07 April 2013

Sighs Too Deep for Words

At work I was invited to be a member of a committee formed earlier this academic year, the Inter-Religious Council on Dialogue and Spirituality.  Our job description is both simple and not-so-simple:
The mission of the Inter-Religious Council on Dialogue and Spirituality is to support and advance religious diversity in Valparaiso University under the auspices of the Provost’s Office. To this end, the Council regularly assesses resources, services, and needs relating to religions and religious communities at the University and makes recommendations to individuals, groups, committees and offices who can take appropriate action.
It's simple, because it kind of makes us look like a brokerage firm, lining up needs with ways and means to satisfy them.  It's not-so-simple, because supporting and advancing religious diversity at Valpo is a task that ranges from the obvious to the ambiguous to the contradictory. 

Here's a case in point.  At our meeting this past week, we were thinking through ways of highlighting the holidays and observance days of the various religions represented on campus.  Now Valpo has an established Morning Prayer period in the class day, and a Protestant Christian service is held in the main chapel at that time.  I suggested that one way of accomplishing some religious diversity goals might be to have a different tradition lead the Morning Prayer on one of their respective holidays, a Jewish service for, say, Yom Kippur or a Buddhist service for Vesak.

I was taken aback at the push-back the idea received from one of the committee members.  He wasn't terribly articulate on his reasons, but he was quite animated in his objection.  "We cannot allow this to happen!" he repeated several times, each time more vociferously than before.

There is some back-story here.  Valpo has maintained a close historical and cultural, though not administrative or financial, tie to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS) since its purchase by the lay Lutheran University Association in 1925.  Although independent of the LC-MS, the campus chapel has been understood to be an LC-MS chapel, with an LC-MS University Pastor until quite recently when a female pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was appointed as a University Pastor as well.

Here's the problem: LC-MS folks are prohibited from praying with anyone else, even another non-LC-MS Christian.  Pastor Cox's appointment at Valpo was a cause for scandal in some LC-MS circles, and LC-MS pastors have been chastised for taking part in interfaith services in the wake of 9-11 and in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

I don't know what prayer is that it would be something one should be either prohibited from or skeptical about doing with others.  I get that the words one uses may not equate with the words another person uses, but I don't believe so much rides on the words that they should be something that divides rather than possibly unites us.  Even within the Christian tradition there is a recognition of the inadequacy of the expression of our prayer: "[W]e do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Rom 8:26  I have to wonder whether the inverse obtains, that when we assert that we (alone) know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit stops acting on our behalf.

We're funny creatures, we humans.  We are part of something bigger than we will ever comprehend with our thought and language and science and scholarship.  We know this on some level, but in our attempts to talk about it or address it, we bumble along, with nothing sounding quite right.  Silence is best, of course, but sometimes we do have to speak.  Let that speech come from the depth of our realization, not from a book or symbol or catechism.  Let it be fit for the occasion, right and proper for the audience.  Let it start when it needs to start, and end when it needs to end.  Then, perhaps, all our singing and dancing and talking and praying will become the voice of the Dharma, the speechless sigh of the Living God, if you will, in all its wonder and beauty and challenge and awe.

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