Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Peter Gomes, R.I.P.

The tragic news of the death of the The Rev. Dr. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister at Harvard Memorial Church came this morning. If there's anyone who has not heard him preach or teach, have a listen here and here. Here are some of his publications: Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily LivingThe Good Life : Truths That Last in Times of NeedThe Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.

He came to Harvard as a student in 1965 and admits he was not a great but a happy student. He was ordained a baptist minister in 1968. As a student he listened to faculty at the Divinity School speaking about their spiritual lives. From 1968 he taught at Tuskegee in Alabama as instructor in history to teach "everything from Adam to the atom." 

He came to Memorial Church as assistant minister in 1970 and became acting minister in 1972 and in 1974 was named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church. He became the University's leading religious officer and spiritual advisor. He'd never set foot in the Memorial Church before his interview and imagined after it that he would be live fodder for atheists in Harvard Yard. 

A cultural conservative, Gomes made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to incidents of gay-bashing on campus. "I'm always seen as black and now I'm seen as a black gay man. If you throw in the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting--the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type--all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assume themselves that they have a grasp on reality" he said in 1996. 

He became a Democrat in 2006 and spoke at Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's inauguration. 

Dean William Graham of HDS says:
I can say with feeling what everyone at Harvard knows in some measure: he was unique and uniquely Harvard's, from the moment he arrived in 1965 to earn his bachelor of sacred theology from Harvard Divinity School. A more vibrant colleague none of us in the Divinity School or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences could ever imagine, nor a more faithful friend and steady presence. Peter's courageousness and characteristic humor made a real difference to our community, as did his thorough belief in one’s convictions.

On one occasion Peter Gomes was asked to preach at the commencement for an exclusive girl's school in New York City. He remembers,
"Many of the brightest and the best of the girls went on to elite colleges, and soon thereafter would make their way into the expanding stratosphere of the establishment once reserved for their brothers. They were able, aggressive, and entitled young women on the threshold of conquering the world, and I rejoiced in their achievement, was happy to celebrate with them, and wished them well."
For that occasion, Gomes based his sermon on the sixth chapter of Matthew where Jesus asks, "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Therefore, do not be anxious about your life." It seemed like an appropriate message for the audience, he remembers that all the graduates smiled upon him.
During the reception, however, one of the parents came up to Gomes with "fire in his eyes and ice in his voice." He told the preacher that, frankly, his sermon was full of nonsense. Peter said, "The message didn't originate with me; it came from Jesus." The parent looked at him and said, "It's still nonsense." As the man went on to explain,
"It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You are selling nonsense."
Gomes continued, in his book, to have the last word. He notes that the father is not only wrong, but is heading for disaster. At some point his vision of the “good life” will run into bankruptcy and he will have nowhere to anchor his self-esteem. Gomes suggests that if Wordsworth were still taught as it was to our grandparents we could say:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 

In 1998, he gave a farewell speech to undergraduates at Commencement:

‘You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren’t ready to go,” Mr. Gomes, gowned in cherry red, told more than 1,000 seniors in genteelly ringing tones that called to mind a cross between a Shakespearean actor and the sitcom character Frasier.
”The president is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women, and you know,” he paused and slowed, ”just — how — dumb — you — really — are.”
He paused again for the cheers of agreement.
”And worse than that, the world — and your parents in particular — are going to expect that you will now be among the brightest and best,” Mr. Gomes continued. ”But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time. By noontime today, you will be out of here. By tomorrow, you will be history. By Saturday, you will be toast. That’s a fact — no exceptions, no extensions.”
Having stated the problem, the minister moved quickly to alleviate it, promising students that their best years were yet to come, and that God would be with them.
”The future is God’s gift to you,” Mr. Gomes said. ”God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you here alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical.”
He added, ”Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid.”
Mr. Gomes concluded with a benediction: ”God grant you life until your work is done, and work until your life is over.”
And if anyone missed tea at Harvard with Peter Gomes, here's the next best thing (because there's no tea this coming Wednesday March 2nd at 5pm):

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