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Inspiring generous faith; engaging the heart of the university
The chaplaincy exists to inspire faith and articulate the life of the spirit in the midst of a university committed to educating the whole person, says Craig T. Kocher.
November 9, 2009 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached Oct. 3, 2009, in Cannon Memorial Chapel at the University of Richmond for the Rev. Craig T. Kocher’s installation as university chaplain.
Six weeks ago I struck up a conversation with a student on the forum in front of the chapel.
“Are you new here?” I asked.
“Yep,” said the student.
“I’m new here too,” I said.
“Are you a freshman,” she asked, innocently. “I was thinking you might be a junior or possibly a senior.”
“I’m the new university chaplain,” I said. “I only arrived on campus a couple of days ago, so I feel a bit like a first year.”
She studied me carefully, and after a long pause said, “A chaplain . . . What exactly does a chaplain do?”
It was a good question, and in my enthusiasm a whole host of responsibilities tumbled forth: “My job as a chaplain is to walk alongside individuals in moments of joy and sadness. My job as a chaplain is to cherish the history of the institution and its Baptist roots, while encouraging a variety of faiths to flourish. My job as a chaplain is to help students engage one another across lines of faith difference. My job as a chaplain is to be authentically who I am, and express the most generous parts of my Christian faith, so that others may be authentically who they are. And my job as a chaplain is to help the institution live up to its highest ideals,” I said breathlessly.
The student listened patiently. “Right. Can you put that into a sentence?”
I said, “That was one sentence. Didn’t you hear all the semi-colons?”
Her question was the kind of pointed insightful question UR students are good at asking: One sentence.
The answer to the student’s question is not easy. The chaplaincy is a cherished part of the university community, having been led so nobly by Dr. Burhans for 30 years and so graciously by Chaplain Kate more recently. As we move into the next phase of the chaplaincy’s life, I want to partner with others to build on the strengths of the past and expand our work into the future. In that spirit, I suggest the answer to the student’s insightful question digging at the core of the chaplaincy’s work is this: “Inspiring generous faith; engaging the heart of the university.”
I want to share with you why I’ve chosen these particular words for the role of the chaplaincy at this time in the institution’s history.
I use the word “inspiring” because too often religious leaders have coerced, pushed, prescribed and dictated what faith should be. My hope is that the chaplaincy will be a place that inspires through thoughtful gestures and tender friendships, that meets students where they are, walks beside them to where they are going, and helps guide them on a journey of reflection and discovery.
I use the word “generous” because too often people of faith are not generous, but are rather judgmental, mean-spirited and moralistic instead of kind, compassionate and inviting. My hope is that the chaplaincy will be a place that models a generous faith, one that welcomes and includes, invites and shares, and seeks the experience and wisdom present in all spheres of our common life.
And I use the word “faith” because the role of the chaplaincy is not merely to affirm common goodwill, or uphold socially acceptable values, or lend its voice to ethical reflection -- though all may be a part of the role. The chaplaincy is here to inspire faith, to articulate the life of the spirit in the midst of a university committed to educating the whole person, body, mind and soul.
I use the word faith because faith is an inclusive term. It is inclusive of traditional forms of religious expression, and on a college campus in the 21st century that looks more and more like the whole wide world, faith is a word that those who express the life of the spirit in non-traditional ways may connect with. I use the word faith because as a Christian pastor who stands in the mainline Protestant tradition, I want to encourage a flourishing of faith traditions on campus that reflect the complex religious ecology of our ever-shrinking world and help facilitate conversations of mutual insight across lines of difference. In the historic Virginia Baptist tradition so significant to this place, my desire is that the chaplaincy will continue to cultivate the ideals of religious freedom and the free inquiry of conscience and expression.
In the passage from Matthew’s gospel Zach read for us this evening, Jesus says we should love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and we shall love our neighbors as ourselves. It is a sentiment at the center of the Christian tradition, and one which my friends from other traditions may also recognize. One might expect a chaplaincy to be concerned about matters of the soul and the heart, but Jesus adds two other significant words. First, he adds the word “mind.” The chaplaincy is here to thoughtfully and rigorously engage the life of the mind, to affirm the academic mission of the university, and help students integrate their sacred stories with their academic pursuits, to help them reflect carefully on their own experience and that of others, and to see the life of faith as not only a process of the heart, but one that inspires and informs the mind.