Monday, April 22, 2013

Love and Marriage - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
April 21, 2013
Genesis 2:18-25

                Last week I spoke about kindness as a chief component of a good life. This week I want to talk about a related virtue, an essential part of the good life, which is love, and especially marriage. Love is an essential part of the good life – perhaps the essential part, and marriage is one of its truest expressions.

            I mentioned last week that, during my forty years as a chaplain/teacher/dean/counselor, I have frequently been asked what one should look for in a life partner. I replied “kindness.” One of you accosted me after chapel and expressed amazement that I had been asked that question at all, much less that I had been asked it frequently. This person stated that such a question (about choosing life partner) was not on the minds of college students during this generation.

            Hmmm, I thought. Maybe things have changed. It is certainly true that I do not perform as many weddings as I used to. It is also true that dating is almost taboo in college these days, while “hooking up’ seems to have been normalized. Nevertheless, I stand by my assertion, slightly revised, to say that, during the forty years of my ministry, thoughtful young people have often asked me what quality they should look for in choosing a life partner, and I stand by the answer: Kindness. Beauty, brains, and wealth are appealing but not enduring, while the character trait of kindness is the key to a happy relationship.

            Recently Susan Paton, a 1977 graduate of Princeton and the mother of two current Princeton students, created quite a stir by her article in the Princeton newspaper telling Princeton women that one of the chief parts of their Princeton education should be choosing a mate. She wrote: “You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who will be worthy of you.”[1] This argument has drawn understandable criticism from many – but it is still true, isn’t it, that many of us do find our life partners during the college years.

            I thought I should begin this meditation by going back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden, when, according to the story, God created Adam (man), and then, seeing Adam’s essential loneliness, created Eve (woman) by taking a rib from the man and making a woman.  Now, please remember that this is a story – a profound and important story, but a story. It is not history and not biology. Those who literalize the story are missing the point. I remember that when I learned this story as a child in Sunday school I was told that someone (a woman), somewhere in the world had my rib, and it was my task to find  her. This was not helpful. But the essential point is profoundly true, because this story gives us the best definition of love that I know. It is this: love is a connection that alleviates loneliness.

            A connection that alleviates loneliness. The ancient story in Genesis says that God first brought all the animals to Adam to see what he would name them. That is cute, but also profound, because, for many people, their connection to a pet, to an animal, is their chief antidote to loneliness. Some people love their pets more than they love anything or anyone else. This is true. But the story says that  connections with animals were not enough for Adam. He needed another human connection, an intimacy so profound that the two shared their very nature. And so Eve was created from Adam’s own flesh, as a true companion, the essential companion, to alleviate loneliness. Now I am aware that this story is offensive to some people, but it is the story, and its essential point is profound. There is no feeling so miserable as loneliness. Remember how you felt when you first arrived at Dartmouth? Remember how desperately you sought friends, or at least a friend?  And then remember how much better you felt when you found one? Remember, even now, how difficult it is for some people to go to commons unless they know they will find someone there to eat with?

            Friends are important to the good life. Indeed they are. But even if we make life-long friends, they will not be with us every moment. They will not share our daily successes and failure. They will be integral parts of our family on a daily and perpetual basis. They will go their way and we will go ours. We will not share our lives completely.

            So most of us desire and need a lifepartner ---  not a one night stand. Sex is the biological drive that fuels our search, but it is only the fuel, not the essence.  And so it is that marriage has evolved as the relationship in society that many people find essential to the good life.

            I say many, not all.  Let us be aware that the forms of marriage have been varied. Plural marriage was common in the ancient world, and serial monogamy is common in the present one. Marriage between a man and a woman has been, in the western tradition, the only legitimate form of marriage for millennia, but same-sex life-long partnerships, though not always recognized, have always existed. Now, in our society, many more people recognize that same-sex relationships can have the same sacred legitimacy as heterosexual ones, but this reality is very disturbing to some people who are more traditional in their ideas.  They sometimes cite the Genesis story: you have heard them say, I am sure: God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. And they point to the words of Jesus himself, when he said, in reply to a question about whether divorce is permitted: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)

            This passage both reflects and establishes a very traditional view of marriage. But note that Jesus used the words in relation to a question about divorce. Just as we have come to understand that divorce is sometimes necessary (though always painful), so we may also say that the gender specificity in Jesus‘ words is not the main point; rather, the devoted union of two human beings is.

            What can I say to you about this? My voice is only one of many. The Christian church is quite divided on questions of gender, but I hope that it is united in its understanding of God’s love. I can only say this: Love is the connection that alleviates loneliness. Most of us seek and need a human connection that will endure for our whole life-long, and that will include, for many, the nurture of children. Such a relationship, when it is founded upon mutual kindness, and directed toward increasing the amount of kindness in the world, is one of the greatest blessings of a good life.

[1] An Alumna’s Advice for the Young Women of Princeton: Marry My Son” .

Monday, April 15, 2013

"Be Ye Kind ..." Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker, College Chaplain
Darmouth College

  John 21:1-19
Ephesians 4:25-33           

            We have before us two scripture passages – one, the lectionary passage, from the gospel of John, describing the appearance of the resurrected Christ to his disciples, and his enigmatic conversation with Peter. The other is a passage that I have chosen for this occasion from Ephesians, which is a passage of instruction to the early church attributed to the Apostle Paul.

            The common denominator of these passages is that they both have to do with the church – what it is and what it should be.

            A great deal of attention has been given during the last few weeks to the selection and inauguration of a new Pope, Pope Francis the first. We Protestants watch this process with interest and sometimes amusement, because, although we hold the Pope in esteem as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, we have a very different model of church and do not accord him the authority that he claims in his own church. In the Roman Catholic tradition, authority comes down from the top. God gave authority to Jesus, who gave it to Peter, who gave it to his successors, who are the bishops of Rome or the Popes. It is very much a top-down conception of the church.

            Protestants see it differently. The authority for most Protestant churches – especially those of the congregational and reformed polity, comes from the bottom up. Churches are gatherings of believers who voluntarily associate with one another. Ministers in those churches have authority given to them by the members of the church and symbolized by ordination. These are two different ideas or models of the church.

            Protestants and Catholics have long argued about which model is the earliest or the purest or the truest. We could have no earlier picture of the church than the one we have today in the gospel of John, where the disciples , disillusioned, puzzled, bewildered, have gone back to Galilee from Jerusalem after the crucifixion and the rumored resurrection. They had to earn a living, so they returned to fishing, and they were frustrated because they were catching no fish. It was then that a mysterious figure appeared on the shore, telling them where to let down their net. Someone recognized, or theorized, that it was Jesus himself, so the impetuous Peter, who, we are told, was naked while he was in the boat fishing, put on his clothes and jumped into the water. Now there was silly act, wasn’t it? But Peter seems to have had a thing about getting wet: we remember his impetuous attempt to walk on the water, which resulted in his becoming very wet. The disciples remained puzzled, but they came to see clearly that it was Jesus who prepared breakfast for them, eating, perhaps, some of the 153 fish (who counted?). It was then that Jesus had the conversation with Peter about love —asking Peter three times whether he loved him, hearing three times Peter’s increasingly insistent declarations of love, and responding each time with the statement: feed my sheep (or lambs). Although the precise nature of this conversation is enigmatic, it is easy to see the parallel between Peter’s three declarations of love, after the resurrection, and the three denials of even knowing Jesus, before the crucifixion. So if, as Roman Catholics believe, Peter was indeed commissioned by Christ himself to be the leader of the church, it is clear that the church is built on the faith of very fallible people.

            Protestants see no hierarchy in the early church – only the influence of teachers, like Paul, who was not one of the original disciples and who, indeed, had been a persecutor of believers, but who encountered the risen Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus and who became the chief missionary teacher of the early church. Through his missionary journeys, and through the letters he wrote to the young churches in various cities of the Roman empire, we learn from a man who had come to faith in Christ, and who was trying to help bands of believers throughout the empire learn to live as Christians in a pagan world.  The letter to the Ephesians is one such Pauline letter, which, if not written by Paul himself, seems certainly to have reflected some of Paul’s views on how the early church, and the early Christian believers, should conduct themselves. This model of the early church, with no apparent hierarchy but with concern for one another, is the model that lies behind much protestant though – a model that was recovered during the Protestant reformation.

            I turned to this passage from the letter to the Ephesians today because it is contains one of the earliest scripture passages I remember. When I was a very young child at Sunday school, long before I went to school or learned to read, we were taught memory verses, verses of scripture that we memorized each week. The first that I remember is “God is love.” (I John4:8) Ephesians 2:32 was also one of the very first. From the King James Bible (the only one I knew), we learned: “Be ye kind, one to another.”  It was repeated with such frequency that I cannot ever forget it. Later, when we were a little older, we learned the second part of the verse: “Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I am reminded of Robert Fulghum’s book, “Everything I Really needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten.” I would say that everything I really needed to know about Christianity I learned in the beginner class of Sunday school.

            This passage from Ephesians was written to Christians who disagreed with one another and who had become hurtful to each other through their disagreement. The scripture counsels them bluntly: “Put away from you all the bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” It is inevitable, given our human condition, that we have disagreements. Sometimes these come from misunderstanding. Sometimes they result from intentional hurt. Since these kinds of disagreements occurred in the earliest Christian communities, we should not be surprised that they still occur. The question is how we handle them

        Let us return for a minute to Pope Francis. Whatever one’s view of the authority of the papacy, I think we would all agree that Pope Francis is off to a good start. Why? Because he is displaying extraordinary kindness. From his initial words to the throng in St Peter’s square when he recognized and blessed those in the assembled crowd who were not Catholic and not Christian, to his parade around St Peter’s square where he stopped frequently to greet children, to his extraordinary actions on Maundy Thursday when he went far beyond the  customary ceremonial washing of feet to the unprecedented washing the feet of two women --- not only women, but Muslim women – we see that this is a man who is not pretentious, who wants to express simple human kindness. Kindness is, in my estimation, the central and essential virtue. The word kindness comes from the same word as kin – that is, being related to. When we recognize that we are all kin, that we are not special, separated from others, but related to one another – or, as Ephesians says, we “are members of one another”. Then we must treat each other as brothers and sisters. The new pope is off to a good start because he seems to know this. If he can in fact be an example of Christian kindness, then he will do a service, not only to the Catholic Church, or the Christian church, but to the whole world.

        Meanwhile, we can do the same thing. If we can remember that we are members of one another, and if we can treat each other that way, we can be examples as well. But there is a catch. The passage is Ephesians begins by telling us to speak the truth: “So, then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Sometimes, in an effort to be pleasant or to avoid conflict, we fail to speak the truth.  And of course, sometimes kindness does prevent us from speaking truth unnecessarily. For example, we learn as children that we should not tell Aunt Myrtle that she is wearing an ugly dress. But we probably should tell Aunt Myrtle that she has egg on her face, because that is an act of kindness. And when we have egg on our face, as we all will, sometime, somehow, the person who brings it to our attention is being kind. Jesus tells us, in another place, that the truth will make us free. (John 8:32) Paul tells us, also in Ephesians (4:15) that we should speak the truth in love.  Sometimes the truth is painful to speak and painful to hear. But truth, spoken in love, is always an act of kindness. Forgiveness can only be given, and received, when we accept the truth. And when we know the truth about ourselves, we know that we are in need of forgiveness, just as others are.

“God is love.”
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
“Speak the truth in love.”
“Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Elementary. Essential. Profoundly true. Memory verses worth pondering, aren’t they?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What Does the Resurrection Mean? - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
What Does the Resurrection Mean?
Dartmouth College Chapel
Easter – March 31, 2013
Luke 24:13-35

            It is now evening on Easter Day, just as it was near evening on the first Easter Day, when Jesus encountered Cleopus and his friend as they walked, disconsolately, from Jerusalem to the their homes in Emmaus, seven miles away – just about the distance from Hanover to Lebanon. Easter is full of mystery. The scriptures never tell us how the resurrection happened; they simply tell us that it did. And this mystery is symbolized by angels and visions – but mainly by absence. The body that the disciples had expected to find was not there.

            When we regard such a mystery, we would be foolish to think that we can explain it. Of course, we can discount it as foolishness, or we can puzzle about it. Or we can believe it. But we cannot explain it.

            In the midst of such mystery, it is good to be anchored in a simple story of disappointed travelers. Cleopus and his friend – perhaps wife? – were humble people, otherwise unremarkable. They had placed their hope in Jesus as “the one who would redeem Israel” – by which we understand they meant that he would be the one to liberate Israel from Roman rule. But their hopes were dashed. Their messiah had been crucified – a death reserved for rebels and traitors to the empire, and now his body had disappeared. They were disconsolate – beyond comfort, disappointed beyond words.

I wonder if you have ever been disappointed? I am sure you have, maybe in many small ways, maybe in big ways. Disappointment, the loss of hope, the failure to realize something that you had fully expected and wanted, is a terrible thing. It eats at us like a worm, We cannot take our minds off of what we have lost. We cry, we ache, we run away, we try to forget. But a truly significant experience of disappointment may well haunt us all our lives. I cannot overstate the power of disappointment to maim our spirits and poison our lives.

And so Cleopus and his companion were disappointed people, when, out of the blue, a stranger appeared beside them who was apparently ignorant of the events in Jerusalem. When they explained their disappointment, he began to talk to them and to explain that their hopes for a ruler to overthrow Rome were misplaced. Their expectations were flawed. They found his words compelling and invited him to have the evening meal with them. And as he broke bread and prayed, they suddenly recognized him. This was Jesus himself. And then he disappeared.

            Now this story is also mysterious – but it is less mysterious than the resurrection itself. We all know, or can imagine, the thrill of recognition – when we understand something that had previously mystified us; when we find something that we had thought lost; when we meet an old friend unexpectedly in a crowded airport, when  someone that we had thought lost forever reappears in our lives. It can happen in the most ordinary circumstances. Our disconsolate spirits are suddenly consoled, and our hopes are renewed.

            This story of Jesus appearing after his resurrection to these two ordinary people on the road to Emmaus is perhaps the most powerful of the resurrection appearances for me, because it is so ordinary. No angels. No voices from heaven, just an encounter with someone who helps us understand what we had not understood, and who is for us, for a few minutes, Christ himself.

            I said that the resurrection of Jesus is mysterious. We cannot understand it. We cannot account for it. We may find it hard to believe. But what the scriptures do establish beyond doubt is that many people, like Cleopos, like Peter, like Mary, like Thomas – said that they saw Jesus after had died. And their encounter with the risen Lord compelled them to live in a different way. These are facts. We can argue that these people were deceived, or imagined it; we cannot argue that they didn’t claim it. That is beyond dispute.

            Chapel this term has the theme of the good life. That may mean many things. But one part of a good life, I think, is not being overwhelmed by disappointment. It means living hopefully, even in the midst of things that are  distressing. Christianity at its truest and best, enables us to do that. The agonies of the crucifixion are real, and they continue. But cruelty, oppression, and death are not the last word. We can be hopeful even when we are very sad and disappointed when we remember Jesus, when we encounter him, even for a few moments, and realize that he is alive.

                        I expect that all of us could tell some story of disappointment. This week many applicants will receive word of their acceptance or rejection at college. Some will be very happy. Some will be very disappointed. I think particularly right now of those who have their hearts set on coming to Dartmouth and who will be disappointed. Some of us are perhaps still burdened by disappointment – in our parents, in a love relationship, in our grades; or we are saddened beyond words because we have lost through death our dearest friend. In such situations, words sometimes help, but only a little. The only thing that can truly comfort us is the hope that things will somehow still work out, that death and disappointment are not the last words. Such was the faith that has kept true hope alive in the world, and that we celebrate and remember tonight.