This commencement address was delivered by Gettysburg Seminary President Michael Cooper-White to the graduating class in the seminary Church of the Abiding Presence on May 16, 2014.
Today you join the ranks of those who have gone out from this institution for nearly two centuries. We who will stay behind on this hill have great admiration for you and your peers around the world who embrace the call to public ministry here in the second decade of the 21st century.
Now that the coursework is all completed, the grades turned in to generate a transcript that will live on in the archives of this seminary for all time; now that your names are inscribed in those red binders signed by the board chair, registrar, me and for the last time by the one who has served as Dean of the Seminary these past dozen years; now you are drawn, pulled into the future by an invisible cord tugged upon by the unseen hand of the eternal One. It tugs upon your hearts; some of you know where you will land, others still await your first destination in more public ministry than you have exercised thus far.
You’re not only a called and committed collective of will-be servants, but you’re smart, wise to the ways of the world. I think that none of you is unaware that you embrace this calling in a very challenging era. Interest in and commitment to organized religion has not been so low in generations. The “nones”—those who say they identify with no particular church or religion are legion and growing more numerous Sunday by Sunday. Our nation and most others are more polarized, divided, and drifting uncertainly than those of us in the crowd with gray hair can remember. This fragmentation, this hair-trigger propensity to be argumentative, contentious and conflicted is no longer confined to Washington D.C. or state capitols. More than any time in my four decades of ministry, I am utterly confident that church conflict is a growth industry! Talk to a bishop or two for more than a few minutes and you’ll soon hear the conclusion that a great deal of energy seems directed into creating polar vortexes of conflict in congregations. Legion are urban areas like nearby Harrisburg where a dozen Lutheran congregations that not long ago graced the cityscape have shrunk to less than a handful. No different is the landscape in hundreds of rural communities and congregations where a faithful remnant hang on in survival mode, hoping enough dollars remain in the coffers to keep the doors open until their funerals are conducted.
While there are signs of economic improvement for some, more of our fellow citizens live in precarious situations than has been the case in close to a century. Quite a few of you leave this place more dollars in debt than I earned in the first half-dozen years of my ministry combined.
Now if you think me a dour pessimist throwing a wet blanket on the warm glow that should emanate in all directions during a commencement ceremony, hang in there. I assure you I am neither pessimistic nor discouraged. In fact, as I face this class of soon-to-be seminary alumni/ae I have never been more encouraged and hopeful about the future of the church and the possibilities for the entire public! You are more than prepared and educated; you are formed and courageous! As John Fitzgerald Kennedy, now gone from us a half-century, said upon his inauguration amidst the humongous challenges we faced as a nation in 1960, so you say at the prospect of ministry in these tough times: “I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it!”
Here at the conclusion of your seminary sojourn, we can reveal the secret that pulses at the heart of the faculty’s pedagogy: above all other things we hope we have taught you, beyond all the other habits of the heart we have attempted to cultivate within you in this seminary/seedbed, we have striven to offer perspective. Theological perspective: we have sought to challenge you to take a step backward and upward from your own gut feelings and biased conclusions: to try to see things from God’s perspective. How audacious indeed! And yet, if you cannot do that from this day forward you should have the integrity when the class stands to come forward for these red folders to instead slink out the side door and head for some other calling. That striving for a godly perspective is the heart and soul of your calling. As our about-to-depart-for-another-call dean has counseled more than a few of you when you became a bit too incurvatus in se, “it’s not about you!” It’s not about me. It’s about God and God’s deep desire that every creature, especially every human being, be given the space and freedom to flourish and live an abundant life. These degrees which I shall shortly confer upon you are theological degrees. They call you daily for as long as your days upon this earth will run to strive to see the world through God’s eyes. Period.
The theological perspective is informed and infused by the biblical perspective to be sure. Here we have sought to hand you and hone some tools whereby the scriptures serve as a foundation for proclaiming and living God’s good news. And the best, most profound and far-reaching theology is not worth the words that couch it absent a deeply pastoral perspective. Here on this hill we have long been recognized and regarded for our profoundly pastoral approach to offering people the holy mysteries.
This pastoral perspective should not be reduced to what I have found to be among the greatest threats to communal life in the gospel: Christian niceness. The Christian niceness culture is deadly in its refusal to confront and counter all manner of mischief perpetrated in the name of pious religiosity. Rather, the pastoral perspective often involves what one of our former faculty members, reformation historian Eric Gritsch, called the gospel’s tough love. Putting it another way, Martin Luther in his famous Heidelberg Disputation spoke of the desperate need for gospel truth-telling: The theologian of glory, said Luther, calls the good bad and the bad good. The theologian of the cross calls a thing what it really is. In these tough times where so much truth is shrouded in obtuse bureaucratese, we need the honest pastoral practitioners who say it simply: “Here in this place we will respect all persons; here there will be no name-calling; no abusive bullying; no tolerance for put-downs or false propping up of unhealthy attitudes and actions.” I rejoice that the church in which I serve now in the latter chapters of my ministry is a safer place than it was when I began four decades ago. But it’s not safe enough. And I have every confidence that under the stewardship of your careful pastoring and deaconing it will become safer and more sheltering of the most vulnerable in the years and decades of your service.
Your theological perspective—grounded in the scriptures, lifted God-ward through your studies and performance in the pastoral arts, has also been sharpened through your historical studies. And it is with a few glimpses backward that I will conclude this hopefully forward-charging reflection upon the occasion of your commencing the next chapters of your lives and ministries.
Joyful Ministry in Challenging Times. To be sure that’s an accurate summation of what lies ahead of you as you pass through those doors in a few moments and as you emerge on the other side of the faculty tunnel that we will form to offer one final round of gentle pats on the back and cheers from this cheerleading squad that will have your backs forever. Forever. I do not say that lightly or blithely. Forever these who have been your teachers will be spinning in your heads and beating inside your hearts. Ah, as if it were yesterday in the classrooms in Valentine Hall, I see Herman Stuempfle’s gentle smile; hear the sweet, sweet voice of Jacob Heikkinen suddenly breaking into a hymn amidst an obtuse lecture on an obscure N.T. passage. Seldom goes by a day that some quip from Gritsch or sarcastic pithy saying from Jenson is not there in the background as I encounter some pastoral challenge or grapple with difficult decisions that I know will affect people’s lives.
Joyful ministry in challenging times. 2014. Twenty fourteen.
But to set it in the larger context of the grand sweep of history, here’s how it was in 1864, 150 years ago. That summer the Seminary’s board of directors met in its annual gathering. The minutes record that the meeting, which normally included an examination of all students before the entire board, may have been briefer than usual: “By reason of another threatened rebel invasion, the students had nearly all left the institution, and the usual examinations did consequently not take place.” How do you think it was for the class of 1864 to begin their ministries under such conditions? Don’t you think there was a fair amount of conflict in congregations, especially in these border areas where the status of slavery was so hotly debated? Wouldn’t you have loved to be a mouse in the corner at a synod assembly in 1864?
Here’s how it was for your predecessors 100 years ago; 1914. Does that year ring a bell from high school or college studies of history? The year in which the Great War to end all wars broke out; before it would end some 15 million human beings had been slaughtered. Soon there would be widespread scarcity in order to channel resources into war to contain European imperialism. 1914. The year in which my grandmother was pregnant with my father, who’s still with us heading for 100. Any day I start to throw myself a pity party I head down to Hagerstown for a chat with Bennie. Orphaned an on his own before he became a teenager, he lived through the great depression, the dustbowls of the 30’s, another world war in the 1940’s, frequent years when come July hail or wind cut down his beautiful crops, when fire burned down his barn, when a daughter died too young and just weeks ago when death claimed my mother, his beloved wife of 75 years. And in his more lucid moments there’s gratitude. It’s been a long good journey. Take a step back; a step up. Perspective.
Doing ministry in challenging times!
1964, fifty years ago. Our nation was still recovering from brutal grotesque assassination of its dashing young glamorous president. None of us who were of an age to remember that day in Dallas have ever fully recovered. Our patriotic fervor fueled by fears that our president had been felled by a sinister conspiracy cheered on President Lyndon Johnson as he rushed through Congress the Tonkin Bay resolution, giving unfettered authority to bomb much of S.E. Asia back to the stone age. If you have not already in your places of internship or other prior service, you will not preach or pastor for long without encountering some of those who still bear the scars of Vietnam, or Iraq or Afghanistan on their bodies and in their souls. The lead story in the first 1964 fall edition of the Gettysburg Seminary student newsletter, Table Talk, was entitled “The Pastor and Race Relations.” It noted the LCA’s adoption that summer of a social statement on race relations, which boldly declared that God loves all people equally. The student writer shared that he had asked for congregational response in the place he was serving; the general sentiment seemed to be summed up by the first person who spoke: “It stinks!” How do you imagine it was beginning ministry in the summer and fall of 1964?
Doing ministry in challenging times!
Ministry in challenging times. It’s nothing new for the graduates of the Seminary that more than any other in the world bears within its DNA the genome of conflict, bloodshed, both the depths of human sin and the heights of heroic sacrifice.
So now, before you rise to receive those holy red recipe books that can guide you as you host tables in a thousand different places throughout the sweep of the next half-century, get very quiet for just a moment. Let yourselves sink into those benches upon which have sat the heroes and heroines who have been stewards of the mysteries serving millions of God’s beloved. Say a prayer of thanks with me. Thank you, God; thank you for those incredible seminarians who had the gumption to come back to this place strewn still with bloodied bodies in the fall of 1863. Thank you for the class of 1864. They needed no examination by the board; they had been examined and found worthy by the ghosts of the soldiers who died in their dormitory.
Think of them; the class of 1914: some about to become military chaplains who would accompany those scared young soldiers facing the German war machine.
Ponder those who marched forward and received their red folders 5 decades ago; some of them are still among us, those prophetic theologians of the 1960’s. Some would be driven from their parishes as they dared to suggest that MLK was right; that the call for civil rights was in accord with God’s theological vision for the beloved kingdom of God on earth. Some would be ridiculed as they joined their voices with the growing chorus who said perhaps we were on the wrong track in Vietnam. And in the years that followed, some of us would be branded heretics when we dared to consider the possibility that what the church had taught throughout its history about gender relations and homosexuality may not reflect the fullness of God’s loving way in creating human beings in God’s own image.
And as you ponder all those who have gone out from this place before you, as you ponder their challenges and their sacrifices, do not fail to overlook their joys. One after another after another, as we listen to their stories, tell of days and years and decades in which at the end of many a day there was an abiding feeling of deep satisfaction, having been about God’s work, living among an imperfect but beautiful community of God’s beloved baptized.
Joyful Ministry in challenging times. What a gift it’s been to thousands who have gone out from this place before you. Now it’s yours. What a privilege! What a grace! What a gift to the church and the world that just such a class as you should take up your theological degrees in and for just such a time as this! God go with you.
Keep the faith. Remember your Seminary. We will not forget you.