A Chapel Talk for November 24, 2008
By R. Judson Carlberg
A student friend came to my office last Friday and asked me to help him on a class project. This usually means I will once again be interviewed on video for another of these seemingly endless first person stories. He set up his camera and boom mic. "Here we go again," I thought.
My friend asked questions like, "When you were a high school kid, where did you hang out on Friday night? What role did peer pressure play in your choices? How did you deal with girls in your life? Did you have lots of girl friends or just one? How far did you go with the girls you dated? How did you know when you had gone too far?" Of course, all this happened in the privacy of my office. So I gave honest and candid answers. But after he left I thought, "I should have been more careful. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and find that I am a star on YouTube! Then the Globe picks up the story... Headline: "Gordon College President Tells All." And then it is on to GMA!
But, as he left my office, my friend said almost as an after thought, "Just 5 minutes before I came over here my Mom called to say that she lost her job, a job she had for 25 years!" My heart hurt for my friend.
It is understandable if we have some fear about the future, especially given the wild gyrations going on in the financial world. Hard won family savings are evaporating. Many Americans, some of them our neighbors, are unable to pay their mortgages. And as a result of all this turmoil, a few of you are affected directly, just like several students I talked to last week.
Some here (in Chapel) are wondering aloud, "Will I be able to return for second semester? Or what about next year? Is there a chance that I might have to drop out of college?"
Psalm 37: A Basis for Hope in Tough Times
So, yes, there are reasons for fretting, for worrying, but the Psalmist gives us some clear guidance on what to do. In his later years, David penned Psalm 37 to encourage and comfort his people. And he offered hope and joy and security in a time that was very tumultuous, a time of great uncertainty like the time we find ourselves in today. So let's explore the first few verses of Psalm 37 in order to prepare ourselves for the road ahead.
1 Don't worry about the wicked or envy those who do wrong,
2 for like grass they soon fade away, like spring flowers they soon wither.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good, and then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
4 Take delight in the Lord and he will give you your heart's desires.
5 Commit everything you do to the Lord; trust him and he will help you.
6 He will make your innocence radiant like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.
7 Be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for him to act.
Don't worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.
David begins by writing, "Don't worry about the wicked or envy those who do wrong." It seems that each day we hear of more wrong-doing by people in power. People whose mistakes are rooted as much in flawed human nature, as in shaky economic policies.
For years, businesses and financial institutions seeking greater revenues have dangled their wares in front of gullible consumers, enticing them with easy credit. The result? People have lived beyond their means, often drawn in by the enticements of greedy, unprincipled lenders.
Psalm 37 teaches that sin will lead to disaster and righteousness will be rewarded, but it can be hard to believe that when it looks like the unscrupulous are getting away scot free and the prudent are suffering. Nevertheless, Psalm 37 and many other places in Scripture point us to the fact that God will ultimately right all wrongs.
Trust vs. Anxiety and Mindless Optimism
While some of us get tangled up in the thickest webs of anxiety at times like this, others go to the opposite extreme and close our eyes to trouble, hoping it will just go away while we pull the covers over our heads.
Fortunately, there's an alternative to both crippling anxiety and the mindless optimism of "Don't worry, be happy." And it's found in Psalm 37. It's called "trust." Not blind trust. But trust in the faithfulness of God. Trust that stabilizes us. Trust that acts as a kind of glue holding us together and solidifying our spiritual lives. Trust that sustains us at our very core.
On Doing Good as a Practical Expression of Our Trust in God
Along with telling us to trust in the Lord, the Psalmist offers a second admonition, which is expressed in just two words that jump off the page:
Too many of us are conditioned to define our faith by what we don't do. But as C.S. Lewis teaches us, one of the strategies of the Evil One is to make us feel comfortable in our self-righteousness. This is a trap. God never called us to smug self-righteousness based on observing a list of no-no's. We need to be actively looking for what we can do for God, not just what we can avoid doing against Him.
So what does it mean to do good in times of economic stress? Our own Casey Cooper, assistant professor of business and economics, recently wrote a short essay for our community in which she says,
"In times of economic crisis, when the needs are ever clearer and certainly more pressing, the responsibilities do not lie with social services or bailouts. They lie with us. We cannot seal off our doors and try to hold on to as much as we can. Instead we must give, and not just a little now and then, but abundantly. It may just be that providing aid to our financial markets is the best option for government intervention, but our resources and our focus must remain on people."
Gordon in Lynn
Many of you are already engaged in 'doing good' in the name of Christ on behalf of others, including the poor. For example, some of you are spending part of your Saturdays teaching English to immigrants at the Community Minority Cultural Center in Lynn. Others among you are continuing to volunteer through Gordon in Lynn long after your service requirements in CCC and other courses have been met. Through the College Bound Program, you're faithfully mentoring children from Lynn who come here to campus twice a week. You're tutoring and befriending kids who have little and who are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants. And through the gift of yourselves and your time, you're helping them believe that their lives have value and that their futures are filled with possibilities they might not have dreamed. For some of these kids, meeting with you has become something like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one.
Homeless Ministry on Boston Common
Then there are those of you who are involved in ministries such as the outreach to the homeless in Boston. Every Saturday, come rain, sun, snow, or sleet, you go into the city and set up on Boston Common. You take bagels and whatever else Lane Dining services can give you to take along to the homeless who gather there. You also take hot water so you can make hot chocolate and coffee. And you take clothes that other students have donated to be given away to those who need them.
But as homeless ministry member Andrew Piercey says, the real focus of your ministry is on breaking down the boundaries society has put on this group.
"We take food because these people are hungry," says Andrew, "But, every Saturday, we also try to really get to know people by having conversations with them, by listening."
"The problem of homelessness, from my viewpoint," adds Andrew, "is that the homeless are treated as if they are invisible. And if you are ignored by a majority of the world, eventually you will begin to feel as if you don't exist. So what we seek to do through the homeless ministry is to make people realize that they are important, that they exist."
In these ministries, and scores of others offered by Gordon students, I hear echoes of Jesus' words in Matthew 25: "I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was lonely and you made me welcome," (Phillips translation). Such outreaches are very important in helping us begin to get beyond ourselves and risk getting in touch with others' hopes and others' pain; to get beyond our own narrow concerns.
And I would indeed encourage you to think and dream large about your lives. It would be very unfortunate if the present financial troubles cause you to start playing it safe and thinking small about your futures. These troubles will pass. And I don't want you to wake up some day to find yourself doing work that turns out not to matter much to you, to the larger world, or to God's Kingdom.
In the midst of the world's great need, what most calls out to you? What most touches your heart? Is it hunger? Is it homelessness? Is it economic injustice? Is it AIDS or other diseases? Is it illiteracy? Is it immigrants trying to make a new home in a strange land? Listen carefully. Because what you hear might well be God's voice speaking to you and calling you out to make a real difference in the wider world, a real difference in advancing the Kingdom of God.
The Example of a Recent Graduate
And before you say, "I'm just one person, what can I do in the face of such need?", let me remind you that only a few months ago a student (whose name I can't disclose because of where he lives in the world) was sitting right here among us in these pews. Some of you will remember him as an active student leader. After he graduated, he returned to his country to follow God's call to bring peace and healing to a war-torn area.
Only a few days ago, this young man came back to the United States to raise funds for his bold effort to bring "Shalom" to his countrymen. When my wife and I had lunch with him, we asked him how his efforts were faring. As always, he was filled with faith, trusting God to keep his colleagues and himself safe in the midst of terrorism and overt hostility toward Christians, who represent less than 2% of the population. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are much stronger and more numerous than Christians in his part of the world, and they are fighting fiercely for control of the nation.
But he was encouraged by other young leaders in each of these religions who seek peace rather than war and bloodshed. They came together with a strategy for reaching the young people of their country through conferences and camp programs involving representatives from all four major religions. Here in the United States, we might call this pre-evangelism; in his region, it is about peace-making through underground efforts. And "blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said.
When I asked this recent grad if he ever felt in danger, he said, "Yes, all the time. If the rebels ever find out what we are about, we will be attacked and killed. We have to be careful."
Talk about trusting God and doing good! This young leader and his friends are taking this literally and resting in God's promise that they will live safely in the land and prosper. They also know they may be called to be martyrs for the cause of shalom, and are trusting that God would then build upon their efforts for peace.
Giving Thanks for God's Great Blessings
We need to count our amazing blessings this Thanksgiving and acknowledge the God from whom they flow. And if we let it, a moment of gratitude at Thanksgiving might tumble us into generosity. Maybe you don't have extra resources right now, but you do have time and talent. Perhaps you could be a volunteer, as so many Gordon students have chosen to be, in places like Lynn and Boston, or in communities where you make your homes. Take time to listen to the worries of others; pray with them, and then share your own worries and let them pray with you.
Pausing to Reflect on the Financial Crisis as it Affects Gordon College
Each of us is called to be courageous in these tough times. Psalm 37 gives me the faith to go on, even in the wee hours of the morning when I am prone to fret the most. I am inspired to trust and to do good, and I hope you will be too.
I now want to take a few minutes to talk about how the global financial crisis is affecting us here at Gordon. Like every other institution of higher education in the United States, and many non-profit organizations as well as businesses, Gordon College faces tough financial challenges in the months ahead. Our endowment, as modest as it is, has shrunk over the last few months. This translates into losing hundreds-of-thousands of dollars that would normally be available to support the ongoing expenses of running the College.
Some donors who have been hurt by the falling stock market or who have lost their jobs are no longer able to support Gordon at the levels they have demonstrated year after year. Because our costs continue to rise while our income falls or remains static, we are facing reductions in the next few months. And staff, faculty, and trustees are working with me to make reductions without sacrificing the educational quality we have developed over many years.
Like all educational institutions, we must manage our resources very carefully right now. This may mean that some programs that are already struggling may be eliminated. Some faculty and staff will be laid off. Some of us will travel less on behalf of the College.
On the other hand, I want to assure you that our financial aid for the coming semester and next year will remain in place. As long as you continue to maintain the expectations built into your scholarships and grants, you will be all right. In addition, we are establishing additional support to address hardship cases. So, if you're struggling to stay in school, and you can demonstrate that your financial circumstances have changed dramatically, I urge you not to make a decision over the Thanksgiving break to drop out of college without first talking with a counselor in the Student Financial Services Office. We are committed to helping you successfully complete your college education at Gordon.
Over and over again the Lord promises to be with us in tough times, even when we see no answers on the horizon. This is a time for trusting Him; a time to exercise faith and hope; a time to do good.
As Paul reminds us, "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind." (II Tim 1:7). Now is the time to put that promise into practice. Sitting in this chapel today are men and women who, like Prashan DeVisser, will soon be leaders in extending God's Kingdom here and around the globe in the next twenty years.
The choices you make with regard to your values and your relationships are vital. How you invest your time, how seriously you take your studies, and how open you are to God's call to serve others will determine the shape of your life and the strength of your faith for years to come. God does not promise us that life will be easy. He does promise that He will go with us. So, live in that promise today as we go out to trust and do good in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Please listen to the comforting words of our benediction sung by the Welsh soloist, Huw Priday . . . Trust in the Lord.