Friday, December 24, 2010

Being the Spirit of Change in the World

The Day of Pentecost
23 May 2010
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School     

Well, here we are again, with the end in sight.  With just a week left of school, I am tired.  But I’m not prepared for final exams.  There is a fatigue that is deep at this time of year; it is physical, emotional, and spiritual.  We, like the seniors in the class of 2010, are ready for the year to be over, but we’re not ready to say goodbye.  It’s also hard not to be anxious about the future, especially considering all the problems in the world: from the two seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with our economic challenges (it is a very tough time to be a college graduate), to the environmental destruction in the Gulf of Mexico that nobody seems to be able to stop over a month after the explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  Nobody has an answer; nobody seems to be in charge of the greatest environmental catastrophe in your lifetime.  And even more frightening, our problems today seem so insoluble that people stop caring—they stop paying attention; they stop asking questions.  We need some inspiration.       
This Sunday is a day of supreme inspiration.  Today is the celebration of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit comes to the early Christians.  The apostles were not so different from us.  In both the lesson from Acts and the Gospel from John, the apostles are huddled together, fearful of political and religious authorities, anxious about what’s going to happen next.  The future is far from clear.  In the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles are given the ultimate second wind: the Holy Spirit, a new and beautiful manifestation of God who gives them power to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ through all the languages of the world.  God gives his followers a second wind of divine inspiration.  God gives us hope when we need it the most.      

The issues of transformation and hope are at the heart of the book Hunting For Hope, subtitled “A Father’s Journeys,” by Scott Russel Sanders.  The memoir is an intent examination of the world’s problems, especially the destruction of the environment.  The English teacher and writer Sanders explores the human experience of hope, its physical frailty and its spiritual resiliency.  The book is part meditation, part travel journal as he hikes the Rocky Mountains with his teenage son Jesse.  The father and son have moved into that vulnerable and often humorous stage of their relationship where the father can do nothing right.  The one who used to have all the answers is now a social liability, and often an outright embarrassment for the son. 
The dialogue on the hike is rich between the environmentalist educator and his high school son who, unapologetically, likes to spend time in malls.  The son likens his father’s concern for the environment with a righteous obsession, and a sense of superiority.  They begin their discussion on the trail, after several hours of silence, due to the son’s accusation, a nearly universal one for children, that his father ruins everything.
“’How do I ruin everything?’
‘You don’t want to know,’ he said.
‘I want to know.  What is it about me that grates on you?’…
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ he said.
‘Try me.’
‘You’re so out of touch.’
‘With what?’
‘With my whole world.  You hate everything that’s fun.  You hate television and movies and video games.  You hate my music.’
‘I like some of your music.  I just don’t like it loud.’
‘You hate advertising,’ he said quickly, rolling now.  ‘You hate billboards and lotteries and developers and logging companies and big corporations.  You hate snowmoblies and jet skis.  You hate malls and fashions and cars.’
‘You’re still on my case because I won’t buy a Jeep?’ I said, harking back to another old argument.
‘Forget Jeeps.  You can look at any car and all you think is pollution, traffic, roadside crap.  You say fast food’s poisoning our bodies and TV’s poisoning our minds.  You think the Internet is just another scam for selling stuff.  You think business is a conspiracy to rape the earth.’
‘None of that bothers you?’
‘Of course it does.  But that’s the world.  That’s where we’ve got to live.  It not going to go away because you don’t approve.  What’s the good of spitting on it?’
‘I don’t spit on it.  I grieve over it.’
He was still for a moment, then resumed quietly.  ‘What’s the good of grieving if you can’t change anything?’
‘Who says you can’t change anything?’
‘You do.  Maybe not with your mouth, but with your eyes.’  Jesse rubbed his own eyes, and the words came out muffled through his cupped hands.  ‘Your view of things is totally dark.  It bums me out.  You may feel the whole planet’s dying and people are to blame and nothing can be done about it.  There’s no room for hope.  Maybe you can get by without hope, but I can’t.  I’ve got a lot of living still to do.  I have to believe there’s a way we can get out of this mess.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Why study, why work—why do anything if it’s all going to hell?’
That sounded unfair to me, a caricature of my views, and I thought of many sharp replies; yet there was too much truth and too much hurt in what he said for me to fire back an answer.  Had I really deprived my son of hope?  Was this the deeper grievance—that I had passed on to him, so young, my anguish over the world?  Was this what lurked between us, driving us apart, the demon called despair?”

The changing relationship with his son Jesse is the catalyst for changes within the father; deep changes as the elder reorients himself to the hope no human being can live without.  The father and the son are both right; but what are we going to do about it?  We live in a time when religious visions are rare, or so it seems; when God seems to be silent before the many problems of our time.  Our world cannot survive for long without the song of hope stirring in someone. 
We long for our own Pentecost. 

As a boy growing up, I remember how the secondhand stories of my father affected me—stories about how people survived in the very difficult times before our own.  My father was a veteran of World War II, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, as a sailor in the navy.  He saw the first Japanese zero airplanes fly into Pearl Harbor, and, like many others, he initially thought they were our own airplanes—until he was being strafed by gunfire himself.  The worst my father got was a scraped knee, but he watched many men lose their lives, and it affected him deeply.  He was forever changed. 
            Like many veterans, my father was mostly quiet about his experience of war, sometimes completely silent, shut like a steel trap.  I never heard the stories all at once.  They came out indirectly, at odd angles of conversation, in the unexpected moments between a father and son, the surprising, and often elusive, shape of hope between generations.  Sometimes I could coax the stories out, and I could feel their power in what he said, and what he didn’t say. 
My favorite story of my father’s—it’s really no more than an image—involves President Franklin Roosevelt.  My father worked in naval intelligence, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Chief of Naval Operations.  On one unforgettable occasion, President Roosevelt flew to Hawaii to meet with Admiral Nimitz, and my father was able to meet the President of the United States, at a great moment in human history.  Yes, Roosevelt was like a god in my family--but not the kind of god anyone expected. 
At this time in the early 1940s, most buildings were not accessible to those with disabilities.  The great secret, a secret guarded by the White House and protected by the media—imagine there really was a day when the media protected secrets, was that the president was a disabled man, from polio at the age of 39.  He never walked again, but this was not acknowledged publicly during his lifetime.  The most powerful man in the world was fighting against Tojo, Mussolini, and Hitler from a wheelchair.  Not only that, his wheelchair couldn’t negotiate the naval headquarters at Pearl Harbor, and some of the planning for the war in the Pacific took place on ships in the harbor as well.  How did the President of the United States get around the naval base?  A large marine would pick him up and carry him piggy back from one place to another.  What a sight for my father to witness.  How can you see that and not be changed in how you see the world? 
            What was going through the mind of the president in his vulnerability?  How profoundly humbling it must have been to be carried like a child.  What could the young marine have been thinking?  I’m carrying the President of the United States on my back.  I better not drop this guy.  Power and vulnerability are deeply relative, and we depend on each other to survive.  God is still with us, even in the darkest moments, carrying us with the tender hands of human hope, leading us through the Holy Spirit.  God is with us now, in our day, and even to the end of the ages.  
My father witnessed the fear and destruction of December 7th, 1941.  He saw the war from beginning to end.  Yet it increased his faith.  As a matter of fact, he had no faith—not really—before the war.  He came to believe in God, but not a god who fixes our problems, who stops our wars by magic, or one who heals our planet by waving a wand.  This is a God who stands with us as we face our problems together.  A president depended on a young man, a boy really, barely older than you, to carry him on the stage of history.  Our God doesn’t change the world for us.  We have to stand on our feet, sometimes with help from each other.  God changes the world by changing our hearts.  We change the world by reaching out to our neighbors in need.
Mohatma Ghandi once said these words to those who hungered for change in the last century: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  I have come to understand that you and I are living through times just as important, and just as historical, as the ones my father experienced in the last century.  For the members of the class of 2010, this is my last sermon to you.  On this day of Pentecost, we remember how the Holy Spirit came to anxious people of faith who had no confidence whatsoever that their skills were going to be enough to meet the problems of the world.  As I reflected on your upcoming graduation while writing this sermon, I thought of the words of the longtime chaplain of Harvard College, the Reverend Peter Gomes.  Gomes has given the invocation at presidential inaugurations, and he is a favorite graduation speaker at this time of year.  At a clergy conference for priests in the Diocese of Virginia, where I was before coming to Kent, the Reverend Peter Gomes shared with us what he tells them each year at the graduation events at Harvard.
Gomes likes to ask a question of the graduates before they go out into the world, to tweak them and to humble them, along with the rest of the august graduation assembly:
“We’ve been graduating classes of the best and brightest since Harvard began.  I ask you, is the world a better place?”
Is the world a better place? 
In a way the Harvard chaplain’s question is our own this morning; and the heart of the matter between a father and son, on their trail through the Rocky Mountains, or a father and son talking about world wars, or the apostles waiting for the new vision of God.  The son Jesse’s question was not: Can the world change?  His question enters a more intimate doorway to the human heart.  His question was rather to his father alone, and not to the world at large. 
It was, simply: Can you change? 
Can the students of this school, past, present, or future, change the world?  The better, more intimate question comes instead for all of us today: Can one person have a change of heart?  A change in one’s whole way of thinking and feeling and being in the world.  The answer is yes; a glorious affirmation of all that is still good in us, and all that can be good again in this nation and the world.  Be the change that you want to see in the world.  It all begins with you.    

No comments:

Post a Comment