We at Marsh Chapel are committed to the lectionary. We stray from time to time, of course, but on the whole, we stick to the Revised Common Lectionary. Following the lectionary helps to order consistent worship, it serves to educate children and adults week after week, and it is an excellent spiritual discipline, but I will admit, when I saw the lectionary readings for this Sunday, the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, year C, I strongly considered scrapping the lectionary altogether. I mean, come on, it’s only two weeks into the school year, do we have to read Jeremiah already?
Of all the Prophets in the Hebrew bible, major or minor, Jeremiah is the only one to get his own word, jeremiad, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “A lamentation; a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress; a doleful complaint; a complaining tirade.” The prophet Jeremiah is remembered as so down, so distressed, so doleful, so complaining, that the Vulgate, Jerome, and Origen all attribute the book of Lamentations to him.
Have you ever been to the Boston Public Library? If you are new to Boston, and have not yet made your way to Copley Square, do go. Walking among endless stacks of books can be as meditative and relaxing as, say, a walk along the beach. Boston’s common temple dedicated to the free and public access to the intellectual fruits of human history is blessed with a room full of John Singer Sargent murals, entitled “The Triumph of Religion.” The east wall has a frieze of prophets, sixteen life-size portrayals, and John Singer Sargent tailors each to the specific character of the biblical figure. Isaiah stands, arms at shoulder height, hands and eyes reaching upwards, his features caught somewhere between despair and dawning hope. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, hides behind Isaiah, face ducking, turning away from the viewer. And Jeremiah, Jeremiah stands wrapped in a washed out white robe, hands hidden, body hidden, with his chin down, mourning. His posture is far less theatrical, far less posed than the other figures. The dark gash of his mouth and the shadows around his eyes make it seem as though he has been captured mid-sob. As you scan the frieze, other prophets look angry, ashamed, even tortured, but only Jeremiah looks so completely and utterly lost.
And feeling a little lost is actually a pretty appropriate place to be two weeks into the school year. I’m sure most of us, especially if it is our first year at Boston University, have lost SOMETHING or gotten lost sometime in the past few weeks. You might have gone to the wrong classroom, lost your student ID, felt a little lost in your organic chemistry lecture, felt lost without your high school friends around, or maybe, just maybe, you got lost in the GAP. Not the gap between the T and the platform, or the apparel store, but the GAP. You know: Gardner, Ashford, and Pratt streets.
My freshman year at Boston University, I lost an umbrella in the first two weeks of school. Not too bad, you might say. But I lost my umbrella in such spectacular fashion that it left me feeling lost and adrift for weeks and months into my freshman year.
With no social prospects for the weekend, feeling a little lonely and a lot uncertain, I went with a small group of people to a house in the GAP. Someone lent me $5 because I didn’t know you needed $5, and I was suddenly handed a red cup and ushered in the door. It was rainy, and a little cold, but the girls had dressed up, so we deposited our coats and umbrellas in a large walk-in closet, and were quickly ushered to the unfinished cement basement. The steps were rickety, wooden, and I thought they’d give way any moment under our teetering high heels. There were almost no lights, so it wasn’t until I made it to the bottom that I realized just how crowded it was; there were more than a hundred people, shoulder to shoulder, jammed in like a can of sardines. Music was blaring and the crowd moved with it. With more people trying to get down the stairs behind me, I saw no alternative but to enter the flow of the crowd. I immediately felt claustrophobic, uncomfortable, overheated. I suddenly realized this basement had no doors except the one I’d just entered, no windows, no way out except those rickety stairs. My mind began to race; what if the cops came? What if everyone panicked and tried to leave at once? What if I got separated from my friends? I wanted to leave, but the movements of the crowd forced me to make a long, slow, procession around the edge of the basement, passing luge, pong table, and sound system. Thirty minutes later, I was finally able to fight my way out of the basement. Our group decided to leave before things got too out of hand, and we worked our way against the flow of traffic back to the coat closet. Except when we got there, the door to the closet was now closed. A handwritten sign claimed the closet as the VIP room, and heavy, sweet smoke wafted from under the door, accompanied by the kind of soundtrack best left off the radio airwaves. My friend’s wonderful boyfriend gallantly volunteered to retrieve our things, sucked in his breath, opened the door, and disappeared. He emerged a few minutes later, looking positively shell-shocked, but with our coats in hand. I looked plaintively at him and asked, “My umbrella?” “I’m NOT going back in there,” he said.
And that is how I lost my umbrella my freshman year. But I really did only lose an umbrella. It could have been much, much worse. I wasn’t arrested, the building didn’t catch on fire, I didn’t blackout. Losing an umbrella, no matter how dramatically, does not register on the scale of human history or even my own life. But the feelings of my experience that night lingered. I felt, in a word, lost. And from there, my emotions became entangled in an increasingly knotted mess; Was this the only way to meet people in college? Maybe I just wasn’t cool enough for BU. Other people must have been having fun at that party, right? I mean, people looked like they were having fun. Why did I have to be lame and leave? Did my very new-found “friends” judge me for leaving?
I hardly left my dorm after that weekend, even avoiding the tame, University-sponsored Halloween party in my own brownstone a few weeks later. I felt too lost, too alone, too overwhelmed. As you can imagine, it was a very lonely semester for me in my dorm room, and it took a long time before I didn’t feel so lost.
If we’re honest, students, especially freshmen students, often do one of two things when confronted with the GAP, when they feel that initial pang of discomfort. They either do what I did; they avoid getting involved on campus, they stay in their dorm room on the weekends, g-chatting with their high school friends and retreating into the digital world of Facebook and Twitter. Or, they force down that discomfort, along with some cheap liquor, and throw themselves into the only cultural option they believe exists: party culture. Either way, alone in a dorm room or with a hundred people in a crowded basement, you feel lost. Self-conscious, adrift, directionless, alone, despairing, frustrated, numb, lost.
The human experience of feeling lost is universal, but the expression of that feeling is boundless in its possibilities. When people feel lost, they sometimes say and do terrible things to themselves and one another. And feeling lost is not only a solitary experience. It only takes a quick glance at our newspapers, at the dialogue and debate surrounding Syria, to notice a creeping feeling of “lostness” in the way we talk to and about one another. When diplomatic, non-military options come not from reasoned consideration or genuine dialogue but from angry, off-hand remarks at a press conference, you can’t help but feel we’re a little lost. Our reading from Jeremiah today, our little lectionary jeremiad, is a very human expression of that same lost-ness. The book of Jeremiah is set in the period leading up to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire in 587 BCE. Jeremiah, looking around, knows something is wrong. He feels as though the people of Jerusalem are lost, headed down the wrong path. This reading is full of personal and collective despair, personal and collective loss. This angry, ranting prophecy, this imagined rush of hot air from on high, is a very human response to a very human feeling of lost-ness, that same feeling that wreaks havoc on college campuses every fall.
But how do we move from lost to found? I think we’ve already heard the answer, preached two weeks ago at our matriculation service by Dean Hill, with his hand on the altar, the table of the Lord’s Supper: history and mystery. I choose two different terms, though, for this day, for this set of lectionary readings, for this moment, two weeks in to a school year: Memory and Grace.
That memory is a solution to lost-ness is, of course, obvious. When we lose our way on campus or lose our student ID, we really should only need to access our memory, to overcome an unfortunate mental block. I lose my keys far more often than anyone my age should lose anything, and my husband will often ask, “Well, where did you have them last?” How frustrating! As if it were that easy! Memory is not some magical switch you can turn on or off, it is a difficult process of digging, sifting, sorting. It is some of the hardest, most mind-breaking work there is.
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate who passed away just a few weeks ago, wrote a poem in 1966 which hauntingly encapsulates the intersection of memory and loss. It’s called
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
This is a poem, in one sense, about vocation. Heaney only discovers a sense of his vocation, who and how he is called to be in the world, through a process of memory. The words only pour from pen to paper as he recalls the hard, physical labor of his father and grandfather, digging in field and turf. It is only through remembering that he is able to move from a sense of loss and being lost “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them/” to found: “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I’ll dig with it.”
What memory work do we need as a country? How can we dig around, in the collective recesses of our minds, to find a way to engage in civil discourse and diplomacy? What memory work do we need to do as a church? How can we dig around, in tradition and scripture with reasoned discipline to address our experiences today? What memory work do we need to do as a school? How can we dig around in our institutional memory, our history of openness and inclusion to answer real, hard questions about who is included and excluded today? What memory work do you need to do? Where do you need to dig in your memory to find your ownmost self, your sense of call, your vocation?
What memories should we dig into in order to begin to find ourselves?
Now that’s a fascinating phrase in American English parlance…we often talk about “finding ourselves.” You’ll often hear something like, “Emily is backpacking through Europe to find herself,” or “Josh chose that college because he really wanted to find himself.” The implication is that we can find ourselves in exactly the same way we would find a lost set of keys or a misplaced ID. The onus is all on us. This is a guilt-inducing turn of phrase; if we somehow end up feeling lost, it must be our fault; perhaps we haven’t had the right experience, we haven’t looked in the right place. I’ve studied a few languages in my years of school, and I’ve never studied another language where the verb “to find” is used reflexively the way we often use it in America.
The gospel message this morning pushes back on this colloquialism, speaks back to a cultural parlance where we must find our own way out of feeling lost. Our Gospel this morning tells us that we are sought out; we do not and cannot find ourselves on our own, but instead can be found. In the parables this morning of lost sheep and lost coin we are neither shepherd nor woman but rather beloved sheep and precious coin. God seeks us out with the urgency of a shepherd climbing frantically on a mountainside or a woman frantically sweeping under the furniture. Grace is the serendipitous moment of being found.
And doesn’t this ring true with our experience? I know I didn’t venture out of my dorm room again on my own. I stopped feeling lost when my roommate dragged me to the dining hall, night after night, dragged me to the movies, dragged me to the theater, dragged me to a dance. And, on the other end of the spectrum, so many students caught up in a cycle of self-destructive behavior are only able to break the cycle when a friend says, “I’m concerned,” a faculty person says, “You’re grades aren’t where they could be,” or an administrator says, “I know you have something to contribute to campus life.” These moments are grace-filled. From the wisdom of others who have walked the way before us, we learn that there are many ways to belong on a college campus, many ways to have fun without buying into the myth of party culture, a myth that teaches that you can only find yourself by losing yourself.
So, if you’re feeling a little lost two weeks into this semester, start trying to remember who you are and where you’ve come from.
And if you’re not feeling quite so lost, take a look around. Is there anyone you can help find their way? To whom can you offer the gift of grace that you have experienced, that has brought you safe thus far, and the grace that will bring you home.
As a first overture, a first step, here is my top ten list of things you can do, even as a Freshman, with a group of friends, late at night, on a budget, without falling into the GAP. These are all above and beyond the hundreds of university-sponsored events occuring on-campus during any given week. You might find yourself, or be found, by doing one or more of the following:
- Walk along the esplanade, cross the Mass Ave bridge (follow the smoots), walk along the river along memorial drive, and see BU’s campus from the other side of the river. Pass the BU boathouse, cross the BU bridge, stopping at the middle to admire the skyline.
- Play mafia. See me after worship for the rules if you don’t know how to play. Or apples to apples, cards against humanity, etc. etc.
- Take the T to the north end. Buy pastries from both Mike’s and Modern. Compare.
- Host a microfridge Iron Chef competition. Pick a secret ingredient. $5 buy-in. All food must be prepared in a dorm microfridge.
- Go to a midnight movie showing at the Coolidge Corner Theater. Or go to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
- Make a “parkour-style” obstacle course using the permanent work-out equipment on the Esplanade. The winner gets bragging rights.
- Spring for some classy late-night dining on the cheap; try Finale, the late-night menu at Eastern Standard, or many others.
- Go to a poetry reading, an improv show, or an open-mic night at an 18+venue.
- Rent Hubway bikes (wear a helmet!) and bike somewhere you’ve never been.
10. Get cultured: get $15 Huntington theater tickets, check out Third Thursdays at the Isabella Stewart Gardner, or even see some Shakespeare like you’ve never seen Shakespeare before by going to the Donkey Show (the 70’s disco performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, hosted at the “Oberon.”)
Lost and Found. Memory and Grace. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to end there, but it’s always worth getting trusted feedback when you’re a little unsure or when a task is particularly difficult, whether it’s a paper, a job application, or a sermon. Faced with a difficult lectionary and an even more difficult theme, I got a little input, and I was asked, “You talk a lot about party culture. Do you have a theology of partying?”
I will end, then, with a working draft of my theology of partying. “When you need to make a decision, ask yourself, “Does this help me to find myself, or am I doing this to lose myself?”
~Rev. Jennifer Quigley, Chapel Associate