“Last Night / Auld Lang Syne”

Photo Credit: Roven Images via Unsplash

Tonight people around the world will sing “Auld Lang Syne,” a 1788 poem by Robert Burns. It’s a song that invites memories of good times with friends–not just in the past year, but throughout our lives. A literal translation of the Scots phrase is “old long since,” meaning “days gone by.”   Burns’ version comes from a long oral tradition, dating back as least as far as 1588. His lyrics of this drinking song spread across Scotland through its inclusion in the Scottish New Year celebration of Hogmanay.  Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians helped popularize the song in North America, and for decades it’s been played in Time’s Square after the ball drops.

I’ve put together a video for Noel Stookey’s adapation of the song, which he and George Emlen arranged as “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne.”  About it he says,

For the past 4 years or so on New Year’s Eve in Blue Hill, a large group of townsfolk gather in the Congregational Church to bid farewell to the old year with poetry and song.  My good friend (and former musical director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, group Revels), George Emlen and I felt that a counter melody to “Auld Lang Syne” would make a nice musical statement as well as a metaphoric intertwining of the old year/new year.  The search for its perfect lyric is probably not over yet – but on my holiday CD Somethin’ Special, I wanted to at least get the concept out among folks to sing.

Tonight in Blue Hill, Noel and George will again be leading the townsfolk in their “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne” and celebrating old friends and new friends with their song.  With this video I wish you a happy new year filled with joy, peace, and the warmth of friends.

Embracing the Enemy: Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace

“After I finished my lecture, Professor Jurgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating:  ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in his preface to the first edition of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.    “It was the winter of 1993.  For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “četnik” [or chetnik] had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.”

Only a few years earlier Moltmann had been Volf’s professor of theology and mentor at the University of Tübingen in Germany.  One of the most internationally esteemed theologians of the last decades of the twentieth century, he had known war even more intimately than Volf.  In 1944, he had been drafted into the German army and a year later had surrendered to the British. During his three years as a POW, he read the New Testament and Psalms for the first time and brought his personal  experience of war to his study and reflection. Later he wrote, 

In July 1943 I was an air force auxiliary in a battery in the center of Hamburg, and barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air Force’s “Operation Gomorrah” let loose on the eastern part of the city. The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: “My God, where are you?” And the question “Why am I not dead too?” has haunted me ever since.

In his lecture Volf had been arguing  that “we ought to embrace our enemies, as God has embraced us in Christ.”  So when Moltmann asked, “Can you embrace a četnik?”, his former student knew it was not a theoretical question. Moltmann had first-hand experience in struggling to love the enemy, and his question was part of what led Volf to write Exclusion and Embrace.

This 1996 book was named by Christianity Today as one of the best books of the twentieth century.  Several months ago Abingdon Press published a revised and updated edition, largely because it speaks to the hatred, conflict and the distrust of the “other” that are so prevalent around the world today.  Volf, who later founded the Yale Center on Faith and Culture and still teaches at Yale University Divinity School, wrote the first edition in a time when he believed that identity conflicts would fade as the processes of global integration would unite the world.  In his preface to the revised edition, he writes that such has not been the case: “The whole globe looks now more like Yugoslavia did on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities among its ethnic groups than like Europe when the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the bipolar world, came down and the European Union was expanding.” (1)

I’m one of the writers for FaithLink, a United Methodist digital curriculum on current affairs. This year’s Advent lessons were inspired by Volf’s book.  Although the curriculum is available only by subscription, the main essays from these lessons are posted on the Ministry Matters website:

“Violence and Peace” by Lyndsey Medford
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Violence+and+Peace
“Deception and Truth” by Jill M. Johnson
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Deception+and+Truth
“Oppression and Justice”  by Doug Paysour
https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9991/oppression-and-justice
“Exclusion and Embrace”  by Jeanne Torrence Finley https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9996/exclusion-and-embrace

Our times are racked by division and hatred–both stoked by fear of the other.  Volf’s book presents an alternative vision and a way toward human understanding and peace.  It’s a challenging read, but my colleagues and I at FaithLink hope that our essays provide a gentle welcome into his important work.  Mine begins with the story of the Grinch, which is not to be dismissed on December 25.  Remember that this is the 5th day of Christmas. Maybe the Grinch and the people of Whoville are still celebrating.

(1) To view Volf’s lecture, “Before Embrace,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5CFDY_9efU

“There’s Still My Joy”

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Since we lost our daughter in 2013, the holidays have been difficult to navigate.   Though I may like the tunes, songs like”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays” will always ring hollow.   Last year when Noel Stookey released his album Somethin’ Special, I was drawn to this beautiful song by Melissa Manchester about finding peace and joy in spite of loss.  Putting together this slide show to accompany Noel’s interpretation was healing for me, and I hope that if you’re grieving a loss–whether that be the loss of a loved one or of health or of your most treasured dream–you will find the space and freedom in this song to find and claim a reason for joy.

On Being a University Church

victoria-heath-b7CRDcwfNFU-unsplash

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Unite the pair so long disjoin’d
Knowledge and vital piety
 — Charles Wesley, 18th century

One of the reasons my husband and I chose to live in a university town is that we wanted to be a part of a university church.  That desire comes from three formative experiences in my life that shape my vision of what that means. As a teenager bound for college, I heard my Methodist pastor say in a sermon,  “Don’t be afraid of what you’ll learn in college. All truth is God’s truth. A faith that can’t grow, can’t entertain doubt, can’t be open to new learning is no faith at all and it’s not worth having.” Later I discovered that not all my peers had been taught that.  Instead, some of them had been told to fear what they might learn in a biology class or even a religion class, where a “godless professor” would try to dismantle their faith. 

On registration day at Pfeiffer College (now University), I met my advisor, the eloquent and persuasive Dr. J. Griffin Campbell, chair of English Department, son of a South Carolina Methodist pastor, soldier in  General Patton’s army, actor, and Lutheran layperson. As I best I recall, on that day he told me I’d be an English major. I didn’t argue. I signed up for his English lit course and didn’t look back.  In my four years at Pfeiffer, I took every course he taught, and although I learned a lot about literature and writing from him, what I most appreciated was seeing how knowledge and faith were integrated in him. He united–in the language of Charles Wesley — “knowledge and vital piety.”  He was a living example of what my pastor had taught.

The third influence was part of the experience of being a campus minister at James Madison University.  The first week I arrived, Jim McDonald, the United Methodist campus minister and Wesley Foundation director at the University of Virginia, showed up to welcome and orient me, and he was, and is, yet another living example of what my pastor had taught.  From him, I learned that, at its best, campus ministry engages the whole university. It does a whole lot more than provide encouragement, space, and faith formation for a group of students who identify with a program and a building. It seeks to unite faith and learning, “knowledge and vital piety.” 

My home church, Pfeiffer University, and the Wesley Foundation at JMU were not quite the same as a university church, but they did form my vision of what a university church can be.   Being located near a campus is only prior requirement, an opportunity, not a defining characteristic. 

A university church is engaged with the campus.  Members of the congregation attend events on campus; pay attention to the concerns of faculty, administrators, and staff; and use the resources of the university. The congregation is  intentional about having a mutually enriching relationship with the university.

A university church is geared toward intellectual life. That could mean providing book studies that are challenging and providing occasions for dialogue about the relationship of faith with science, with the arts, and with technology. It could mean inviting faculty to be guest speakers at programs   

A university church is culturally and socially aware.  Sermons address current issues, social justice, and ethics.  Clergy in university churches are able and expected to preach on issues like immigration, climate change, health care, racism, poverty, economic inequality, and other topics of social concern.  

A university church is welcoming and diverse. Being a Reconciling Congregation is a good indicator of that stance.  Another indicator is a church’s intentional use of inclusive language in worship services.  Long ago I attended a retreat about being a welcoming congregation, and the leader told of a church that had a coffee hour.  The coffee and cups were in plain sight, but only the insiders knew where the sugar and cream were kept. Some signs of hospitality are physical and visible–accessibility, signage, bulletin-board messages, location of sugar and cream–but others are more subtle and complex.  A university church has done its homework and is intentional about what and how it communicates welcome to the academic community.

In October, the Pew Research Center released a report on the dramatic decline in religious affiliation over the last decade.  One finding is the percentage of “nones” — those who answer “none” on a survey of religious preference — has risen to 26%, up from 17%  ten years ago. Many of the “nones” are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, cites these reasons for this decline:  decreased social pressure to attend; the clergy sexual abuse scandal, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church; changing attitudes toward sexuality and gender; and the alliance of religious conservatives with right-wing politics.   A university church is interested in what nones have to say about institutional religion. [For a short introduction to what nones are saying, watch “Rise of the Nones:  Diana Butler Bass Extended Interview.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEu2MH3J0qg]

From my observation as a campus minister, a college teacher, and a writer about religion and current affairs,  academic communities hunger for having an authentic and intentional university church across the street. United Methodists are blessed with long tradition of intellectual freedom and honest inquiry. Our founder, John Wesley, encouraged early Methodists to seek learning.   His brother, Charles Wesley, wrote in a hymn, “unite the pair so long disjoin’d, knowledge and vital piety—learning and holiness combined.”  Ours in a tradition that honors both spiritual growth and intellectual rigor as mutually beneficial and necessary. That’s the reason Methodists have established over 110 colleges and universities in the U.S.  We have a long commitment to learning, and it is the unique privilege and responsibility of congregations near college and universities to hear that call and strive be university churches.