I looked around at my fellow passengers on a plane recently and thought, as I often have, “Everyone has a story.” Each person there was in the middle of something—preparing for an interview, traveling to visit a dying parent, fundraising for a non-profit, taking kids to Disneyland, honeymooning, celebrating retirement. The events that got them to that flight that day unfolded in the context of complicated lives full of turnings and decision points, disappointments and completions and new beginnings. Each of them could have told not one story, but many.
My last visit home to LA, I spent the flight back to the SF Bay Area crying as I processed what my mom had shared with me right before dropping me off at the airport. I had read and speculated about the increase in unrestrained overt racism and xenophobia in our country, but hearing from my own mother – who has lived in the U.S. longer than she has her heritage country of South Korea – of her recent experiences as a victim of dehumanizing, othering remarks, acutely pierced my senses. Feelings of sorrow and helplessness and anger and hatred swirled around inside of me. I had to ask myself: How will I respond? How am I called to respond?
We at New College Berkeley wish you all God’s blessings this Christmas as you “shake with joy” and “shake with grief,” bringing all of who you are and all the concerns you carry to Jesus, whose achingly human birth we celebrate.
We Shake with Joy
by Bonnie Howe
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.
Mary Oliver, Evidence
Thursday afternoon on South 3, the palliative care and hospice ward at Laguna Honda Hospital: I enter Betty’s room, which is now her home and where she will die. She is awake! She’s not been awake on Thursday afternoons for a month, and I am eager to see if she wants company, is at all available. I feel my eagerness, so remind myself to go slowly and quietly, gently.
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. —2 Kings 4:42-44 (NRSV)
In my wife’s and my small group, we talk of “God sightings” as we daily abide in Him and discover His interventions in our lives. May I use that same theme in my life and tell you about my “Earl Palmer sightings?”
I have been leading a spiritual direction group for U. C. Berkeley college students for New College Berkeley for two years. The students gather with me at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley once a month, usually for two hours and sometimes for one hour. We typically meditate on passages of Scripture, poems, or any other material r that I prepare for the group. And then we share what has touched us after our individual time of reflection.
One day after the group, a student told me, “This meeting seems like resting at an oasis while I am walking in the dry desert of school.”
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley with the Hollywood Hills as a backdrop. So the terrain in Westerns always looked familiar—whatever the plot, whoever the stars.
My Christian parents were against “going to the movies.” This seemed “worldly” to them. But I did watch movies on TV. Classics like The Thin Man, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind were rich fare for the imagination.
Years later, a stay at the L’Abri study center in Switzerland fostered a view that was less “Christ against Culture” and was more “Let’s engage and analyze the culture and form our own Christian response.”
We are delighted to be coming to the end of a significant, three-year grant project serving the U. C. Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union student communities, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment and friends of New College Berkeley, and to be on the verge of a new three-year season of well-supported ministry directed toward students!
The grants have enabled us to offer group spiritual direction, led by excellent spiritual directors, to undergraduate and graduate students. As far as we know, this is a pioneering work of spiritual formation with university students. We’re grateful for the experience, wisdom, enthusiasm, and capacity for improvisation that our spiritual directors have brought to this ministry, and they are Jill Boyce, Katarina Stenstedt, Naisa Wong, and Daeseop Yi. I, too, have led a spiritual direction group with law students at the university, and doing so has been invigorating for us all!
“This is what we want to do, and sometimes we are able to do it – just to say to Thee, Father, here am I. My life as it is at the depth I give to Thee. And I want Thee to hold it so that it is no longer my life to do with in accordance with my whims, my impulses, my desires, or even my needs, but to take my life and to hold it until it takes on Thy character, Thy mind, Thy purposes. If Thou wilt do this and if Thou wilt help me to do this, then I can be in myself what is truest and surest in me. And this, O God, is all, all, all.”
-Howard Thurman, an excerpt from “The Sustainer of Life” in The Centering Moment, 111.
After a recent session with my spiritual director, I decided to take the long way home, to have time to think and unwind, so I explored some Sonoma County roads I hadn’t gone down before. I took a road that wound past dairy farms with Holsteins grazing on lush green grass, and past apple orchards in their full-blooming glory. Then I took a more familiar road, the one that climbs up out of Occidental, towards the ocean. I know this road, so it evoked memories of many trips over the past decades. In fact, just when I was thinking that this road feels like an old friend, I came upon a huge yellow caution sign:
At one point during the 40th anniversary celebration of New College Berkeley last fall, those attending were invited to call out Bible passages in which the number forty is significant, one of them being the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. I recently read in the Lenten devotional God for Us, that the forty days of Lent echo this time period. A process of self-examination and repentance, familiar to us in the season of Lent, is evident in the three prayers Jane Austen (1775-1817) composed for her family’s devotions.
In the mid-Seventies when my husband Steve and I came to Berkeley, the one word of advice we received from all of our Christian friends was, “Go to Earl Palmer’s church!” and some added, “The church that looks like a Pizza Hut.”
Steve and I were not Presbyterians then, but have been so ever since. Earl’s preaching shaped us and our sons. Forty years ago when we moved to Berkeley, Earl was captivated by the vision a young scholar of ethics, David Gill, had for a school where Christians could take graduate-level classes about Christian faith. Earl brought the Reformed tradition’s commitment to the “priesthood of all believers” and much encouragement to David’s shaping of New College Berkeley. In the 40 years since New College’s founding (including the 25 years since Earl left the Berkeley pulpit), he has taught for us every year, on subjects ranging from biblical books, such as Romans, Revelation, John, Acts, James, and this year on the Psalms; on New Testament themes of love and encouragement; and on great people of the faith, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis. We have soaked it in and will continue to do so! On Saturday April 7th, Earl will offer a seminar on The Gospel of John!
As a writer of fiction, I battle two maladies on a daily basis: (1) imagination fatigue and (2) “selfish ambition and vain conceit,” as Saint Paul put it so well in his letter to the Philippians. Gratefully, my yearlong immersion in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius offered remedies.
Now and then my husband and I find ourselves wanting to revisit films that linger in memory to refresh if not entirely recreate the inspiration or pleasure they once offered. One on my list as 2018 begins is the 2000 film Pay it Forward. In that story, as many will recall, a disheartened teacher challenges his students to devise and carry out a creative philanthropic project. A twelve-year-old boy takes on the assignment with elfin imagination: Upending the common wisdom of “paying back” what you owe, he sets out to discover what might happen if, instead, one were to pay it forward to someone else. So if someone does you a favor, you might do a similar favor for a third party, moving the original kindness along into widening circles of influence.
Advent greetings! Usually we send a Thanksgiving card to you, but we’ve been sending out notes of Thanksgiving for months now as we’ve celebrated New College Berkeley’s 40th anniversary. We continue to celebrate and to be thankful.
Some Christian traditions—like the Eastern Orthodox and the Celtic—observe a 40 day season of Advent which encompasses our time of Thanksgiving in the US. It’s a penitential season, like the 40 days of Lent before Easter, in which the faithful fast and pray while cleansing their hearts for the feast day of Christmas.