.
And that nothing we can do,
no prayer we can pray,
or tithe we can tithe will make us ready,
save for grace.
The point is not fear,
the point is to live.
And to live as if we're living toward something.
Because whether it's our own lives,
or indeed the end of the world itself.
It will not always be this way.
And rather than fear,
I suspect that's meant to leave us with purpose and clarity.
Life and the world aren’t endless.
And so our call isn’t to make plans,
for the right connections, for the lucrative job,
and the big house, car, and mortgage,
so that one day we might retire happy.
Rather, I think,
we’re meant to do what we believe is good, and right and important.
Guided always by love of God and love of neighbor.
Living toward an end,
which I hope, and pray, and have faith,
will be far more full of grace and love and mercy,
than of fear, and despair.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? - Kurt Nelson

Kurt Nelson 
Rollins Chapel 
Psalm 22: 1-2 
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

This is, I think, a different sort of question,
than the others we’ve wondered so far this term.
It's a question not so much about humanity,
or of our relationship to God.
But a question posed toward God.
It’s a question of protest,
asked by the Psalmist,
asked by Job,
asked by Jesus as he faced death,
Asked perhaps by many of us here today.
It takes various forms,
like "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
It’s asked in times of despair.
Asked, I hope, in confirmation classes and bible studies.
A question which essentially comes down to the seemingly incongruous belief
in a good and loving and powerful God,
and the fact of suffering and evil.
A question which no doubt has led some away from faith.
And the ability to ask such a question has, I hope,
drawn still others closer in.

Nearly every sermon I’ve heard or read
on this problem of evil,
turns to offer insight into the author’s own profound experience of suffering.
But I admit that I am largely unqualified to go down such a road.
I've certainly not lived a perfect or pain-free life,
but I have lived a good, and lucky, and blessed one.
I have lost only a few close friends or family,
so far.
I have been blessed by a good and loving family from the start.
and good health, so far.
And yet even I have protested and questioned.
on behalf of myself,
on behalf of suffering people with whom I’ve sat.
on behalf of countries facing war or natural disaster,
and on behalf of history-
why should such evil, such suffering exist in the world?
Such questions are, I think,
essential to the human experience,
even those of us who have lived lives far more full of grace than of trial.
And such questions are,
I think, deeply I important to the life of faith.

And I take solace, this morning, in knowing
that I have but a few minutes to address this question of suffering,
 not because I think I will be able offer a satisfactory answer
but because I’m pretty sure more time wouldn’t help.

But it’s not for lack of trying.
Indeed, so interested in the question of evil I was,
that I devoted my college honors thesis to it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Are all religions the same? - Richard R. Crocker

Are all religions the same?
Rollins Chapel
Richard R. Crocker
November 10, 2010
Exodus 20:1-4 and Amos 5:21-24

Are all religions the same? While some people might say yes, the correct answer is no. Look around. Some religions believe in one transcendent God. Others believe in many, or none. Some believe in reincarnation. Others do not. Some believe in dietary restrictions, others do not. Obviously, all religions are not the same.

I think everyone knows this. But I think that people who argue that all religions are the same would say that they are all the same in some important way, despite their relatively unimportant differences. I think that is also not true. So why would anyone say that it is true? Because they want it to be true. Many of us are embarrassed by the particularity of our religion, especially if that particularity includes the assertion that other religions are wrong. So we try to minimize the differences and maximize common concerns. As a strategy for civil dialogue, this is good. But, in religions, as in most other areas of life, the differences are often the most interesting things, and the most important things, about us.

Consider the analogy of language. Language is the closest thing to faith. Faith is how we conceive of meaning. Language is how we express it. Language, in fact, may not simply express our deepest perceptions, but shape them. So, let us ask, just for interest, whether all languages are the same. Obviously, they are not. If they were, translation would be easy and a computer could easily do it. But, as anyone who has tried to translate literature knows, translation is very difficult. Some meanings in one language are simply absent in another.

I stand before you as a person who has studied and passed competency tests in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and German. I also stand before you as a person who cannot really use or understand any of those languages. I can only really express myself in the language that has shaped my mind – English. I also stand before you as a person who has had some instruction in Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, as well as various kinds of Christianity. But I am only fluent in Christianity – and then only in one dialect.

I don’t think this analogy is misplaced. All languages are not the same, but they all have a common purpose: they help us to create and express our thoughts, by which we seek to comprehend the world. Religions have a similar nature. They are not all alike, but they do all have a similar purpose, which is to help us create, express, and comprehend the meaning of our existence.

So if all religions have a common purpose, doesn’t that mean they are all the same? Not at all. They are different. Every religion in some way is concerned with helping us conceive and relate to what is ultimate, but they have very different concepts of what is ultimate. That is why I absolutely reject the trite metaphor that religions are all paths up the same mountain. They are different paths up different mountains, I think. Not every religion is, for example, a path up Mount Sinai, where Moses received the ten commandments – the first two of which we read today, and which seem to imply an exclusive view of the ultimate that cannot easily be turned into relativism., Yet when we look at the prophet Amos, who spoke from that tradition, we encounter a person who, speaking in the name of God, declares that God despises rituals and solemn assemblies. What God requires instead is justice.

Well, then, can’t we all agree that while religious rituals might be different, they are all concerned with justice? No. Conceptions of justice, too, are very different – even among people of the same religion. For some, justice demands eternal punishment as well as eternal bliss. For others, justice requires capital punishment for adultery. For others, such ideas are abhorrent. There is no way to bring us all together under the umbrella of justice.

But let us not despair. Even though all religions are not the same, even though there are very different pathways and very different mountains, there is yet an important commonality. All of them are concerned with what is ultimate. And though all of them conceive of and describe the ultimate in different ways, there can still be conversation – conversations in which we learn and grow.

Conversations. So we are back to language. As I told you, I have studied many languages but feel competent only in English. All other languages require a dictionary and a lot of time. But conversations between people of different languages can happen. They require effort and preparation and study, but they can happen. We can learn to appreciate, even if we cannot fully speak, another language, and to find its peculiar concepts interesting and meaningful. Some people may even become so at home in another language that they come to prefer it – one can even say they converted to it. But most of us continue to feel most comfortable with the language we learned as children, even though our vocabularies continue to grow. It is how we make sense of the world.

I know that you are now asking: isn’t he really saying that it doesn’t matter which language you speak? Isn’t he really saying that it doesn’t matter which religion you practice – because it’s a matter of what you learned? To a degree, I am saying that. It’s hard – but not impossible - to truly adopt another language or another religion. But in another sense, I am not saying that. Different religions promote different virtues, different rituals, different understandings. This is another way of saying that they can produce different fruits. If there is any important practical difference in religions, it is known, as Amos said, not in its different rituals, or even in its different theologies, but in the fruits it produces in its followers. That is why it is so sad when people look at Christianity, expecting to find the love and compassion it preaches, and find instead violence and oppression. An honest look at the fruits of our own faith should cause us all to be humble. Humility is the prerequisite of all learning.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What can we do about the world's troubles?

Kurt Nelson, 11/2/10
Rollins Chapel.

John 2: 13-16

Richard has often reminded us this term,
that 10 minutes on a cold Wednesday morning,
is not a lot of time to address such big questions.

Thankfully this morning,
we have no such problem.
I fully expect that we will come to terms,
with what we can do about the world's troubles this morning,
in 9 minutes or less,
and have a plan of action implemented by the end of today's service.
(please plan to come next week with relevant assessment data,
so we can implement necessary changes).

I suspect few of you need convincing,
that the world does indeed have problems.
And here in the land of the phrase,
“the world’s troubles are your troubles”
I suspect you don’t need much convincing,
that said troubles are at least something of our business.
So we’ve come a long way already.
Perhaps for you the phrase "world's troubles" brings to mind issues of global concern
like war, or poverty, or environmental degradation.
Or perhaps it's more local, like family troubles, or academic struggles.
Or perhaps the problem on your mind is more internal,
like illness, depression or even apathy.
The troubles are many,
and the solutions seemingly few.
But the real problem with the world's problems,
it seems to me,
is not simply the problems themselves,
or that there are so many of them,
but also the problem of despair.
I suspect we've all faced,
or will one day face,
the problem of despair.
The feeling that there's nothing that I can do,
or indeed nothing at all to be done.

And that's why I selected this week's passage.
For it's not only a terrific example of righteous and holy anger -
which, in moderation, can be a truly helpful motivator  -
but is a story about taking first steps down a journey
when the outcomes are far from known.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What is truth? - Richard R. Crocker

What is truth?
Rollins Chapel
October 27, 2010
Richard R. Crocker
John 18:37-38 John 14:5-7 1 John 3:18-19 John 8:32

What is truth? It’s a big question to explore, much less answer, in ten minutes, so early in the morning.

But we can make a few observations. The question was posed by Pontius Pilate, to Jesus, during his trial. But note what prompted Pilate’s question. He said it in response to Jesus’ assertion “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

Now what kind of truth are we talking about? Because there are different kinds. There are truths that we know by definition. Most of these are mathematical. 2 plus 2 is four, by definition. That is not, I think, the kind of truth that Jesus was talking about, nor is it the kind of truth that most interests us. There are other truths that are discovered by investigation, many of them scientific. Such truths are descriptive and always subject to revision. When Newton discovered the law of gravity, he discovered a “truth”. Gravity as a theory doesn’t interest me much either, though I am very much affected by it. But there is another kind of truth that interests me, and I expect all of us, very much – and it is the truth we discover for ourselves, through experience, and through the testimony of others, Jesus says he came to testify to the truth – not to prove it. Testimony is a way of getting to the truth of a complex situation. In a trial, testimony is given to help us determine the truth, and the truth is usually not simple. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” can be understood as a cynical statement, signifying his conviction that there is no such thing as truth, or perhaps as a sincere statement, signifying his experience that truth is hard to discover. In either case, it is interesting to note that Jesus did not, at his trial, answer the question.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whom Shall I Send? - Richard Crocker

Whom Shall I Send?
Rollins Chapel
Richard R. Crocker
October 20, 2010
Isaiah 6:1-8

Last week Kurt explored the questions: Who am I, and who shall I become?

This week: “Whom Shall I send?” It is a similar question, and you may notice some overlap in our remarks.

Whom shall I send? The question occurs in this passage from Isaiah, which describes an ecstatic, mystical experience that occurred, apparently, in the temple in Jerusalem, where Isaiah had a vision of the holiness of God and of his own sinfulness, and where he heard the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send?” One might well ask, send where? To do what? But Isaiah was so caught up in the moment that he did not ask; he simply responded,” send me.” Only afterwards did he find out what he was sent to do.

Would that all of us had such a powerful experience to bring us to a sense of vocation. But most of us settle for a job. A job is an activity for which someone will pay us. It is a way of trading labor for money. It is a way of making a living. We worry about getting jobs, since they are scarce. But a job is different from a vocation. A vocation is a calling. It is something that cries out to us to be done, that engages our energies and emotions and skills and interests, that we will do not simply to make a living, not chiefly to make money, but to make a life.

Almost any job can become a vocation if it somehow has a transcendent dimension – if it feeds your soul. Any work that is done chiefly for the common good, for the glory of God, rather than for private gain, can become a vocation.

The novelist/minister Frederich Buechner, whom Kurt quoted last week, once said that your vocation is where your deep joy and the world’s great need meet. He explained that things that bring us no joy cannot be our vocation, but things that do not meet the world’s need also cannot be a vocation. The two must coincide. Thus, we have many joyless lawyers, even though there may be a need for good lawyers. There may also be joyful investment bankers, but I confess that I can’t see that the world needs any more investment bankers. I may be wrong. But I think Buechner is right. Our vocation must both bring us joy and meet a deep need in the world.

In the case of Isaiah, however, it’s hard to know what joy he got. Being a prophet – really a prophet – is a singularly dangerous and unrewarding job. A prophet, as Jesus said, is very likely to be stoned. The prophet speaks a message that the world needs to hear, but that almost no one wants to hear it. My divinity school at Vanderbilt had an inscription over the door “The school of the Prophets.” Needless to say, enrollment was always low. Prophets are unusual. Almost all of them have the experience that God predicted when Isaiah said, “Send me.” God said: “Go and say to this people: keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes….” This is a hard task: to speak words to people so offensive that they will shut their eyes and stick fingers in their ears. But, for the love of God, and the love of the world, sometimes this is what must be done. While I would not necessarily call Al Gore a prophet, certainly his message of an inconvenient truth, has met with steadfast resistance. Gandhi’s message of nonviolence and Martin Luther King’s, both, echoing, of course, Jesus – what currency do they command?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Am I and Who Ought I Become?

 Kurt Nelson
Who Am I and Who Ought I Become?
October 13, 2010.  Exodus 2

I suspect every college graduate,
past, present or future,
has faced the question:
"What are your plans for after graduation?”
Dozens.  Perhaps hundreds of times.

Professors ask.  And administrators, and family members.
classmates, casual acquaintances, people on the street.
Early in one’s education,
it seems innocent enough.
But later in one’s career,
as choice and expectation team up,
it tends to become burdensome and perhaps even annoying.

But I admit, I've asked.
And I’ll continue to ask,
because it’s still far more polite and effective,
than asking directly the question behind the question:
who are you, and who you think you ought to become?

We've ventured boldly outside the biblical corpus,
for this week’s Big Question.

 “Who am I and who ought I become?”
has been attributed variously to the great and illustrious President
William Jewett Tucker,
and to the great and current Assistant Chaplain,
Kurt Nelson.
But at least its immediate origins,
it stems from the inaugural speech,
of the Tucker Foundation's first Dean, Fred Berthold.
Fred -
like President Tucker before him,
sought to find a way to honor the broad, Christian work to which he was called,
while keeping in mind the challenge of the missionary zeal
upon which Dartmouth was founded.
And this question was his answer.

This question was, and I hope is,
at the heart of not only the Tucker Foundation,
but the entirety of our liberal arts education.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Eternal Life? - Richard Crocker

 What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel
October 6, 2010
Mark 10:17-22

What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a very difficult question to explore, much less answer, in less than ten minutes. I do note, however, that Jesus answered it in about 30 seconds.
The question requires that we answer three other independent questions. Those questions are: What do we mean by eternal life? Is there such a thing? If so, is it for some, for all, or for none of us? And, if it is possible for any of us, how do we get it? It is this last question that the man addressed to Jesus.

What do we mean by eternal life? Well, there is some confusion. Sometimes in scripture the word “everlasting” is used – which implies life that never ends. This is a popular understanding. We go to heaven and live forever – on and on and on and on…….. But the word eternal is different. It refers to life outside of time. Time is a dimension that dominates our earthly existence. There seems to be no escape from it. Yet, as we have come to surmise, reality has many dimensions, far more than the three or four familiar to us. Eternal life is life in a different dimension, outside of time.

If that is so, if eternal life is life in a different dimension, we may yet ask, “is there such a thing?” And the only honest answer to that question is, “we do not know.” Absolutely no one KNOWS if there is such a thing. It is beyond our comprehension, beyond our capacity. Many people today, convinced that human beings are essentially an assembly of molecules, assume that there can be no life apart from those molecules. But that is a belief, a faith, that goes beyond what we can possibly know. Others believe, hope, have faith that our essential life partakes of other dimensions, and that our lives are not conquered by time. The evidence for this belief is also not convincing to everyone. Although some belief in life beyond this one is present in almost every human culture, so much so that it seems intuitive, or ingrained in human being, the belief is not beyond question. For Christians, the evidence is in the transcendent life of Jesus, which was revealed in a new dimension after his death. But while this evidence is held dear by Christians, many others, especially in our materialistic world, cannot give it any credit. So the answer to the question, “Is there such a thing?”, is “We do not know.” But we do know that such belief is common in human life and is essential to the Christian story.

So the third question: if there is such a thing as eternal life, is it possible for any of us humans – and, if so, for only some or for all? Here again, traditional Christian thought runs up against the spirit of the age, which seems to convince many that eternal life is not possible for any human being. But, while Christians are united in their belief that it is possible, they are divided on whether it is for some or for all. Most have said it is for all – though traditionally, the bliss of eternal life is for some, while the torment of eternal life is for others. This great schema – the story of creation, the fall into sin, the redemption of the world through the sacrifice of Jesus, and judgment of the world, following which some will enter heaven and others will be condemned to hell – has been the organizing schema of Christian civilization. Both heaven and hell are seen as eternal. For many Christians this traditional teaching is still convincing. For others, however, the know about God through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

by Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel – 9/29/10
Am I My Brother’s Keeper.  Genesis 3: 2-11

I’ve been on what can only be described as a spiritual journey,
with this text, this past week,
As, I suppose, one would hope from sitting with any good, big question.
I wanted to make sense not only of this strange story in Genesis,
but also of the various uses of the phrase,
"am I my brother's keeper?"
within our popular and political context.
We are - I've come to the undeniable conclusion -
We’re not really sure if, or to what extent,
we are our brothers keepers.
Though that doesn’t stop us from quoting the passage frequently.
The phrase "I am my brother's keeper" or
"I am my sister's keeper" is a popular one with our current President.
Though, like most of those who quote this line,
 the murderous context seems all but forgotten.
But we’re just as likely to hear the phrase,
"brother's keeper" style politics uttered with scorn and disdain,
to highlight a more conservative vantage point,
on various social and entitlement programs.
Indeed, the only consistent use of the phrase,
relates to literal relationships of brotherhood.
So, of course, I pondered my own younger brother,
whose name is Carl. 
he's 4 ½ years younger than I,
And he was a great source of difficulty for me growing up,
as I was for him.
I don't consider myself much of a Cain figure,
nor him much of an Abel.
Neither of us ever murdered the other out of jealous rage.
But we had our challenges,
our dust-ups,
and our difficulties.
I suspect, as the younger brother,
that Carl got the worst of it.
For he was the young, brash, obnoxious one.
But I was the older, wiser, more malevolent one.
Thus, I was asked by parents fairly often,
in good biblical fashion,
"Where is your brother Carl?"
Maybe it was because I had a robust sense of parental authority,
or perhaps due to my good, Lutheran upbringing,
I knew that Cain's response didn't work very well –
but I was much more likely to give an honest response to this question,
such as:
"He's probably still stuck in the laundry chute,"
or, "I convinced him to hide in the dryer a while back,
and I haven't seen him since,"
than I was to utter Cain's sarcastic question,
"Am I my brother's keeper?"

It is a strangely profound question,
which no doubt continues to play on the public imagination.
But let us note that it comes from a deeply strange
and troubling text.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who told you that you were naked?- Richard R. Crocker

Who told you that you were naked?
Richard Crocker
Rollins Chapel
Sept 22, 2010
Genesis 3:8-13

I am glad that you are here, this morning, so early, on the first day of the new term and the new year.
“Who told you that you were naked?”
We are talking this term about big questions, and the significance of this one may not be obvious to you. But it is a big question, as I will try to explain.
“Who told you that you were naked?” This is a question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s a quaint story, depicting God as a person who wanders through the garden in the cool of the day, and during the stroll God encounters his favorite creatures adorned in unusual costume. Whereas heretofore they had been just as the other creatures, now they had decked themselves with fig-leaves, which they had sewn together. They had made clothes. So we may say that the first casualty of the fall was the creation of the fashion industry. Because, you see, until they had eaten the forbidden fruits from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve had no sense of nakedness; they had no self-consciousness; no need to adorn themselves, no need to hide.

Alas, all of us, their children, have inherited their guilt. All of us are all too aware of our nakedness, even though the fashion industry continues to help us hide. To be human is to be self-conscious, to feel awkward, out-of-place, to want to hide. Who told us that we were naked? We learned it very young, when we failed, when we were misunderstood, when we were chosen last or called dorks, or ridiculed, or hurt. Maybe no one needed to. But still, we have been told every day, in one way or another. We have always been clothed, since our births. And we have been engaged in a life-long cover up attempt. We have been covering up our sense of inadequacy, springing from fear and doubt.

I will never forget when my youngest son, when he was about four years old, once asked the family, “what does embarrass: mean?” His older brother promptly walked over to him, pulled down the young kid’s shorts and said, “That’s what it means.” Such love.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Big Questions - Richard Crocker

Big Questions
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel
September 19, 2010

I welcome you all to Dartmouth and especially Rollins Chapel. I hope that this place will become a refuge for you, and an inspiration.

You have come to college, I believe and hope, to seek answers for big questions. Big questions. Questions such as: what is the purpose of my life? Why is there war? Can it ever be ended? Why is there suffering? Can it be redeemed? What is really real? Is it only material? Or is there another kind of reality? Is temporality essential to all reality, or is there something real called eternity? These are big questions – questions you may already have thought about, but questions that are even more appropriate to your age and to a college such as Dartmouth.

But do not be deceived. You will not always find encouragement for asking such questions. Some people – fellow students and even some faculty members, will declare that such questions are foolish. Many more will simply seek distractions from the big questions by asking many little questions. Little questions, such as: what are the easiest courses? Where are the best parties? How do I meet cute girls or cute boys? Which major will help me earn the most money? How can I be cool? These little questions will gnaw away your soul, but they are, alas, the sum and substance of many people’s lives.

Kurt and I are going to talk about big questions, from the perspective of Christian faith, during the Wednesday morning chapel services this term. Both of us will speak quite briefly today, but usually only one of us will speak. As you know, I am Richard Crocker. I am the Dean of the Tucker Foundation and the College Chaplain. Kurt Nelson is the assistant chaplain. Though you might find it hard to believe, I am a lot older than Kurt. For that reason, and others, we sometimes see things differently. I think it’s valuable for you to hear from our different experiences and perspectives.

When I entered college in the late 1960’s - I came to Brown from rural Alabama. It was during the middle of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam war. Yes, it was the era of free love and drugs for many, but it was also, for me, and for many of my friends, a time of deep struggle. I was forced to confront the fact that much of what I had been taught was wrong – although much of it was also right. I learned that our government was sometimes dreadfully wrong. I confronted big questions of morality – the morality of war, the morality of racism, the morality of complacency. For me, and many others, big questions confronted us every day as we thought about being drafted to fight a war that we thought was wrong. Those
big questions have haunted me until now. They are the reason that I changed from my intention to study biology to studying literature, and then religion, and then becoming a minister.

Kurt had different big questions to answer. He will tell you about that. And you will have yours.

This time isn’t so different than mine. You, too, have a war to think about – though it may be easier for you not to think about it because there is no draft. You too have questions of justice and equality to think about in a society that is deeply troubled about difference. The circumstances are different, but I suppose the big questions are similar. They all concern how we live with integrity, how we maintain hope in the midst of suffering and injustice, and what is worthy of our whole life’s work. It is a question of what truly gives life meaning.

Although I have many quarrels with many who espouse Christian faith, although I think many very wrong things are done by those who call themselves Christian, I have found, and continue to find, Christian faith, centered in the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ, to be the center of my life and hope. Such a conviction was what led to the founding of this college, and the erection of this chapel. It is a gospel of which we need not be ashamed, even though shameful things have been done in its name. Questioning our faith – whether it be faith in God, faith in ourselves, faith in the privileges that we take for granted – whatever our faith may be, questioning it is the biggest question of all. But not questioning it, not pursuing the center of meaning in life, is the biggest mistake, because an unexamined faith will not hold.

Kurt and I – and many others – are here for you – not to insist that we have the answers for your questions, but to tell you how important the big questions are, and to be supports and companions for you as you ask them. May your faith grow truer, stronger, and make you more compassionate as you live and study in this very wonderful place.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God is not one.

by Kurt Nelson

A number of people have sent me the following article, announcing the coming of Stephen Prothero's new book God is Not One.

My esteemed colleague and co-blogger, Richard, shared it with me a number of months ago. And we discussed it.  And then he sent it to me again this morning.  So I figure it's worth a comment.  (And I've ordered the book through our library.)

I'll start by saying I agree with Prothero's basic point.  There are many who believe that all religions are essentially the same.  And I am not one of them.  And it seems to me the basic point of honest, multi-faith dialogue to come to terms with this fact, and to find a way to live and work with it.

In that vein, I take umbrage with the following paragraph:

While I do not believe we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap.

There are many poor opportunities out there for multi-faith dialogue (so too there are poor religious studies courses, and poor opportunities for religious observance.)  I have certainly witnessed and participated in badly run dialogues.  But there is a new generation of inter-faith leaders who are trying to live and work with difference without ignoring, avoiding, or glossing over it.  This is how we describe and do multi-faith dialogue.  It's far from "magical" and is often quite difficult.  But I have faith that a world with more thoroughgoing inter-faith engagement and education will be a world where blatantly anti-Muslim rhetoric is not so politically advantageous.

So says Prothero later:

What we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.

Indeed, we are allies on this front.  But purchasing this particular book isn't the only way to get there.  In the midst of increasingly diverse college campuses especially, I would welcome the encouragement of both good religious studies work in the classroom, and good and honest inter-faith engagement and dialogue outside of it.  In the current religious climate, I suspect it will take us all to make a serious, lasting difference.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Our Society is Corrupt - By Richard Crocker

“The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it?”
First Congregational Church, Lebanon, NH
August 15, 2010
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56

Summer is a time when many people attend family reunions. Some of the reunions, especially the large ones, can be very trying. Although you are related somehow to the many people who gather, you may feel little kinship with them, and, if the truth be told, you may not even want to talk to them. Indeed, you may discover, as soon as you try to enter into a conversation, that there is no safe subject except the weather. Just because you are related to them doesn’t mean that you share deep beliefs about things that really matter. Race, religion, politics – talking about these subjects reveals, very quickly, deep seemingly unbridgeable disagreements, and each party seems to think that they are absolutely right. Too many of my conversations at such gatherings end up with one of my relatives saying to me, “Our society is corrupt; what are you going to do about it?” – or, since most of my relatives are southerners: “This country is messed up, and what are yewe goan to do about it?” Unfortunately, I don’t think many of them really want to hear my suggestions. Especially is a nation as polarized as ours is now, we often find the situation that Jesus described: father against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in law. This is of course not a universal experience, but it is a common one. All of us prefer to have deep conversations with people who share our basic values. We find it hard to talk comfortably with people who hold strong convictions that are antithetical to ours. It is hard to have a pleasant conversation with someone who is deeply convinced that you are going to hell.

Monday, July 26, 2010

RIP Cap & Trade

by Kurt Nelson

Harry Reid has announced that, even in the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Democratic Party will abandon its efforts for a robust bill to cap carbon emissions, and instead seek a pared down bill to make for safer future drilling.

I'm filled with a somewhat familiar sort of legislative depression.  A good portion of which takes the form of the question, "what do I now do?"  I will, of course, continue to reduce my consumption of fossil fuels and pursue a more sustainable lifestyle.  But all such actions frequently seem largely symbolic (or merely an attempt assuage my personal environmental guilt).  And larger scale action, even on my one small home, is almost entirely outside of my income bracket.

Indeed, in the wake of a public disaster and a congress which (at least rhetorically) supported a capping of greenhouse gasses, creation of green jobs, and an end to our oil addiction, we must all, I think, ask ourselves what we ought do now.

Blame is easy to cast.  And it's been done by many, to many.  Those moved primarily the development of green technologies (for example) are already reminding the country that cap and trade was merely a means to an end - to raise prices on low-cost, high-waste resources like coal and oil, so that newer, cleaner technologies could take their rightful place.  Others might rightly respond that, in fact, the creation of green technologies itself is merely a means to a end - to curb pollution and climate change.  But we might rightly point out that the halting of climate change is still only an instrumental good.  But this is where it gets a bit unclear, in my opinion.

We struggle more when it comes to ultimate goods.  Are we seeking simply to continue life as we know it?  Are we seeking to maximize human flourishing? (Because there to be those who think a little warming will, perhaps, make us better off.)  Are we seeking to preserve the diversity of species?  Or glaciers?  Or polar bears?

It is this articulation which, I believe, is most importantly lacking.  In the face of vociferous, well funded opposition, we have to not only create a road-map for a sustainable future, but also a vision of what we hope that might look like.  Personally, I would think the good which we seek is a more just, equitable and healthy world.  And I cannot ignore the disproportionate effects that pollution and climate change have, and will have, on those segments of the human population that are already struggling to make ends meet and find enough to eat.

But as we look beyond cap and trade I would happily stand beside those seeking to maintain biological diversity.  And those seeking a sustainable capitalist economy.  And those looking to create jobs.  And those concerned with arctic peoples and habitats.  But without such visions, I fear we will face further disappointment and delay.

Effective Prayer - Richard Crocker

Effective Prayer
Hanover UCC
Richard R. Crocker
July 25, 2010

Scripture: Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-13

You may have heard this joke. Forgive me if you have.

A man was driving down the street in a sweat because he had an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking place. Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, please help me find a parking place. If you do, I’ll go to church every Sunday and I‘ll give up alcohol, I promise. Suddenly, a parking place appeared. The man looked up again and said, "Never mind. I found one.”

This sermon is about prayer. Prayer is something that all of us know about and that many of us practice. Yet there is a great deal of confusion among religious people about the efficacy of prayer, about its purpose and its practice. I hope this sermon will help you think about prayer more clearly and perhaps value it more dearly.

The Most Important Thing - Richard Crocker

The Most Important Thing
Hanover UCC
Richard R. Crocker
July 18, 2010

Amos 8:1-12, Luke 10:38-42

Amos was not fit for polite society. Like many prophets, he was erratic, irritating, and disturbing. Some would have called him a crazy man; others called him a troublemaker; others a traitor. Yet, despite his being so politically incorrect, so troublesome and irritating, so infuriating and so uncharming, he was judged, by the later compilers of the Hebrew scriptures, to have been a true prophet, one whose words were worthy of preservation for all time, because he spoke the truth. He told a nation that thought it was prosperous and thriving that it was really putrid and dying. He told a people who were confident in their wealth that they would lose everything. He told people who ignored and exploited the poor that their behavior would lead them to ruin. Those words were hard to take then, and they are hard to take now.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reflection on the Good Samaritan - Richard Crocker

New eyes, new ears
Our Savior Lutheran Church
Richard R. Crocker
July 11, 2010

Luke 10:25-37, Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-10; Colossians 1:1-14

Probably most of us have heard the story of the good Samaritan 100 times at least, and we have listened to many sermons on the subject. Perhaps there are some in the congregation hearing it for the first time. It would be nice if this were true. But I am assuming that all of you, like me, suffer from the problem of over familiarity. We do not really listen to the story because we have heard it so often, and we think we know what it means. So as soon as the scripture lesson starts, we may tune out. There is nothing new here for us. Only an exhortation. We listen, and we carry away from the story an admonition to “go and do likewise.’ And that admonition means that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan and be attentive to the needs of anyone we encounter – especially people we are supposed to dislike. Well, that message doesn’t gain much traction in our lives, does it? Help out anyone in need – that’s what it means to be a neighbor, right? Isn’t that what we take away? And don’t we try to do that by giving money to our church and to other charitable organizations – and by having the Friday night community dinners and giving to Oxfam and UNICEF etc? Now I would not for a minute discourage those charitable activities, but I have discovered after listening to the story of the good Samaritan for many years that I have been hearing it wrongly. Perhaps you have too.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque"

by Kurt Nelson

I'm beginning to suspect my reluctance to post more frequently has less to do with lack of time and effort and more to do with lack of desire to publish unfinished thoughts.  But I'm trying.  I really am.

I find my thoughts turning frequently in recent days and months, to our public conversation surround the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque."  (one take  or another or yet another).  Public demonstrations and furious blog posts have cropped up all over, and Peter King and Rick Lazio have decided to invest their political energy in opposition to the construction of this Islamic Community Center.  As far as I can tell, there's little to debate from a policy standpoint.  Precedent would suggest that the first amendment, though it appeals directly only to Congress, would apply, and we would not "prohibit the free expression" of this religious community.  (It should be noted that NYC officials have, so far, admirably supported and approved the effort.)  But the vociferous backlash remains, and is, in my opinion, drowning thoughtful voices of support.

But I'm moved and struck by a couple of questions which more directly relate to my work.  I take great pride in the Dartmouth students I work with.  I trust that they have had meaningful experiences of religious and inter-religious community, have delved more deeply and thoughtfully into their own senses of faith, spirituality, meaning and purpose.  But I wonder how well we (or I) have prepared and educated them to take on the challenges of religious difference in the world directly?  To what extent have we developed 'religious literacy' or 'interfaith understanding' as a goal our our liberal arts education?  Are we building a movement that is prepared to take on the next religious conflict as they enter their careers and lives?

This is, no doubt, an emotional issue for those who lived through the attacks on the World Trade Center.  And without meaningful education and contact with members of the world's religious traditions, I might have been swayed by those who claim that they will be willing to allow a Mosque on the sacred Ground Zero, when churches are allowed at Mecca.  But it is our collective job to remind the country that it is precisely our adherence to religious freedom (and press, and expression, and many others) which makes us a great, pluralist nation, and give us countless opportunities not afforded elsewhere.

No doubt, meaningful steps have been taken, but there's much more to do.  This is a goal not just for those who have an interest in multi-faith work, but is a value we must seek to promote for all people - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha'is, Atheists, Agnostics, Seekers, and everything and anything else.

Until we do, I suspect a good portion of the country will remain convinced that the "they" that attacked the Twin Towers are the same "they" that are seeking to building a Mosque on sacred American ground.

(Viewer Discretion Advised)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


by Kurt Nelson

As I sit in my 95 degree office in normally-frigid Northern New England, I find myself reflecting on three small paradoxes in my current life.  (Note: they may be too small to be paradoxes.  Perhaps ironies, or simply silly things that I've noticed recently.)

The first is, of course, that I've never been so hot as I am this week.  In warmer climates, we're better prepared for a week if 95 degree + temperatures.  But here in the snowy hills of New Hampshire, we simply bake in our homes.  In our offices.  Staring listlessly and trying our best to carry on normally.

The second:  I've recently become the car commuter in my family, while my wife now walks to her work.  And I've never been so frustrated with traffic as in this small town.  Not on the interchange between I-91 and I-95 in New Haven, CT, which I don't think has ever been clear.  Not on the Beltway around Washington DC.  Nothing compares to waiting for minutes on end to get past the 3 lights in Hanover.  Pedestrians crossing against lights.  People stopping to chat.  Too many cars in too little space.  Where are they all going?

And finally, and (hopefully) most significant, I was recently told by a faculty member who teaches about religion that he has "no patience for piety."  I suspect it was meant to be a controversial statement, but I found myself empathizing to a certain degree.  Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of patience for piety.  But I hardly see piety as the root or point of my work.  I'm left with clear images of wealthy scribes making public donations, and of the hollow, public prayers of politicians.  I'm certainly more interested in what faith and religion and belief mean for people than what they look like.

Perhaps this is what we're all after - scholars, preachers and teachers of religion.  But my particular hope for inter-religious work rests in our ability to move past the surface and delve more deeply with one another into questioning the source, meaning and value of our traditions, practices, values and ethics.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Final Vespers Sermon - The World Is Not Fine.

by Kurt Nelson

My final reflection on term-long discussion of "The Meaning of the Resurrection."

I've long pondered  the meaning of the resurrection this term,
as I took in our broad ranging reflections so far.
We've heard about Love and joy, and sainthood.
Literary theory and theology of all kinds.
I decided that my closing sermon would have a fairly simple thesis:
The world is not fine,
but neither is it hopeless.
The world is full of sin.
That is, it's full of war and inequality and injustice and disaster.
And our actions,
yours and mine,
contribute to its troubles.
We can thus not appreciate the meaning of the resurrection,
until we appreciate the meaning of the crucifixion-
appreciate what it teaches us about ourselves and the world.
These two events are inextricably bound
and they teach us together,

 Now, I'm wired such that conversations
with people who speak a different language if faith than I,
are uniquely helpful and clarifying.
My faith, and experience of faith,
are perhaps uniquely formed by my consistent conversations with non-religious folk.
Maybe it's because of my own lengthy sense of estrangement from religion.
Or maybe due to some deep-seated evangelical desire.
But mostly it's because of their consistently simple and biting questions and comments
about the life of faith, which come from my conversations with non-believers.
And as I ponder the meaning of the resurrection,
in my own life,
I am left to think as much,
about my conversations with non-believers,
than of sermons, and Easters, and bible-studies growing up.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A sermon for Earth Sunday and Pride Week

Kurt Nelson, 04/26/10
John 21
This day marks the 4th Sunday of Easter.
A day also becoming know as “Earth Sunday”
And it’s also the beginning of LGBT Pride week at Dartmouth.
So it’s an exciting day for me.
And I am proud to be part of a community,
that can celebrate the resurrection, and the earth, and Pride all together,
though we probably don’t all agree on the convergence of Easter, and Pride, and Earth Day,
we are deep and broad enough to know that these things matter deeply.
And they matter together.
And we can talk about them together.
There’s a whole lot swimming around up here in my head.
A number of disparate ideas kind of shifting and moving.
And I hope that they’ll fall into some meaningful order for us.
but I’ve decided to provisionally title this sermon:
“It all makes sense in my head.”
Now it may not surprise most of you, that I would consider myself a liberal.
I am, after all, the kind of person who’s invited to preach,
during LGBT Pride Weeks, and on Earth Sundays.
And I suppose that, being honest with myself, I’m pretty happy about the label most of the time.
But be sure that mine is a distinctly Christian liberalism.
And there’s room for you there if you consider yourself a liberal.
Or if you don’t.
It’s a perspective, really, founded really in one word,
a word which is at the very center of my faith,
indeed at the very center of our Lutheran Church.
And I hope, of the Christian people as a whole…
and that word is “Grace.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On leaving...

We spent a final full day with Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco.  It's officially far more satisfying to hang sheetrock than it is to unload and haul it.  We treated ourselves to Mission burritos around the corner from the childhood home of one of our trip members.  All in all, it was a terrific end to a terrific trip.

But, I noticed throughout the day that while our typical conversations about life, faith and service continued, they also made way for talk of travel, our immanent return to Hanover, and upcoming classes and plans for the term.  Our conversations more closely resembled those we had back on campus.  Our closing reflection was significant, but disjointed.  We all have plans to make, people to call, last minute items to buy.  In short, the trip was coming to and end.

And while I'm quite ready to return to my home and family and bed, I will grieve the end of these moments together.  We were truly present with one another for a brief period, and wonderful things happened.  But the time has come for this trip to end.  For a return to normal life.  We can simply hope that the work done, the lessons learned and the relationships developed here will remain and carry through to the next steps.  I, for one, am hopeful of good things yet to come.

Tomorrow, back to the cold.  Back to life.  I'm ready, but it will be bittersweet.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gardens, Food, Toilets, etc.

Working, on Wednesday, with Welcome Ministries was a - pardon the pun - welcome relief for me.  There's something quite satisfying about turning a burnt-out church yard, turned dangerous open lot, into a community garden.  Especially in an area without grocery stores and fresh foods available.  And I continue to be impressed by the good and creative work of so many good people here on the ground.

The previous two days were spent serving massive meals at Glide Memorial Church's meal program.  In the course of two breakfasts and a lunch, we served about 2,200 meals.  I've never seen so much Oatmeal in all my life.  The weight of homelessness and hunger issues washes over me in settings such as Glide.  We can solve hunger with a massive meal.  But four hours later, it's back.

At those meals, one catches glimpses of humanity - people sharing food and laughing.  Hearty 'good-mornings' and 'thank yous' from guests I wouldn't expect to be cheerful.  But there are also angry words and people.  Grumpy volunteers.  And lots of despairing faces and sad stories.  It tests one's faith and hope that we can do anything but satisfy immediate needs.  So for now,  thatt's what we do.  And, while limited, it is good.

On an only moderately connected note, the water in our hostel is shut off this morning.  We have the morning off before hosting a Carnival at Hamilton Family Center this afternoon, and I planned  accordingly - with ample time to eat and shower before the 9 AM water shut down.  But mid-morning, I was in need of a restroom.  I set out to the neighborhood Vietnamese sandwich shop.  The woman behind the counter reluctantly waved me past the counter, only to be confronted with an "Out of Order" sign.  I took off toward a KFC/Taco Bell.  Closed.  I rounded the corner to see only high-rises and closed shop fronts.

This wasn't good.  I passed convenience stores and hotels.  No luck.  I was singularly focused.  But occasionally my mind wandered to the hundreds lined up just down the block at Glide.  Where, but at meal centers and shelters, do folks who are consistently, persistently without water and shelter use the bathroom?  Having walked and smelled Ellis St. many times, I knew the answer to this question.  But my own wanderings, approaching emergency levels, allowed me to consider this fact anew.  I am thankful for those who meet the basic needs of homeless people.  And thankful for the opportunity to help in a tiny way.  Even when I am drawn more to full service facilities and creative solutions to poverty.

And I found, eventually, my own relief through the metal detectors in the opulent San Fran City Hall (it was a long walk on many levels).  I suspect few of San Francisco's homeless have ever sat where I sat.

Closing on an almost-entirely unrelated note - I came downstairs yesterday as another College group was preparing to leave.  Seated on a couch was a small group of impossibly young looking students, loudly and openly complaining about any number of things.  And I realized that I had seen none of this from our group.  When the work is hard, we acknowledge it and work on.  When we're delayed or disorganized, we wait.  Play silly games.  Talk about any number of our favored subjects.  But we don't whine.  And for that, I am most thankful.  Many, myself included, have lamented the sense of entitlement that persists amongst student populations at top colleges and universities.  But it is a privilege to be among a group of intelligent, dedicated students who are here to work and reflect together, and who do so in strong spirits.  If this group is any indication, we have much about which to be hopeful.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spiritual but not Religious

Spiritual but Not Religious
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley
Richard R. Crocker
March 21, 2010
Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6-13

Thank you for welcoming me to speak to you today. You are known, of course, for being a tolerant group of people, and your invitation to me certainly confirms that reputation. I speak to you to, honestly, I hope, first as a human being – a condition that we all share, but then also more particularly as a liberal Presbyterian protestant Christian – a condition that is becoming almost as rare as the platypus.

Your pastor asked me to speak to you about the religious and spiritual life of young people, based upon 30 years of working with young people in settings as diverse as chaplaincy at Bates and Dartmouth, being a college dean, working with adolescents as a high school English teacher, working in clinical settings including state mental hospitals for adolescents judged criminally insane, and in private practice as a pastoral psychotherapist, and also as the father of three sons. These experiences have brought me into contact, often close contact, with young people in the process of forming, or stabilizing, their identities. Since issues of faith are universal among human beings, and since answers to basic religious and spiritual questions are essential to identity, I have been privileged to share in the journey of many thoughtful, and some not so thoughtful, young people. It is from these accumulated experiences that I speak to you today. And my message is simple. Some things have changed, and some things have not changed.