A Letter from the Chaplain
I have had the great privilege of working on the campus of Centenary for 17 years and serving as chaplain the past 11 years. My ministry here has been a dream come true. I will always be grateful for these years shared with you. On Tuesday, April 23, 2013 I had the privilege of preaching my last sermon in Brown Chapel as your chaplain when I spoke to the Stepping Stones worship community. So many people have asked for a copy of the sermon until I decided to post it here for those who are interested in reading it. Centenary College is an amazing place and you are marvelous people! I look forward to staying connected as an alum and a Louisiana United Methodist pastor in the community. Thank you for the impact you have made on my life, for the lessons I have learned from you and the family you will always be for me.
Stepping Stones – April 23, 2013
Justin Kennedy and I were sitting at dinner in the caf last night when I was discussing today’s sermon and said, “You know Justin, I’ve spoken at Stepping Stones many times, but this feels a bit weightier than any of those other times.” And Justin said, “Yea, it’s like deciding what to say to the disciples at the Last Supper.”
“Well”, I responded, “I don’t think it’s quite that weighty. Besides I’m not sure I want to use that analogy. I know what happened the next day.”
Mark Miller piped in with his usual optimism ,”But, there’s a good ending. It just takes about three days.”
The truth is that WHAT I felt called to talk about seemed already determined. You see, when Brandon and I were texting about my speaking, I was out of town. And it almost seemed to just dawn on us in the midst of texting that this would be the last Stepping Stones for the semester AND my last Stepping Stones as chaplain. It wasn’t really planned…..at least not by us.
As I said, I was out of town….with my red leather satchel, of course. Many of you have seen the red leather satchel that I have carried for years. As usual I had it with me packed with things for the trip. Now I have packed and unpacked that satchel a million times and I had just repacked it before going to Denver. So, what happened that day seems very odd. It was one of those things I call either odd or God or so odd, maybe it was God.
I put my phone down from texting Brandon (because, of course, we text; we don’t talk.) And I reached into the red leather satchel for the purple file. Laura Vaughan knows that purple is my travel file color. (Yes, she got my files color coordinated by purpose.) Purple files are the color of the files that have all my important information for a trip – plane reservations, hotel confirmation, etc. So I pulled out the purple file to look at something, but apparently there were two purple files because when I opened it, it was not the file with all my travel information. Instead it had among other things, a copy of the order of worship for Orientation worship from 2003 and my notes on the sermon I preached that day. 2003!! REALLY!? Now I’m not the most organized person in the world, but I have no idea why that was in the file or why that file was in the satchel.
Interestingly, 2003 would have been the first year that I asked Student Life to include an opening worship service in orientation. Why did I have it and why did I find it at that moment? I don’t know.
But, something made me think I should pay attention. So I decided to use the same scripture.
So hear the scripture:
8 Finally, beloved,a whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think aboutb these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
In 2003 I used this scripture to say to students that many things would come into their lives, their minds and their hearts and I encouraged them to be intentional about what they gave their time and attention to because it always impacts who we are. It was a good message for the beginning of the semester and not an unusual one for what I often preach at that service.
This week I returned to the scripture and to the context, the commentaries and to my knees.
As many of you know, Philippians is a letter that Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. Paul is known for writing letters to the young forming communities of faith. As I dug into the commentaries, I was reminded that most commentators believe Paul was addressing a community that was experiencing conflict.
So what is Paul saying?
- “whatever is noble, true, pure, lovely, admirable, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy.” Some translations say “true”. Others read “just.” Some translations read “admirable.” Others read “commendable.”
Think on these things.
What Paul is not saying is to ignore conflict. Paul is not talking about some Pollyanna pretense that suggests that everything is fine. This is not some fake, sicky sweet “sweep everything under the rug” kind of instruction.
I believe Paul is saying, put your head and your heart and your actions on high ground.
Do you know who Dewitt Jones is? Dewitt is a photographer for National Geographic – but not just a photographer with a good eye for pictures. He is that indeed, but Dewitt is also a philosopher and encourager who provides great inspiration through photography and videos and stories. Among many things, Dewitt has a website and a blog and any number of videos. One of his themes that often draws me is to “Celebrate what is right with the world.” Check him out. He even has a website by that name. http://www.celebratewhatsright.com.
I translate that in our current circumstance to “celebrate what is noble, just, true, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.” I feel a call to rise to that and not to believe that any participant in the conflict has a corner on the market for what is noble or pure or admirable or praiseworthy.
In the midst of conflict it becomes incredibly important to celebrate what is right. It becomes so important to find some place of common ground, some place of high ground where we can stand together.
Now I know how hard that is.
It can be incredibly hard, especially when we are angry and hurt and frustrated.
I have to be honest with you. I was embarrassed and flattered and humbled all at the same time by Ellen Orr’s description of me in her Op-ed piece last week in the Conglomerate. And as much as I would like to be that person she described through and through, the truth is I am that person only sometimes. The fact of the matter is I also am sometimes stubborn and selfish and bull-headed and downright aggravating.
But, here’s the thing. Ellen’s seeing goodness in me and describing that so publicly just makes me want to be more of that more of the time. And isn’t that true for all of us?
As much as we want it to be sometimes, the fact is that very few things are simply good or evil, right or wrong.
I strongly believe that every person has a divine spark of God within us. We are made in the image of God. And in the midst of conflict it becomes all the more important to stir that spark in ourselves and seek that spark in others.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that we step away from conflict. Paul, as a faithful disciple of Jesus, calls us to what is noble and just and pure. And if you know anything about Jesus or Paul, you know that they were not afraid of speaking out. Being faithful means when we something we believe to be unjust or abusive or lacking compassion, we stand against it.
But HOW we stand against anything we disagree with matters. Standing against policies or decisions or procedures that we believe to be unjust or unwise does not mean we vilify the decision makers. Because when we go there, we become focused on ourselves, on our own anger and on our energy that we may get from the fight. We fail to focus on our shared desire for the hope of our community.
I was deeply saddened to hear of Facebook attacks on Dr. Rowe’s children and their behavior. That is just wrong. And irrelevant to the conversation.
At the same time I was encouraged and incredibly proud to read and hear of posts that invited students to stand, to speak and to communicate with integrity and maturity. That is right.
Last weekend when I was in Colorado I spent some time with an alumna, a former classmate of mine from Centenary. Cheryl is an accomplished horsewoman and takes care of elder horses. On Sunday afternoon I was standing in the pasture with this “horse-whisperer woman” as she introduced me to her horses. One by one she made the introductions. And at last she introduced me to Coda. Coda is a beautiful, stately quarter horse. She told me that Coda is the leader, that the other horses would always follow his lead. She asked, “Betsy, do you know why horses will follow a leader? Coda is strong, of course. But, he’s a leader because he is calm in all circumstances.” Strong and calm – that’s what they will follow.
Now hear me. Everyone does not play the same role in conflict within a community. Some are bold prophets, called to name the truth. Others have gifts of organization and communication. Some will research and clarify, making sure they get the facts straight. Some will energize and call to action, while others will help settle the anxiety. Some will undergird the conflict with prayer and quiet support.
But, we all have a responsibility to rise to the highest and best of who we are created to be.
Some of you know that I have been training to be a life and leadership coach. Some of you know that because as I have reached the place where I am taking on clients, you have been brave enough to risk being coached. In the process of my training, I am also being coached myself and recently, my coach took me through a wonderful exercise where I was invited to encounter my “future self” about 20 years down the road. I was invited to have a conversation with her. That may sound hokey, but I’m telling you it was very cool. And it made me think.
In 2003 I asked students at Opening Worship to think about where they would spend their time, who they would affiliate with, what they wanted to do – because those things influence us and help to define us.
Today I want to ask you to think about the legacy you want to leave. When you look back on this time in Centenary’s history, what is the story you want to have told with your life and choices and actions?
There will always be conflict in our lives. It is inevitable when we are in relationships and in community. If we will put our minds on what is noble and just and pure and engage one another with the truth- in fact insisting on the truth while trusting in the divine spark of every other human being, we have a much greater chance at surviving the conflict and strengthening the community. We will be a better community if we will find common ground, celebrate what is right, speak to injustice and together seek to rise to what is excellent and praiseworthy.
I want to close by reading the scripture one more time, but this time backing up just a few verses to include Philippians 4:4-9.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, ‘Rejoice.’ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (NRSV)
Blessings, Centenary. Blessings on you all.
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