We are all “Cracked Pots”

Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner was Monmouth College’s 2018 Baccalaureate Preacher.  Shannon was called to be the pastor of Chicago’s iconic Fourth Presbyterian Church in March of 2014.  Ever since hearing this news, I have been cheering for Shannon and celebrating her success.  Very few women serve as senior pastors of churches over 5,000 members.  With amazing grace and extraordinary talent, Shannon has broken what we women clergy refer to as the “stained-glass ceiling” in church leadership.”

While she was on campus, I interviewed Shannon on our college’s radio station.  I asked her about her religious and spiritual upbringing, how it feels to be a breaker of  ‘stained-glass ceilings’, and what advice she had for our new graduates.  The interview, like Shannon herself, was full of grace.

In her Baccalaureate sermon, Shannon reflected on Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  “We are all just a bunch of cracked pots,” Shannon told our graduates, “cheap jars, fragile and porous.”

“Clay jars in Paul’s day” Shannon went on to explain, “were the most imperfect vessel one could choose.  Whatever one was carrying would just spill all over the place because those vessels were literally cracked pots.  They were absolutely inefficient and a bad choice for carrying anything valuable.  Any yet it is precisely into our cracked pot selves that God has purposely chosen to place the treasure of God’s grace and the promise of of God’s healing and wholeness for the world.”

Shannon appreciates this description of us as clay jars because “it acknowledges the truth that none of us has it all together.  Nor should we ever expect to.  This verse gives me some breathing space.  The Good News is that we do indeed contain a treasure, but it is rooted in something much larger than ourselves.  The world’s healing and justice does not just rest on our shoulders.  God’s got you and God will work through our cracks and imperfections to shed extraordinary light on the world.”

Listen to my interview with Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner by following this link to WPFS–Proud Fighting Scots Radio.

Follow this link to watch a video of Monmouth College’s 2018 Baccalaureate Service and to hear Rev. Kershner’s sermon which begins at about the 40 minute mark.

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Living the Questions with Amy Frykholm

Amy Frykholm, author of Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography; See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity; Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America; Christian Understandings of the Future: The Historical Trajectory and Associate Editor of the Christian Century magazine visited my campus last week and spoke to us of her call to “live the questions.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, writes:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

This passage inspired Frykholm to pursue a vocation of writing, or as she sees it, a life spent living the questions.

I was able to sit down with Amy for an interview on our college’s radio station.  During our thirty minutes on air, I asked Amy about her religious and spiritual background, her call to write, and how writing might serve as a spiritual practice.

Listen to our conversation here on WPFS – Proud Fighting Scots Radio.

Keep Walking–A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my Christmas Convocation sermon, “Keep Walking,” to the Monmouth College community, based on Isaiah 9:2-7.

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If Tim Kramer, our college’s videographer, were to set his camera to film all of us walking the slick sidewalks of campus this winter, I imagine he’d get a pretty good blooper reel. A few weeks ago (when the sun was still shining) I was walking and talking with our new Associate Chaplain, Jessica Hawkinson, along the sidewalk above the Stockdale parking lot. Jessica accidentally stepped off the pavement, lost her balance, and then just sort of rolled down the hill. It happened so fast. One minute she was there and the next she was gone.

I wouldn’t embarrass Jessica, though, if I didn’t have my own story to tell. My first winter here in Monmouth I slipped and fell down the stairs of the Weeks House, shouting out a very unchaplain-like word as I went. This would have been bad enough, but my fall happened right as the men’s track team was running by.

I’m sure these little spills don’t only happen to the clumsy occupants of the Chaplain’s Office, though. You’ve got your stories to tell too. I know you do. Now that winter has set in here we’re all going to be tripping and slipping our way around campus.

The prophet Isaiah opens his passage to us today by describing a people who weren’t unfamiliar with treacherous paths. Isaiah’s people walked in a time of darkness. They were living in fear. Neighboring superpower Assyria had been systematically taking over the entire region surrounding Israel and Judah. The people didn’t know if they should join a coalition that was preparing to fight Assyria or if they should try to avoid the bloodshed by giving in and giving up their rights and their freedom as an independent nation. Isaiah’s people were walking in an uncertain and frightening time. Perhaps we can relate.

I recently read an Advent sermon by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber in which she described the year 2016 as apocalyptic. And she meant this literally. The Greek for apocalypse means “to uncover” or “to unveil.” Many things were uncovered this year, many things that we probably would have rather left veiled. All the horrific shootings, the mounting evidence of police brutality, the racial and socio-economic tension and divisive political rhetoric did not create the anger, fear, bigotry and biases among us, it just uncovered what was already here. And that uncovering has been devastating. So devastating that it makes it hard to carry on. I mean what do we do in the face of all that 2016 has revealed? What is a pastor to preach this Christmas to offer any kind of hope?

I confess that on Wednesday, November 9th, I was among the 50% of our country that woke up despairing over the news that Donald Trump would be our next President. I drove to campus that morning wondering how I could be the Chaplain for such a diverse community as ours when I was personally feeling so broken and beaten. I attended all the meetings I was scheduled to attend that day, but I couldn’t focus on anything. So I abandoned my to-do list and just started walking. I came across a student who had recently come out as gay. He laughed at the absurdity of the election, the surreal feeling that this couldn’t possibly be life as we know it. But tears welled as he spoke, spilling freely down his cheeks and onto the sidewalk we shared. I caught a professor outside of the mailroom, he too in tears. How do I teach today, he asked? How do I just go on? Then, I started knocking on dorm room doors. (I do that sometimes. You all should know.) But I wanted to see my Latina students whose families are still in the process of becoming citizens. And our Syrian students whom I have grown to love. And the African-American student whose rage lit up Facebook, his fiery words highlighting his feelings of betrayal, once again, by White America. Then I ran into a white student whose views, I know, are more conservative than mine. He was afraid too. Not in the same way as our Latino students, and African American students, and Syrian refugee students. But he was afraid, nonetheless, that if people knew what he believed and who he voted for, he would be treated like some sort of monster to be shunned and disdained. I listened to him too.

As I walked campus that Wednesday and met people on the sidewalk, in the dorms, in their offices and at the mailboxes, I had no words of reassurance, no explanation that would make everything okay, no wisdom, not even any prayers. All I knew when I got to campus was that I needed to be with you and I needed to walk.

I recently discovered a poem called “Walker” by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. In this poem Machado writes: “Walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

I’ve been considering this poem lately. The first part, “Walker, there is no road,” resonates, because right now, with the state of our government and our nation and our communities embroiled in tension and hostility, it feels as if there is no road forward. Seriously, where do we go from here?

The latter half of the poet’s phrase, “The road is made by walking,” offers a charge to which I know I should adhere. The poet suggests that there is no road forward until we take the steps to create it. It’s up to me, the walker, to forge the path. And, whereas, this sounds quite empowering—kind of like “be the change you wish to see in the world”—I’ll be honest, it also sounds exhausting, maybe even a bit overwhelming.

I’m sure you understand. I mean it is December 6th—the week before finals. If Will Ferrell were here he’d describe this end-of-the-semester time as like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire, and you’re on fire, and everything is on fire, and you’re in hell. Yeah, we’re just trying to survive.

So this is when prophets like Isaiah come in handy. You see, their job is to fuel our imagination with an alternative reality, a motivating vision of what God wills for our lives. Isaiah paints this picture as a time when the yoke of the people’s burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor has been broken. It’s a time when all the boots of tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood are burned as fuel for the fire because there is no longer a need for a military, no need for war. It’s a time ushered in by the birth of a child, a new King, who will rule with justice and righteousness—a Prince of Peace—whose authority will grow because of his love and respect for all people, most especially those who are poor and vulnerable. This is the vision the prophet Isaiah holds before us today.

Walking our campus with this vision in mind, it’s amazing what you will find, literally, just steps away.

A few weeks ago, I walked past Wallace Hall and paused to take in the chalkings. Affirmative statements such as, YOU BELONG,  YOU ARE LOVED,  YOU ARE WANTED, filled the plaza’s cement.

Mujeristas of Monmouth College

Teri with the Mujeristas of Monmouth College

This past Wednesday I walked into the Weeks House living room to sit and listen to Diana Rubi’s Mujerista Theology study group. Latinos are projected to be the majority population in our country by 2050. Holding this vision before them, Diana’s group discussed their responsibility to the world. How can they ensure, they asked themselves, that today’s oppressed do not become tomorrow’s oppressors?

Friday afternoon I walked to Hewes Library for a coffee from Einstein’s and passed a student reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” for an ILA exam.

Saturday afternoon I walked into Room 273 of the CSB to attend the Empowerment Workshop led by Neddy Velez and her group, People of Change.

Saturday night I walked here, to Dahl Chapel. The lights set by our theater students made it feel like you were walking into a fairy tale. Then, I sat down and was moved to tears by the beauty of the music performed by our chorale, and our orchestra, and our wind ensemble.

I, like you, walk this campus all the time. It’s what we do. When we walk, though, with the prophet’s vision before us another kind of unveiling occurs. It’s an unveiling of care and compassion for others, an unveiling of art and beauty that will move us to tears, an unveiling of people who seek to do good and make a difference with their lives, an unveiling of young lives being shaped for the future, our future—and it’s this unveiling that keeps me walking.

If, as the poet says, the road is made by walking, then I want to make this road by walking it with all of you— because you inspire me. You encourage me. You give me hope. If this Christmas Convocation leaves with you anything, I hope it is the knowledge that though the road ahead may be dark, it is well lit by walkers with their candles held high—walkers inspired and illumined by a prophetic vision of the world to come—a world we are to see into reality, guided by the grace and love of God. So keep walking, my friends. Keep walking.

[Feature Image: Renaud Leon]

Let Me See–A Baccalaureate Sermon

What follows is my Baccalaureate sermon delivered to Monmouth College’s graduating class on May 14th, 2016.  It is based on Mark 10: 46-52.

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It’s funny, I find myself getting increasingly sentimental at graduation. Every year I am up on that Commencement platform crying over the cheesiest things. Like, tomorrow, you girls will walk across the stage to get your diploma in these six-inch platform shoes and I’ll be sitting there crying, thinking to myself, “Look at those shoes. How can she walk in those shoes? I’m so proud of her.” And then there will be these memories that arise—memories that I associate with you—Zach P.  will walk by in his graduation gown and I’ll remember watching him stroll down Broadway in the Homecoming Parade, wearing nothing but body paint and a pair of underoos—and I’ll start crying all over again.

Graduation is a poignant, emotional time, enhanced by the fact that we are all exhausted by the time we get here. But we did it. You did it, seniors! Congratulations.

Last year’s Baccalaureate preacher, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, memorably told the graduating class, “I will be praying for you, and you will need it.” I could certainly say the same today.

The world we live in has grown increasingly troublesome:

  • Keeping up with Presidential campaigns has felt like Keeping up with the Kardashians.
  • The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the racial and racist structures that persist in our society.
  • In 2015 there were more mass shootings in the United States than there were days.
  • The world produces enough food, but 11.3 % of the world’s population is still hungry.
  • Syria. Our hearts break over Syria.
  • People are just generally afraid and suspicious, we don’t know who we can trust, we don’t know what we can do to solve the complicated problems of our time. So we just lock ourselves up emotionally, spiritually, physically and buy a lot of guns to protect ourselves from that which we can’t control.

So, yes, graduates, I will pray for you, and you’re going to need it. But my prayer will be more specific. When it was decided that I would be up here preaching today I asked myself, “Okay, what do I hope for these graduates? What do I yearn for them as they leave this red brick oasis of higher learning and move into their future?” As I considered these questions I was led to the story of Jesus healing the blind beggar Bartimaeus because my hope for you, what I yearn for you, is the ability—but most of all—the desire—to see.

Image 4Let’s look closely for a minute at this story in the Gospel of Mark. Bartimaeus is an important character here, depicted as wise and faithful for two reasons: First, he knows he is blind. And secondly, he wants to see. Now I know you may be thinking, well, duh. This is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to see if they were blind? Well apparently, lots of us.

At this point in the Gospel there are a lot of blind people milling around. Twelve of them are Jesus’ closest friends. Today’s text (bear with me here) is the end of what Bible scholars call an inclusio, or a Markan “sandwich” that begins with Jesus healing one blind man in chapter eight and concludes with the healing of Bartimaeus here in chapter ten. The two healings are meant to highlight the texts in between and how “blind” the disciples are to what is right in front of them. No matter how many times Jesus tells or shows his disciples that the Kingdom of God is near (as in, right here, in me, guys) they still cannot see what Jesus is about. I’m not sure how he had the patience to put up with them.

Or with us, for that matter. Because we’re all blind in some way. Some of us are blinded by misunderstanding. Some of us by prejudice. Some of us are blinded by ego or by the worldview or tradition we’ve been taught not to question. Some of us are blinded by others—you know—like the blind leading the blind. And some of us, frankly, are blind because we choose to be, because we simply can’t handle the truth.

Flannery O’Connor, a woman whose fiction I admire for its prophetic examination of the moral injustices of her time, once said, “We have to see the world as it is before we can turn it into art.”

Artists, in fact, help us to see because art makes us pause. Just about every day I walk by the Southeastern corner of McMichael Academic Building. Typically, I am running late for a meeting in Poling Hall, racing to beat the chimes before they toll the end of the hour with my nose pressed to my Smartphone to make sure I don’t miss a single email or message via Facebook. Like you students, I have gotten very good at race walking while scrolling through my feed. But as I fly past McMike, something in the grass there catches my attention. I remove my nose from my digital device to look and I see what appears to be a large, yellow plaster snake—just sitting there in the grass. It’s not a scary snake. It has a little smile or smirk on its face and a cute little pattern of pebbles running down its back. But it makes me pause. It catches my attention. What is this? Now I’m late for my meeting, but I am curious. What does this mean? Crazy art appears outside of McMike like this quite often. Red and blue solo cups emerge from and circle around the windows. Yarn bombs explode and knit the trees in colorful little sweaters. Bike parts are welded together and assembled into a new and curious sculpture. These displays always make me stop, make me recalibrate my trip across campus. They take me out of my self-absorbed, Smartphone existence, to reconsider the space I am in. They help me to see. Art does that. It wakes us up to take note of the world and can even change how we move through it.

So I’ve been hanging out with more artists lately—poets, creative writers, musicians, visual artists. I’m drawn to these creative types because of their ability to see and sense and notice the world better than the rest of us. I want more of this kind of vision because I want to create work that will make people pause, work that is beautiful and meaningful, work that has substance and depth, work that changes or recalibrates how people move through the world.  I want to offer something to this world of value.  So you know what I have been doing?   I have been training myself to see.

This journey began for me the first summer after I started here as Chaplain when I decided to attend a writer’s workshop in Iowa City. I’d never done anything like it before and I was completely intimidated. At this literary gathering of aspiring poets, novelists, essayists and the like, I was the only pastor. I tried to conceal my identity for a while, thinking no one would feel free to drink or swear around me if I revealed what I did for a living. I think I even told someone I sold insurance or something like that. (Hey–it’s kind of true!) But eventually my truth came out. I had to meet one on one with my teacher, who was a poet, to get his feedback on something I had written that I considered my best work. At that point, all I had written was a bunch of sermons. So I gave him one—one of my best. It was a sermon that had been really well received and it had even gotten published in a preaching journal. Yeah, I was feeling pretty confident.

My teacher began our conversation by confessing his envy. “You know, Teri, poets get really excited when ten people show up for one of our readings. As a pastor, you have an audience larger than that every week.” Then, in a bit of a fury, he proceeded to rip apart my carefully crafted sermon that lay on the table in front of him. His pen blocked off and slashed through whole paragraphs as “unnecessary.” He circled my “real beginning” which I had mistakenly placed at the end.

Finally, in a frustrated huff, he just stopped, looked up at me and said, “You’re not venturing far enough into the wilderness of humanity. You tippy toe in, but you don’t go far enough. Then you slap a band aid on the end for a conclusion as if to make everything okay.” I sat there, silently, not knowing what to say. I understood and I didn’t understand. Yet I came away from that meeting knowing I had work to do as a writer, as a pastor, as a Christian, as a human being who desires to do good with her life.

My teacher’s words of critique “You are not venturing far enough into the wilderness” have become my mantra because he basically told me I wasn’t seeing clearly enough to produce anything of value. I had to go farther. I had to see the ugly as well as the beautiful. I had to be honest about the world and the people in it. I had to, recalling Flannery O’Connor, see the world as it truly was before I could turn it into art.

So this, dear graduates, is why I hope and yearn for you to see. The world we live in is extraordinary, but it needs us and our gifts to turn it into art. And you don’t need to be an art major to do this. A good entrepreneur needs to have vision, needs to see his or her community clearly, to know what kind of business will best serve that town. A good physical therapist will find ways to heal bodies by using all her senses, by not taking pain at face-value but by looking deeper, assuming nothing, seeing each patient as an individual. A good chemist, biologist, or physicist will see a setback in their experiments not as a dead end, but as a creative challenge that will require creative thinking to solve. A good politician will not look upon his or her constituents as red people and blue people, but as people who each has their own version of the American dream.

Bartimaeus is highlighted in the Gospel of Mark because he gets it right. He knows he is blind and he wants to see. His prayer should be our prayer as he cries, “My teacher, let me see.”

Imagine what it must have been like for Bartimaeus when he regained his vision. As he stood there, in the midst of that crowd, slowly beginning to see color and shapes and bodies moving around. I imagine him confused and overwhelmed, his brain not recognizing yet what his eyes were showing him.  Everything in that moment for Bartimaeus must have felt brand new.

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Monmouth College Freshman Walkout

Perhaps it was like that first moment you Seniors stepped on campus four years ago and realized this place would be your new home. Or maybe like your first exciting, brand new steps on the Freshman Walkout. Remember walking downtown in that sweltering August sun with your Orientation Leaders bouncing around and the bagpiper wailing up ahead. Do you remember how that moment felt? Do you remember what you saw? The bright-colored flags on the Intercultural House whipping in the wind. Community members with smiling faces lining the streets, welcoming you downtown by pressing cold bottles of water, baggies full of homemade cookies, and hot slices of pizza in your hands. Oftentimes, walking into brand-new, meaningful moments like this, moments that you know will pass so quickly, we intentionally heighten our senses so we can take it all in and remember every detail.

I imagine tomorrow will be like this for you too, Seniors. You’ll hear your name echo through the loudspeakers and you’ll feel your body start to walk across the stage. That damn tassle on your cap will keep flying in your face, but you will be focused, intent on your destination, the piece of tape on the other side of the stage that marks your spot where you will stand and shake the President’s hand and receive your red leather folio with its gold-embossed seal catching and reflecting the sun. Like a blind man who just received his vision, everything will look and feel brand new in that moment. You’ll step off that stage with all your senses heightened, trying to take it all in, to notice everything, to see the world as it truly is so you won’t forget a thing.

Image 2And when you do, Seniors, I pray that you remember not only Bartimaeus’ desire to see, but the charge Jesus gave to him when his eyes were finally opened. A charge that Jesus gives every time a miracle like this occurs. Jesus says,  “Go!” Go! Don’t stay here. Don’t keep this gift to yourself. Now that your eyes are opened, don’t go back to being blind. Move forward. Take this gift of vision out into the world. Take this gift and do something with it. Take this gift and go see it all.

Now to the God who calls us to this vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

 

[Images by Monmouth College]

 

When Worship Works

4044933922_d27e258d54_bWorship doesn’t always work. It doesn’t work when your student pianist can’t get through a whole hymn verse without stopping and starting three times. Or when the toddler, who accidentally bumps his head, drowns out your sermon’s climactic crescendo with his screams. Or when your congregation, who faithfully shows up Sunday morning after a long weekend of mission projects, only has enough energy left to go through the motions. Worship experiences are certainly not all under our control.

I work hard at worship, though, because I believe it deserves my hard work. Nothing, in my mind, better inspires or better pulls a community together than good worship. Every year I tell my students that worship done well can transform a person’s faith. Worship done poorly can kill it.

In my position as Chaplain at Monmouth College my students and I lead weekly Chapel services all year long. In addition to these, we design and lead special services annually: Christmas Convocation, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Baccalaureate. Seeing as the Baccalaureate Service is our church-related college’s premier worship moment, it gets planned a year in advance.

The planning process for this year’s Baccalaureate Service was particularly frustrating. We had lined up an amazing preacher—the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget—so we wanted an amazing worship service to surround her sermon. The Baccalaureate Planning Committee and I came up with all sorts of wild ideas at first. Special lighting effects. Flash mobs. Marching bands and drum lines. (The beginning brainstorming phase of worship planning, when no idea is a bad idea, is always fun.) When we narrowed our focus, though, and started hammering out the possibilities, we kept running into setback after setback. We can’t do this because so-and-so isn’t available. We can’t do this, because there isn’t enough time to rehearse. We can’t do this, because so-and-so has fallen into the abyss of final exams and end-of-the-year stress and is no longer responding to email. When the day of Baccalaureate arrived, I felt confident that what we had eventually planned would work. But I also knew that a whole host of things could go wrong.

In the end, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Things came together for this service that we didn’t plan. Emotions were evoked that we didn’t expect. Worship leaders rose to the occasion in ways that can only happen when they are inspired and feeding off the energy present in the room. I was honestly blown away.

And humbled. Clearly, what made this worship service work, was a divine guiding hand. Yes, good worship requires a lot of hard work, planning, and preparation. But it’s work that’s never about us. So when it comes time, after you as a leader have put in all that you have, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

God makes worship work.

[feature image: susanlloyd]