Sunday, September 5, 2010

Opening Convocation

Last Sunday evening was a wonderful time of community as we celebrated the beginning of another academic year. It was great to have so many of us together as we sang, worshipped, and prayed over our year. Following are my remarks from the "charge" that evening.

A Center that Holds

In the opening lines of William Yeat’s poem, The Second Coming, he sets a bleak picture of a world unmoored.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand.
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

I don’t know if the Second Coming is at hand, I really don’t know that I’m prepared or qualified to make those kinds of statements. I’ll leave that to the Left Behind books and movies. But what I do know is that much of his description fits our modern world. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; ceremony of innocent drowned, lack of conviction and passionate intensity misguided or for ill. I think it is fair to say that in many ways we live in a world without a center. Not to get too philosophical on a Sunday evening, but one of the hallmarks of a postmodern society is that because of the relativity of truth, there are NO unifying principles, no ultimate narratives or stories that can hold our understanding of reality together. It’s not just that the center cannot hold, but society says there isn’t a center to begin with.

Today’s Scripture passage (Colossians 1:15-20) on the other hand, presents us with a very different picture of reality. Paul, speaking of Christ, tells us that He is over all things, all things were created by Him and for Him, that He is before all things, and that all things in Him hold together. While that drum beat from Paul might seem a bit redundant, a little background on the church at Colossae clears things up a little.

A common heresy circulated in the early church called Gnosticism. Gnosticism believed that there was secret knowledge that was available to insiders that gave them understanding into reality. One key understanding was that the spiritual was good but all matter, the physical world was bad. While Jesus was part of a divine plan, he could not be both physical AND divine. So Gnostics understood Jesus and His humanity quite differently. Secondly, if the spiritual side of things is what ultimately mattered, Gnostics often took one of two views of the physical world. Either it was to be avoided at all costs because it was evil—which led to asceticism, or the physical didn’t matter at all, so it didn’t matter what you did. The physical was totally insignificant.

In light of this, let’s look at Paul’s language again. Jesus is the image of God, the Creator (of the physical world), the fullness of God dwells in him, He is in all, and everything holds together by Him. He is Supreme. And even His Death and blood reconcile all things to God, making peace—God’s shalom. If one reads the New Testament, there is a center, and it holds all things together, and restores all to God—both the physical and the spiritual.
So what does that have to do with us in 2010 when to my knowledge, our community doesn't have a whole lot of people in the Gnostic Club? Is there a word for us today?

At Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, we proudly proclaim that we are Christ-centered, which in light of Scripture, is how it should be for a Christian school. But even though we would most likely all agree with that declaration and have no problem with it being on our brochures and a prominent line on the back of the “CHCA Soaring” t-shirts, at what point does “Christ-centered” come into your thinking patterns? Is it only a nice spiritual mantra, or does it come in contact with the day to day experiences, the physical realities of your life? Loving Jesus in our hearts isn’t enough. It is about living with Jesus in the center that demonstrates God’s Kingdom at work in the world.

Let me give you an example: every day, some sort of problem comes across my desk. A solution is needed and often times it is needed quickly. If I could break down the thought processes, my #1 filter is what is easiest thing to do to make this go away. Next, when this decision happens, will more people be happy or unhappy? How much does it cost? What problems does it create down the line? Will Mr. Brunk be happy? How many phone calls and emails will I have to answer? Will Mr. Brunk be happy? Etc., etc., etc. Sometimes at the end of the day as I’m driving home, reflecting on all the stuff that’s happened, I’ll think back to my original problem, think about my final response, and only then ask myself, Was that a Christ-centered response? Do you see the problem? I don’t think any of us wants to go about not being Christ-centered. I’m not accusing any of us of being an anti-Christ. I’m simply suggesting that for most of us, most of the time, Christ is not the CENTER. To some degree, we are all guilty from the youngest to the oldest. Students: is your first measure of academic success good grades and then ask later, what does it mean to be a Christ-centered student? Do we look to win games first, and then ask, what does it look like to be a Christ-centered athlete? Does getting a part come first, and asking what it means to be Christ-centered on the stage come later? Do we have colleges to get into and scholarships to win and then wonder where Christ fits into our plans? We adults are part of the same dilemma. Do test scores and state standards come first? Do winning percentages drive most decisions? School rank, enrollment, financial stability, public perceptions—do they nudge Christ further down the list in our focus and decision making? Parents: does your child’s success, GPA, ever-growing resume, social standing, happiness, come first in your decision making? Everyone (now glaring at me) please hear this: NONE OF THE THINGS I’VE MENTIONED ARE BAD! That’s the problem—they are all good and have value. And every one of these things might be part of a Christ-centered approach. But we are not Gnostics separating the spiritual from the physical. If they become the Center or higher ranked than Christ in the life of our school, at best, we are not following our values, and at worst, we slip into the sin of idolatry. I challenge us all, let us make Christ our center. The first consideration. The highest rubric. The greatest filter. When the urge to make a compromising decision comes: to cheat on homework or a test, to participate in weekend activities that go against your convictions, to lie, gossip, cause social drama, how will you respond? Could considering Christ before other motivators such as grades, social standing, or fun change the way we act and treat each other? Let us take up this challenge. Seniors, lead our student body. Show us what Christ-centered living could look like.
Let me add one more challenge. If we truly believe that Christ is at the Center, holding all things together, in all and through all, a major function of a Christian education is to find Him there. As we study and learn this school year, as we stretch our minds in all areas, we are studying and learning about a world, which while broken, still has Christ in its very fiber. He is both the Creator and the glue, in all and through all. As we seek to grow in Christ, let us not see our studies as something separate from our own spiritual journeys. For the Christian, all study is like solving a divine mystery. Where might we glimpse the Almighty this year? In a chemical compound or a soaring aria? In a literary text or a grammatical construction? In a historical figure or a mythic archetype? In a mathematical formula or in a biblical passage? In another culture and language or in the person sitting in the desk next to us? In an opponent’s victory or a homeless child’s eyes? That is why the late Dr. Richard Chase, a former President of Wheaton College wrote, “This is God’s world…the scholar wants to understand it; the Christian scholar is compelled to understand it. It is an act of worship.” Students: keep that in your minds when studies become hard or topics complex. When you feel frustrated or tired, wanting to give up and take the easy path, remember: You are carrying out a spiritual task.

Our biblical passage ends with the notions of reconciliation and peace. Could you imagine how those things would feel in our school this year? How would our community be strengthened? How would we grow as people and followers of Christ? And think outside our community. What if schools we came in contact with, people you know outside of CHCA, those we encountered in our Winter Terms, and travels saw a picture of life with a center that holds? What might they think? What might they say? Ironically, they might echo Yeats and declare:

The Second Coming is at Hand!

A New Beginning

Today I mowed the lawn for the second time since returning from vacation the last week of July. I guess that says a lot for how dry our summer has been in Cincinnati. It also says a lot about what my yard looks like right now. If you like browns and tans, my lawn is the place for you. To be honest, I don't spend a lot of energy worrying about grass, which has this powerful ability to revive in the fall and spring. My time, energy, and water end up in my garden beds, primarily my vegetable beds. While those don't look spectacular either, they have been keeping me somewhat busy and fed. A few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, jalepenos and chili peppers, along with lots of Italian and cinnamon basil, parsley, oregeno, rosemary, and tarragon have kept our summer table interesting. Earlier in the spring we could barely keep up with the broccoli, lettuces, radishes, and a few heads of cabbage to boot. I'm hoping to pick another round of my eggplants soon as well as a late planting of green beans. There have been disasters too. If not for the catepillars, I'd have had a lot more cabbage and plenty of cauliflower. I've also made some bad decisions about location, crowding out my eggplant and shading my peppers because of over zealous tomato plants. Timing was my biggest error this year. I got a nice spring garden going but not early enough and I didn't clear it out for summer planting soon enough to get things established before I left on vacation. So too much of my beds remained fallow this year. But I think the reason I like gardening so much is no matter how badly I fail, no matter what experiments do not work, come March and April, or maybe even February if I start from seed, I have a whole new opportunity for success unimagined. Like the beginning of Genesis, where God makes order out of Chaos, tending to even a small plot of land awakenss in me something powerful, maybe even a facet of the Divine image shining through. In the garden, after every failure, hope of new life awaits in even the smallest seed.

I think that same awareness arises in me during the dog days of August. Because even though there is still the kid in me that wants summer vacation to go on forever, the academic side of me knows that with the opening of the school year, a new season has begun. A new school year brings a fresh slate, cleaner than any January 1. All the things I wish I did better, all the ways I'd like to grow, all the opportunities unexplored, all the relationships I'd love to develop, all the students I hope to invest in, all the programs envisioned for the future, sit before me as possibilities when another year begins. Teachers adjust classes from last year's successes and failures. Students who dug themselves holes can often begin again on top. Mistakes are in the past. Bad habits can be broken. New heights can be reached. We can begin new paths that lead to places unimagined.

It's an exciting time to be in a school.