Saturday, March 27, 2010

On leaving...

We spent a final full day with Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco.  It's officially far more satisfying to hang sheetrock than it is to unload and haul it.  We treated ourselves to Mission burritos around the corner from the childhood home of one of our trip members.  All in all, it was a terrific end to a terrific trip.

But, I noticed throughout the day that while our typical conversations about life, faith and service continued, they also made way for talk of travel, our immanent return to Hanover, and upcoming classes and plans for the term.  Our conversations more closely resembled those we had back on campus.  Our closing reflection was significant, but disjointed.  We all have plans to make, people to call, last minute items to buy.  In short, the trip was coming to and end.

And while I'm quite ready to return to my home and family and bed, I will grieve the end of these moments together.  We were truly present with one another for a brief period, and wonderful things happened.  But the time has come for this trip to end.  For a return to normal life.  We can simply hope that the work done, the lessons learned and the relationships developed here will remain and carry through to the next steps.  I, for one, am hopeful of good things yet to come.

Tomorrow, back to the cold.  Back to life.  I'm ready, but it will be bittersweet.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gardens, Food, Toilets, etc.

Working, on Wednesday, with Welcome Ministries was a - pardon the pun - welcome relief for me.  There's something quite satisfying about turning a burnt-out church yard, turned dangerous open lot, into a community garden.  Especially in an area without grocery stores and fresh foods available.  And I continue to be impressed by the good and creative work of so many good people here on the ground.

The previous two days were spent serving massive meals at Glide Memorial Church's meal program.  In the course of two breakfasts and a lunch, we served about 2,200 meals.  I've never seen so much Oatmeal in all my life.  The weight of homelessness and hunger issues washes over me in settings such as Glide.  We can solve hunger with a massive meal.  But four hours later, it's back.

At those meals, one catches glimpses of humanity - people sharing food and laughing.  Hearty 'good-mornings' and 'thank yous' from guests I wouldn't expect to be cheerful.  But there are also angry words and people.  Grumpy volunteers.  And lots of despairing faces and sad stories.  It tests one's faith and hope that we can do anything but satisfy immediate needs.  So for now,  thatt's what we do.  And, while limited, it is good.

On an only moderately connected note, the water in our hostel is shut off this morning.  We have the morning off before hosting a Carnival at Hamilton Family Center this afternoon, and I planned  accordingly - with ample time to eat and shower before the 9 AM water shut down.  But mid-morning, I was in need of a restroom.  I set out to the neighborhood Vietnamese sandwich shop.  The woman behind the counter reluctantly waved me past the counter, only to be confronted with an "Out of Order" sign.  I took off toward a KFC/Taco Bell.  Closed.  I rounded the corner to see only high-rises and closed shop fronts.

This wasn't good.  I passed convenience stores and hotels.  No luck.  I was singularly focused.  But occasionally my mind wandered to the hundreds lined up just down the block at Glide.  Where, but at meal centers and shelters, do folks who are consistently, persistently without water and shelter use the bathroom?  Having walked and smelled Ellis St. many times, I knew the answer to this question.  But my own wanderings, approaching emergency levels, allowed me to consider this fact anew.  I am thankful for those who meet the basic needs of homeless people.  And thankful for the opportunity to help in a tiny way.  Even when I am drawn more to full service facilities and creative solutions to poverty.

And I found, eventually, my own relief through the metal detectors in the opulent San Fran City Hall (it was a long walk on many levels).  I suspect few of San Francisco's homeless have ever sat where I sat.

Closing on an almost-entirely unrelated note - I came downstairs yesterday as another College group was preparing to leave.  Seated on a couch was a small group of impossibly young looking students, loudly and openly complaining about any number of things.  And I realized that I had seen none of this from our group.  When the work is hard, we acknowledge it and work on.  When we're delayed or disorganized, we wait.  Play silly games.  Talk about any number of our favored subjects.  But we don't whine.  And for that, I am most thankful.  Many, myself included, have lamented the sense of entitlement that persists amongst student populations at top colleges and universities.  But it is a privilege to be among a group of intelligent, dedicated students who are here to work and reflect together, and who do so in strong spirits.  If this group is any indication, we have much about which to be hopeful.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spiritual but not Religious

Spiritual but Not Religious
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley
Richard R. Crocker
March 21, 2010
Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6-13

Thank you for welcoming me to speak to you today. You are known, of course, for being a tolerant group of people, and your invitation to me certainly confirms that reputation. I speak to you to, honestly, I hope, first as a human being – a condition that we all share, but then also more particularly as a liberal Presbyterian protestant Christian – a condition that is becoming almost as rare as the platypus.

Your pastor asked me to speak to you about the religious and spiritual life of young people, based upon 30 years of working with young people in settings as diverse as chaplaincy at Bates and Dartmouth, being a college dean, working with adolescents as a high school English teacher, working in clinical settings including state mental hospitals for adolescents judged criminally insane, and in private practice as a pastoral psychotherapist, and also as the father of three sons. These experiences have brought me into contact, often close contact, with young people in the process of forming, or stabilizing, their identities. Since issues of faith are universal among human beings, and since answers to basic religious and spiritual questions are essential to identity, I have been privileged to share in the journey of many thoughtful, and some not so thoughtful, young people. It is from these accumulated experiences that I speak to you today. And my message is simple. Some things have changed, and some things have not changed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Our Dartmouth.

Read more about our trip and other Tucker Foundation alternative break trips at

[Our group atop the mound of dirt we shoveled at a Welcome Ministries site  in Oakland. ]

 [And after a long day of hauling sheetrock and painting at Habitat for Humanity San Francisco.]

And, just for fun, here's an article proving that more, deeper conversation lead to happier lives.  I knew it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

San Fran So Far.

We've been, our group of 13, in San Fransisco for 4 nights.  We've painted meeting spaces for Larkin St. Youth Services and cooked a meal for 60.  We hauled a house's worth of sheetrock into a newly-framed Habitat for Humanity Home (and up the stairs) and painted a good portion of its outside.  And we shoveled two truckloads of dirt for a new urban garden in Oakland on behalf Welcome Ministries (after destroying an ivy-covered fence to allow the dirt-truck access).

We've survived 2 massive walks to and from the supermarket.  And each of our four sub-groups has planned, prepared and executed an admirable dinner.

Our backs and legs are tired.  We've laughed and joked and complained together, and played a few too-intense games of Catch Phrase.  The service work has been good, tiring, and generally rewarding, with much more to come.  Our group reflection sessions have been fruitful and well-led by our student teams.

Far more significant for me, though, are the moments together we occasionally miss during the chaos and business of the Dartmouth term.  Arguing about universal morals on the BART ride to Oakland.  Searching every market in the Tenderloin in search of suitable bread for Shabbat (a baguette from the Vietnamese bakery was the closest we could come, but it surely beat the all-pervasive loaves of Wonder Bread).  Talking about Aristotle and Jay-Z as we walk to and from our service sites. Finding meals suitable for picky eaters of all kinds.  Debating the nuances of white vs. orange Cheeze Its.

These are the things that don't show up in grant reports.  And they're easily forgotten as we plan for tight budgets.  And I too sometimes forget them when dealing with the inevitable exhaustion of the start of the spring term.  But we are simply together.  Engaged in common work, and the mundane details of daily lives.  Growing as a group.  Learning and struggling together.  And it is profound.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Are you going to San Francisco?

I (Kurt) am off to sunny (hopefully) San Francisco for 10 days of work surrounding issues of youth, homelessness and housing with a terrific group of 12 Dartmouth Undergraduates.  As a group of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and non-religious folks we'll explore what it means to put Faith into action, examine our motivations to serve others, and explore community within our small, dedicated, religiously diverse group.  And hopefully we'll do some good while we're at it.  We'll work with a variety of agencies and non-profits on the ground building housing, serving meals, urban farming, organizing clothing and painting walls, supporting kids, cleaning and all sorts of other glamorous things.

This is, for me and our group, a tremendous opportunity each year to connect to a new community, and form unique bonds within our own community.  No classes or duties outside of being, working, and reflecting together.

Wish us luck, and safe travels.  I will attempt to explore the wonders of mobile blogging a couple of times from the ground.  And feel free to check in with us and all of the Tucker Foundation's service trips HERE over the next few days.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Christian Temptations

Richard R. Crocker
March 11, 2010
College Vespers
Luke 4:1-13

During Lent, we consider the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness – a story that is certainly familiar to all of us. I am sure that some of us can identify, somewhat, with the three temptations that Luke’s gospel describes – the temptation to use his power to satisfy his own hunger, the temptation to want earthly power, and the temptation to crave celebrity. Succumbing to any of these temptations would have taken Jesus off track; any of them could have destroyed his integrity, his ministry, and his mission. I said that we could identify with them – somewhat. All of us will do almost anything to satisfy our hunger, if we can; many of us will crave earthly power and are willing to make compromises to get it; and some of us seek celebrity status. But these temptations, as strong as they are, are not the ordinary ones. Most of us ordinary Christians face different ones. Most of us have never faced the hunger that Jesus faced; we have not been offered extensive worldly power, so we have not been tempted by it, and few of us really want to acquire celebrity status. Those things are mostly out of our reach anyway. Our temptations are more common and ordinary. But since Lent is the time in the Christian year when we are especially aware of temptation, let us not confine ourselves to thinking about these three temptations that Jesus faced. Let us also think about the temptations that we commonly face,

Think for example: did any of the disciples face the same temptations that Jesus did? Not exactly. Jesus did not instruct his disciples to undergo long periods of fasting. He was criticized for not doing so. Fasting, when some Christians practice, may be a significant spiritual discipline. It is not prescribed by Jesus for us to do, but Jesus did seem to imply that his disciples, at times, would fast. There is a difference between fasting and dieting. Both practices can be good for us, but for different reasons. But Christians, unlike Muslims for example, during Ramadan, and unlike Jews on Yom Kippur, are not required to fast, even during Lent. Nor did any of Jesus’ disciples face the prospect of great worldly power. Yes, James and John wanted to sit on his right hand in his coming kingdom, so ambition was perhaps a pitfall, but none of the disciples craved wealth. Even Judas, who betrayed Jesus, did not do so to become rich. And all of the disciples said they had abandoned houses and property in order to follow him. It is true, of course, that when he encountered the rich young ruler, Jesus challenged him to give up his possessions, and he did warn his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, but Jesus did not demand poverty from his followers, nor did his disciples struggle greatly with the temptation of wealth and power. Similarly, none of the disciples craved celebrity. Jesus told them that if they wanted to become great, they should become servants, and for the most part, they understood him.

Espousing Faith

 - and why it is hard to talk about.

Religion is something that we embrace, or do not embrace. Certainly our religious options are defined and shaped by our experience, but the decision to embrace (which connotes love) and practice a particular faith is finally a matter of choice, reflecting our deepest loyalties, convictions, and affections. It is difficult, sometimes, to speak about these deepest convictions in a way that seems "objective". We all do have reasons for espousing, or not espousing (note again the love/marital metaphor), but they are often as hard to state or explain or defend as our choice of a marital partner. Similarly, when someone criticizes our faith -- if it is indeed a vital faith to us -- the criticism seems deeply personal - almost as if someone criticized our spouse. This emotional content makes discussion difficult. But it also makes it important. For, unlike race or gender or age, we always live with the fact that we can change our faith, and with the reality that our faith does grow, change, or disappear over time. Discussion contributes to that process. Therefore it is potentially dangerous, as well as potentially enriching. - Richard Crocker

Race, Sex, and Religion

In the wake of struggles within our community involving religious identity (e.g.) we are forced to examine why our capacity to talk about religion and religious diversity seems to lag behind our discussions of race, sex and gender on college campuses.  This is not to say, of course, that we have progressed perfectly on other aspects of the diversity conversation, nor that we aren't working successfully to promote thoughtful conversations about faith.  But I do think our capacity to publicly discuss faith, religion and spirituality in religiously diverse settings could be far better, and has yet to develop at the rate of other discussions of diversity.

Indeed, Dartmouth students frequently ask about this, and groups like the Interfaith Youth Core have made it their mission to "bring religion into the diversity conversation."

There are, of course, unique challenges and situations which we must acknowledge on this front -

First, religion is for many (though certainly not all) a category of identity which is not immediately visible.  We are able (and quite willing) in many cases to keep our sense of faith and religious self private when we're conversing in secular and public spaces.  This is neither good, nor bad.  But it allows us to largely ignore religious difference should we choose to.

Second, in terms of the history of this (and many) institutions, we've seen an explicit and intentional shift from a Christian to a secular institution.  As I've said before, I have high hopes for what "secular" could mean in terms of leveling the playing field for diverse religious and non-religious voices.  However, in practice, I think our "secular" identity leads to lack of willingness - or at least lack of practice - in discussing matters of belief and deep, personal conviction.

Third, I think those who have worked, especially in racial diversity, have done an admirable job of developing the sense that building support for specific racial and ethnic groups benefit the knowledge awareness and ultimately education of us all, regardless of our own racial or cultural identity.  I don't think anyone would argue a similar notion has developed amongst different religious groups.  We are perhaps too quick to turn to claims of exclusive truth, but they certainly exist.

Finally, is the sense that race and sex are accidents of our birth, while religion is a choice.  Or, as one commenter put it, racism and sexism are worse than religious discrimination because "you are attacking someone for something that's not their fault."  Indeed, I would hope that we are free to choose our religious paths, in ways we can't choose other forms of identity.

All that being said, I think we have significant opportunity to do better, and serious reason to do so.  I won't repeat myself on secularism, except to say that my perpetual hope is that a secular culture is one in which we're allowed and encouraged to dialogue about not only that which is measurable, but also about the various beliefs and convictions that shape and form us.

I don't doubt that we will struggle to discuss competing claims to ultimate truth.  But I do think we can enter into such conversations with a level of humility and desire for learning.  From childhood to old-age, the oldest religious sages to fresh-faced students, we are called - people of many religious contexts - to seek after a truth and ultimacy that we will never fully grasp.  And with this spirit, I would hope that conversing with people of other views and contexts would shape us and ground us better in our own traditions.  We must truly an sincerely ask ourselves if what it means to be the best Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist is to be surrounded by only like-minded members of our own faith.  Or, does it mean being grounded enough that we can meaningfully discuss things of significance with people who are different from us.

Finally, on the question of choice (or fault), I would simply say that while I would agree that religion is a choice, that doesn't mean it doesn't matter, or that we ought not learn how to respectfully and thoughtfully dialogue with others (religious and not).  Indeed, I would argue that we are all shaped by beliefs (about God or goodness, or human community, or education...) and that these beliefs are tremendously important to who we are.  In large part because we can choose them.  And when we don't bring them into conversation, we miss a tremendous opportunity to discover more about ourselves, more about others, and more about how we can bring our beliefs to bear on the troubles of the world.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Serve the Lord

It's shocking, at this point, that the world is still able to be shocked by Glenn Beck.   He clearly has a talent for arousing ire.  This time, he's after churches which espouse "social" or "economic justice," encouraging his followers to leave churches which mention such issues.  (If you're interested.)  It's hard to make sense of what exactly he's talking about.  Presumably, we're dealing with a code for socialism...and Nazism.  And it's an issue of religious freedom... from our religious leaders.

Feel free, if you're interested, to sign Bread for the World's petition.  They'll deliver Glenn a Social Justice Bible in person when they reach 35,000 signatures.  It's fairly easy (and probably right) to dismiss Beck.  I suspect this is an outlandish statement that will lose him a handful of followers, offer a few preachers fodder for conversation, and the world will keep turning.

More troubling for me, however, was Ross Douthat's recent NYTimes column, in which he laments the decline in "true religion."  Conservative churches, he claims, are too caught up in "culture wars" and liberal churches too caught up in "social justice" and they both thus squeeze out the central focus of religion - the "quest for the numinous."

What both Beck and Douthat miss, and what "social justice" minded churches (and congregations of all kinds) struggle mightily to articulate, is that the "search for the numinous" and striving for "social justice" are not meant to be different things.  So often we talk, in our religious communities, of prayer and worship and spiritual practice as one thing, and of seeking and working for justice as something different.  But it seems to me this is precisely not the point.

"Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me," says Jesus (Matt. 25).  This is a powerful exhortation to help those who are in need.  But it's also a clear message that this is where and how we will encounter Christ - "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat." 

Like prayer and worship, social justice is part of our spiritual discipline and practice.  It's not code for socialism (though it certainly disrupts the economic powers that be.)  And it's not a church sub-committee, (God love 'em.)  It's certainly not the flipside of the culture war coin.  It's what it means to seek God and follow Christ - and it's not optional (in my humble opinion).

During most of the year, as worship closes we say, in my church, "Go in peace, serve the Lord."  But during the Lenten season we say, "Go in peace, remember the poor."  This is a not-so-subtle reminder of our duty, but hopefully also reminds us that these two statements are mirrors.  Serve the Lord - Remember the poor.  Work for Justice - Seek God.

We need, I believe, prayer and community and song and worship.  And we need also to seek justice.  It's who we are and what we do.  It's our spiritual discipline and our seeking after the divine.

So go in peace, remember the poor...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Secular Reasons...

by Kurt Nelson

For those who missed it, you should read Stanley Fish's recent column called Are There Secular Reasons?

Though occasionally sloppy in its language and its conflation of several large issues, Fish's column, drawing from law Professor Steven Smith, describes intelligently the perils and difficulties of leaning on "the secular" as a source of reason.  His concluding line, "Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on," pretty well sums it up.

Many would rightly object, of course, that "prior metaphysical commitments" don't always lead to good results, and have occasionally stifled thoughtful progress. And there may be just a little hint of an attempt to lament the fact that Christianity is victimized by the big, mean secular world in Smith's writing.

That said, there's much of value here.  I consistently argue that the "secular" is something we ought all - religious and non-religious - strive for in our public life and our non-religious institutions.  Most positively, the "secular" is a framework wherein no specific worldview is assumed to be dominant.

The issue, I would argue, is when that "secular" frame becomes a reference for its own meaning-making.  Thus, we push aside our varied frameworks and commitments (theological or not) and assume a shared understanding of reason, rationality, freedom, knowledge, etc.  These either "smuggle in" metaphysical assumptions, as Fish says, or simply refer to a hollow shell of ideas that once were.  Opting for "detached" or "objective" understanding leaves us either, I think, with our perspectives hidden and unacknowledged, or with a shallow understanding of anything at all.  Thus, we've taken our pre-modern vision of a universal divine, and replaced it with a hyper-modern version of a quasi-divine "rationality" or "reason."  I suggest that first, no such thing exists, and second, this doesn't help us make the world any better.

I would argue, contra Smith perhaps, that there can be humanistic grounds of knowledge or understanding.  But I would argue that they take a good deal of work, and are far-from-universal.  (We can talk another time about the moniker "meta-physical.")

Rather, I suggest we need to develop a pluralist vision of social consensus on what important categories - like freedom, ethics, and goodness - mean to us collectively.  This means for religious folk, coming to honor our values, commitments and theologies alongside other religious commitments, values and theologies and alongside humanistic understanding which is considered and grounded.  It means, for non-religious folks, giving up a notion of universal reason, and instead probing our individual foundations for understanding 'the good' on our own terms.  And it means collectively drawing these all into conversation about how we use these disparate values in conversation to make our world (or institutions) a better place.  These are hard steps no doubt.  But it leaves us with a source of collective understanding which is not hollow, but multivalent.

Those who enjoy contemporary philosophy will note that this is a different vision than those set forth by anti-foundationalists.  I would argue that foundations do matter, and are worthy grounds for conversation and debate.  But I think we can no longer assume a uniform foundation, and begin seeking collective consensus on what matters to us (and why).