Wednesday, October 31, 2007

First Sermon for a Grade

For my Christian Mysticism class we were assigned to write a short, no more than 7 minutes, sermon/homily on a topic of our choice and incorporate the writings of a mystic into the sermon. Here's my first shot at this:

One of John Wesley’s most famous sayings is:

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

That sounds pretty ambitious doesn’t it?

What Wesley is talking about is compassion, being compassionate.

In Wesley’s time, that generally meant being compassionate towards the poor. He preached relentlessly and passionately about the conditions that factory workers in England were subjected to. He was a voice for social justice, for social change at a time when that wasn’t the most popular of topics.

For Wesley, it was about the works, doing good deeds, and actually living out Christ’s mission on earth.

Perhaps Wesley was influenced by the sermons of Meister Eckhart. We know he liked to read the writings of the Church fathers, but he makes no mention of Eckhart in any of his sermons. Still, he was greatly influenced by German theologians of his time. Meister Eckhart speaks about compassion being manifested in the deed as well (Sermon 30). Like Wesley, Eckhart speaks of compassion as being about relieving the misery of the poor. Interestingly enough, Eckhart doesn’t just preach about the poor as those lacking material wealth, he also notes that we should have compassion for those poor in Spirit. But we’ll save that topic for another time.

Both Wesley and Eckhart speak to issues of social justice. Eckhart says:

“It is a great crime to give the wages of the poor to the rich and for the livelihood of the poor to increase the luxuries of the powerful” (Sermon 30)

These are words spoken nearly 800 years ago but have powerful implications yet today. According to Meister Eckhart, compassion isn’t simply about justice but also requires one to work towards the removal of injustice.

This congregation is well known for its commitment to missions at all levels. For nearly 40 years we’ve supported Dr. Gess on his medical mission trips to Sierra Leone. Since the Minnesota Annual Conference has been keeping records on the subject – going back some 50 years, this congregation has never failed to fully meet your annual apportionment payment; very few congregations in the Conference can say that. Your apportionment payments fund agencies like the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and support regional mission projects like the Emma Norton House in St. Paul. You’ve become one of the most recognized supporters of Tree of Life mission on the Rosebud reservation, both through your financial support and the amount of work your VIM Teams complete when they’re on Rosebud. You’re one of the largest contributors to the Douglas County Food Shelf.

You do good things. That is certainly evident from your good deeds.

But is it enough? Is it enough to write a check, put it in the offering plate, and go to Sunday brunch?

We have the compassion but do we have the passion that Meister Eckhart warns is necessary to be truly compassionate? We supply food to the food shelf but there are still hungry people in this community. We’re about to send a second shipment of over 100 winter coats to Rosebud, but there are still people that will go without a jacket this winter. We pay our apportionments, but abused women and their children still seek refuge at Emma Norton.

Compassion isn’t just about doing just deeds, it requires one to work towards the removal of injustice – here in Alexandria, on Rosebud, in St. Paul and in Sierra Leone. It is about speaking out on environmental issues that disproportionately affect the poor. It is about your back aching and your shoulders sunburned from putting a roof on a 90 year-old elder’s dilapidated trailer house in Rosebud. Compassion is about looking into the eyes of a frightened child at the Emma Norton House, and letting her know things are going to be OK.

“Compassion is manifested in the deed.”
Meister Eckhart (Sermon 30)

Meister Eckhart speaks about compassion as being the “glorification of God on earth” (Sermon 35) and when we act compassionately (with passion!) we are imitating Christ (Sermon 30). Isn’t that what we as Christians are about? Imitating Christ, showing compassion to the poor, the hungry? Isn’t showing compassion to the poor and hungry, showing compassion to Christ, and ultimately to God? Indeed, in Matthew (New Living Translation 25:40) Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”

This isn’t to say this is easy. It is hard work. But to those who are truly compassionate comes compassion. According to Meister Eckhart, compassion pours from (the One) God to the compassionate, giving the compassionate one a true sense of heaven on earth (Sermon 30).

John Wesley says:
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

When we look at that statement, we see “good”, “means”, “ways”, “places”, “times”, a lot of “all”, and “ever”.

What if we looked at it this way?

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Indeed, you can.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Perspective on MEA Weekend

The other day I got into a discussion on the merits/pitfalls of that time honored tradition of MEA weekend. I come to this discussion and discourse with a fairly unique perspective - that of a child of teachers, a father of school-age children, and the spouse of a teacher. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I loved "Teacher's Convention". It was a weekend that I either spent at our friend's "farm" bow hunting and packing away the garden for the winter or at another friend's hunting camp chasing whatever was available - usually ducks. It is a great time to be outside. It was also that first time of the school year when my parents got to take a break. At that time, "personal days" weren't even heard of so they were limited to breaks according to the school calendar. I always got a sense that it was a much needed break for them. It probably was for me as well. As parent, I don't usually like the short weeks because they mess up that routine we've developed. I particularly dislike the ones for workshops, I've heard enough stories about second-rate consultants coming in an giving their "take" on how to improve education (they're usually someone that just got a PhD in education and are wanting to spread the wisdom they got writing a dissertation to the rest of the world.) Teachers do need time without students constantly hovering over them, there is a lot of work in preparing lessons and correcting papers. Workdays are great, particularly if schools are going to constantly ignore the need for prep time. With that in mind I think a three-day week in October suites us well. I know my wife appreciated the break and I sense her ability to breath a little easier - at least for a few days.
What got me about this discussion was this person assertion that kids should be in school learning as much as possible. Hard to disagree with that reasoning. I pressed the person a bit on this, our conversation went something like this ...
J - Have you ever taken a winter vacation - taken the kids out of school for a week to go to Disney World in February.
"Oh course, every year" was the response.

J- what's the difference between this and MEA?

"Well there are things to learn outside of school too you know!"

J- Of course there are. But that's a week of school your kids are missing.
"Well, they take their homework with them"

J- and they do it when?
(obviously stumbling now) "Um, when they get a chance"

J-And what about the extra work it takes for the teacher to put that material together so they can work on it "when they get the chance" ?

"Well, they have to do it anyway, so what's the big deal .. one kid"

J- What if there are 25 or 30 families doing the same thing? Doesn't have to even be the same week, it still adds up to a lot of extra work.

Suddenly this person had an appointment they had forgotten about.

I have a couple of points to ponder. Have we gotten to the point that individual wants are bigger than societal needs? That is, is a week at Disney or in Jamaica more important that education? There is a lot of talk about holding education to higher standards. Do we need to hold parents to those same standards? That is, we expect your child to be in class, prepared, engaged, on a daily basis. Do we need to consider family development and incorporate more MEA-like weekends into our school calendars (with the caveat that's when vacations are taken)?

We spent the weekend traveling to UW-Eau Claire and UW-Madison to visit the music faculty at each school. Got to see my folks for a little bit, and spend some time with our daughter Sarah on Friday and Saturday. I still enjoy MEA/Teacher's Convention Weekends.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Why St. Johns?

That seems to be the most common response to people when I tell them about my return to school and future plans. A Methodist at a Catholic University? Interestingly, it's also been a common question from anyone I come into contact with from St. Johns. The two professors that I have who belong to monastic communities were particularly interested in why I choose St. Johns.

First, as I've mentioned before, I am still working full time so I'd be less than truthful if I didn't say that location didn't play a significant factor in my decision. As it is, it is less than convenient for spending time doing research in the library or interacting with other students. Secondly, I like that fact that the Abby and the monastic community are associated with the school. I have a particular interest in spirituality and mysticism and who better to learn about that than from people who have devoted their lives to spiritual living. Also, St. John's is a very open and welcoming community - all that Benedictine tradition - to a wide variety of religious view points. (For example, this summer they hosted a conference on the role of women in Islam; last spring they hosted a group of Buddist monks as they worked on a mandala; and they also play host, on a permanent basis to the Center for Eccumenical Research and the Episcopal House of Prayer.) I've also been impressed with the way the community embraces sustainability. The woods surrounding campus are managed by the Benedictine community and are used for a source of wood for building and maple syrup. It's one of those "fit" things and I'm very happy that pieces have fallen into place that have allowed me to take this path.