Monday, April 24, 2006

Remembering a Truth Teller

Most of my role models in the Christian faith are people I know well and have for a long time. My grandparents are examples, as are other family members, former ministers and teachers. Their impact on me was gradual, resulting from numerous conversations and experiences and encounters.

I have a few role models in the faith, however, whose impact on me resulted from their witness and only a few personal exposures. One of them was William Sloane Coffin.

Coffin was long-time university chaplain at Yale and then senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City for ten years. He was witty, personable, articulate. Coffin is half the inspiration for the “Rev. Sloan” character in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic – a result of Coffin’s ministry and witness when Trudeau was a Yale student.

More than once I quoted Coffin in this newsletter and from Clintonville’s pulpit. He was a courageous, charismatic and consistent defender of justice and peace who preached an expansive, attractive, compassionate Christianity. His strong message of God’s love reflected the message and priorities of Jesus in the New Testament.

My first conversation with Bill Coffin occurred when I was a student at Lexington Seminary. One of my jobs during seminary was student assistant to the dean and one of my major responsibilities in that job was to coordinate the weekly convocation schedule, which included confirming details with all our speakers, most of whom were out of town.

It was the fall of 1995, not long before Janice and I were to go to Switzerland to study and work. I was rushing to confirm details with speakers for the whole next year in just a few days. One of those speakers was Coffin. I called the number on the contact sheet and the person on the other end answered with a simple “hello.” This surprised me for two reasons: first, the usual response is something such as, “This is William Coffin’s office;” second, the answerer sounded older than most assistants. I hesitantly asked to speak to Rev. Coffin’s assistant. The person said, “Well, she left a long time ago, but you are speaking to Rev. Coffin right now. Should I find someone else?” Then he laughed.

We covered the usual details and then, without pausing, Coffin said, “So tell me about you.” I told him we were on our way to The Ecumenical Institute. He said, “Good. That’s an important place. And since I won’t see you at Lexington, tell me now: once you graduate, what are going to do to make a difference in the world?”

My second conversation with Coffin was not until May of 2004 when I helped organize a national conference of religious leaders in Cleveland, Ohio. We wanted Coffin to speak to the group, but his health was such that his doctors (and wife) would not let him attend. So, in Coffin’s typical spirit of pushing the boundaries, he agreed to join us live by telephone, which we then broadcast over the speaker system for everyone to hear. In the conversation before we went on the air, I thanked Bill for joining us and asked how he was feeling. He said, “Clearly the trick is to die young as late as possible.”

Wednesday of Holy Week, April 12, Bill Coffin died from congestive heart failure.

His heart may have failed physically, but his heart did not fail to speak his faith. It did not fail to put his faith into action. It did not fail to tell the truth. For that, we are blessed.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Getting to Easter

The birds clear their voices; there’s light in the sky when I waddle out to pick up the morning newspaper; there’s even warmth in the morning breeze. Perhaps spring is truly here. With thoughts of spring come thoughts of Easter, the great celebration of God raising Jesus Christ from the dead.

For us Christians, there is one major matter that stands between now and Easter Sunday: the cross. You might prefer to bypass the cross and get to Easter. I understand. The cross, after all, confounds and upsets us. An innocent person is put to death. A man of peace is murdered by capital punishment. The betrayal, the desertion, the inability of the disciples to stay awake and pray, the violence – it is difficult, heavy, disturbing stuff.

The reality, of course, is that we cannot avoid the cross and get to Easter. We cannot avoid the agony and anguish, the denial and dissent. It is part of the same package. It is necessary to know the loss in order to celebrate the life.

This Thursday we will gather for supper at 6:30 and a service at 7:30 to remember the events immediately preceding the crucifixion of Christ. We will focus on the Lord ’s Table, recalling the institution of Lord’s supper and partaking together of the bread and wine. We will extinguish candles signifying the approach, and then the reality, of death. And, finally, we will hear powerful words of hope for new life.

In a sense, our Maundy Thursday service does not end. It carries into the weekend and then climaxes on Sunday with the resurrection. While the story does not end Thursday, Maundy Thursday is an important, even critical, beginning. I hope you will be here for it.


Friday, April 14, 2006

Humanities Education

Finally, a consortium of humanities organizations has launched a long-term effort, the Humanities Indicators, to study the state and future of the humanities. The study plans to answer questions such as who is getting humanities-related degrees, in which disciplines, what do they do with those degrees, and how much financial support there is for the humanities at the federal, state, local, and institutional levels.

Hopefully the anecdotal woes about the plight of the humanities will yield to empirical data. The data may support the woes, but at least it'll be data!

Nathan Wilson

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Higher Education bill and religious colleges

from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Provision in House Version of Higher Education Act Could Give Special Deference to Religious Colleges

By Thomas Bartlett

A provision in the bill to renew the Higher Education Act passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives could force accreditors to give special deference to religious colleges.

The provision says accrediting bodies must take into account a college's religious mission when evaluating the institution.

The change is being supported by a coalition of religious colleges, including Baylor University, Brigham Young University, and the University of Notre Dame. They say the provision is needed in case accreditors attempt to discriminate against them based on their religious mission, according to Gene Schaerr, a lawyer for the colleges. "Different religious colleges have had enough mild friction with accrediting agencies to think there should be a prophylactic rule on this issue," Mr. Schaerr said.

Notre Dame decided to support the legislation after some "back-and-forth" with an accrediting agency, according to Dennis Brown, a spokesman for the university. He declined to be more specific.

James Odom, director of governmental relations at Baylor University, declined to say whether Baylor's support for the bill was prompted by an experience with an accreditor. "We want to ensure that college and universities with religious missions continue to enjoy the freedom to pursue those missions," Mr. Odom said.

But accreditors have long taken religious mission into account, according to Ralph A. Wolff, executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities. The Senate has yet to pass its version of the bill but, depending on the final language, Mr. Wolff is concerned about what it might mean to accreditors. "It could be neutral, or it could be designed to limit our role in evaluating academic performance and institutional operation," Mr. Wolff said.

The intention, according to Mr. Schaerr, is not to handcuff accreditors. "It's not a trump card," but it says you have to give the college's religious mission serious consideration, he said. "You have to let a religious university do what it wants unless you have a compelling reason on the other side."

But even if that's the intention, it might be applied more broadly -- depending on the exact wording and its interpretation, according to Mr. Wolff. "No one can say what its ultimate impact could be," he said. "It's very possible that it could not significantly change anything we do. It's also possible that it could be highly problematic."

© 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education