From the Gettysburg P.O.
Gettysburg Seminary Commencement Address
Michael L. Cooper-White, 12th President
May 11, 2012
Widely known teacher and author Parker Palmer recently published a new book entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Toward the end of this very important book, Palmer writes:
I cannot imagine a spiritual pain deeper than dying with the thought that during my sojourn on earth, I had rarely, if ever, shown up as my true self. (Jossey-Bass 2011, p.189)
On this great day, for which so many here have waited for so long, for which you the class of 2012 especially have been yearning, it is important for you to be reminded who you are—the nature of your true selves as persons, and your collective spirit as a class. In the course of my reminding, I will mention a few of you by name, which in no way means that the many who go unnamed are of any less importance.
As I do each year, I sought the counsel of these faculty colleagues who have come to know you so well over the course of the one, two, three or more years that you have been hanging around this campus.
The first attribute the faculty noted you have demonstrated is resilience. Unlike this recent unusually mild one, winters here on the hill in your sojourn have been memorable. In 2010, I remember meeting Caitlin Glass in front of Valentine Hall, snow shovel in hand, ready to do what you could as we were digging out from a big one. When we were beset with a snowstorm for your internship matching, you were magnificent in remaining non-anxious. In the course of your years with us, you took many things in stride, from personal and family illnesses and crises to major events on the national and world stage. When things got bad, for the most part, you did not panic, but prayed instead. You weren’t afraid to get your hands dirty, or your whole selves if the situation required!
More than many who have gone before you, and probably will come after you, you recognize the profound gift to be found in collegiality. Here I quote from the faculty minutes capturing their reflection upon you: “They were highly supportive of each other; they talk to each other.” Imagine that! Some of you decided to sing with each other, too, with this group the Seminary administration calls Seminary Singers. So many who serve in public ministry have faltered and failed and finally bailed out in ministry over the years due to a deep and profound loneliness. While, to be sure, a great deal of support will come from those among whom you serve—the members of your parish or others served in your ministry—there are some things that only those who share what the Church has long described as the “office of ministry” can understand and appreciate.
Coupled with collegiality is a measure of courage that some of us have been privileged to witness first hand. For about eight days, as we traveled together in Nicaragua and Honduras during January of 2010, time and again I witnessed Cassandra, Jason, Tormod, Jake and Ryan willing to go way outside your normal comfort zones in order to connect with our Christian sisters and brothers, many of whom live in conditions the United Nations defines as “abject poverty.” You gave it your all to express yourselves in a strange and foreign language. In the papers that you M.Div. students have shared with me in our Integrative Seminar journey together, over and over again I marveled at your courage to take on some challenging situations; for a couple of you those came close to being life-threatening circumstances. You demonstrated your ability to maintain a rhythm discussed by those enrolled in IS-3, engaging ministry “on the ground” and finding opportunities to “go to the balcony.”
Among your most delightful class attributes noted by the faculty was your sense of humor. You could laugh at things that happened to you, even the sometimes bizarre and inexplicable. Even more important, you can laugh at yourselves. Nothing will more quickly cause an initially green and vibrant ministry to wither and even die than taking everything so deadly seriously. Some days, things get so crazy that at the end of the day, it’s just absolutely crucial to be able to slough it off and say, “Well, I’ll never understand it all, so tonight I’ll let it go and be ready to embrace a new day in the morning.”
Well, as you might imagine, given the opportunity to talk about anything, our faculty will come up with many perspectives and opinions. They had a lot more to say about you all, in phrases like:
o Youthful but mature: half of you were in your early 20’s, and several of you came to seminary following your involvement in a movement of discernment we have called Project Connect.
o Optimistic, you are forward-looking and embrace the future.
o Running through some of you was a romantic streak that resulted in three marriages.
o Fun to teach: many of you actually used the library—imagine that!
o Adventuresome: You fully engaged in and seized the rich learnings offered in study trips to Geneva, Turkey, Israel, Central America, Atlanta, Appalachia and elsewhere.
More than many students throughout our nearly two centuries of history as a school, you embraced a deep sense of stewardship for this place. Your eco-theological commitments offered the Seminary practical assistance in assessing our carbon footprint and retooling to save a half-million gallons of water per year. In that same spirit of caring for this place, and seeking to further enhance its hospitality, you have committed this generous class gift to upgrade student housing. When your gift was announced two weeks ago to the Seminary’s Board of Directors, an official motion of appreciation was adopted, and I was asked to convey that resolution to you on this occasion.
So all these attributes—resilience, collegiality, courage, a sense of humor, forward-looking generous stewardship, and all the rest—are indeed elements that stand at the core of your individual and collective beings. But those same attributes could be ascribed to many others who have not chosen to commit their lives to public ministry. Above all these other fine and desirable attributes, when you show up as your true selves you are quite simply pilgrims ever in search of a loving, generous and gracious God.
Notice I have chosen my words carefully: Pilgrims in fervent search. Not cool, detached professionals already fully equipped with all knowledge, skill and competence. That does not mean you are wishy/washy or ungrounded in your faith. You are rock solid in your basic grasp of the great themes of Scripture, key churchly doctrines and theology. You do have a good measure already of professional competence to be leaders in communities of faith—and you’ll indeed be ready for ministry “on day one.” Your very competence is what led the faculty to take the unprecedented action reflected in the Commencement program, declaring the entire class of 2012 as worthy of honors in the practice of ministry.
And yet, and yet, there is a special quality about you individually and as a collective body, which reflects that grand Gettysburg tradition often expressed as “openness to the world.” While solid at your core, you remain open to new experiences, insights, even revelation by the God who wasn’t just speaking of one episode or occasion centuries ago: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” This adventurous spirit of engagement, with which you are unusually endowed, will serve the rapidly changing Church of the 21st century so very, very well.
This spirit of openness to the world means that you will embrace its wounds as well as its wonders. It means that you can do what Parker Palmer in this new book says must be done. You can bring healing—in congregations and communities—where so many are, in his words, beset by “the politics of the brokenhearted.” So many hearts are aching in our time; so many people are fearful and anxious and angry. More than ever, more than ever, you can have an ENORMOUS, long-lasting and far-reaching impact by simply exuding quiet confidence in the promises of God.
When your true selves show up, there will be a kind of beehive populated by a host of healers who understand in profound ways that God is the Great Encourager. In exercising what St. Paul calls the ministry of encouragement, you can remind the discouraged that in God’s eyes they are good despite all the messages they hear telling them they are bad or at best mediocre.
At the end of every day, when you have been in the pulpit or in your office, before or behind the altar, or out making calls, in meetings, at your computer or on your cellphone, you might pose for yourself a few simple questions:
• Whose cheerleader have I been today? So many lives get turned around just because they have one or two cheerleaders shouting, “You can do it; I believe in you.” You understand this; when I asked you for the names of those who had been your encouragers, your cheerleaders on this seminary playing field, you readily submitted names, so I could send them a note of thanks on behalf of the Seminary. Quoted in this week’s TIME magazine, actress Glenn Close lamented recently: “There are so many people out there who fall through the cracks, so many . . . who are hiding in order to survive.” She echoes Parker Palmer’s lament for all who yearn to show up as their true selves. Let’s be their cheerleaders! We can do it together. What do you say?
• Have I this day made the Church and the world, or at least my local community, a bit safer place, a more humane and just and loving space? Have I stood up squarely to some bully today and said, “Enough. Leave her, leave him alone!”? If you find yourself the one being bullied, then the question turns in a slightly different direction: “Where can I find allies and supporters who can help sustain me in my ministry so that I do not let the bullies drive me out?” Some recently released sobering research conducted by two major universities reveals that 28% of ministers indicate that at least one time in their ministries they been forced to leave their calls due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction within their congregations. Another attribute you have demonstrated in good measure is a realistic grasp of these dialectic theological realities; law and gospel, sin and grace, a theology of the cross, and the promise of resurrection. They will serve you well, especially in the face of bullies or unbalanced budgets, of crises and heartbreaks, and yes, amidst great joys and celebrations too.
• Amidst the busyness of my day, have I taken time to pray, to scramble to a place where, quoting colleague Pr. Ginny Price as she spoke to our Board of Directors a couple of weeks ago, “God is messing with our plans?” The God who messes with our plans, who gets in our faces, is ultimately the God who blesses. Writing of the importance of keeping a prayerful posture, the one who was president in this place and handed me my diploma on my graduation day many, many years ago, Donald Heiges, stated: “Unless one daily kneels, alone and with one’s fellow [saints], in the Presence of God, there to receive forgiveness, guidance, and power, sooner or later the divine call will grow faint, the inner wells of the spirit will go dry, and there will be only a dusty land where the path of commitment has faded away.” (Gettysburg Seminary Catalog, 1973-74, p.5.)
From this day forward, bearing those big red diplomas and all they represent, going forth from this crossroads to thousands of others over decades to come, I have every confidence that when your true selves show up, the very presence of the Holy will be there on the scene! And the Church, and the world will be blessed beyond measure. Thanks be to God!