Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Sunday, April 27, 2008
So it was for the new principal at Junior High School 22.
The new principal at Junior High School 22 wasn’t what anyone expected.
Junior High School 22 was one of the worst schools in the entire city of New York. It sat in the poverty-ridden South Bronx. It was known as a place where chaos reigned. The incidence of violence was so high that there were police patrolling the halls. Attendance was so poor that it was no wonder that test scores were the lowest in the city.
Teachers were demoralized. They could not do their jobs in this environment, and they had seen six other principals come and go in the prior decade. The parents, mostly Latino and African-American, despaired that their children would get enough education to survive in high school.
So here was this new principal, and you might understand the dismay on the faces of the parents and the teachers as he addressed them at his first parent-teacher’s meeting. What had the school board sent them?
Shimon Waronker was wearing a velvet yarmulke. The ritual tassels of his undergarments hung down. He had a full beard. He was a Hasidic Jew.
And he started to speak. He laid out his vision of what this school might become, what their children might become, in a different kind of Junior High School 22. He spoke with hope and even with love for these children, so often discarded by the system, so often dead in this neighborhood by the age of 21. He spoke of possibilities these parents and teachers had not even imagined. Magnet high schools. Scholarships. College. No one had spoken to them this way before, and some of the teachers sighed, thinking, “How naïve.”
This was a stirring speech, beautiful words. But the new principal wasn’t done yet. He repeated the whole speech, all those beautiful words, this time in fluent Spanish. Shimon Waronker had been raised in Chile. He knew how to speak their language.
And those parents and teachers began to forget the yarmulke, forget the beard, forget the tassels hanging down. No longer were they looking skeptically at a Hasidic Jew who was as different as can be. They saw a man who was willing to speak their language, in the literal and figurative sense. They saw a man who reached out to them, on their turf, in their language, to share the hope and love he felt for their children.
He was willing to engage these strangers by becoming less of a stranger himself to them.
Shimon Waronker bears more than a passing resemblance to the Apostle Paul, in the story we heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Paul is preaching to the Gentiles – no surprise there. In this case, he’s preaching to Greek philosophers. He’s preaching to them on their turf, the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens. This hill is a special place. In the Greek religious tradition, it is where a supreme council of the gods meet; it is also a place where the city council meets. It is a place where the philosophers regularly gather to discuss topics of interest and to share local gossip. It is the quintessential Athenian power spot. Paul is preaching to the philosophers on their turf. He’s doing it in Greek. And he’s using a rhetorical style that is familiar to them – remember, he was raised in Hellenistic Tarsus, and although he was a Jew he learned in the Greek tradition.
Paul uses a technique that most schoolteachers know well – “Go from the known to the unknown.” You can only bring students to new material if the starting point is the things they already know. So Paul lays out his case by talking about the deep religious tradition he sees in the city of Athens. He praises the Athenians’ religiosity. He notes the many statues of gods, and one monument in particular catches his attention. An altar, on which is carved the dedication “To an unknown god.”
He’s taking a radical tack. If you’re trying to convince people to follow your God, and not their god, it seems more than passing strange to talk about their altar to their god.
But Paul is wise. He knows that you go from the known to the unknown, from the familiar and acceptable to something new and different. This going from the known to the unknown involves building a bridge, a relationship, between the known and the unknown. You get to engage in a relationship with a stranger by building familiarity, by starting with something known and familiar, and then you can stretch that relationship into something new and unfamiliar.
So when Paul talks about that altar, he uses it to make his case. He talks about it as a monument made by human hands, to a god no one knows. Then he starts telling the Athenian philosophers about a different God, his God, our God, who uses His own hands to create humankind, and everything else. This God is a known God, an immanent God, who is our Father as well as our judge, and who has sent Jesus as our savior. Our God doesn’t need monuments made by human hands, since He is the creator of all. Paul even makes his case by quoting Greek poets: the line “for we too are his offspring” comes from the Stoic poet Aratus.
Paul teaches by using what is already known to his listeners. He shares what he knows of our God by showing them how his message even resonates with their own respected sources. And in his method of making his case, Paul demonstrates that close and caring relationship between humankind and the caring God that he is describing by reaching out in a bid for relationship with these Greek philosophers, these strangers. A God who makes us all and everything in the world with His own hands, grabbing the mud and shaping us out of it, and breathing life into us. A God who is such an intimate partner that we grope for Him in the dark, that’s the God of whom Paul speaks. The relationship that Paul is trying to forge in this sermon is modeled on the very relationship that God has made with us in His act of Creation. This intimate, immanent God couldn’t be less like the indifferent, distant unknown god of that altar. How could the Greeks resist the call?
The interesting thing here is that in many ways, this doesn’t sound like the apostle Paul we’ve heard from in other stories. Paul often comes across as argumentative, even cranky. Think about him berating the Corinthians about the disputes among them. He’s heard about it from Chloe’s people. He’s harsh with them, telling them to get their act together. And how about what can only be described as a diatribe in his letter to the Galatians, who have been following another gospel than the one Paul taught them. He even acknowledges his sometimes strong temper himself : “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).
Contrast this, now, with Paul talking to these Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Mars Hill. His language is respectful, instructive, not harsh. He doesn’t disparage their pagan ways, he uses those ways to show them a different way, the right way, the way of the one true God. Paul preaches to the stranger by making himself a little less of a stranger to them. And in his story, Paul reminds his listeners that God Himself has done that by giving us Jesus, that “appointed man,” the one whose incarnation makes God Himself less a stranger to humanity, more comprehensible, more real.
This message in the story, to approach those whom we want to know the Gospel with respect and love, starting on their turf, in their language, is a powerful one. In our work, as we build this church, how do we bring new people to faith? Do we tell them how empty their lives are without God? Even though it may be true, it’s guaranteed to turn them away. Do we confuse them with two or three different books in front of them, when they haven’t a clue which book to use when, and which page to turn to? Suddenly, church seems like a secret club, where if you don’t know the password, you’re shut out. Who would feel like anything but a stranger in such a place?
No, the path is the one that Paul has shown us, that Shimon Waronker showed the parents and teachers of Junior High School 22. We are called to welcome people into this community of faith through love and respect. We use their language, not language that excludes or confuses. We show them a vision of God’s transformative love, one that we know from our Lord Jesus Christ, by imagery that resonates, not by grand theological statements that are not grounded in their world. We preach not just by becoming less of a stranger to them, but by helping them recognize that our God is not a stranger to them, either.
There are no guarantees, however, of complete success.
In Shimon Waronker’s case, the story thus far has been a moderately successful one. Attendance is up to 93 percent. Waronker has used his skills in tactical intelligence, learned in the Israeli army, to effectively end violence in the school. Test scores have risen to the point that the school earned an “A” rating compared to other New York schools. But it hasn’t been a total success. Some children are still failing or in trouble. Some teachers have left, finding him too controlling. But the children feel his caring and his love. They also know they can’t pull the wool over his eyes. The parents see the difference in the school and in their children. Being willing to speak their language, to treat the children and parents with love and respect, has made them open to a new vision, a transformative one.
And what of Paul? Did he meet with success on the Mars Hill? He, too got mixed reviews. In the next few verses, we learn that some who were there followed Paul. Some did not.
So too it may be with us. Some may join us, some may not. But the seeds of our love, and the seeds of God’s great love incarnate in Christ will be planted, and will bear fruit in their own time. A good welcome can only help. Sometimes the best way to preach to a stranger is to make ourselves a little less of a stranger to them first.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Some things, though, won't wait.
It reached up to the bare edge of 80 degrees this afternoon. I came home from school, and had a choice: read and write papers, or swap out the winter clothes for the summer ones. You know I was standing there in my jeans and hoodie, sweating bullets, so the clothing swap seemed more important. A half hour later, I was even more sweaty, but I was wearing capris (yes, I can still fit into last year's lightweight capris, thank goodness) and the job was done.
I felt very proud of myself, doing something household-ish, since I've done so little of that over the past several weeks.
Then I remembered I'm leading Morning Prayer in our Small Group on Friday...off to the the various and sundry liturgical resources on my "liturgy shelf" to put that together. Another thing done. Yessss!!!
I started the reading for Ethics tomorrow, but the possibility that I might wrap up the final Systematics project tonight was nibbling around the edges of my brain, so I put down the book and started writing. The project is a women's weekend retreat related to the doctrine of sanctification; it's called "How to Be a Saint (or at Least Try) in Five Easy Lessons." That's what I've been working on for the last two hours, and I think it's done. I'll look at it afresh tomorrow and see if it still reads like a finished product. I sure hope so.
The laundry list of things I need to do is still somewhat daunting:
- final rewrite of my sermon for Saturday night and Sunday morning and the finding of visuals for the Saturday night PowerPoint
- reading for ethics class tomorrow (not a biggie in the grand scheme of things)
- two study guides for my study group in Systematics (Augustine on Providence and Barth on Evil)
- gathering up and shipping off the last of the voluminous paperwork for my candidacy interview with the Commission on Ministry
- a major ethics paper on world hunger and debt relief, for which I've only just begun the reading
- conversations with the two profs who may be my co-advisors for my honors thesis.
The question is this: having dived in to this afternoon of hard work, will I continue to chug along and get things done, or will this list of accomplishments for today be my excuse to become sloth-like again (see picture above)? Given that there are only three weeks until the end of the semester, I don't have that luxury, I guess.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Coming home meant the following:
- wet newspaper on the step
- wet mail in the mailbox
- annoyed cats studiously ignoring us
- large quantities of laundry to do
- food shopping to do
- organizing for a busy week.
The third load of wash is in the washer. Fortunately, I actually did a little homework while away, so I can relax, sort of, this evening.
It's good to be home.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
If you want to check it out, look here: http://shrinemont.com/. Interestingly, we don't have a cathedral as our diocesan seat - we have a shrine built by hand from rocks on the property of Shrinemont, an outdoor chapel that is rustically beautiful. A good place. Thanks be.
So I mapquested the route from Big Old Seminary to Shrinemont, and it gave me a reasonable route, except for the fact that one of the roads is HOV only after 3:30 in the afternoon, and the traffic gets truly wild on it after 3 pm. I've sent a pleading email to my prof who teaches my Friday 2-3pm class asking to miss class so I beat the HOV restriction. I can hope.
It's so interesting to go to these things and observe people's behavior. Some folks cozy on up to the Bishops, some are terrified by them. Some folks drink nothing, some drink too much. I'm one of the middle-ground people. Two glasses of wine, some nice conversation, especially with our Bishop Suffragan (sort of an assistant bishop), with whom I had a great conversation re doing conflict resolution and interim ministries. He and I are going to have a follow-up talk about that.
The food was undistinguished Italian. I've been spoiled by eating the real deal in Italy and in a few wonderful restaurants here in the US...and by cooking school in Venice. This is the one thing I miss from my old life - expense account lunches and dinners on someone else's dime. Of course, the rest of that old life seems pretty pointless these days.
All in all, a good night, and the black outfit was a knit, so it expanded as I ate.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
So the question du jour is this, argued furiously among several of my classmates when I posed it in ethics this morning: do I wear my lovely and comfortable purple dress? Would that seem too much like I'm angling for a big hat myself, or making fun of his purple shirt or something? Enquiring minds want to know! Somehow I don't think he would feel threatened by a Coldwater Creek stretchy purple schmatta (bought on sale for eighteen bucks), but who knows?
Monday, April 14, 2008
She got on a plane at 7 this morning, heading back out west to school and work. I miss her. We'd probably drive each other crazy if we lived with each other all the time now that she's an almost-adult, but still. I miss her.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Thursday, April 10, 2008
I invited my friend WG to come to the reception. She's a secular Jew, and I suspect it's the first time she was ever in an Episcopal seminary, but I know she's game for anything.
She's worked for many years in Women's Entrepreneurship Development jobs in government and think tanks and such, and I knew she'd enjoy the art show, but I also wanted to pick her brains on a project I'm on the margins of. It's a women's training and microenterprise project in Africa for an area that has suffered much from war and poverty. A dynamic local (by this I mean African, born in this area of the country) female pastor is doing this as a major project. She's not been able to raise all the funds needed, and although she's very adept at pushing large rocks uphill, she doesn't know lots about small businesses.
So WG and I spent two hours running through her contacts, who might be helpful and how I might get in touch with them. She's emailing me the names and email addresses and phone numbers, and I guess I'll spend some time over the next few weeks seeing if there's something I can do to help this project come to fruition. May not lead anywhere at all, but just as art is sometimes surprising in opening doors to the soul, sometimes the art of ministry is opening surprising doors to the souls (and contact lists) of good people.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
The spring fever has manifested itself in a fit of laziness. I've got a passel of reading to do and a bunch of other stuff to start ( see below) but I just can't seem to get moving. I'm trying to avoid that "oh, cut yourself a little slack" moment, because if I procrastinate, I know I'll end up getting slammed with work in early May, and that wouldn't be good.
Oh well, I had better get reading...
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
- ethics paper on human sexuality
- sermon for homiletics
- self-evaluation of said sermon for slightly scary prof (who said kind things in class)
- systematics paper on the Trinity (sermon plus theological explication)
- organizing our ST study group
- babysat a toddler who is thoroughly embracing his terrible two-ness
- actually got the reading done for Homiletics, and started the reading for systematics
- case presentation for theological reflection for Field Ed Colloquy
- reflection paper and self-evaluation on this semester's Field Ed experience
Still on the horizon:
- final ethics paper on ending world hunger (nothing like the big issues)
- final systematics project - a women's retreat on providence, plus the underlying theological explication
- document-gathering, plus a little writing, in preparation for my interview with the Commission on Ministry for candidacy status (pre-ordination)
- proposal for special project for my summer internship
- writing second sermon (mostly edits of the last systematics project) on the Trinity for homiletics class and field ed
- getting honors thesis proposal approved and getting an advisor and outside reader locked in.
Wags say that junior year of seminary is about scaring you to death, middler year is about working you to death, and senior year is about boring you to death.
Not sure about the senior thing (our seniors look focused on the future rather than bored) but junior year WAS sort of scary, and middler year is darned near killing all of us. Doing the summer internship, a 40-hour per week gig for eight weeks at a local church, seems like a cakewalk in comparison. And the idea of having August off is just beyond bliss.
Saturday, April 05, 2008
Friday, April 04, 2008
This morning, we met in small groups and discussed a sermon of Dr King's, essentially a restatement of a letter from the Apostle Paul, addressed to America. It strikes me that although the rhetoric is gentler, Dr. King mentions the same social ills that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (Barack Obama's retired pastor) has been preaching on, and getting awful media coverage for.
Why do these people who go after Rev. Wright fail to notice that the same problems that Dr. King identified...real problems, causing real pain, half a century ago...have not been fixed. In some cases, things have gotten worse.
Is it any wonder that Rev. Wright gets fired up about it? And why aren't we all?
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
But sometimes poverty doesn't pay. I'm thinking of all the children we treated at the Children's Hospital where I did CPE last summer. We never turned a child away for lack of insurance, but I watched parents struggle to even get back and forth from home to visit their sick child because they didn't have a functioning car and didn't have bus fare. The social workers did what they could, but our ability to help was limited.
How can we live in a country where people casually spend $600 on Botox injections, a couple of hundred dollars on a bottle of wine, a grand on a purse that will only be in style for one season, $50-75,000 on a luxury car (which has miserable gas mileage), and some people live on spaghetti or beans and rice and have no means to get to their job interview?
Our priorities, as individuals and as a culture, need to change.