October 20

Rules of Engagement

By Marsh Chapel

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I am a parent today. Yes I stand in this pulpit as a Pastor whose head and heart have been claimed for years by the joy of ministry with young adults.   But, today, the title I claim is MOM. I am here for Parents’ Weekend, and I welcome members of my parent posse who have travelled across the country to spend some time on campus with our sons and daughters.  Dean Hill tells me that this day is special because we have been granted visitation rights. Welcome to campus, parents.

If you’ve had a conversation with me for longer than 5 minutes this fall, you know that my son is a freshman here at BU. All right, let’s be honest, it’s probably more like 2 minutes into our meeting. OK, you have to tell the truth from the pulpit- it’s been a message of my heart emblazoned in neon on my sleeve for the world to see. “My son is a freshman here!” I’m kind of a proud Mom, who is very close to her son, who’s had a hard time letting him go – I  know –go ahead and laugh- I am letting go all the way from my work place here at 735 Comm Ave across the street to his residence at 700 Comm Ave.

As a chaplain I’ve led many events over the years for parents dropping their kids off at college.  But there is a profoundly different experience when it is your own child…… I am a parent today. Did I mention that?  Has it been 2 minutes into our conversation?

I’ve been rereading some of my higher education books on college transitions, specifically passages for parents. I haven’t read so many parenting books since the infancy years. But I am honoring this unique time of transition. And trying to get it right on my end.  Our lesson from Jeremiah today has a pithy proverb about first generations not getting it right for the next generation.  Jeremiah admonishes that “the parents ate the sour grapes, and the children got a stomachache.”  I thought- parents – we can do better than that.  And Jeremiah thinks so too- he envisions a day when an individual’s actions will have consequences for that person.  You eat a bad apple, and you get the stomachache. Mistakes of the elders need not be passed on as problems for the children. Of course it goes both ways, and we have not a little bit of attitude in a couple verses from our Psalter toady- – did you note the line when a young writer says – “I understand more than the aged.” Just an FYI: I wouldn’t recommend students quoting that one to your parents over lunch today.

Since we parents really are trying to get it right, let’s name a place of origin for us.  I quote from my Fall Canonical literature: Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years “We all know intellectually that this is a time for our children to separate and assert their own independence.  But long after they have become taller or stronger than we are, our primal protective feelings are easily unleashed.  We carry images in our heads of the curly haired toddler, the gap-toothed 6 year old, and times when a hug could make their world all better.  The mature, rational part of us wants them to solve their own problems and believes they can- but another part of us wants to stay connected, be in control, protect them from any pain they will have to face.”  End quote.

When our son announced to us, complete with drumroll, that he was choosing BU from the 10 schools at his horizon, we were thrilled. Not the midwest college we thought he might choose, some 12 hours from home- but 9 miles, we were ecstatic.  ….My husband and I love this university, having met here, both earning our first graduate degrees here, both now working here on campus.

Our highly literate son could read the excitement in our faces.  He even read that chapter in our minds, that went something like “maybe the nest won’t be so empty with our youngest living a block away from our offices.”  Our son then presented us with a carefully premeditated, bullet pointed speech that he coined his “Rules of Engagement” for attending BU.

Our biblical scholars will recognize that These Rules are apodictic in nature- all the lovely thou shalt not commandments. MOM, You will not greet me with your usual outgoing enthusiasm.  No unsolicited hugging.  If we pass by one another on Comm Ave, you may greet me with restraint, IF I have first acknowledged you.  This acknowledgement will be in the form of a nod of the head, perhaps a smile. No Acknowledgement, no greeting.

If we see each other in the GSU, and you are looking for a table at which to eat lunch, and I give said acknowledgement, you may come over just to say hello, even to my group of friends, but NO “honey how are you, I miss you, I love you” talk.  Communications will be occasional texts and phone calls, and I will be home for Thanksgiving.

I thought for a moment and said, “So, you want us to pretend you‘re in college in Ohio.”

“Exactly!”  was his reply.

My son is here in the sanctuary today. My son, who has been raised by 2 United Methodist clergy parents, is a PK squared.  My son, who has been the object of many a sermon illustration in many a church. My son, whose classroom building shares a Plaza with this chapel. My son, who shares DNA with a BU Chapel Associate and a Professor.  So my gift to my beloved, amazing, wonderful son is that I will let him be anonymous.  But I have to call him something, so I’ve been calling him HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED . “You know who” is in the house today.

Now, “You Know Who” grew up book by book with Harry Potter and the Hogwarts posse.  YOU KNOW WHO is a reference to Lord Voldemort himself, the source of all evil and fear and chaos in the world.  This is where the pseudonym loses some of its utility, because my son is not the Dark Lord. But it’s the best I’ve got. Students, you gotta trust us, we parents are doing the best we can to let go and to set you free for like Robert Browning we know that “the best is yet to be.”

So, ‘You know who,” while I applaud your disengagement from your parents, I have 3 Rules of Engagement of my own I would like to share today.  Without “thou shalt not”

  1. Look Up.         2. Get Lost              3. Be Unrecognizable.

Look Up. In my first parish there was a framed Norman Rockwell print, that featured St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Avenue in NY –  a gothic revival beauty of a church. Numerous Urban pedestrians are passing by the church, each downcast, slumped over in cement gazing routine.  Not a one is looking up. The rector is outside on steps in full vestment, and he has just posted his sermon title on the church sign entitled  “Lift Up Thine Eyes!”  You can sense both his Jeremiad admonition, What are you doing ,people, and his Jeremiah vision for life that could be lived so much more abundantly.

Dean Howard Thurman, who served this Chapel 1953-65, stands on the steps of Marsh Chapel 24 -7, calling out “Come Alive! Figure out what makes you come alive and go do it!”  Lift Up thine Eyes. Look Up around you. That will help you to look deep to the hunger within you.  Look up. look in. That sounds a little bit like Albus Dumbledore wisdom, what do you think You Know Who?

Look up! Yes, the Mom here does want to mention, please look both ways when crossing Comm Ave- 57 bus, BU shuttle, cars, taxis, T, bikes, students on skate boards, not so smart pedestrians glued to smart phones .

LOOK Up. Be attentive to your splendor. Live mindfully.  With intentionality put down your virtual world so that you may live into the incarnational world of God’s people right here, right now.

When my generation went to college we were exhorted to do this newfangled  thing called Study Abroad. For this globally connected generation, in a post- modern flattened world, I have no doubt that you are engaging the world.  But I exhort you to engage the person right next to you.

Sharon Daloz Parks who writes about emerging adulthood and faith, notes that young people are hungry for “hearth places.”   Hearth places are places where people linger with one another, with invitation to pause, to reflect, to be. They offer an exquisite balance of stability and motion. They are places of contemplation- defined by Quaker Douglas Steere as “A continual condition of prayerful sensitivity to what is going on.”  Be attentive to what is going on. This can be in a Marsh Chapel fellowship meal when you discover that inquiring minds really belong in this place, on your dorm floor when your friends throw you a surprise 18th birthday party , when you look up on your walk to class and smile at everyone you meet.

Hearth times can happen on the T in serendipitous conversation with a fellow sojourner , at a meal in the Dining Hall when you open your table up to greet a student from another country, studying another discipline, and Common Ground morphs from a phrase of Howard Thurman to a discovery of your heart.

This is where we parents must nuance one of previous Rules of Engagement we taught you in grade school,  notably “Stranger Danger.” You know how to be smart and safe, but our faith urges us to engage the stranger in our midst  – in addition to your 1,452 Facebook friends.  Did you know that in class of 2017, right here on campus, there are students from 66 different countries? Look Up.

Daloz Parks says that the “hunger for hearth-sized conversations persists, and it can be ignored only at the cost of a malnourished life.” Eat well at the banquet of BU community! Be attentive to the Splendor along Commonwealth Avenue.

Rule #2 for He Who Shall Not be Named and all our beloved students.  Get Lost. Sometimes we need to get lost on purpose, sometimes we just need to stop the ego car and admit that we need directions.

Now, this is going to sound counter-intuitive to this GPS dependent generation.  Where a satellite can talk to the gadget in your palm and your friend Siri can guide you wherever you want to go.  Our wisest spiritual guides tell us that pilgrims on adventures get lost a lot of the time- so we best value the process, not just the destination.  When  you are lost and must rely daily on the kindness of strangers.

In our worship life this fall we’ve been travelling through exile with Jeremiah. . .Displacement.  Separation from home. Dislocation. Life on a foreign avenue.  Following political defeat, Jeremiah travels with Judah from home field advantage of Jerusalem to refugee life in Babylonia.   At first there is the shock and lament of arrival in a new place. Then last week Jeremiah recognized that the Babylonian exile would last a long time –so he advised folks settle in- to build houses and plant vines, to thrive, even to do their part to benefit the welfare of the foreign city in which they now live.

Students, you are not here because you are lost, or exiled. You are here by privileged choice to study at this fine University. But what student has not felt the burning loneliness of banishment from all that is familiar, or the paralysis of fear during these midterm evaluations.  Am I good enough? Can I do this? Confessed or not, there is a moment of longing for the cocoon of unconditional love at home.     It’s not only OK to be lost, it’s a condition of our humanity.  To deny our moments of exile is to deny our moments of restoration.  And here’s the lavish joy of life. My colleague the Rev. Jen Quigley expressed it beautifully when she preached that “Grace is the serendipitous moment of being found.”

Sometimes it’s good to Get lost on purpose. Spend a day away from your determined efficient production, and wander.  Wander to the shoreline with Dean Hill, wander through neighborhoods of Boston, wander into colleges other than your own, wander beyond your syllabus and get lost in the thrill of an idea. Chase a footnote down its rabbit warren of antecedents until you look up at the clock and an hour has passed.  It’ll probably have nothing to do with the thesis of your current project- but it may lead you to the very thesis of your life. To Vocation. Get lost in what you love.

Over the years I’ve led numerous Alternative Spring Break trips for service and vocational exploration.  At each trip’s orientation I name that it will be a week of “intentional dislocation.”  We are purposefully leaving what is known and comfortable, in order to see ourselves in a new way, to become a joy-filled Christian community in that long fun van ride.   We must separate from homefield advantage so we may be fully open to the communities we will serve.  Kenda Creasy Dean calls it the place of “creative disequilibrium,” a liminal principle of the Gospel – that the reality of being off kilter may precipitate growth and transformation.

Getting Lost is like Falling in Love.  You are lost and you are found. Fall in love on purpose. Listen to this short poem by Ignatian priest Fr. Pedro Arrupe:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.


Look Up, Get Lost, and my final Rule of Engagement:

Be Unrecognizable

When You Know Who went off to FYSOP community service the week before classes, he was still 17.  I had to fill out special BU Rules of Engagement forms to surrender my minor’s care to the University, including my own cell number.  There was a slight miscommunication and apparently my number was confused with YOU KNOW WHOs number.  I started to get texts that week. They didn’t sound like messages that my son would write to me. “Hey DUDE, meet at the Plaza at 10 tonight to start our night out.”  I wanted to write back “Hey Dude, I’m the Mom; I’m headed to bed at 10.”  But instead I wrote, ”I believe you want You Know Who’s number. Here it is. Text him.”

After about 3 messages from my Dude friend- who was so very friendly and polite- I thought we had it nicely worked out. Until the second week of classes and I got a text that read,  “I’m on the Quidditch Team, I’m a chaser,  I am a member of Dumbledore’s Army, and  I have 2 interviews for staff writing positions.”  Oh great, it’s Dude again. Who is this person writing me???? Until I studied the number, and realized this indeed this was HE Who Must not be Named.  Unrecognizable to me in two weeks.  Fabulous!

Students, Reinvent yourself.  Or as a friend of mine, Nora Bradbury-Haehl writes in her new book called the Freshman Survival Guide,  “Shed you skin, not your skeleton.”      Do something so different that your parents have to google it to figure out what you’re up to.    I had to Google “chaser” (it’s a quiddtich position)  and I did some research to learn that “Boston University Dumbledore’s Army is a chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance. We will harness our love for Harry Potter to bring about change in the Boston community through volunteering and fundraising.”  Wow.  I love it!

Finally, Jeremiah dreams of a day when we are transformed from the inside out. When our hearts are strangely warmed, and our new lives of justice and joy are practically unrecognizable . Jeremiah gives us these famous words -“The days are surely coming when I will make a new  covenant… I will put my law within them, and I will etch it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

Beloved students, this is our deepest and most important dream for your engagement.  That the love and grace of God will be so close to you that it is tattooed  on your heart.  That you will be in relationship with this God in Christ who accompanies you through exile and into homeland.

Friends, Be careful crossing the street. Thank you for visitation rights.  And, Fall in love with God, it will make all the difference.


~The Reverend Dr. Robin Olson, Chapel Associate

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