Sunday
December 21

Candlelight

By iquillen

The semester has drawn to a close. Final exams are mercifully over, and I can imagine that the lights of the dorms have gone out now that people have left for break. It seems fitting that as the daylight trickled out, so did the people and friends I’ve met this semester. I have only been at home for a day, yet I already miss the light and warmth that they created in my life this past semester. They carry that light with them as they leave, wherever they go.

When I think about the light of my friends and those whom I care about, I am instinctively drawn to the image of a candle. I attended a study retreat at Marsh Chapel during the reading period, and to remind myself of my intentions Brother Larry gave me a bell and an electric candle. While both of these gifts helped me direct my focus to studying, for some reason I couldn’t turn the candle off. No matter how many times I flicked the switch at the base, the electric light would not extinguish. I mentioned this to a close friend, and she joked, “You can’t stop studying until the candle goes out!” The electric candle remained lit for several days through the week of finals. Luckily, I didn’t need to study for that much time.

I also attended a service for Sanctuary during the week of finals. There came a time during the service when anyone could light a candle and share a moment of presence with other people. I went up and tried lighting one. Then another one. Then still another one. I must have tried and failed to light at least five candles when a woman, Joe, came and helped me. As everyone around us sang the words to the song “Sanctuary,” she patiently took and held candles, even holding one directly above the flame. After several candles and a considerable amount of melted wax, we lit one. In that moment, I felt both gratitude and spiritually present with her, someone whom I had only just met.

Sharing the light that we create with each other in friendship and company may take time, many attempts, and a great degree of patience, like in my experience at Sanctuary. Yet like the electric candle, the bonds that we form when we brighten each other’s lives with our care and compassion leave lasting imprints and are difficult to extinguish. I have tried to appreciate this in my work at Marsh Chapel, as mushy or cliché as it may sound. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed, or conflicted, to forget that there are people present who can share their light with you to lift your spirits.

For the season of Advent, two of my colleagues from Marsh, Jessica and Kasey, put together a series of Sustainable Advent Devotionals. Each one has a piece of scripture, a reflection, and a practice that one can do during the season. One of my favorites quoted John 8, verse 12: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ “ My fellow Marsh Associate Jaimie wrote this in her reflection on this verse:

“Think for a second about the person who is “the light of the world” for you. It could be a child, a parent, a friend, or a partner; whomever this person is I guarantee they do not hear often enough that they are loved and appreciated. Be intentional and remind those “light” people in your life how much they mean to you, because when we love the light in people we are praising the light of God.”

I hope to take her words to heart. Each of us carries a light of the Divine with them, and to embrace and express that we see it every day celebrates the life and light that God created. May we continue to share this candlelight warmth that radiates from each of us in the upcoming year.

Sunday
December 14

When the Song of the Angels is Stilled

By kmshultz

Advent, like the four day study period before finals week, is a time of waiting and anticipation. The only difference is that where Advent is typically a season of joyful expectation, study period is a time of frantic dread as all the paper deadlines and test dates that have—up to this point—been reasonably spaced out are suddenly condensed into a three-day period of woe. As the library turns into a 24-hour triage center and anyone who makes noise or even breathes too loudly is at risk of being labeled a menace to society, it can be easy to lose perspective. Where a 4-6 page paper causes mild anxiety in a normal week, under the glare of reading period, it can feel like a death sentence.

Luckily, this weekend, Brother Larry, our chaplain for community life, hosted a study retreat at the chapel. And so, weighed down by book bags, coats, and a massive to-do list, we all arrived at 8:30 am Saturday morning for breakfast, devotional jumping jacks, and a prayer by Howard Thurman before plunging into our studies. We stopped throughout the day for food, fellowship, and more jumping jacks, crossing tasks and assignments off the large to-do lists hanging on the walls as we went along. In addition to an electric candle, we each received a bell to wear around our necks and their bright sounds echoed off the stone walls, accompanying the soft pad of our feet as we took breaks to make tea and hot chocolate or to do jumping jacks to keep ourselves from falling asleep. We kept the candles close, perched atop computers or resting on knees, a constant reminder of light and hope even as the shadows grew long outside, quickly plunging us into the darkness of night.

As I left the chapel last night at 10 pm, breathing in the brisk winter air, the Howard Thurman prayer we said throughout the day echoed in my head:

 

When the song of the angels is stilled

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

 

There are so many people in this world whom we are called to serve and minister the work of Christmas to, but when we arrived at this retreat, we were all pretty broken, weighed down by all the things we hadn’t done yet. So when Larry gave us bells to make us harder to lose, fed us six meals plus desserts in two days, and released us from the stagnant atmosphere of the library by opening up the chapel to us, he helped patch us back together. As we studied in silent community, we gave each other a support system, celebrating our successes with the ringing of bells as we methodically checked off things from our lists. Though the song of the angels was stilled, we sang taizé chants in a dimly lit room and by the time we left, we had found some measure of peace, remembering how to make music in our hearts.

In this season of frantic dread, this retreat restored to us our joyful anticipation and grounded us in the knowledge of God’s presence around and within us. In our studying and in our writing, in our praying and our singing, our bells rang with joy and our electric candles flickered, heralding the coming of the Light of the World.

Sunday
December 7

ASL and Deaf Mass

By jlbishop

When I was 13 I fell in love with American Sign Language. I don’t know why or what sparked my passion but I remember telling my mom how badly I wanted to learn it. Unfortunately I was too young to take the community center’s class and as I got older, I was too busy. My passion never left when I entered college but I still never had the opportunity to fit it into my schedule at my old university. But then I attended BU and became friends with a lot of Deaf Studies majors and minors and even a Grad student in Deaf Education. They all encouraged me to sign up for an ASL 1 class. So I did, and my passion has grown a hundredfold.

I loved ASL 1 and now love ASL 2, which I’m in currently. I have been blessed to have the same professor for 1 and 2 and will have him again for ASL 3 next semester. ASL is a language unlike any other. The hands, body, and face serve as nouns, pronouns, subjects, verbs, grammar, vocabulary and everything else that makes up a language. It’s not a spoken language and yet it speaks volumes. Stories told in this language are more passionate and expressive than I’ve ever witnessed. A simple, funny story about my professor’s dog has me laughing uncontrollably. Stories are executed perfectly, and I feel like I’m there in that moment. This is just one magical quality of ASL that makes me love it even more.

Today my classmate and I had the opportunity to attend a Deaf Catholic Mass at Sacred Heart in Newton, MA. The priest that celebrates it is Deaf and signs the entire Mass while an interpreter interprets it. Deaf Parishioners sign the readings and psalms and the Deaf deacon signed the homily. Attending this Mass was unlike any Catholic Mass I’ve been to. Attendance is small (about 30) but the presence in the church is strong. And do not be fooled, Deaf Mass is actually pretty loud. People continue having conversations in ASL during the Mass and due to verbal markers that are part of the grammar of ASL, children laughing, and babies crying/cooing, it gets quite noisy during the service. And I love it. The Deaf community at this church is a vibrant one, and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting back and witnessing the widespread joy and enthusiasm and love of the Lord that permeates this community.

As I mentioned earlier about ASL’s unique ability to tell passionate and expressive stories, the readings today at Mass were no different. They had a reading from the Prophet Isaiah that touched me in a way that most Bible verses don’t. The person signing the story made it come alive, and I felt like I was there. The entire Mass felt that way: alive and passionate. I truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working in this community and working in my heart. Sometimes Catholic Mass can seem so monotonous with unenthusiastic parishioners in the pews half saying the responses that it loses my interest and attention quickly. Not this mass though, and I was excited to feel my passion for the Lord and my faith return, thanks to the vibrant and joyful community at the Deaf Mass. ASL and the Deaf Community have captured my heart, and I’m excited to see where I will incorporate them into my life.

 

Sunday
December 7

Showing Up

By kmshultz

In all honesty, when I sat down to write this blog post, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t think of anything to say and I had just spent an hour on youtube watching spoken word poetry by people who are much more eloquent than me and have much more meaningful things to say. Needless to say, my motivation and confidence were not at their greatest levels—especially as I come to the end of a semester. The promise of an entire month spent sleeping, reading, and eating with absolutely no deadlines or responsibilities looms so large it blocks out everything else and this, along with the Christmas music playing in my ears, makes it very easy to consider just checking out early.

In my attempts to find inspiration, I flipped through several of the books on my desk—some poetry, a memoir by a Lutheran pastor, an academic overview of Christian worship, a theological work—but they really just reminded me how many people have already said what I want to say and have said it much more persuasively and eloquently than me. So then I came to the bible and thought of Moses. You would think that if the other people on my bookshelf were intimidating, Moses would finish me off—standing up to Pharaoh, getting all of the Israelites to trust him, then getting all of the Israelites to follow him, parting the Red Sea (well technically God parted the Red Sea, but Moses was there, which is still impressive), being the first person to hear the 10 commandments, and somehow managing to deal with the complaints and ridiculousness of the Israelites during 40 years in the wilderness.

And yet, Moses wasn’t this perfect model of what all humans should strive to be and he had his doubts too. When God calls him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he doesn’t just shrug and say, “sure, why not?” In fact, it takes Moses almost an entire chapter in Exodus to agree to the call. First he says he’s not worthy to lead the Israelites, then that he doesn’t know what to call God when the Israelites ask about him, then says that the Israelites won’t believe or listen to him, and finally he says in Exodus 4:10, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

I read this verse and sat back smugly in my chair—Yes! I thought. Moses couldn’t think of anything to say either. I am vindicated in my avoidance of this blog post! But of course, I kept reading and God quickly burst that bubble. God responds to Moses’ excuse by saying in verses 11 and 12, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Right after this, Moses begs God to send someone else, which understandably pisses God off. I mean, at this point, all Moses had to do was show up and God would do the rest—even the words would be God’s—but Moses was still scared. So God tells him that his brother Aaron will do the speaking for him. As I read those words, I had a flutter of a wish for a proxy blog-post-writer, but I knew that wasn’t the point. I was not supposed to just continue thinking of excuses until someone else takes over. No, the point was that even when I think I have no words, God will always be there to teach me what to say.

So here I am, dutifully typing out some sort of blog post. I don’t know how meaningful it is and it definitely isn’t as beautiful and moving as any of the other words sitting on the desk next to me. But I’m here, trying my best and hoping that somewhere God’s words will slip into mine to make up for everything that I lack—I’m showing up and trusting that God will do the rest.

Sunday
December 7

Foot in the Door

By iquillen

There is a phenomenon in psychology called the foot-in-the-door effect. The idea is that if someone agrees to do something small for you, they are more likely to agree to a larger favor next. Similarly, there is another principle called the door-in-the-face effect. If you ask someone to do a very large favor and they refuse, they are more likely to do a smaller favor if you ask them immediately afterwards.

Both of these ideas can be used to make pretty effective persuasive techniques. I found this out firsthand when I spoke with a woman on my way to work. She was standing on Beacon Street, engaging passers-by in conversation about conservation efforts in the Appalachian mountains. After she waved to me and I stopped to chat with her, I quickly realized that she was asking for contributions to support her group’s work.

I started to get a little nervous. I had an inkling that by agreeing to talk to her, it was a bit more likely that I would agree to give, something I’m not normally comfortable doing. Here was the foot-in-the-door effect at play. So, perhaps instinctively, I gave various reasons why I wasn’t willing to donate at that time. In hindsight, I don’t know if that was the best course of action.

It didn’t matter what I said, though. With each reason (or, from another standpoint, excuse) I gave her, she had a response. The amount she was asking for gradually started to decrease, until finally it was something that I could reasonably donate as a college student. Here was the door-in-the-face effect, and I could sense that it was working.

When I think about that conversation, her persistence and energy stands out more than my unease during that experience. It takes conviction to stand outside in the cold for over an hour to talk to people and try to gain their support. I would think that doing this kind of work regularly involves dealing with people who deliberately avoid or ignore you. I will admit, I am often one of these people. I respect the woman who talked to me for her courage to brush aside such setbacks, and for her persistence in trying to reach me.

One could argue that she wasn’t primarily interested in talking to me, but more in what I could give her. That may be true, but is that any different from me being more interested in getting to work than talking to her? Each of us has a motive when we speak. It may be to persuade someone, console them, or simply to carry out a casual conversation. These underlying goals of speech fall short in the end if no one listens. To have someone listen requires perseverance in reaching out to them, even if they may not want to acknowledge you at first.

I think God acts in a similar way. I cannot claim to have ever heard or spoken with the Divine, but I do believe that God calls us in our everyday lives. Sometimes we may not understand, sometimes we may not want to hear or receive the message. At the very least, we can take moments to pause despite our business and begin to listen. We may hear only silence or our thoughts at first. But if we put our foot in the door, then we will make ourselves more open to God’s influence in our lives when it approaches us.

Sunday
November 30

O Emmanuel

By kmshultz

Advent is my favorite season in the church year. It doesn’t start with fanfares like Easter or involve repentance and fasting like Lent but it’s not ordinary or lacking character either. As the beginning of the church year, Advent holds a sense of hopefulness and renewal. But most of all, Advent is a time of expectation and waiting. In contrast to the retail world that blasts jubilant carols as soon as we hit November and covers every available space with gaudy decorations, Advent is a season of quiet and calm, a time of preparation. The readings are edgy and slowly build up tension, calling for us to keep awake, telling us of voices crying in the wilderness and of the sudden appearance of angels. Advent is a time of stillness and silence, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. The stillness is one of withheld energy, like a five-year-old in a church pew, and the silence is full of crackling tension, like the moment between when smoke wafts out of the oven and when the fire alarm goes off.

As darkness swirls around, growing deeper and longer, we light candles in a month-long vigil, keeping watch and waiting, listening to the voices crying in the wilderness, waiting for the angels to appear. Advent is a stripping down, a fresh start. Our songs are simple and build up slowly week by week as we light one candle to watch for Messiah, then a second, and a third. We reduce down to the most basic elements—light and dark—as we wait in the emptiness, totally still. We cry out for guidance: O Wisdom, come teach us; O Adonai, come and redeem us; O Root of Jesse, come and deliver us; O Key of David, come and free us; O Morning Star, come and enlighten us; O King of the Nations, come and save the human race; O Emmanuel, come and save us.

This is what Advent is all about—it’s not a long windup to Christmas, it’s not a countdown of how many shopping days are left, it’s not an empty space, it’s not those four Sundays we have to sit through before we can get to the fun stuff, it’s not that month where we get a piece of chocolate in our calendar every day. It’s a time when everything else is stripped away and all that is left is our waiting, all that is left is our cry: O Emmanuel, come and save us.

O Emmanuel, come and save us.

Saturday
November 22

Struggling with Scripture

By iquillen

“Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” First Corinthians, 7:21-24

When I try to make sense of this passage from Paul, I find myself feeling incredibly frustrated.  After I had read it during a Bible study, at first I thought Paul was contradicting himself. How could a slave make use of his or her present condition while not being a slave to a human master? It seems so strange to me to think of a relationship with God as an economic one of possession. And yet, Paul says that “you were bought with a price,” perhaps suggesting that humans are an object owned by God. Granted, the writing gives all people both a sense of freedom and imprisonment. Those who are enslaved find freedom in the Divine, yet those who are free are bound to Christ. Paul’s words, however, don’t seem to give a satisfying explanation for why we have been bought.

Despite this frustration, I gained three insights out of this initial impression. The first is that a significant source of my discomfort comes from the discussion of slavery. It was likely a part of Corinthian society, and that context must be recognized. Still, after learning about slavery in US history and colonialism, it is very hard for me to hear the subject and not have a visceral reaction. How could someone claim to believe in God and his message of love while enslaving another person? I fully acknowledge, of course, that I have the luxury of hindsight. It is so easy to judge how people behaved in the past, even though I don’t know how I would have acted in the same time, place, and circumstances. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable that Paul would advise someone to remain a slave while seeking God.

The second point was articulated by a friend in the Bible study with me. He said that the phrase “slaves of human masters” could very well be a metaphor. He reminded me that there are many things in our material life that humans can become ensnared by. Money, power, and possessions are all things that can detract our attention from the Divine when we remain transfixed by them. In my initial response to the reading, I judged too quickly and did not take the time to consider what the text meant beyond the literal words. Reading scripture involves listening to the text, and then trying to converse with it and get at its meaning. As controversial as its words may be, that doesn’t mean the language should be entirely dismissed or ignored.

The last insight came from a different friend, and this one speaks to me the most. He addressed the very last sentence: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” My friend argued that this meant we should not try to change ourselves before we begin to seek God. Through our journey with the Divine, we work towards achieving our best self, whatever that may be. He interpreted the passage to mean that one shouldn’t wait to make oneself better before following God, because by that time it will be too late. We are accepted for who we are, and whatever state in which we approach the Divine is enough. That in itself is a powerful message, which I doubt I would have gleamed from Paul’s words from my own reading.

With all that I have just said, am I entirely comfortable with this passage? No, there are some things I still cannot understand. I still feel uneasy reading parts of it. My experience with scripture, though, has informed me to listen to it, even if I don’t necessarily agree. The Bible study I take part in is teaching me to engage in dialogue with the text as well as with others. I may question and not agree with parts of scripture, but it still has something to say about the Divine, for better or for worse. Scripture tries to speak with us and teach us how to live spiritually. We can agree or disagree with what is said as much as we feel. We should listen to it without dismissal or judgment, but not without questions as well.

Tuesday
November 18

Experiencing the Divine in Music

By jlbishop

At a Recent Marsh service and Bach Sunday, I heard a beautiful prayer thanking God for the gift of prayer and for music when words aren’t enough. I always knew music was an important part of praying and have even been told that singing is praying twice (whatever that means). I interpret that as meaning that in just one song so much emotion, passion, struggle, joy, praise etc. can be shared that it’s the equivalent to two prayers. Sounds about right. I always felt closest to God when I was singing because it lifted my soul up in a way that spoken words couldn’t. Whenever I hear beautiful music I get chills that spread from my cheeks to my toes and a warmness that seeps  from my heart. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at a musical performance, I like to imagine myself watching from God’s point of view and seeing so much talent and joy and hearing the perfection in the notes and just being so moved by the beauty of God’s creation. I can’t even begin to imagine what God must feel but I can make a good guess: Unconditional love that reaches widths, and depths and heights of which we could never wrap our minds around.

This past weekend my girlfriend and I went to NYC to see a famous pianist and composer  by the name of Ludovico Einaudi. This guy was amazing. I have never ever in my life heard such beautiful, passionate music that told stories without words. I’m not one to cry, but this show had me in tears by the overwhelming emotion each song carried. It’s been a while since I’ve felt the Holy Spirit moving, but that night, it danced. I was in awe of the workings of the Spirit and the manifest glory of God. I’ve been feeling distant lately and that concert was a breathtaking reminder of God’s presence. Music speaks when words can’t and as a gift to us from God, it’s a perfect gift to give back for the glory and honor of God.

Sunday
November 16

The Love Between Us

By kmshultz

In one of his poems, entitled “The Subject Tonight is Love,” Hafiz writes, “The subject tonight is love, and for tomorrow night as well. As a matter of fact, I know of no better topic for us to discuss until we all die.” And I completely agree—there are so many things to discuss concerning love. First of all, what does ‘love’ even mean? Love seems to describe any positive emotion we feel towards another person. If you hear the phrase ‘I love her.’ It could be a parent talking about his/her daughter, a man talking about his wife or girlfriend, a teenager effusing over a celebrity, a woman talking about her wife or girlfriend, a girl laughing at the antics of her friend to another friend, or someone talking about their pet rabbit or hamster or dog or cat. One thing’s for certain, love is not a word that embodies clarity.

Love is mind boggling in its complexity; it is both a verb and a noun, it is platonic, frustrated, content, unrequited, mutual, deep, shallow, open, restricted, individual, communal, simple, complicated, harsh, gentle, and I could go on and on. What does it say about us that we have hundreds of thousands of adjectives in the English language, but only one word for a ridiculous spectrum of feelings and sentiments toward other people? Why don’t we have as many words for love as the Inuit have for snow?

My grandfather likes to say that ‘love’ is doing whatever is necessary and good for the other person whether they deserve it or not. And I find this definition incredibly helpful when remembering Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But there are still so many other uses of the word ‘love’ where people mean something completely different. And maybe that’s the whole point—maybe we’re not supposed to have a concrete, one-size-fits-all, universal definition of love. In fact, the most powerful statement of ‘love’ that I can think of does not define love, but rather uses love to define; God is love. And here is where the confusing array of definitions and uses for love begins to make a tiny bit of sense for me. I think that love is our attempt to define God’s presence among us, within us, and between us. Maybe we don’t have as many words for love as the Inuit have for snow because we don’t view these different types of love as distinct entities, but as aspects of the same thing—the Holy Spirit moving through us. And maybe whenever we say, “I love you,” we’re recognizing the presence of Christ in that person.

So, yes, Hafiz—the subject tonight and tomorrow and every night after will be love because I know of no better topic to discuss than God made manifest among us.

Saturday
November 15

Affinity and Dissimilarity

By iquillen

Of all the rooms in my old school, the cafeteria was by far one of the most interesting and one that I remember vividly. Admittedly, the fact that it was always noisy at lunchtime reminded me of one reason why I rarely wanted to eat there. Despite the noise and bustle, though, it was always a fascinating place to listen and look around.

Whenever I glanced at my surroundings, one thing in particular stood out to me: the way groups of students tended to split up. Much of the time, students of one particular ethnicity would sit together. Or perhaps it would be a group of students of the same year. Somehow, people sat together based on some trait that they all had in common. During my junior year, my French teacher talked about a concept that explained this pattern. In an assembly, he spoke of “affinity groups,” clusters of people that tend to form based on something they all have in common. If you have ever been at a relatively large party with people you’ve never met before, you may have experienced this phenomena. If I’m among strangers, for example, more often than not I feel most comfortable talking to people who are of a similar age.

Affinity groups reflect a basic human need to belong. We seek out people who have shared interests when trying to establish friendships, and we feel most comfortable around people we can relate to. Forming such ties is one way to make sense of the complex social interactions we have to deal with regularly. Unfortunately, this behavior causes divisions between people to sprout easily. Since we look to distinguish those who are akin to us, we also rely on an innate ability to categorize others. Our efforts to do this fall short at times, for one because some people don’t fit into the imaginary boxes or labels that we’ve made for them.

Gender identity, the way a person defines their own gender, is one area where this problem surfaces frequently. Some people don’t fit into the traditional view of gender as either male or female. Instead of using conventional gender pronouns (she, he, him, her, etc.), they may use gender-neutral pronouns such as ze, aim, and zer. Needless to say, trying to grapple this topic can become incredibly confusing as more labels are made to include people who don’t fit into currently existing ones. But I digress.

This tendency to separate others out creates implicit barriers between people and what they believe in. Taken to an extreme, “us” vs. “them” mentalities can form and prejudices can persist for a long time. It is so much easier to interact with those like us than to try engaging with individuals who have little in common. This presents a significant obstacle to interfaith ministry, and it is an important issue to learn how to deal with. Addressing it involves moving beyond a state of personal comfort and easiness. This entails throwing oneself into unfamiliar, perhaps uncomfortable experiences–moving outside the barriers between faith communities. It also requires willingness to ask others questions about their faith and to have one’s own faith questioned–breaking through the guards we have already built around our own beliefs. Finally, there must be a sense of introspection and understanding of one’s own faith and its shortcomings–removing the veil that separates us from our own beliefs. In order to understand difference, you have to break apart similarity and then see how it was tied together to begin with.