For our Golden Scots 2017

What follows is the sermon I preached at the Golden Scots Alumni Memorial Service on June 11th, 2017 based on Acts 1: 1-14.

“The Coming and Going of God”

I have a great view of our commencement ceremony. I pray at the beginning and bless the graduates at the end and in between just sit there on stage as 250 names are called, observing the sea of humanity. It’s fascinating. Who needs Facebook with a view like this! Zealous mothers on cell phones knocking down the professional photographer to get their own photo; families holding up banners of congratulation and styrofoam-mounted photos of their graduate’s face; the unfortunate graduate in the front row who clearly pulled an all-nighter.

Graduation is such a moment, though. Crossing that stage to accept your diploma is like crossing a threshold. You step across and step out into your future, you step out on your own for perhaps the very first time. At the Baccalaureate Service the day before, we tell our graduates that as they go, they go with God. Which is true. But if we were being totally honest we would tell them that as they move into their future and move through their life God will come and God will go.

In our scripture passage for today from Acts we witness the disciples recalibrating as God comes and goes. First Jesus was there. Then he was dead. Then he appeared among them—meeting them on the road to Emmaus, cooking fish over a fire, allowing doubtful Thomas to touch the scars in his hands—until this passage in Acts where Jesus is lifted up on a cloud and taken out of sight. As Jesus floats away, two men in white robes appear to chastise the disciples saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?” as if they shouldn’t be surprised by what has just taken place. This coming and going, it seems, is par for the course with God. “Jesus, who has been taken from you,” the two men say, “will come in the same way as you saw him go.”

So it seems that in the life of faith there are times when God will be quite real to us—a physical presence that we can feel and know and commune intimately with. And other times, God will be gone, absent, leaving us longing for what we knew and felt before. There are seasons to the life of faith, seasons reflected by the church calendar; seasons of expectation and waiting, seasons of turning and returning, seasons of new birth and resurrection glory, seasons of epiphany, and seasons of ordinary time—when nothing special is happening and we are left to look for God among the daily, the routine, the mundane.

Although we don’t often say so, pastors experience all these seasons too. We know seasons when God is present and when God is not. In the midst of a bleak winter and a busy spring semester I found myself longing for a God whom I could not find. Lots of things factored into this spiritual dry spell. Mostly, though, it was a lack of focus on my part, or an inability to attend to God. I’d sit down to pray and ask God to be present with me in a way I could not doubt or explain away. And then my foot would fall asleep, or my mind would begin to write, or the laundry machine would beep, letting me know it was time to fold the clothes and put them away. For some reason, God didn’t care to show up when the laundry had to be done (and it has to be done all the time in our house.)

So I started to drive to the Quad Cities once a month to visit with a Benedictine nun, Sister Margaret, for spiritual conversation and prayer. Sister Margaret is probably in her late 70’s. She greets me with a warm smile at the door of her beautiful monastery, which is tucked away on a hill overlooking Rock Island. The drive alone to this beautiful spot fills me with a sense of peace and calm. So by my second or third visit with Sister Margaret I explained why I had come. I said to her, “I feel this longing for God.”

Sister Margaret sat across from me in a comfortable armchair as I shared this, her bible open on a small table next to her. She always has a scripture ready for me. But I needed to talk about this longing, this desire for God that I had been feeling, but not able to satisfy. I needed to confess and felt my apprehension reveal itself as I did.

Sister Margaret just smiled and nodded in response to me, as if my longing was good. But it didn’t feel good to me. It disturbed me. Why can’t I find God? I have in the past. So why not now? What’s different about me now? What am I doing wrong? Where has God gone? Or, was God ever there at all?

Sister Margaret just kept smiling and nodding. She approved. In fact, she applauded my longing as a form of prayer—like the Psalmist crying out, “Where are you God?” and then waiting for God to answer. She encouraged me to keep searching.

So I did. And as is typical for me, I found the best help in the pages of a book.

Christian Wiman is a poet who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was 37 years old. Before his diagnosis, he wasn’t really tuned in to church or to Christianity.   But he was tuned in to something, he writes, a source of “negative energy” – or a sense of something missing and indefinable. After his diagnosis, his search for a more definable ‘something’ began and his book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer reflects all that surfaced as he searched. He begins the book with an unfinished poem:

My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

I wonder how you might finish this poem? What would you say you believe at the edge of all you know? Where would God appear for you out of the bright abyss? Where might God appear for me?

After Jesus ascends, I find it interesting that the disciples seem to be chastised for the direction of their gaze. “Why are you looking up?” The angelic men ask, as if the disciples should be looking elsewhere for God. Maybe when God is absent we are simply looking in the wrong direction?

After the early horror of his cancer diagnosis, Wiman writes that the world returned sharper and starker. The dark energy of death pursued him, but it also enabled him to, in his words, hear the annihilating silence inside every sound and the nullifying stillness within every action. Life became so precious he attended to its every detail.

“Heading home from work,” he writes, “irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on earth.”

Earlier, Wiman writes that “the very act of attention troubles the tyranny of the ordinary.” His words called me back to life, to the specificity of each moment. It felt as if, during my spiritually dry season, I had been trapped in the tyranny of the ordinary. But Wiman, like a good prophet, showed me the way back to life through the pen that scrapes like a fingernail on a cell wall and the glass that sweats as if even the water wants out. These details in the most boring of board meetings point to the vitality and the ‘moreness’ of life that is available to us if we are paying attention, if our eyes are not looking up but out at the world in which we live and move. God is not dormant in this poet’s world. God is not gone. Instead, God is everywhere—in every thing and every one.

When I was preparing to preach to you dear Golden Scots, I recalled conversations with my older church members who had started attending more services like these, with the names of the deceased printed on the back, and who, like Wiman, felt pursued by the dark energy of death. Friends and loved ones were passing away. They were saying goodbye too often. Death was a reality they were living with every day. It can be a difficult season of life. Or, I imagine, it can be the most precious if it enables us to lean into life, pay attention, and emulate the poets who can show us the sacred vitality of everything and everyone. Poets like Wiman and poets like Mary Oliver, who describes herself as one of God’s messengers. She writes:

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

Now to the God who is astonishingly present in every thing and every one, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Room of Ten: Interfaith Immersion

I’m going to do something weird,” Malak whispered to Katie, her bunkmate for our six-day interfaith immersion trip to Chicago. Malak slips into her cotton prayer robe, its royal blue flower print covers her head, her arms to her wrists, and hangs to her feet. She begins her prayers, facing Mecca, alternating positions of standing and then prostrating herself with her forehead to the floor while silently praying in Arabic. When she finishes, Katie, a Christian, intentionally takes a moment to say, “I don’t think it’s weird, Malak. I think it’s beautiful.”

I wasn’t sure what would come of this interfaith immersion trip. I’d never led one before. But I knew I had a good group—three Muslims, six Christians, and one Naturalist, all living and learning together in one large hostel room stacked full of ten bunk beds. During the week we visited a variety of religious communities. We listened to Father Pfleger whoop at St. Sabina Catholic Church, gazed at the“O Glory of the All Glorious” in the dome of the Bahá’í Temple, soaked in the_SCN5122 smooth sounds of jazz worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church and sat in meditation at the Shambala Center. We giggled embarrassedly with the Sikhs when we didn’t know what to do with the pudding they put in our hands, dined on delicious Turkish food provided by our hosts at the American Islamic College, and swayed to the undulating music of the Hare Krishna chants and drums. Each experience was unique, each community welcoming and willing to answer our many questions. But it was the conversations on the bus, subways, and sidewalks in between these visits that made the experience meaningful.

After a long, full day on Monday I called my husband to say goodnight. Laughing over the phone, I described why I was so exhausted. “I’ve spent the whole day trying to explain the Trinity to our three Muslim students while also trying to navigate the Chicago subway,” I told him. “So, I got us lost multiple times and I’ve decided the Trinity doesn’t really make much sense.”

_SCN5087While worshipping at Fourth Presbyterian Church, I was confronted by an awkwardness I hadn’t felt before. When I realized communion was being served, a debate quickly began in my mind as I thought through what I wanted to do in this worship moment. This was my church and my sacrament. Should I go forward to receive it, leaving my Muslim and Naturalist students behind in the pew? Would they feel awkward and unwelcome? At first, I decided I would skip communion to sit in solidarity with those who were not Christian. But as the service proceeded I realized that later in the week I would be the Christian observing a Muslim prayer service—and I would think it odd if my Muslim friends refrained from participating in their service for my sake. That was their thing. This was mine. So I went forward to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Later, when I was the one sitting to observe the Muslims in prayer—the men in one line, the women in another, standing shoulder to shoulder, all their movements in sync—tears welled in my eyes. I’d observed Muslims in prayer before, but these weren’t just Muslims. This was Malak, and Mirna, and Hind—my Muslim students—three of our room of ten. Here they were doing their thing. And it was beautiful.

At the end of the week, we packed up our bags, leaving behind rumpled blankets, sheets, and trash cans full of shopping bags and snack wrappers. Left behind in this mess, though, was also a quality,_SCN5068 an air, that something holy and heavy happened in that space. In a day when religious tension is globally at a six year high, we need more people to have such positive interfaith experiences—experiences through which the “other” suddenly has a name, and a story, and a path that often intertwines beautifully with your own. We knit together a new kind of community in that room of ten; a community where religious difference does not prove to be divisive, but rather mutually enriching; a community full of human grace.

*Special thanks to Jem Jebbia and the Interfaith Youth Core for helping us plan and coordinate this trip!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chapel Service Podcast

mc-relig-spirit-life-logo-wide_b&wTwo of my students, Patrick McClain and Nick Sargis, worked out a way to begin podcasting our Chapel Services.  We are excited about this new opportunity, but are still working out a few bugs.  Click here to listen to our first Chapel Service this past September 1st, 2014.

Also, this is the picture I am referring to during my sermon:

Distant God





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In gratitude to Andrew and Jill Kuebrich

“Remembering that we are Dust”

Psalm 103:1-14

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

Ash Wednesday, March 5th, 2014—MC

Two years ago we received the tragic news that a young alum, Andrew Kuebrich, had been killed in an accident while bicycling the coast of Taiwan.  It always hits hard when someone young dies so tragically—mostly because it doesn’t make any sense.  Andrew graduated before I came to Monmouth, so I didn’t know him.  But after his death, story after story emerged about how encouraging he was of others, how contagious his energy, humor and optimism were, how his kindness touched many.  I learned how Andrew had taped a square box on the floor of his dorm room, named it the dance box, and required anyone who stepped in it to dance their stress away.  I learned how important the Relay for Life charity event was to him because both his grandmothers had died of cancer.

During one of these events, Andrew raised money for his charity by running 45 miles—in one night!  Andrew spent his college summers working with disabled children.  He participated in alternative spring break trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity.  He traveled to Taiwan after graduation to teach English to Taiwanese children and discover the world.  A picture surfaced of Andrew crowd-surfing on the hands of a mob of celebratory college students.  I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it certainly seemed like Andrew Kuebrich was a big part of it.  He was known here as the Chief of Good Times.

I imagine you know someone like Andrew, someone full of life and charisma and joy. These are the kind of people you imagine living forever—people who are absolutely unstoppable—invincible.  Never in our wildest dreams would we believe a young man so full of life could die at 24.

But human life is fragile—a fact we don’t often consider.  A parent knows, though.  Moms and Dads learn this when their babies are born.  Our advances in medicine and technology lead us to believe a healthy birth is a sure thing…until complications arise…. the baby’s heart rate drops unexpectedly, or the chord wraps around her neck…the nurses grow tense, ring the doctor on call, and the parent gets the impression that these risks are par for the course for those who work in labor and delivery.  Babies are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little people.

Parents know this as their babies grow, too. I remember negotiating with my parents over a spring break trip to Florida that I really wanted to take with my college roommate.  It was our senior year and we planned to drive the whole trip by ourselves, from Michigan to Ft. Lauderdale, without stopping. My parents didn’t want me to go.  They asked a lot of questions.  To which I responded, “Mom, Dad, why are you so worried?  I’m 21!  I’m an adult!”  As if that meant that nothing at all bad could happen.

Now that I am a parent, though, I know why they were concerned.  They were worried because they remember the day I was born.  And they remember the day they lost track of me in that giant department store. And the day I fell on the skating rink, cutting my chin open.  And they remembered that boy (or those boys) who broke my heart leaving me a sobbing, mush of a mess.  They knew (better than I) how tiny, and fragile, and vulnerable I am.

Today, God, too, speaks to us from the parent’s perspective.  “As a father has compassion for his children,” Psalm 103 reads, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”  “God knows how we were made,” the scripture says.  God knows because God was there.  From the moment of your birth, God was there. And because God was there at our beginning, God remembers that we are dust.  We were created out of the dust of the earth and one day to dust we shall return.  In other words, to God we are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little creatures.

The stark honesty of Ash Wednesday’s message—that we can so quickly return to ash—always makes me stop to consider how I have been living my life.  This year the word “reckless” comes to my mind.  Not that I’ve been bungee jumping, or sky diving, or drag racing through the streets of Monmouth.  But reckless in the sense of not paying attention to my life.  My life is often such a blur—one long frenetic streak of activity from the moment I wake up at 6:00am to the moment I crash, exhausted, in bed at 10:00pm.  If it were not for all my smartly synced calendars, I wouldn’t even know what day it is.

I feel reckless living this way because I, of all people, should remember how close we live to the edge of death.  I’ve been around death as a pastor.  I’ve stood at the bedside of those who were taking their final, shallow breaths.  I’ve laid my hands on cool foreheads to bless those who have just slipped away.  I’ve stood in the circle of family members, the holy ground of love, as they said their final goodbyes.  Why, then, in light of these experiences and this knowledge, why do I not pay more attention to life?  Why do I allow myself to become so frenzied and frantic?  Why do I not hug my children more and whisper words that matter to the husband I love dearly?  Why don’t I stop more to listen to my own breath and be grateful for the beating of my own heart?  Why don’t I, Teri McDowell Ott, remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return?

In the midst of writing this sermon and thinking these thoughts, the voice of Jill Kuebrich, Andrew’s mother, found its way to me.  Jill read a sermon of mine on my blog after Andrew’s death and we wrote each other briefly about Andrew and his life, and the impact he had on others.  Jill directed me to a blog she had started, a place where she could remember her son and write about her grief.  I found myself reading it again this week.

I was moved in particular by a post she wrote for another grieving mother.  To this mother Jill writes:

“When you asked me at your son’s wake if it gets easier I truthfully and tearfully told you NO! I regret not lying to you to give you some comfort. You will never miss him less and when you think of what has happened it will be like a sock to the gut every time. But you will see signs of your son everywhere! Take each one and let it put a smile on your face.  Try not to let what has happened define and ruin your life. The best tribute I think we can give our sons is to live and love more fully than ever before led by their example!”

Jill’s words resonate with me as a mother of an extraordinary son, and as a child of God trying to make sense of tragedy and the fragility of human life. Jill’s words to me this week felt like the Psalmists words. As I read I felt as if she were smearing my forehead with ash….waking me up to the gift that is my life.

After Andrew’s death, Jill and her husband, Matt, discovered a journal he had written full of writings and containing a list of 152 things he wanted to accomplish in his life.   He started this list by writing, “Ever since I was a little boy I would always hear older people say I wish I would have.  They were looking back and wishing they had the courage to follow through with their dreams.  NOT ME.  I am creating a list. This is not a bucket list,” Andrew wrote, “this is a TO DO list.  This is not a wish I would have done it list.  This is a I DID IT list and it was amazing.  The main reason I am creating this list is because I feel like most people wander aimlessly through life like a zombie, never breaking through and experiencing life.”

Some of the “To-Do’s” on Andrew’s list included:

  • Make a million dollars just to give it away
  • Milk a cow
  • Make a huge difference in at least three people’s lives
  • Read the entire Bible
  • See Professor McMillan’s sheep
  • Mow the lawn in cut offs

“I am Andrew Kuebrich,” he concluded, “and this is my journey…”

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


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Do Not Be Your Fear–A Christmas Message

“Do Not Be Your Fear”

Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 10th, 2013 – Monmouth College Christmas Convocation

I’m going to begin today with things I am afraid of.  It’s sort of a random list, but here we go.

I am afraid of:

  • Change
  • Global Warming
  • Snakes and Large Spiders
  • Faculty.

I am afraid of:

  • Deep Water
  • Rejection
  • Speaking in Public
  • Looking or sounding stupid

I am afraid of:

  • Something bad happening to my children
  • The power I possess and how it can change me
  • The power I do not possess and how it can change me
  • Being all alone when I am old
  • Stomach bugs that wreak havoc on my household
  • Disappointing people
  • My car breaking down far from civilization on a moonless night.  A pick up truck pulls in behind me and a man gets out. He’s carrying an axe.

This is my random list.  I could go on.  But what’s on your list? Maybe the things on your list are far different from mine, but I’m wondering if your list is just as long. I was struck recently by the words of Quaker and teacher Parker Palmer who writes about the dominant role that fear plays in our lives.  Palmer says, “It is no accident that all of the world’s wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways:  ‘Be not afraid.’”[1]

When I first read Palmer’s words, I suddenly remembered that the scripture text from Luke that President Ditzler just read—the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of Christmas—included this exhortation.  “Do not be afraid!” the angel said to the shepherds who were “terrified” by this heavenly vision.

Which is extraordinary, if you stop to think about it, because what could really scare a shepherd?  Dan and I live just outside of Monmouth—which means we live five minutes away.  It’s beautiful out there, though.  I love it because it really feels like I am getting away when I go home. This area outside of Monmouth is Carhartt country, because our neighbors are farmers and day laborers—men and women who I see working out in the fields on bitter cold days, with their hoods pulled up over their ears, their Carhartt jackets zipped to the neck. I drive my son to school with the car heater blaring and I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work.  When we first moved to Monmouth from North Carolina three years ago in the bitter cold month of December, Dan and I ventured over to Farm King to equip ourselves for our new climate.  My amazing, talented, brilliant husband tried on a Carhartt jacket and—no offense, honey—but that thing swallowed him whole.  Carhartt’s are not made for men with professions like my husband’s.  Carhartt’s are made for shepherds.

Yes, this is who the angel appeared to on that cold 1st century evening.  The shepherds were the day laborers, the field workers of their time.  With their wind-chapped faces and dirt-stained hands, they were hardy and strong, able to work long hours outside in the bitter cold. Their job was to protect their flock from wolves and bandits and all types of evil that only appear when the night is darkest. They’d seen it all.  Until an angel showed up surrounded by the glory of God.  And these shepherds, these strong, hardy, fearless men were, suddenly, terrified.  Which reveals that no matter who we are, no matter our profession, or our life experience, or our temperament, fear lives in all of us.

Last week as I was feverishly preparing for this Christmas Convocation our son, Isaac, came down with a stomach bug.  We were up all night on Monday.  Then on Tuesday the bug bit our daughter Ella.  She got it worse than Isaac, which meant Tuesday night was, well, quite frankly, hell.  As soon as Dan and I fell asleep, Ella called out for us again.  She just got sick and sick and sick some more.

Early in the evening I took the general health precautions—washing my hands after every time I touched her or anything associated with her.  But by four in the morning I was so tired I just sort of gave up trying to keep myself clean because at that point puke and poop were everywhere.  It was in that 4:00am moment of exhaustion that I started to freak. As much as I was concerned for my baby girl who was so sick, I couldn’t keep my mind from reviewing my calendar and all the things I had to do—things that really could not be put on hold if I got sick.

So I started picturing myself on stage at Saturday night’s Christmas concert praying and puking.  I pictured myself here today preaching and puking.  Everywhere I went in my mind that night I was puking.  Puking on the President.  Puking on communion.  Puking all over Christmas at Monmouth.  As it will in 4:00am freak outs, my mind raced.  My chest felt tight.  My breathing grew rapid because I was afraid.

Isn’t it funny how fear doesn’t make rational sense?  I mean what good was my anxiety serving in my 4:00am freak out?  If I was going to get sick, I was going to get sick.  There was nothing I could do about it.  So why be afraid?  And why were the shepherds terrified when the angel showed up? Sure, they’d never seen anything like that before.  But did that mean it was going to be bad news?  They had no idea why the angel had appeared.  We just have such a hard time, we human beings, when we don’t know, when we can’t predict, when we aren’t in control.  Fear rises in all of us when we face the unknown.  (By the way, how are you students feeling about final exams?)

“Everyone has fear,” Parker Palmer writes.  “’Do not be afraid!’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Instead, ‘Do not be afraid!’ says we should not be the fear we have.”[2]

“Yes we have places of fear inside of us,” Palmer continues, “but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to [live] from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”[3]

The morning after my 4:00am freak out, I wrote an email to a friend in which I shared all my anxiety about the week ahead.  In this email I mentioned that ironically my Christmas sermon was all about fear.  My friend didn’t think it was ironic, though.  She thought it was perfect that I was led to write and preach on fear in the midst of an anxious week.  “All of our expectations of what ‘should be’ throw us off,” she wrote in her note back. “What is happening is happening. You just need to find the place inside of you that can help you navigate.”  I wrote most of this sermon after receiving that email.  The panic was fresh, so it was easy to describe. And the act of writing helped me move my fear to its proper place within me.  From that moment, I moved forward in faith. What was going to happen was going to happen.  I would navigate and negotiate.  And I would not be my fear.

Some of you may be wondering…so how’d all this turn out?  Well, I did get a little queezy last Friday.  But that was it!  Today I’m good to go!  President Ditzler, you are SAFE sitting beside me!

Getting back to the shepherds, though, they also overcame their fear.  Out of their trembling, they moved from a place of panic to a place of faith, and hope and trust.  Which led them to a baby.  The Christmas story is a story of new birth, yes, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.

A new way of being, that to fully understand, we must acknowledge the context of fear into which Christ was born. A context that poet Madeleine L’ Engle describes as:

 A land in the crushing grip of Rome

A people betrayed by war and hate

Honour and truth trampled by scorn

The inn was full on the planet earth.

This was no time for a child to be born.

And yet Love still took the risk of birth.[4]

With this birth, a way of being was born that brought people together rather than pushing them apart.  A way of being was born that inspired people to courageous, revolutionary acts, rather than crippling them with anxiety and panic. A way of being was born that commanded we care for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, rather than a fearfulness that built walls and fences and deep-rooted prejudices to push away all who were different.

Yes, the Christmas story is a story of new birth, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.

So let’s revisit my list and wonder for a moment about who I could be if I were not shaped by my fear of change, or rejection, or of disappointing people?

Who could you be if you were not constrained by the fear of making mistakes, or of following your passion, or of asking yourself the hardest questions?

Who could we be if our fear of loss, or of being wrong, or of not having enough did not rule our lives and our world?

Who could I be?  Who could you be?  Who could we be if we lived not from a place of fear, but from a place of faith, hope, and trust?  Well, we’d be a people made new.

Christmas is always a beautiful time of year.  It is even more beautiful when we understand it as God’s invitation to us, once again, to be born into a new way of being.  “Do not be afraid!” The angel cries.  Do not be your fear.  For unto us a child is born.

Now to the God who invites us to this place of new being, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.



[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, (Jossey-Bass, SanFrancisco, CA), pg. 93.

[2] Ibid, pg. 93-94.

[3] Ibid, pg. 94.

[4] Lines taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, “The Risk of Birth”, The Ordering of Love, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005) pg.155.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

For our Golden Scots

I preached the following sermon for our Golden Scots, who were on campus celebrating their 45th, 50th, 55th, and 60th class reunions this past week.  I thoroughly enjoy spending time with our “golden” alumni.  They are always full of joy and enthusiasm.  It was a privilege to lead them in worship.  This particular service includes a time of memorial during which we remember alumni who have passed away.

“Now I Know”

1 Kings 17: 1-16, 24

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 9th, 2013 – Golden Scots Chapel Service

 As I read this passage I found myself feeling grateful that I could preach today for a congregation predominantly older than 18-21 years.  I love working with college students.  I really do.  But there are things that they don’t understand yet because they simply haven’t lived long enough.  The widow of Zarephath from today’s text would qualify as one of those things.  To understand her and her story, it helps to have some life experience because here is a woman who is surrounded by death.  There has been death in her family.  She is a widow.  There has been death in her community and her nation because of a severe drought and severe famine.  As we come to her in today’s passage she is preparing for her own and her son’s death.  Death is a reality that the widow of Zarephath must live with every day.

When I was a pastor of a church my conversations with older members frequently turned to the death that surrounded them.  They had started attending more services like these, with the names of the deceased printed on the back.  Friends and loved ones were passing away.  They were saying goodbye more often.  Death was becoming a reality they were living with every day too.  Perhaps some of you can relate.  If so, it can be a difficult season of life.  After the death of several good friends and family members one of my aging church members spoke to me about how it felt like her community was growing smaller and smaller.  She said to me, “It’s hard to know anymore to whom I belong.”  I imagine the widow of Zarephath could have said these same words.

So I was attracted to the widow in today’s passage, I was drawn to her story, but I was irritated by the prophet Elijah.  He assumed the widow was afraid. Commentators assume this too.  They say Elijah needed to assure the widow that she could trust him.  I don’t read it this way.  The widow doesn’t feel afraid to me.  She feels done.  She tried to tell Elijah this.

“As the Lord your God lives,” she said, “I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (1 Kings 17:12)

She’d been living on the edge of death for so long—a widow, a deadly drought, ravens circling over her son’s head.  The ravens were feeding Elijah.  What did he know of death?  He’d spent the worst days of the drought kickin’ back by the Wadi Cherith, drinking and eating to his heart’s content!  So I was irritated with Elijah’s assumption that the widow was afraid.  How dare he name her emotional state!  As if he knows!

“Do not be afraid,” Elijah says to her, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kings 17:13)

If the widow had not been done, I imagine she would have fought this ridiculous request—this request to make something out of nothing.  She was a fighter.  I know she was a fighter because she made it this far.  (Mothers are fighters, in case you didn’t know.)  She didn’t fight the request, though, because death was about to win and she was done.

If you are having trouble imagining what it is like to be done think back, perhaps to that job you had once.  The one you fought for.  You were excited to get the job, perhaps you and your family even made some big sacrifices to get you there.  But then things just didn’t click.  Your boss didn’t turn out to be who you thought she was.  Your co-workers didn’t seem to get you and never really welcomed you.  Things got kind of tense.  Conflicts arose.  Personalities clashed.  You tried your best.  You worked hard to make it work.  But eventually you came to that place where you were done and it was time to move on.

Or if it the job illustration doesn’t fit just think back to that relationship you worked so hard to preserve.  Everyone’s had one of these.  You know, the relationship that was doomed from the start but you didn’t realize it.  So you fought for it, and fought for it….you worked so hard on that relationship….until one day you woke up and realized there was no saving it.  There was nothing more to do, nothing more to work on.  It was over and you were done.

Remember what it felt like to be done…done with that relationship….done with that job….done with whatever it was.  Now imagine what it must have been like to be done with life.  Can you imagine?  What a God-awful place to be.

So after Elijah makes his ridiculous request the widow doesn’t balk, she doesn’t protest, she doesn’t even crack a sarcastic smile.  She is done.  Whatever happens now doesn’t really matter.  So she obliges Elijah’s request.  She goes through the motions, feigning obedience, taking a handful of meal, mixing it with a little oil, making the meal into a cake.  She bakes the cake and then they eat…all of them…for many days.  And all of a sudden she isn’t done anymore.

Can you imagine what that felt like?  If you’ve known Good News then you can begin to imagine it.  If you’ve known Good News then you know it feels like hope.

I work hard to convey the Good News to our college students, but sometimes (not all the time) they haven’t lived long enough to really get it.  They haven’t fallen hard enough.  They haven’t realized yet how much they need it.  And it’s hard for me.  It’s difficult because I care about them and I want them to leave this place with a deep well that will quench their thirst for a lifetime.  I want them to leave this place with a deep well because you know and I know that everyone eventually wanders into a place of death.  And when we do, when we wander into that place of death, we need to know how to feed ourselves.  We need to know where to turn for water and for bread.

The first time I truly wandered into a place of death I was in my late twenties.  I was fresh out of seminary and had started serving my first church as an Associate Pastor.  When I started the position I jumped into a pastoral situation with which the congregation was already struggling.  A beloved church member named Frank was dying.  He and his wife Dody were wonderful, amazing people.  They were givers and they had touched the lives of everyone in that church.  Frank had diabetes.  It was really severe and by the time I arrived he was already losing the battle.  I got to know Frank some through my visits, but I never knew him while he was healthy.  I got to know his wife Dody, though, real well.  She was, and still is, a very special person to me.  We still keep in touch.

When word reached the church that Frank had died, all three of his pastors (myself, our other Associate Pastor and our Senior Pastor) went immediately to the hospital.  We drove there in silence.  I was scared. When we arrived Frank was still in his room, lying in the bed.  Dody was there too.  We all gave her a hug and then gathered in a circle around Frank.  We held hands and our Senior Pastor started to pray.  I was so glad he didn’t ask me to pray.  I wouldn’t have had the words then.  I think he knew I wasn’t ready.  So he prayed and I was able to simply be present and take it all in.  And it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.  I tell you, God’s presence was so thick in the air there around Frank, it took everything I had not to kick off my shoes and fall to my knees, because I was obviously on holy ground.  It was a powerful, powerful experience.

Afterwards, I spent quite a bit of time visiting and talking to Dody.  She and I became very close and she taught me about death.  I would ask her questions about her grief, dumb, naïve, sometimes even inappropriate questions, and Dody carefully and patiently tried to answer as best she could.  I remember, when I asked a question that pushed too far, or asked a little too much, her face would twitch a little, like a quick flinch, and I’d hold my breath because I realized in that moment that I’d probably gone too far.  But she would just take a breath, regain her composure and then answer my question.  What an amazing woman!  I learned so much from Dody.

So there are two messages I’d like you to take away from this sermon.  First, that God is powerfully present in the place of death.  Food and water are available.  Good News abounds.  And secondly, share what you know.  One of the biggest reasons I work so hard to encourage college students towards the church is because people like you are there.  People like you who know things that they do not.  Now, I know it’s hard.  I know it can be painful for you to talk about some of the things you know.  I know it was hard for Dody.  But the gift she gave me in doing so, in sharing what she knew about death, and loss, and grief, and life, was priceless.  The wisdom Dody shared with me…deepened me…and it has helped me help so many others who have found themselves or will find themselves in the place of death.  So please, don’t keep it to yourself.  Share what you know.

In the last verse of our passage today the widow of Zarephath says, “Now I know.”  She was done.  By the grace of God, she’s not done any more.  And now she knows.  She has become a very wise woman with some very wise gifts to share.

Now, to the giver of all good gifts, to God be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.










Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Christmas Message

“To You is Born a Savior”

Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 4th, 2012 – MC Christmas Convocation

 One of the most often quoted movies in the Ott household is Will Ferrill’s classic comedy Talladega Nights.  I can’t recommend the whole movie to you, clearly Anchor Man is Ferrill’s best work, but there is one gem of a scene from Talladega Nights that is worth quoting.  In this scene Ricky Bobby, the NASCAR racing sensation played by Will Ferrill, sits down with his wife, Carly, and his family to say grace before enjoying a fine meal of Domino’s, KFC, and, in Ricky Bobby’s words, the always delicious Taco Bell.  Ricky Bobby begins to pray…

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, I just want to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, and of course my red hot smokin’ wife Carly.  Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip.  We hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. Dear tiny infant Jesus….

Carly interrupts… “Hey, um, Ricky, ya’ know—Jesus did grow up.  You don’t always have to call him baby.  It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”

Ricky Bobby responds, “Well I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace.  When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

Carly sighs and Ricky Bobby begins again. “Dear 8 pound 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly…but still omnipotent.  Dear tiny Jesus with your golden fleece diapers and tiny little fat balled up fists we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars that I have accrued (Whoot!) over this season.  Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.  Amen.”

Now, as silly as this movie is, there really is some truth to us liking the little baby Jesus, or the Christmas Jesus best.  The Easter Jesus doesn’t get nearly as much air time as the Christmas Jesus.  The allure of a newborn baby is inescapable as we oooh and ahhh over the colored lights, tinsel, and greenery strung up to celebrate his birth.  But as we tickle this newborn’s toes and delight ourselves over his gummy smiles, Luke breaks into our romanticizing, our commercializing, and our trivializing to remind us that Christmas is about something more.  In the words of Luke, Christmas is about good news of great joy for all the people…for to you is born a Savior.

Written at the beginning of the 2nd Century, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of a down-to-earth, country prophet named Jesus who became a sage of the people.  Through his masterful storytelling, Luke’s Jesus found broad appeal as the author sought to unify and universalize the Christian identity.  For Luke the birth of Jesus the Christ really was good news of great joy for all the people because Jesus transformed his society’s consciousness and offered real hope to the empire’s vast underclasses of hard-pressed and overworked children, women, and men.[1]  Jesus really was their Savior by highlighting the injustice of their social and economic circumstances and by proclaiming the Good News that their suffering was not of God.

What about those of us living in the 21st century?  How might this 1st century, country prophet, be our Savior?  What forces of oppression would Jesus highlight in our lives?  From what do we need to be saved?  I have long believed that we must acknowledge what is killing us, before we can know what will save us.

So ask yourself, “What is killing me today?”

Of course your first response will likely be “FINAL EXAMS!  That’s what’s killing me today!!”  Well, you’re on your own with those.  Jesus is not going to earn those grades for you.

But perhaps your anxiety is killing you, or your fear of failure.  Perhaps what’s killing you is the idea that “real life” and the “real world” come later, that today and today’s actions don’t really count.  Perhaps your dependency on alcohol is killing you, or a deep insecurity that tells you you’re no good.  Perhaps it’s your anger that you struggle to keep in check, or your failure to maintain a healthy relationship.  Or perhaps what’s killing you is the feeling that you are completely out of control, that the world is conspiring against you and that there is nothing you can do about it.

I imagine this was what was killing Mary and Joseph when they were told that the Emperor’s census would force them to travel all the way back to Bethlehem.  Traveling in your third trimester is painful enough.  Just imagine traveling by burro.  There are no ‘thought bubbles’ above Mary and Joseph’s heads, but their inner monologues could not have been pleasant.  Then they arrive in Bethlehem and what do they find?  There is no room for them in the inn.  All we have to do is imagine our connecting flight being cancelled leaving us to spend Christmas Eve at O’Hare, to understand how frustrated, and tired, and upset Mary and Joseph must have been.  I imagine they felt completely out of control and it was killing them.

These were the circumstances into which Jesus was born.  The Christian birth narrative tells of God entering human life precisely at that moment when we realize that we are not enough, that we cannot do it all, that we are not in control, and that we cannot save ourselves.  That’s when Jesus enters the picture–a beautiful, precious, newborn baby, his whole life ahead of him– is born into all of this mess.  Why?  Well, perhaps to let us know that the mess is not all there is.

The hope, inherent in the Gospel of Luke is that there is something or someone to turn to for salvation. In Luke this turning, or metanoia in Greek, is a turning away from the oppressive forces that kill and a turning toward the saving forces that offer the possibility of new life.[2]

For as long as I have been leading Christmas services such as this, I have always recognized someone sitting in the congregation who did not expect to be there.  Perhaps he was dragged there by a zealous mother-in-law, or perhaps he had just decided on a whim to check out why scores of people were pouring into the local church on a cold, dark Christmas Eve.  He usually sits somewhere in the back, or in a far corner of the balcony, with body language that conveys he feels completely out of place.  Unbeknownst to him, though, he can be clearly identified from the pulpit as he leans in to hear the Christmas story and as his eyes reveal a longing to be included in the good news of great joy. Sometimes those eyes even start to shine as his tears betray the reality that he is dying inside.

It is this person, this dying person, whom Luke desires to expose in a full spotlight of grace.  Luke’s spotlight sears the darkness of this person’s despair with messages of hope.  You are welcome here!  You are included in all of this!  Your suffering is not of God!  Your life means something!  You are worthy of love!  Luke invites him to reorient and transform his life around the saving hope that the darkness, the mess, and all that is killing him today, is not all there is.

Christmas reminds all of us that there is something more.  For to you is born a Savior.

When I finish we will sing O Come, All Ye Faithful.  I chose this hymn because I love it!  It is big and grand and beautiful.  I asked our organist to play it loud.  I asked the Chorale to sing it big!  Because this is a hymn that beckons to us, it calls us to Come!  Come!  Come and know the saving power of God breaking into the darkness, of God breaking into all of our mess.  Come and hear the saving message that your life means something, that you are worthy of love, and that grace abounds.  Come, let us adore him, because Christmas reminds us there is something more.  Christmas reminds us of the good news of great joy for all the people…for to you is born a Savior.

Now to this Savior, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

*Let us stand and sing together, O Come, All Ye Faithful.





[1] Richard A. Horsley, “The Message and the Kingdom,” (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001), pgs. 226-228.

[2] Joel B. Green, “Body, Soul, and Human Life,” (Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008), pgs. 106-139.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Faith of Job

 “The Faith of Job”

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 14th, 2012 – Monmouth College Homecoming Sunday

 In my preparation for today’s sermon I read a commentary that said, “Pastors who preach on Job 23 never make it to television.”[1]  Well, gosh darn it all.  There go all my hopes and dreams.  My parents will be so disappointed that I just blew my chance to be the next hit televangelist.

But seriously, I couldn’t pass up Job in the lectionary readings for today because I just love the guy.  Job is difficult, that’s for sure.  His story is worth avoiding because it’s about a good, faithful man who loses everything….his job, his house, his farm, his family, his health, in one seemingly careless swoop of the hand by God.  The Job mythos begins with Satan insighting God against Job.  Job is only faithful because he has it so good, Satan argued before God.  If you take away everything he has, Job will no longer be faithful. Well, Satan’s argument puts God in a bit of a spot.  God would like to prove that Job would be faithful regardless of whether he has it good or not.  So God gives Satan permission to take away everything Job has.  How difficult.  We’d like to think that God is above such devilish games.  Actually, we’d prefer not to think about Job at all, nor his painful God-given situation, so we avoid him and his texts that arise every three years in the church’s lectionary calendar.

But for me, Job will preach.  Job will preach because Job is about a faith that is tested and tried by unimaginable suffering and by God’s absence in the midst of that suffering.  Job will preach because every thoughtful person of faith will come to the same questions of God, to the same doubts of God, as Job at some point along their life journey.  And when they do (when we do) Job is here for us as a guide.  He is here for us when our faith butts up against reason.  He is here for us when we are suffering and God is nowhere to be found.  He is here for us when the darkness becomes overwhelming.

So I love Job.  I love Job because he is real, and raw, and honest.  There is no pie-in-the-sky theology here.  There are no shiny, happy people in Job’s story and it does not end with Job and Jesus walking along the beach leaving footprints in the sand.  No, Job is the real deal.  He is a real man of faith.

While I was serving my first church in South Carolina as an Associate Pastor, tragedy struck our congregation when we learned that the young adult son of one of our members had been washed overboard of an Alaskan fishing boat and lost at sea.  The father of this young man did not receive the news of his son’s death until a few weeks after the accident.  When he did hear, the news crushed him.  Our Senior Pastor went immediately to visit the father.  When he returned from this visit he was depressed and discouraged.  He described for us how he had found the father, lying on the floor, screaming and crying, banging his fists into the carpet in rage and grief.  There was nothing our pastor could say or pray to help the man.  He was lost to the darkness this world can so easily dish out, leaving our pastor feeling helpless in his desire to offer consolation and hope.

Job, on the other hand, is not helpless in the face of such pain.  Entering the grief stricken father’s house, Job would lift the man to his feet, grab his fist, raise it to the heavens, and shout, “Today my complaint is bitter; [God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning.  Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!  I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.  Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; but he would give heed to me.”[2]

Job’s speech here, wherein he penetrates the darkness of grief with stark honesty, is a daring, and faithful act.  Oftentimes in grief, people give in to their fate, resigning themselves to their misfortune by saying simply that “It must be God’s will.”  Others abandon their faith in God altogether, turning their back in justified rage.  But Job offers a third way: he is unwilling to accept suffering passively, but he also refuses to abandon his faith.  He cries out to God.  He shakes his fist at God.  He rages at God in the midst of the storm because God is not dead to him, and God dare not abandon him.[3]

We will never understand God.  Job reminds us of this.  God will always be just out of reach of reason. God will always be cloaked in mystery.  God will always be the deep dark abyss before which we stand. We cannot understand God and yet Job tries.  Job pursues God with questions.  Job speaks to God out of his pain.  Job demands an audience with God.  He demands his day in God’s divine court so he can argue his case.  Job will not let go of God. His faith leads him to the darkness and into it because he believes God is there.

I used to be all up on pop culture and frequently referred to current movies in my sermons to illustrate a point.  Now that we have two young children and I can’t stay awake much past 9:30 my illustrations have been reduced to the adventures of Curious George and the books we read together as a family.  So this past Monday I read a new book to our kids that I thought was really great.  It’s called “The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark.”

The Pout-Pout fish is a story about a fish who goes in search of a pearl that his friend Ms. Clam lost.  She had a doozy of a drowsy, yawned, and out that pearl popped.  The pearl was lost somewhere in the deep, darkness of the ocean floor.  Well, Mr. Fish was a very good friend of Ms. Clam so he wanted to help her find her pearl.  But he had a problem.  He was faster than a sailfish, and stronger than a shark, smarter than a dolphin, but he was scared of the dark!

He was scared of the dark, but he was such a good friend that he swam and he swam.  He swooped through the water, and eyed every inch of the busy bottom land.  But he could not find the pearl.  Discouraged, Mr. Fish grew grim, until he heard a little voice whisper, “You can do it, Mr. Fish!  It’s in the trench, check there.”  In the trench there wasn’t any light, not the smallest, slim glimmer.  “I can’t keep swimming in this heap-deep black,” thought Mr. Fish.  Then the voice, now familiar, whispered to him again.  “You can do it, Mr. Fish.”  And he recognized the voice as his friend, Miss Shimmer.  And although there wasn’t any light, Mr. Fish felt braver….cheered on by Miss Shimmer, who said, “Two are faster than a sailfish, two are stronger than a shark, two are smarter than a dolphin, and two are bigger than the dark!” So they swam down the dark trench together, holding fin to fin, when suddenly, amazingly, light shone in!  There the pearl shone in the midst of all that dark.  Mr. Fish said, “Yes!” Miss Shimmer shouted, “Yay!”  “There’s Ms. Clam’s pearl!  Hooray!  Hooray!  Then they SMOOCHED and they smiled as they swam, weaving back through the darkness to a happy Ms. Clam.[4]

Job and the Pout-Pout fish hold something in common.  Both swim into the darkness in spite of their fear.  Job is afraid to know God.  He says so in verse 16, “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.”  But Job is just as afraid not to know God. So he pushes forward into the darkness, into the mystery, into the pain and suffering of life, into the deep abyss… because something or someone has whispered to him that there is a treasure to be found there….something or someone has whispered to Job that there is a pearl shining in the midst of all that darkness.  So Job presses on.  Job pursues God with a daring faith.  And through our scriptures Job invites us to do the same.  Job invites us to travel with him into the deep dark abyss that is God.

Returning to the story of the man who tragically lost his son off the Alaskan fishing boat, it’s important that you know that eventually he was able to pick himself up off the floor of grief.  He was able to stand again, in part because we as his pastors and we as his community of faith learned that the best way to help him, the best way to care for him in the midst of his debilitating grief was to stand with him, to be present with him, to swim with him into the dark, in the hope and in the faith that a pearl would be found, a treasure of light worth celebrating.

So on this Homecoming Sunday, I share with you my hope that the kind of faith we foster here at Monmouth College is a Job kind of faith.  I hope that we do not settle for easy, pie-in-the-sky theology.  I hope that we too might pursue God with questions.  I hope that we dare to enter the darkness and dare to approach the deepest mysteries of God.  I hope that we, like Job, can be real, and raw, and honest here.  And I hope for this because when the trials of life come (and the trials will come), when we are flattened by grief, and floored by our pain, that we might, at some point, be able to stand again with Job and with all the faithful who are willing to be present with us in the darkness.

Now to our great and mysterious and unfathomable God, the God who gifts us with the faith to move forward in the darkness, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and honor, now and forevermore.  Amen.




[1] Thomas Edward Frank, “Pastoral Perspective”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009), p. 148.

[2] Job 23: 2-6

[3] J.S. Randolph Harris, “Homiletical Perspective” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009), p. 151.

[4] Deborah Diesen, “The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark,” (Scholastic, Inc., New York, NY, 2010).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One Wild and Precious Life

“One Wild and Precious Life”

Ephesians 4: 1-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 3rd, 2012 – MC Chapel Service

Kneeling prayer-like in a field, poet Mary Oliver contemplates a grasshopper who has flung itself out of the tall grass to eat sugar out of her hand.  The grasshopper gazes around with enormous, complicated eyes, snaps her wings open, and floats away leading Oliver to thoughts of the nature of life and what we do with this great gift.  Tell me, she asks, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?[1]

Where will you go?  What will you see?  What will you do with this one life?  Will you stand in a field holding grasshoppers and let them speak through you and your poetry?  Will you explore the universe in a spaceship bringing knowledge of the stars back to earth? Will you find new, healthy ways to feed your hungry neighbor?  Will you be a presence of peace in a world that knows too much violence?  What will you do?  What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Christians believe there is something each of us is to do with the one life with which we have been blessed.  What we are to do is unique to each of us and our unique gifts.  As we hear in Ephesians 4:11, “The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” We might add that some have been given gifts to be poets or professors, ministers or musicians, architects or archeologists.  Each of us has been given gifts to do something with this one wild and precious life.  Each of us has a calling, a vocation to live out.  And each of us has a journey to take as we discern to what God is calling us.

“I, the Apostle Paul, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with humility….” According to Ephesians, our journey of discernment begins with humility.  We must, in a sense, forget ourselves in order to find the ‘true self’ God desires us to become.  Through humility we need to empty ourselves of all that is false- false desires, false ambitions, false efforts to become who we are not—in order to discover the life and the self with which God has gifted us.

Last Spring I led students in a retreat during which they were to reflect upon some of the obstacles to discernment that spiritual greats such as St. Benedict, Ignatius of Loyola, and Meister Eckhart have identified.  Some of these obstacles included self-interest, self-absorption, and self-righteousness.  These “self” motivations or “self” desires get in the way of a free and open relationship with God because they are formed by us and for us, exclusively.  Our self interests, ambitions, desires, and motives obstruct our relationship with God because they muffle God’s voice and confuse God’s will for our lives.  They make the discernment of our true calling difficult, if not impossible.

When I present these obstacles to discernment oftentimes someone has trouble with them.  Someone has trouble, understandably, because in this society we have been taught all our lives that we are the master of our own destinies, that we can do whatever we want in life if we work hard and dream big.  This is the American dream, after all.  This is the message we hear all the time.  So it is difficult to hear and accept the counter-message that we need to set ourselves and our dreams aside in order to discern what God dreams for our life and what God wills for our life.  It is difficult for me to reframe my life around God when I have been brought up and taught to frame my life around myself.  No matter how difficult, though, Ephesians speaks of humility because humility grounds us in a true sense of one’s self,[2] and in a true sense of who God has created and called us to be.

In this letter to the Ephesians we are also reminded that vocational discernment involves not just an inward openness and an inward humility, but an outward openness as well, an outward openness toward others.  We are to bear with one another, the scripture says, to build one another up, to equip each other for ministry.   Discerning God’s call for our lives means being open to the needs of others.  Discerning God’s call means discovering our unique and personal way to love our neighbors.[3]

Frederick Buechner helpfully defines vocation as the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  The kind of work God usually calls you to, Buechner writes, is the kind of work that (a) you most need to do and (b) the world most needs to have done.  Buechner’s definition is helpful because it turns us outward, to the needs of the world, and the needs of our neighbors, to discover our true calling.

One of the aspects of my ministry here at the college that I am most passionate about is finding or creating opportunities for students to meet and serve people who are in need.  All forms of service are valuable, but I am particularly interested in opportunities where students can meet and have conversations with those who are different from them, with those who are strangers and wholly “other” from their lives and their stories.

One of the opportunities in Monmouth for such engagement is our Meals on Wheels delivery service to homes in the downtown area. For about $1.00 a day the people of Monmouth who are “shut-in” can get a hot meal delivered to them by a friendly face.  So I recruit students to deliver these meals and remind them that, other than the television, theirs may be the only human face these people see all day.

I recruit students to deliver these meals and they go out into this community and meet:

An older couple who invite them in to sit and stay for a cup of coffee and conversation

A young disabled man who is angry and downright mean

An able-bodied, half-dressed man whose apartment reeks of smoke and urine

A woman lying on her couch with the shades drawn, her apartment is dark except for the light let in by the door they open

An older woman whose kitchen counter is full of greeting cards from family and friends wishing her a happy birthday

They deliver the meals and meet hope and hopelessness, poverty and plenty.  No one’s story is the same. The students’ life narratives encounter the life narratives of those who are wholly “other” to them, wholly different, and they are opened…opened to the needs of the community, opened to “others,” and opened to the One who is the greatest “Other,” to our God, to the One who calls us to that place where the work we most need to do meets the work the world most needs done.

It is in this place, in this place of calling, or vocation, that we discover our “true selves.” Through inward humility and outward openness we discern who God has created and called us to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “God leaves us free to be whatever we like.  We can be ourselves or not, as we please.  We may be true or false, the choice is ours.  We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.  [But] if I never become what I am meant to be, but always remain what I am not, I shall spend eternity contradicting myself.”[4]

Most students come to college with the understanding that they are here to get a degree to get a job.  But we really hope to offer more than this.  We hope that they will discover their true selves while they are with us.  We hope that they will discover their personal gifts and abilities that make each of them unique.  And we hope that they will be opened to the needs of the world around them.  We hope for this because we want them to graduate knowing the joy and the peace that can only come when you know who you are, who you were uniquely created to be, and what you are called to do with this one life.

The grasshopper in poet Mary Oliver’s hand gives glory to God by being a grasshopper.  The way its jaws move back and forth while it eats the sugar, the way it jumps from the tall blades of grass, the way it snaps its wings open and floats away is like no other grasshopper before or after it.  No two created beings are exactly alike.  Our individuality is no imperfection.  We all give God glory when we are completely and perfectly the beings God creates and calls us to be.[5]

So tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?




[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA), 1992.

[2] Susan G. Farnham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, Susan M. Ward, “Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community”, (Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 1991), pg. 33.

[3] Edward P. Hahnenberg, “Awakening Vocation”, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2012), pg. 174.

[4] Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation” (Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc, 1961), pgs. 31-33.

[5] Metaphor adapted from Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 29.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on Poverty: Post 2

This is the second in a series of reflections written by students who traveled with me to Louisville, KY over Spring Break to participate in a poverty immersion program.  In his reflection, Corbin Beastrom, ’14, thoughtfully integrates two Monmouth College experiences and emerges with a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of the world in which we live because of them.  Corbin’s leadership and insights were invaluable on our trip to Louisville, KY.  Our group of five appreciated his thoughtfulness.  We also appreciated his sense of humor when we teased him mercilessly over his tendency to forget everyone’s names. Right, Bev? Thanks for sharing yourself with us, Corbin.

“Pitfalls of Plenty—Paradigms of Poverty”

By Corbin Beastrom, ’14

In my time at Monmouth College I have been blessed with the opportunity to enhance my skills, expand my perspective, and embrace my role in the global community. In the classrooms my professors have assigned enlightening material, led theoretical discussions, and maintained an omnipresent expectation that I analyze and reflect. Outside of academia my peers and I have contemplated our futures, our goals for success, and the trajectory we will take to achieve such ends.

I recently left the “ivory tower” that is Monmouth College and ventured to Chicago, IL and Louisville, KY to see firsthand how people are striving to succeed in “the real world.” The tone for the Chicago trip was set by the fact that I was required to wear a shirt and tie (as if apparel would disguise the reality that as a college student I am spending rather than making thousands of dollars a year). This was reinforced as my fellow travelers and I shook the hands of some equally well dressed but far wealthier individuals. We listened to the life’s wisdom of corporate executives and toured a law firm in the Sears Tower where the people in the corner offices salaries were the only things larger than their view of Lake Michigan.

Though I admit that I thoroughly enjoyed eating Oysters Rockefeller for lunch I could not help but feel a bit hungry for something else. If adjudicated with power and wealth as the criteria the people I met were enormously successful but such parameters fail to consider happiness or fulfillment.

Speaking of hunger…my trip to Kentucky left me starved! Under the direction of Rev. Teri Ott, I and three soon to become best friends traveled to Louisville to experience poverty. Immersed in an economically dire inner city neighborhood we experienced what it is like to live without food security, a bed to sleep in, or a steady job. As volunteers we worked in an urban garden, food pantry, community center, and a subsidized senior living facility. Though our struggle was temporary the people we were working with—and learning from—were unfortunately in the midst of a more permanent situation.

Their hardship was difficult to comprehend and somewhat troublesome when juxtaposed with the lifestyle of those I had met in Chicago; notwithstanding, both demographics were experiencing suffering. As a result of long hours at the office some wealthy people rarely see their children, while inconsistent employment can leave a struggling bread-winner at home with their kids all day. Too much good food can cause people of means to have high cholesterol, just as easy access to low quality food can result in high rates of diabetes in impoverished communities. This disparage is increasingly bothersome as statistics and empirical data reveal that the excesses of the top come at a cost to those at the bottom[1]. Though the lifestyles of the individuals I met in Chicago and Louisville were different, they shared a sense of dissatisfaction due to the pitfalls inherent to excessive wealth and financial insufficiency.

As a college student I am a part of the next generation and the decision to continue the existence of this inequitable system is ours. We are all driven to succeed—and rightfully so—but we must realize that our success cannot come at a detrimental cost to others. It will behoove us to remember the messages behind our class readings which guide us towards virtue and understanding, we should keep the theoretical in mind as we seek to create a more just and benevolent society, and we must never cease to analyze and reflect upon the world in which we live. Though generations past have failed, we have the power and knowledge to redefine the world around paradigms of shared prosperity.

[1]According to Forbes Magazine in 2011 the CEO of Yum! Brands made 29.67 million dollars while his company paid 99 cents a bushel to tomato farmers living below the poverty line.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment