August 26, 2019
Deuteronomy 8: 15-18
15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
The theme of Monday Morning Prayer this year is Journeys of Faith: Wilderness, Hope, & Promise. And since we’re kicking off the new year and everyone is filled with such hope and promise, I thought this might be a time to focus on the wilderness times in our journeys of faith.
I wish I could promise you that you won’t find yourself in the wilderness—feeling lost, alone, forsaken—uncertain of the way forward. But I can’t. You will find yourself there—whether you believe you are walking on the path God has laid for you and gradually discover that you’ve lost your way, or like those folks in the Star Trek transporter room, you suddenly and unexpectedly materialize in a place that feels empty, barren, foreign . . .and your communicator craps out on you.
That Star Trek wilderness was what happened to me when I started college. I was the oldest child and the first in my family to go to college, so nothing about going away to school was familiar to me or my parents. I was also introverted, socially awkward and had pretty low self-esteem. My social life revolved around my family and my church, and I was more comfortable around adults than my peers.
I applied to one college—a faith-based college aligned with my family’s church—and went off to school anxious, but also hopeful that I could re-invent myself.
In those days, as an incoming freshman you got a letter in the summer from the housing office with your dormitory name, room number, and the name of your roommate. I don’t remember if we were given contact information, but I wouldn’t have been the type to reach out first and my roommate didn’t contact me.
I arrived at college on move-in day and got up to the room to discover that my roommate had already moved in and had everything set up, but he wasn’t around. So, I moved all of my belongings in and got unpacked, eventually said goodbye to my parents, and hung out in the room waiting for dinner and the beginning of freshman orientation activities. Then, my roommate arrived. He introduced himself—seemed nice enough—pulled out a joint, lit it, and offered me a hit. (The most illicit thing I had ever done in high school was taste a thimble-full of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine my senior year.)
He said he was a senior, didn’t know why he got assigned a freshman roommate because he was hoping for a single and, oh, by the way, he planned to have his girlfriend over that night, so if I could find another place to spend the night, he would appreciate it.
So . . . I spent the first night of college sitting in the window of the third floor stairwell of Brinser Hall debating which option was better. Jumping or packing up and moving back home.
Star Trek. Materializing in the wilderness, feeling helpless, no one to turn to, no one to talk with. On my own.
Looking back, I find it interesting that, in spite of all my involvement with church prior to college, when I found myself truly lost in the wilderness, I did not think to turn to God for help.
The next morning, my RA was on his way to the shower, saw me sitting in the stairwell and asked me what was up. I told him my sad story and, before the end of that day, he had me moved into a single room. That single act of grace kept me in college.
That second night, alone in my single room and feeling very homesick, I decided to walk from my dorm to the student center for something to do. I walked past an old, unmarked wooden building where a group of students were standing around the entrance way. One of them looked at me and shouted, hey freshman, come over here. (In those days, as freshmen we wore beanies and big signs with our names around our necks and we were required to do whatever an upperclassman asked us to do, so I walked over.) The student said that they were doing a play and that they needed men and asked would I audition?
Don’t ask me how or why, but shy, awkward, introverted me said yes. And the act of saying yes changed the course of my life. I was cast in a small walk-on part in that play, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, and from that day in September 1973 and for the next 22 years of my life, I would become a professional actor, director, designer, producer, and discover my vocation, as a professor of theatre.
Reflecting back over the years, I came to know that it was in that wilderness, that place where I felt so alone and abandoned and helpless, when I didn’t know what to do, that God came to me and showed me a pathway out of the wilderness.
On the journey, through my friends and classmates and professors and colleagues, I came to know Jesus and to understand how, into those dark places of emptiness, helplessness, and despair, God comes. Time and time again when I have found myself in the wilderness, when the way forward has been unclear or the next step seems impossible, God has come. God reminds me that I am a child of God, that there is nothing to fear, and God offers a way forward through that darkness and toward a future of hope and promise.
I have come to know the truth of today’s words from Deuteronomy: that it is God that has led me through the vast and dreadful wilderness. It is God that has fed me when I was starving and it is God that has quenched my thirst. And while there have been times in my life when I may have congratulated myself for something I achieved, it is God who gave me that ability. It is God who placed that RA in that dorm stairwell. It is God who called out, hey freshman, come here.
Come and see this plan I have for you. . . on your journeys of faith.
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: FINDING YOUR PLACE IN THE VALPO COMMUNITY
Today I’m going to begin by doing just the opposite of what I normally do when I begin remarks: I am requesting that all of our new students in the audience pull out your phones and turn them on — not off. That’s right. Pull them out. Open your camera. Now take a selfie.
If you don’t have your phone with you or it’s not charged, don’t worry. For the rest of you, don’t hit that delete button. I’ll be asking you to pull out your phones again later.
What a day. Welcome to Valpo. It is here, amongst fellow students, a caring and dedicated faculty, staff, and administration, that friendships will be forged … character tested … where you’ll cram for tests and learn how to cope with your new-found freedom … where you’ll be challenged to grow, pursue your dreams, and find your full potential.
And we start that journey today. Here, in our historic and famous Chapel of the Resurrection.
You may have read these words on our website — now your website: “The freedom to pursue truth wherever it leads is at the heart of Valpo’s sense of community, uniting its academic and spiritual missions.”
Freedom. The pursuit of truth. Uniting the academic and the spiritual. These are lofty words, but, then again, this is Valpo. Your community. A place where you will discover more than a career path, but rather a personal vocation, a calling that will put your unique gifts to work for the sake of the world. A place where, if you so choose, you will experience a community that loves learning and celebrates the joy of discovery.
Our total commitment to each of you is to help prepare you for lifelong learning and leadership … To offer opportunities for personal and professional development … To provide you with the depth of understanding to excel in your chosen major and to perceive connections between disciplines …. To prepare you to be engaged citizens and service-driven leaders.
The education you will receive here will prepare you to make a living, but more important, it will prepare you to make a life. That is our total commitment to you … and the opportunity before you … should you choose to accept it.
Because I will tell you today, none of this will come to you automatically. It will take total commitment from you. To achieve your full potential, you must take an active role in your learning and be accountable for your success. And to discover your gifts and discern your calling, Valpo provides extraordinary opportunities to put what you learn into practice in the workplace, in research settings, in other countries, and in our larger community. Here, too, you will be called to serve generously and to make this campus community and the world a better place.
Creating Community in a 24-7 Connected World
These days, perhaps more than ever, people find themselves held in the tension that exists between the individual and the community. Here are just a few questions worth considering: Who are you as an authentic individual? And how does that authentic individual relate to public persona? What constitutes community? What is your authentic place in community with other people and how do you go about building and sustaining authentic community?
In the 20th century, community was most often constructed from one’s literal place in the world: a town, a school, a neighborhood. But in the 21st century, our very notion of community has shifted. Today’s ever-expanding communication technologies — our phones, the Internet, social media channels — are forcing us to relate to far more people and far more communities across a growing number of platforms. And the opportunity for people to construct and maintain inauthentic avatars in social media spaces adds levels of complexity and deception that strain traditionally held concepts of self and community to the breaking point.
Journalist and author Bill Bishop said this to The Atlantic: “It used to be that people were born as part of a community and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community.”
Most of you — as part what some have termed Gen Z – have never known a world without social media, text messaging, and Internet search engines. Gen Z. I often wonder where these labels come from. The very name Generation Z came from an online contest sponsored by USA Today. Some of the other names proposed were iGeneration, Gen Tech, Net Gen and Digital Natives … all acknowledging how you’re the first generation to be born into this connected 24/7 world.
Just think how your college experience will be different from your parents’ generation. Most of you met your roommate online. Those of you who study abroad will wonder how generations of college students survived before Skype and WhatsApp. And imagine researching a paper without Google! Your grandparents, and parents and I had to rely on card catalogs and these massive reference books called the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Ask them about it.
While previous generations may have made signs and marched on campus, today movements are born on the Internet. A short list of hashtags — #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #ALSIceBucketChallenge and #BringBackOurGirls — reminds us of the power of social media to bring together people from across the world and ignite significant societal attention and change. There is no precedent for the speed and scope of social media in the entire recorded history of human communication and civilization
But for all of its positive contributions, social media also has significant downsides. It provides a mouthpiece for ideas and facilitates fringe movements that a wide majority of people find repugnant or unacceptable in contemporary society. It remains agnostic in its relationship to constructs of morality, truth, and authenticity, thereby fostering disinformation and inauthentic or patently false social interactions and thereby contributing to ever widening societal mistrust.
Social media can also create illusions that everyone else but us is living their best lives and that we are missing out. Instagram is full of images of happy families and airbrushed, beautiful bodies. Fabulous vacations. Fabulously curated dorm rooms. Fabulous meals. Scrolling through all those images of fabulousness — and the “likes” they garner — can distort our sense of self-worth and significance. We can begin to value gratification and surface perfection over the deep satisfaction that comes with practice and mastery and commitment over extended time.
But here’s a truth: Technology is not intrinsically bad or good.
The Internet and social media have created expansive global communities that bring together diverse people who do positive things for the sake of local communities, our nation and the world. They also have created niche, homogenous, like-minded communities around common interests. They have also facilitated echo chambers … echo chambers of intolerance, hatred, and violence.
The wide difference in outcomes depends on the individuals involved.
In a world in which the very definition of community is being reshaped through technology, the tools that will serve us best are not built by code … but by character.
So, we must ask: How can each of you, as authentic individuals and people of character, find your place as part of the Valpo community, and how, in turn, can this community enable and inspire you to be your best you for the sake of the world? First…
Get Connected and Lead
We all want to be part of something bigger. We want to discover something truly exceptional and tap into the energy of a movement that moves a society forward. Valpo is a place for those who strive for a better world. Here it is possible to be part of something bigger without losing yourself in the crowd.
As students new to Valpo, I encourage you to make connections by getting deeply involved in campus life. Whether it is a fraternity or sorority, a pre-professional group, a faith-based organization, the arts, a team or club sport, multicultural programs, or volunteering in our greater community … find a place in which you can practice and hone your leadership skills, develop authentic, lifelong friends, and make a difference.
But remember, just as the number of “likes” online doesn’t translate into action, neither is the number of groups you join a measure of your impact. Rather than dancing on the surface of many activities, decide what part of the Valpo community you wish to take ownership of and go deep.
Strive to be a leader who serves generously. It was Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer who said: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know. The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Next…
Do Some Social Listening
Online, businesses participate in social listening to learn about what people are saying about their brand — the good, the bad and the ugly. Here at Valpo, we’re more about inclusive listening and mutual respect. We don’t let our differences divide us. People from every background, faith, and perspective make up the community. No one is left out.
Listening is not an easy thing to do. Most of us assume we understand what others are saying and we reach conclusions based on our point of view and implicit biases. But inclusive listening requires one to practice intellectual humility and actively engage in critical thinking: recognize and question assumptions, and recognize that not all assumed truths are indeed true.
“For wisdom begins in wonder.” Those are the words of Socrates, the Greek philosopher. Widely acclaimed as a wise man and brilliant teacher, Socrates claimed to know nothing. Yet he knew the power of asking the right questions. He sought to get to the foundations of his students’ views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed and tested their preconceptions. This type of teaching and learning became known as the “Socratic Method,” still used today in academic institutions across the world.
In the classroom, we will continually challenge you to weigh different viewpoints and to think critically, creatively and analytically. You will learn to delve into the whats, whys, and hows of the world. As a result, you will learn how to challenge your preconceived notions about “what is best” and be open and adaptable to the new and unexpected — skills that will serve you well in the unpredictability and ambiguity of our multicultural, global society. This all starts by engaging your curiosity and listening … really listening … with an open mind and heart.
Which will lead you to…
Building Your Brand in the Valpo Way
When searching for jobs, new graduates are often coached to build a personal brand online that differentiates them from the competition. To build a LinkedIn profile that emphasizes their areas of expertise … and write a résumé and social media profile description that include the main keywords that define their strengths.
All good advice.
But what if I asked you today to name main keywords that set you apart … not just in a professional capacity … but as a person? I hope your answer would include words like ethical, integrity, honesty, and generosity. You are unlikely to go wrong if that is the foundation of who you are and how you operate in the world.
At Valpo, we are a community of people called to this place to seek truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope. Here you will receive an education global in scope yet grounded in faith. I urge you to use your faith as a guide, to help you act with character and integrity, humility and generosity … even in tough situations.
At Valpo, we believe that the mind is an ally of faith, just as the heart and soul are allies of the mind. In fact, the Bible tell us no less than to ready our minds. From 1 Peter Chapter 3: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15b)
Martin Luther King Jr. understood this at a young age. As a student at Morehouse College, he wrote an essay on the purpose of education in the Maroon Tiger, the student newspaper. In the essay, he acknowledged that education should “teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” but he argued that “intelligence is not enough.” He wrote: “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
Integrity. Honesty. Compassion. Humility. Fairness. These are among the foundational character traits that we hope to nurture in this Valpo community and that we believe will guide you to lead a life of purpose, service and fulfillment—keys to being happy. The other keywords that you choose to define you … that’s up to you to discover here. Get creative. Challenge yourself while you’re at Valpo to emerge with a clearer understanding of who you are and your unique gifts and strengths.
That’s why my final bit of advice is to…
Those of you who use Instagram have probably all used editing tools and the pinch-to-zoom function to get a more engaging photo. In fact, even the great WWII photographer Robert Capa said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, get closer.” And that’s what I urge you to do here at Valpo: Get closer. Delve deeper. Go beyond.
When you find something that sparks your interest, pursue it. Work hard at it and become good it. You will lead a rich life not just by following your passion … but by working hard to excel at it.
This takes focus. Oprah Winfrey is said to start every meeting in the same way. She asks: “What is our intention for this meeting? What’s important? What matters?” Why? Because high performers understand that clarity and focus don’t just happen. You have to actively work for it. That’s how you get things done.
So, I urge you to dream. But don’t stop there. Do something about it. Get focused. Set goals. Take risks. Fail. Try again. Fail. Try again. Get closer. Do this, and I promise you, not only will you have a more rewarding experience at Valpo—our campus community will be richer for it.
Now grab your phone again.
Pull up that selfie you took earlier, and take a look. And I mean really take a look. Not at the superficial: your smile, your hair, your outfit. Go deeper.
Take a look at the potential in you that we all see. We — your parents and loved ones. Valpo faculty and staff. Your friends. Then think about how you will translate this potential into purpose, then purpose into reality.
When we are anchored in a true community that supports our ambitions, we can get closer, go deeper and fly higher. And today, you are joining a community that seeks to support all aspects of your growth — the intellectual, the spiritual and, yes, the social, too. Because Valpo offers the path-seeking, career-defining education that allows you to push your limits and become your best self. To prepare you to live your best life.
The satisfaction that comes with living to your full potential is immeasurable. It’s a quality of life Valpo graduates enjoy every day.
My hope for all of you is that on your graduation day, if you pull up the selfie that you took today, you’ll recognize how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown. You’ll see the leader you are and know the strength of your character. You will recognize potential realized … your best you.
Welcome to Valpo!
Graduates, this is a big day, isn’t it? One of the major milestones in your life. Right up there with being born, getting married, having a baby. Maybe landing your dream job. Yep. The final episode of the Game of Thrones. One of life’s really big days.
Seriously, I am so pleased that you and your family members chose to begin this important day here, in this place. The Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built to celebrate Christ’s victory over death and the grave. A place of worship and prayer. A place of peace and hope. A place that promises newness of life.
Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of each week at Valparaiso University. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force that we cannot fully know nor comprehend. And it is fitting that we should gather together to sing songs of faith and praise and thanksgiving, and to pray with and for one another.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism, a reminder of God’s Spirit poured out on all who believe, and a re-dedication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
These, of course, are some of the theological and symbolic reasons for why people gather here this morning. Maybe there are other reasons you are here. Perhaps it’s because you are grateful for God’s grace and having made it across the finish line with your GPA and sanity intact. Perhaps it’s because your parents or grandparents are here and you want to honor them and their faith experience. Perhaps it’s because Baccalaureate is a University tradition and you want to soak in one final Valpo experience before heading off to new adventures.
And, of course, you are here to celebrate what you have achieved. With cords and tassels and words like magna cum laude lauding your accomplishments. With Bible verses and inspiring words and images on your caps. With cell phones capturing the day and SnapChat sharing photos of smiling faces in graduation robes, many of them in front of the Victory Bell, or here with the Christus Rex, Christ the King, in the background. Victory. Success. Achievement. Fulfillment. Celebration. Happiness.
Days like today can take on greater significance when we reflect on those times when the obstacles were the greatest and when failure, rather than victory, was the outcome. So, in that spirit of the day, I have a few questions to pose for you this morning. As I pose each question, I’ll give you a little time to reflect before moving on to the next one.
- When did you experience a personal failure of epic proportions while you were at Valpo?
- At what points during your time at Valpo were you embarrassed by something you did or said?
- While at Valpo, when did you experience humiliation at the hands of others?
- When at Valpo were you rejected by someone or some group or made to feel unworthy?
- When at Valpo were you gripped by an almost paralyzing fear?
- When at Valpo were you so consumed by anger that you made a fool of yourself?
- When at Valpo did you let someone down, or some group of people, or perhaps even let yourself down?
Now, how did you respond in one of more of these situations? (BTW, there’s no right answer.) Did you do one or more the following in response?
- Text or call a parent or relative and ask them to resolve your situation or intervene in some way on your behalf?
- Apologize and ask for forgiveness?
- Confront the person and demand an apology?
- Seek revenge?
- Give someone the benefit of the doubt and continue to invest in the relationship?
- Avoid any future contact or interaction?
- Hunker down until you got your emotions under control, could think clearly, and gain some perspective?
- Look to scripture for wisdom and pray for guidance?
- Use the justice system to resolve the matter?
- Forgive and forget.
- Send an email of text to let someone know how you really felt.
- Seek professional help in order to manage your response?
- Confide in a trusted friend or mentor and seek advice?
- Pick yourself up and re-commit to the effort?
Given your response, what did you learn? What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about other people? And did your responses to these situations change over the time you have been at Valpo?
Failure, falling short, responding poorly to a situation may be a bitter experience, but that experience can be an essential part of learning and growing. We sit together in this chapel called Resurrection on the fourth Sunday after Easter, recognizing that there could be no Christus Rex, Christ the King victorious, without betrayal and rejection, pain and suffering, and a humiliating, naked, lonely, public death on a cross. We cannot have Easter without Good Friday.
In today’s Gospel lesson from John 13, Jesus and the disciples are gathered in the Upper Room to enjoy a meal on the evening before the Passover Festival. Jesus clothes himself with a towel and washes the disciples’ feet. They overcome their embarrassment and submit to his humble act of service and love. Jesus reminds the disciples of his new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35, New Revised Standard Version)
This call to love one another, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, is lifted up by Jesus several times in the Gospels: here, in the Upper Room on the night when he was to be betrayed; as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and when tested on his command of the Torah by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus lays this commandment, to love one another, as a cornerstone of the Christian faith.
So, when you think about that list of responses to one’s failures, humiliation, rejection, embarrassment, fears, and anger, let’s consider this one: surrender ourselves to unconditional love.
Surrendering to unconditional love when we fail and when others fail us requires two things: 1) faith and trust in Jesus Christ; and 2) perseverance. Why? Because responding with unconditional love runs contrary to our human nature, our tendency to need to gain control of the situation, seek refuge, beg for intervention, avoid conflict, or exact revenge. Surrendering to unconditional love runs contrary to how the world teaches us to respond to failures—that distinctively American narrative of self-determination, pulling oneself up by the boot straps, shooting your enemy in a “make my day” blaze of glory. Yet, Christ calls on us to surrender ourselves and to offer love as our response.
Perhaps your experience at Valpo has helped you to discover that Christ comes to you, is most clearly present with you, when you hit rock bottom. When others have rejected you, when you cannot see the way out of a situation, when you feel like you just can’t go on. Christ comes to you, brings a peace to you that is beyond human knowing, opens possibilities for you that you could not have imagined on your own, accompanies you on your journey out of darkness and back into light. Christ comes to you when you surrender yourself to unconditional love.
Offering unconditional love through times of trial and failure takes perseverance, that ability to endure through the trials and tribulations that come with living in this world. Perseverance—“to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.” (“Perseverance,” 2019)
The Bible offers insight into the importance of perseverance in our faith journey and through our failures.
- From James 1: 2-4. “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
- Paul writes in Romans 5:3–5: “3 . . . but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
- From Galatians 6:9: “9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”
Perseverance also appears as a vital spiritual attribute across world religions. In his article, “Perseverance: The Gateway to Holiness,” Rabbi Yisrael Rutman writes that “perseverance is the key to spiritual success.” When considering the Hebrew translation of the English word, “faith,” Rabbi Rutman focuses on the root Hebrew word “umanut,” which means craft. He writes that “in Jewish thought, belief in God is like a craft—a skill or set of techniques that are studied and perfected over time.” Faith isn’t something you are born with, “like a beautiful voice or a great fastball.” Rather, faith is “a process [that requires perseverance], and the end-product of that process, that craft, is one’s own more spiritual self.” (Rutman, 2002)
In Islam, the term sabr has the closest link to the English word perseverance. (Badawi, 2019; “Sabr,” 2019) There is no exact corollary, but sabr describes concepts such as “resolution, fortitude, self-discipline and control” as a means to “tie down one’s uncontrolled fears, weakness and human passion,” not only during times of “calamity or disaster,” but also when “fighting for justice or freedom” or to end “human tyranny.” (Badawi, 2019) “Sabr conveys a very active, dynamic and positive quality in Islam. It is the quality of surging forward, striving, and not slackening in [one’s] purpose to purify the soul.” (“What Sabr or Patience,” 2017)
The world’s three major monotheistic religions reflect on perseverance in times of trial and tribulation as something that is active, directed forward into one’s adversity, rather than simply suffering patiently and waiting until one’s trials have passed. From my vantage point, this is vitally important spiritual guidance when we, as Christians, surrender ourselves to unconditional love when confronting times of failure, rejection, fear, anger, and humiliation. This act of surrender is an active, intentional letting go of our self-made and societally constructed obstacles to allow Christ’s love to flow into us and through us to heal ourselves, to heal those who surround us, and to begin the process of recovery. It is this love that gives us newness of life and allows us to begin again.
Moving beyond religion, other lenses of human understanding offer additional insight into the characteristics of perseverance. Noted Penn psychologist and MacArthur fellow Angela Lee Duckworth has gained notoriety for her studies of high achievers and the degree to which long-term perseverance or conscientiousness—what she refers to as “grit” is one of the principle contributors to success. Duckworth’s studies have found that students who have grit—defined as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals”—are more likely to recognize that failure is not a permanent condition, but something that can be overcome by “following through on commitments and sticking with that desired future day in and day out.” (Duckworth, 2016)
Duckworth’s conclusions are informed by the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in what Dweck describes as a “growth mindset.” She contrasts growth mindset with fixed mindset. In a fixed mindset, one believes that concepts like talent, intelligence, and creativity are things one is born with and can’t be changed, whereas a person with a growth mindset believes these qualities can be nurtured and developed through practice and discipline. (Dweck, 2016) Dweck concludes that a growth mindset helps one to remain resilient and committed to a long-term goal when the going gets tough.
Neuroscientists have investigated the psycho-biological attributes of perseverance, finding higher levels of dopamine in the brains of those who persist under adversity and lower levels in the brains of those who give up. (Bergland, 2011) Dopamine is that neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward that travels between our central nervous system and individual nerve cells. (“Dopamine,” 2019) It may be that same internal reward system that makes us “feel good” when we eat and sleep and mate and exercise, also makes us “feel good” when we endure adversity and achieve a goal. (Bergland, 2011) Psychologists like Dweck believe that, with practice and experience, we can learn to associate perseverance and accomplishing a significant goal with feeling good in ways that can actually alter the chemistry of our nervous system. (Dweck, 2016, Pollack, 2019)
So, why aren’t we just talking this morning about how great you are? Why all this talk today about failure and perseverance and grit and growth mindset in the context of Christ’s new commandment and Christ’s call for the practice of unconditional love? Because I believe loving others in the future that lays ahead of you will require a kind of grit significantly greater than that of the generations before you. It will require a spiritual conviction, integrity, and strength of character unlike those who grace our television screens, movie theatres, and news feeds. And nights I lie awake worrying that we have not served you as well as we ought in getting you ready for that future. Certainly we have given you many of the skills and experiences your future employers will seek, as if that were the sole purpose of an education. Clearly, you have gained in knowledge, both broadly and in a set of disciplines and professions. Hopefully, we have nurtured in you a personal practice of honesty, humility, integrity, and that, in turn, has honed your character. Hopefully, we have encouraged and supported your faith journey. Hopefully, we have challenged you to be your best self, your most excellent self, even with your unique talents and imperfections.
And with all of these good and noble intentions and experiences, I worry about the morally corrosive and corrupt environment into which you must now go and whether we (those of us here at the University, your K-12 teachers, your church leaders, your families) have enabled you to fail enough times to test your resolve, to question your convictions, to determine your grit, to grow your capacity to love those who may wish to do you harm or those whom you might very comfortably hate.
Have the rewards come too quickly, too easily? Have we nurtured you to be risk averse or to perhaps to settle for nothing less than perfection? Have we, in our own behavior, been too accommodating, too protective, too certain about our conclusions, too quick with our pronouncements? Have we wrestled enough together with uncertainty and ambiguity? Have we focused too much on the highest grades, the most attractive and athletic bodies, the finest food or clothing? Have we failed to model Christ’s commandment in our own response to challenges and adversity—too quick to pass judgment or ascribe bad motives or place blame, too eager to seek revenge when we are wronged, too quick to avoid the hard, but necessary conversations that come from a place of mutual love and respect?
It is not for me to answer these questions. Each of you will answer these questions in time. What I can say is that many of us who have surrounded you in this place called Valparaiso University have tried our best to educate you, within our finite limits of knowledge and experience, yet with the abiding desire to see you succeed. And we have tried mightily to love you, even when you made it hard to do so. Even as we suffered our own failures, humiliation, fear, anger and suffering. For you see, we, like you, have sought to persevere.
Now it is time for you to go. You know it and so do we. You will leave here, in the words of the Prayer of Good Courage, “to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” (Lutheran, 1978)
And yet, graduates, it is the second half of this prayer that gives me the greatest hope and confidence in your power to persevere:
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. (Lutheran, 1978)
Let these words serve as my final wish and benediction for each of you as you leave this place we know as Valpo-rain-snow, Windiana.
Love one another.
John 4:20-24 New International Version (NIV)
20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
It is always a great honor and blessing for me to share a brief reflection with you on this first Monday morning Chapel of the new academic year. I’ve been asked to think with you about this place that we call Valparaiso University as a sacred space.
What about this word, “sacred?” What does it mean? I think about a place that is holy and dedicated to a divine purpose. That which is set apart from the cares and work of the world.
And, of course, I think about this Chapel, this inspiring, monumental space dedicated to Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave. A holy place. A place to gather and worship the divine. A place that transcends everyday reality and calls us closer to God.
I don’t know about you, but the very first time I set foot on this campus and walked into this space I knew two things: first, that I was in a sacred space; and second, that this was a place where I longed to be.
Think about the Chapel of the Resurrection and its place on the campus of Valparaiso University. It stands here as both a symbolic witness to the Christian character of this University, as well as its very heart and soul. If it is indeed both heart and soul, then this University campus, the people who come into this place and go out from it, the beliefs we hold and share, the teaching and learning with which we engage, the rituals we perform, the stories we share, the service we perform, the songs we sing, the money we raise, the insights and discoveries we make, the truth that we pursue, all these things in their own way, are a both a prayer to and worship of our Creator.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that a time is coming when those people who worship God will do so in Spirit and in truth, rather than in a specific place called a temple. Indeed, if all that we do in this University under the Cross is done to worship and glorify God through the pursuit of truth, then Valparaiso University and all who live, and learn, and work here have built and will continue to build throughout this campus a sacred place.
The vantage point of a university president has proven interesting and surprising. It is one of the few positions in a university where one can witness the full arc of its impact, from the prospective student and parents visiting campus for the first time; through reactions to campus convocation and the ritual of becoming a member of this special community; through the joys and sorrows of learning and maturing; through the bittersweet, exciting, joyous, anxious period of graduation; through the journeys of careers and marriages and children; through devotion to church and to family; through generosity and selfless service to others across a lifetime; through career achievements; through growing old; and through dying and the celebrations and remembrances of races run and lives well-lived.
One can see across decades and lifetimes how this University, at the nexus of Athens and Jerusalem, where gifts are revealed and callings are discovered. Where dreams are hatched and relationships forged. Where service and giving are generous and pervasive. Where all of these individual prayers and acts of worship accrue, embodied and enacted and reflected year after year, decade after decade. And the stories of all those who have passed from this world surround this place as a great cloud of witnesses, testifying to God’s work in this place.
This is sacred space. God is here! Let us worship and glorify him.
A Fear of Darkness
We have nine grandchildren, all under the age of six. And they are spread out across the country — Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, and just down the road in West Lafayette. One of our granddaughters, Madelyn, just turned three and she got to have a sleepover at Grammy and Pap Pap’s this summer. Without Mommy or Daddy. And she got to sleep in a big bed all by herself. It was a big deal.
We had practice drills, of course, so there wasn’t a catastrophe that weekend. Grammy started off with afternoon naps in the big bed and then an overnight with Mommy sleeping in a nearby bedroom. On that first test night, as Madelyn scrambled into the big bed and the lights were turned off, the inevitable happened. Madelyn realized that she was going to be in a strange room by herself in the dark.
Now I can’t imagine what fears may be lurking in the mind of a 3-year-old as she contemplates the darkness. But no matter how Grammy or Pap Pap or Mommy tried to calm her and assure her that she was safe, Madelyn was having none of it. It wasn’t until we installed a little night light in the outlet by her bed that her fears subsided and she (and we) were able to fall asleep without fear, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
Fear of the dark is common for many children. Perhaps when you were younger, you were afraid when the lights went out. Child psychologists have determined that the combination of the naturally active childhood imagination with a lack of comforting visual stimuli is what prompts fearful night-time outbursts from children between the ages of 2 and 5. Once they hit 4 or 5 years of age, as the brain naturally develops a better understanding of reality and fantasy, children are more successfully able to self-soothe and, therefore, are able to fall asleep more easily. But anytime a person — child or adult — shuts off the lights in new surroundings, it is easy for the brain to go into overdrive. I travel often and I’ll admit, when I travel somewhere and try to sleep in a new environment, I have those momentary anxieties when I’m alone in a hotel room and turn off the lights. My guess is that some of you experience this, too, when you try to go to sleep in an unfamiliar place. The darkness seems tangible. And frightening.
Darkness and Light Examined
Yet, darkness is not corporeal. It is not tangible. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Light, on the other hand, has physical properties. It travels like a wave and interacts like a particle; it is energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Scientifically speaking, light exists independent of darkness, but darkness cannot be understood without light.
Metaphorically, however, darkness and light have independent properties. Reading or watching the daily news provides evidence of just how much human darkness exists in the world — selfishness, apathy, hatred, injustice, bigotry, racism, and greed. Indeed, these forms of darkness do appear to be tangible and self-perpetuating, brought into sharper relief when compared to the light that people can bring into the world: examples of empathy, generosity, openness, peace, and love. Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher and statesman, once said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” Thus, when we speak of the world in which we live, the scientific facts about light seem appear to be converse — it is because of human darkness that we understand more clearly our need for light.
The Light of Truth
On this day, we officially begin a new academic year at Valparaiso University. A University whose motto is In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem — In Thy Light We See Light. You will see many reminders of that motto as you become more familiar with the campus: the sun screen above the entrance to the Arts & Sciences building depicting the University motto in Latin and the word “Light” in 50 languages. The campus newspaper, “The Torch.” The residence hall named “Beacon.” The symbols for light are everywhere.
In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem — In Thy Light We See Light. At Valpo, we offer another perspective on this tension between light and dark. That is, the metaphor of light as truth and darkness as ignorance. And because you are at a University whose ethos is informed by and imbued with the Lutheran Christian tradition, all of us who are called to this place came here and work here to seek truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope. We believe that the innate curiosity that propels our pursuit of truth is a gift from God. We believe that your intelligence and your curiosity are gifts from God. And we believe that our shared and relentless pursuit of truth can and will lead to new insights. That’s because we believe that truth continues to be revealed to us by our Creator. Here, at this nexus of faith and learning, we seek the light of truth, acknowledging that God is at the heart of our truth-seeking journey. And God lights the way.
In addition, as truth-seekers we do not ignore or deny the darkness of this world, but, instead, uphold the light of truth, embracing the eternal mystery that light begets more light. Finally, we reflect the light of truth, illuminating the darkness and revealing God’s light in all things. In short, we look to the Source of all light and truth for the courage, knowledge, and wisdom we need to overcome the darkness that seems so prevalent in the world. Indeed, the darkness of the world can feel heavy and inescapable. However, we know from John 1:5 that “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Today we welcome and celebrate the new students, faculty, and staff who have joined this special community dedicated to seeking, upholding, and reflecting the light of truth. But what does that mean exactly and what is expected of us?
Seeking the Light of Truth
American philosopher and academic Allan Bloom once described the process of education as: “moving from darkness to light.” That word, “education,” conjures up images of classrooms and rows of desks, homework and projects, teachers and classmates. The Latin root for educate means to “lead out.” To lead out of ignorance toward truth and understanding. To lead out of darkness into light. It’s the principal reason for why you have come to Valpo.
Your time as a Valpo scholar will offer manifold opportunities for you to pursue truth, to discover and develop your passions, your vocation, and your gifts. Those opportunities will come your way not only in your formal classes, but through your interactions with your classmates and with faculty and staff across the University, through your active participation in clubs and organizations, athletic teams, Greek life, visual and performing arts activities, volunteer and philanthropic efforts. By discovering, strengthening, and utilizing those unique talents and abilities given to you by God in collaboration with other like-minded people, you pursue the light of truth.
Indeed, at this University at the nexus of Athens and Jerusalem, truth can be revealed through opportunities we have to dialogue with, learn from, and be challenged by those whose background, perspectives, and gifts are different than our own. As you collaborate with classmates and professors whose race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religious creeds, and beliefs differ from your own, that word “education” will take on deeper significance. But this will only happen if you proactively seize the opportunity to be led out of your current state of knowledge and understanding toward a richer and deeper level of experience and insight.
Upholding the Light of Truth
In just a few minutes, you will be making a personal commitment to uphold the light of truth embodied in the Valparaiso University Honor Code. For more than seven decades, Valpo students have modeled the importance of honesty and trust through this signature program first created by students in 1943. I can assure you, that you will lose track of the number of times you will attest to your academic honesty on all of your papers, exams, and assignments. Yet, the Valpo Honor Code will force you to reconcile what you know to be true about your academic honesty before signing your name to those words publicly, knowing full well the consequences of your actions if you lie. Through this experience, reinforced across the University day in and day out, you will learn how people in a community of peers hold one another accountable for their actions. The Honor Code will reinforce the virtue of honesty and cultivate integrity — a consistency between your words and your actions. In short, it provides you with a shining example of how one can uphold the light of truth.
Reflecting the Light of Truth
So far, we’ve considered how, at Valpo, we seek the light of truth and how we uphold that light. As we consider the third dimension of our relationship with the light of truth, I am reminded of the 19th-century author, Edith Wharton, who wrote, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
During your time at Valpo, I encourage you to remember that we are on a journey to pursue the light of truth together. Today you join a family of more than 4,000 fellow students, 1,000 faculty and staff, and more than 60,000 alumni worldwide in whom the Valpo flame burns brightly. Valpo is a place where you will learn to be a servant-leader, someone who takes that light burning inside and both passes that flame to spread the light and reflects it to light the way for others. Know and trust that as you spread and reflect that light, your Valpo family will do the same for you!
For some of you, those servant-leadership lessons will be the result of your time as a student-athlete. Being part of a team creates a unique opportunity to learn how to simultaneously lead the way and work alongside your teammates as equals. For others, the clubs and organizations you join will offer experiences to nurture servant-leadership and practice generosity during Spring Break service trips, Greek life activities, or local volunteer work in the city of Valparaiso. It does not matter where you learn how to spread and reflect the light of truth, what matters is that you do.
Seize this Unique Opportunity
As you participate in the Convocation rituals this afternoon, you will officially become part of a global community committed to pursue, uphold, and reflect the light of truth, understanding that it is through God’s light that we see light. Students, as you leave this Convocation, I challenge each of you to consider these next years of your life not only as an opportunity to earn an academic degree from a world-renowned institution, but also as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore your passions, discover your vocation, come to know your classmates and teammates deeply and richly, and bring light to a dark, cynical, and weary world.
This is the pursuit set before you as good people who will do great things for a world that needs you. This is the pursuit that defines Valparaiso University and will do so for generations to come.
May God bless each of you and Valparaiso University as together we seek, uphold, and reflect God’s light.
Welcome to Valpo!
 Sue Hubbard, M.D., “The Kid’s Doctor: Fear of the dark is a normal part of development”, Chicago Tribune, 2012.
It was the American Civil War. Neighbor killing neighbor. Family members fighting one another to the death. A nation torn apart by violence. And a president attempting to lead in the midst of national chaos. Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s Cabinet gathered one day during the war with one goal in mind —to convince Lincoln that there was a group of people he thought to be Union patriots who were actually spies for the Confederacy. The Cabinet members presented their evidence. It was undeniable. And Lincoln was despondent. Beyond matters of national security, Lincoln felt betrayed by the dishonesty and lack of loyalty of those he thought to be loyal to the Union. At this point in the meeting, the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, turned to Lincoln and asked, “Mr. President, what shall we do?”
Lincoln had been silent throughout the meeting, but everyone could see that he had been profoundly affected by the evidence presented. Rather than answer Secretary Stanton’s question, Lincoln told a story about a dilemma faced by an old farmer whose gigantic shade tree spread its limbs over his house.
“It was a majestic-looking tree,” Lincoln said, “and apparently perfect in every part — tall, straight, and of immense size — the grand old sentinel of his forest home. One morning, while at work in his garden, [the old farmer] saw a squirrel [run up the tree into a hole] and thought the tree might be hollow. He proceeded to examine it carefully, and, much to his surprise, he found that the stately [tree] that he had [valued] for its beauty and grandeur to be the pride and protection of his little farm was hollow from top to bottom. Only a rim of sound wood remained, barely sufficient to support its weight. What was he to do? If he cut it down, it would [do immense damage] with its great length and spreading branches. If he let it remain, his family was in constant danger. In a storm, it might fall, or the wind might blow it down, and his house and children be crushed by it. What should he do? As Lincoln turned away from his Cabinet members, he said sadly: ‘I wish I had never seen that squirrel’.” (Phillips, 1993).
If you were Lincoln and faced with a dilemma of this magnitude, everyone awaiting your direction, feeling despondent and betrayed by people you trusted, how would you respond to the Secretary’s question, “What shall we do?”
What sources or experiences or beliefs would you draw from to make your decision? How would you know if it was the right decision?
Abraham Lincoln, the gifted orator, thoughtful leader, and rich storyteller, grappled with a no-win dilemma. And a test of his integrity.
Integrity. From the Latin, integer, meaning “whole” or “complete.”
Integrity is difficult to articulate; yet, somehow we know that integrity is a defining attribute of exemplary human behavior and an essential quality for effective leadership. So what exactly does it mean to have integrity?
Webster’s defines integrity first as “a person’s firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” Second, integrity is defined as “an unimpaired condition.” Finally, Webster’s defines integrity as “the quality or state of being undivided.” This definition encompasses three key dimensions of integrity: incorruptibility, soundness, and completeness (“Merriam-Webster.com,” n.d.).
Other definitions emphasize aspects of consistency — “doing the same as what you say.” Several reference integrity’s relationship to moral or ethical principles — one’s need to reference religion or the law for guidance in decision making — the Ten Commandments, for example, or Jesus’ Great Commandment that we love one another. (“Your Dictionary.com,” n.d.)
Regardless of the definition, integrity is often recognized more by its absence than its presence. We have plenty of examples these days of people who lack integrity. Why is that?
In the absence of an agreed upon moral and ethical social contract, sorely lacking in our contemporary society, integrity becomes an individual rather than a societal construct — a personal judgment call. In today’s relativist society, where truth, right and wrong, and justification are governed by self and context rather than any absolutes, many believe we can only know how to behave with integrity based on our own internal and contextual framework for what is right and what is wrong. We judge others’ degree of integrity by whether or not their behavior comports with how we might act when faced with similar circumstances. And we construct rationalizations for our own actions that can and do justify our behaviors, even though they might contradict traditionally shared social and/or religious norms.
We see examples of artifice and hypocrisy — from the Board room and C-suites of corporations, to congregations and religious bodies, to the highest levels of government at the state and federal levels. People behaving unscrupulously with a stupefying lack of integrity. Increasingly, it seems that the moral constructs proffered by Moses and the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ call that we love one another have been replaced by Polonius’ advice to Hamlet: “This above all; to thine own self be true,” (Shakespeare, 2003).
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency.
Perhaps you have heard it said that we now live in a post-truth society. What exactly does that mean? In his book, Post-Truth, Harvard fellow Lee McIntyre concludes that “post-truth is an assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence,” (McIntyre, 2018).
No matter your political persuasion, any one of us in this Chapel can cite evidence of post-truth dynamics at play around the globe. Here are a few examples: the denial of historic evidence about the Holocaust, the Sandy Hook shootings, and the deaths at Tiananmen Square; the denial of scientific evidence on smoking, vaccines, evolution, and climate change.
Add into the mix the rise of the 24-7 news channel and its voracious need for drama, conflict, and breaking news to generate viewership and advertising revenue; the infiltration of political propaganda into news reporting and the blurring of news and opinion that began with Fox News but has now extended throughout a range of print and broadcast media; the rise of social media, internet trolls, and the outrage machines of the left and right; and now the advent of “fake news” as a manipulative political tool — whether by our own political parties or from more nefarious quarters. We now live in an age where, as McIntyre puts it, “our wired-in cognitive biases … make us feel that our conclusions are based on good reasoning even when they are not.” These, he says, are the ideal conditions for post-truth (McIntyre, 2018).
In a recent address, University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer called this phenomenon the “Demosthenes-Feynman Trap.” Demosthenes, you may recall, was that great Athenian orator who said, “The wish is the parent to the thought, and that is why nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each person wishes, that they also believe to be true.” Demosthenes says that we regularly deceive ourselves in our perception and understanding of the world around us (Zimmer, 2017).
Zimmer connects Demosthenes with the renowned 20th Century American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. Feynman introduced scientific concepts like quantum electrodynamics, quantum computing, and nanotechnology. In his 1974 Cal Tech commencement address, Feynman, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool,” (Zimmer, 2017).
We face a dilemma, don’t we? We cannot rely on the narrative espoused by our leaders. We cannot rely on the narrative we hear on the news, read in the papers, or share on social media. We are told to rely on our own instincts and contexts. And we are told that we are trapped by our own self-deceit.
Feynman answer rests in the primacy of disciplined, critical inquiry and careful reflection as necessary tools for seeking truth as a scientist. He challenges the graduates to always begin an inquiry by first casting doubt on one’s argument and laying out all the reasons why a particular hypothesis is invalid. It is only through this kind of disciplined inquiry, Feynman argues, that one can be honest with oneself, and one’s ideas can be presented in a way that can be received and engaged by others.
Zimmer, through invoking Demosthenes and Feynman, a philosopher and a scientist separated by nearly 2,500 years, advocates for a liberal arts education — or what he calls the cultivation of “liberating skills.” Liberating skills, like critical thinking and deep reflection, require our college campuses to be a marketplace of conflicting and, at times, extreme ideas. Zimmer argues that truth-seeking can only occur when speech and expression flourish unfettered.
An unfettered marketplace of ideas and perspectives. People engaged in dialogue about these ideas. Critical thinking. Careful reflection. The ability to draw on examples and perspectives of human knowing and understanding from science and social science, mathematics, religion, history, literature, and the arts. Intellectual humility — beginning with the perspective that one’s position on a given topic may be wrong. These are some of the facets of your Valpo education that have helped prepare you to act with integrity in a post-truth society.
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility.
What do you remember about your first-year Convocation? For most of you, that was August 26, 2014. That was the last time you gathered here officially as a class. It was a breezy day, mid-70s. You started in the Union and paraded to the Chapel through a line of faculty members wearing their regalia and applauding your official arrival. Maybe you remember that. You entered the Chapel to the sound of the Reddell Organ and people singing.
I know you don’t remember what I talked about, so let me remind you. I talked about the creation of Google and the human quest over millennia to amass all of human knowledge in a single place, beginning with the Library at Alexandria. And I posed these questions: Shouldn’t open and unfettered access to all that knowledge be sufficient for human flourishing? And if so, why does anyone need to go to college? Why are you here today? Why is it that we still yearn for more? And what is it that we yearn to know?
That’s a flavor of what I said that day. My guess, however, is that you do remember walking up to the front of the Chapel and signing the Honor Code. Those books, with your names, are now a permanent part of the history of Valparaiso University and rest in the University Archives.
And my guess is that you will never forget these fifteen words: “I have neither given or received, nor have I tolerated others’ use of unauthorized aid.”
I wonder how many times you printed or attested to those words on your papers, exams, and assignments. Yet, it was through repeating these words, the Valpo Honor Code — a tradition started by students in 1943, that we began the process of cultivating integrity in each of you. Each time you saw those words, you had to reconcile what you knew to be true about your own behavior before attesting to those words publicly, knowing full well the consequences of your actions if you lied. And you learned how people in a community of peers hold one another accountable for their actions. The Honor Code has been a test of your integrity.
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility, accountability.
In the Chinese folk tale, “The Emperor’s Flower,” an aging Chinese emperor has no heir and must decide who will succeed him. Therefore, the emperor decides to give flower seeds to every young man in the land and says that whoever can grow the finest flower from those seeds will be named his successor in one year.
A young man named Chang receives his seed, plants it, and lavishes it with care and attention, but nothing happens. For a year, he tries many things to get the seed to grow, but to no avail. When the year has passed, he arrives at the emperor’s palace with all the other young men in the kingdom and discovers that everyone else has a beautiful flower growing in their pot, each one more beautiful than the next. Chang concludes that he has failed.
The emperor arrives and inspects the hundreds of exceptional specimens gathered before him. Finally, he returns to his throne and announces to all the young men that he, the emperor, boiled all the seeds before distributing them. Chang is, in fact, the only person who didn’t buy a plant and pass it off as a product of the emperor’s seed. Because of his integrity, Chang is named the emperor’s successor (Friedman, 2007).
This story reminds me of the words of American writer, Mark Twain, “I am different from [George] Washington,” he said. “I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t,” (Mackay, 2013).
Integrity—morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility, accountability, honesty.
This Sunday is known in the Christian calendar as Pentecost Sunday. Translated from the Greek, it means “fiftieth day” and is celebrated fifty days after Easter. Pentecost, or Shavuot in Hebrew, is also a festival celebrated in Judaism fifty days after the second day of Passover. In Judaism, Pentecost is a day for celebrating the first fruits of the harvest. It is also the day to commemorate that time on Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the Torah, or the Book of Law. Jews consider this day, Pentecost, to be a birth day of the faith. Christians do, too.
For in the book of Acts, chapter 2, we learn that on the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples gathered together in prayer. It was more than a month and a half after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They gathered in that same Upper Room where Jesus first offered them bread and wine in what we now know as the Christian sacrament of Communion.
As they prayed together on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended from above. A violent wind filled the house in which the disciples were gathered, and fire came down from the heavens. Tongues of fire appeared above the head of each disciple, and each was “filled” with the Holy Spirit. The disciples spoke of the wonders of God, each speaking in a language different from his own.
In today’s Gospel lesson from John, Jesus foreshadows this event for his disciples. Jesus promises to send them something he calls an “Advocate” and the “Spirit of truth,” a spirit who comes from God. This Advocate will testify on behalf of Jesus. And, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are also to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
What does that word “testify” mean? We certainly know its association with the law — where people testify in a courtroom. We use words like “bear witness,” or “be a witness” or “provide evidence” whenever we say that someone is offering testimony in court. There is a solemnity associated with courtroom testimony. Testimony is used as a vehicle to establish the facts and gain insight into the truth of the situation under consideration (“Merriam-Webster.com,” n.d.)
Outside of the legal realm, testimony involves the expression of personal conviction or making statements based on personal knowledge or personal belief. Jesus’ disciples could testify in a courtroom if need be — they were there as witnesses and had firsthand evidence. Today, we Christians testify based on personal conviction — or what we call our faith in what is described in the Gospels. And our faith is based on the hope that something we have not seen firsthand is true.
As we heard this morning, the Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, talks about that hope. “Hope that is seen,” Paul writes, “is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8: 24-25) The very foundation of the Christian faith rests in hope, Paul concludes, because it is grounded in the shared conviction that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. And that through God’s grace manifested in the suffering and death of Jesus and in his resurrection, we too have been granted the gift of salvation and resurrection to dwell with God eternally.
How can we know this to be true? How can we live out our lives patiently, work for God’s kingdom on earth, and die with hope in our hearts? Because, Jesus says, he has sent us an Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to dwell within us. Jesus tells the disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16: 13-14)
As Christians, this day of Pentecost represents the birth of our faith, the beginning of our hope in Jesus Christ, because it was on this day that Jesus sent God’s spirit to dwell in us. The Advocate, this Spirit of truth, answers our questions about how to navigate a world filled with chaos, deceit, and despair. This is God’s Spirit — God’s gyroscope — within us, pleading God’s case throughout our lives. Interceding on God’s behalf whenever we go off course. Arguing within us about how to live the excellent lives we are called to live. Igniting the fire within us to build God’s kingdom here on earth. This is God’s Spirit of truth.
The Advocate, the Spirit of truth, God dwelling within us —offers us the guidance we need if we are to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6: 8) And if we choose to listen, through reflection and through prayer, the Spirit of truth will empower us to rise above the chaos and corruption of our age, to be people of integrity in all that we say and do.
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility, accountability, honesty, incorruptibility. Integrity. From the Latin, integer, meaning, whole or complete.
Graduates, you now become full participants in this post-truth culture, where it will be so easy to be self-directed and self-deceived. You will decide how to seek truth and exercise judgment in your place of work, in your community, in your home, in your place of worship. And I promise you that you will face dilemmas — big dilemmas — in every facet of your lives. Dilemmas that will test and tax your integrity.
Others will hold you and you will hold yourself accountable on the soundness of your decision-making and your ability to rise above the corrosive and corruptible forces of these times. In each of these pivotal decisions, I hope and pray that you will remember and use what you learned at Valparaiso University.
Graduates, you came to a place where people are called to seek truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope. Together with the faculty and staff, you have been part of a community of practice dedicated uniquely to this work. You have been taught how to discern truth through critical reasoning and judgment. You have flourished in a culture dedicated to bringing people of different backgrounds and beliefs together in dialogue with one another and in the common pursuit of truth. Here you have learned how to communicate with and work together with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, religious beliefs, national origins, ethnic and cultural and gender identities. And here, you worked to love and understand one another, even when your differences were irreconcilable. Here you asked yourself and others hard questions about what you believe, why you are here on this earth, and what you will do with the unique gifts God has bestowed upon you.
Valpo’s DNA of truth-seeking and dialogue across difference, leadership and service, generosity and hope have been woven through your educational formation. It wasn’t easy. We didn’t always get it right. Yet, together we tried mightily to be our most excellent selves even as the world around us groaned in its imperfection, its pain and suffering and despair — a world groaning for the light you will bring into it.
Your education and experience and your capacity for integrity give me great hope. But my greatest hope and your greatest promise rests in that which we do not see — our faith in Jesus Christ and our trust that God’s Advocate, the Spirit of truth, God dwelling within each of you, will lead and guide you to be the graduates of knowledge, character, integrity, and wisdom whom we know in our hearts and souls. you can be.
This is my hope and prayer for you, graduates. And “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13)
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
May God richly bless you this day and all the days of your life. Amen.
- Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D.
May 20, 2018
Friedman, A. (2007). Read with Me: Chinese folktale The Emperor’s Flowers. Sun Sentinal. Retrieved from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/sfl-flstory–chinaflowernbaug28-story.html
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (1989). Thomas Nelson, Inc. (Ed.). Melton.
Integrity. (2018). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/integrity
Integrity. (2018). In Your Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://www.yourdictionary.com/integrity
Mackay, H. (2013). The Mackay MBA of Selling in the Real World. Portfolio.
McIntyre, L. (2018). Post-Truth. The MIT Press.
Phillips, D.T. (1993). Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. Warner Books.
Shakespeare, W. (2003). Hamlet: An Updated Edition from the Folger Shakespeare Library. B.A. Mowat and P. Werstine (Ed.). Simon & Schuster.
Testify. (2018). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/testify
Zimmer, R. (2017). “Liberal Arts, Free Expression, and the Demosthenes-Feynman Trap.” ACTA 2017 Merrill Award Acceptance Address. Retrieved from https://president.uchicago.edu/page/acta-2017-merrill-award-acceptance-address
The Puzzle as Perseverance
I’ve been thinking about puzzles lately. It all started a few weeks ago, when I found myself cooped up in an Airbnb mountain cabin with all of our kids, their spouses, and six grandchildren under the age of five. Veronica and I were in Breckenridge, Colorado, for a long-planned weekend with nearly all of our immediate family. And for almost the entire day, it rained. And it was cold.
I began rifling through the drawers and closets of the cabin, looking for something all of us could do together. And I found a big Rubbermaid container filled with puzzles. Do you remember putting together puzzles as part of your family traditions? Maybe you did them while you waited for the Thanksgiving turkey to finish cooking. Or that week between Christmas and New Year’s when you didn’t have much planned, and it was too cold to play outside. Maybe it wasn’t a puzzle. Maybe it was a complicated Lego set, or a model airplane — some “mental stimulator” that brought the whole family together.
When I think of puzzles, I think of my grandmother’s house and her giant dining room table. My Aunt Ethel was her caregiver, and I spent many after-school hours and summers at my grandmother’s. Aunt Ethel took care of me, but she was also my playmate. That’s because she had a significant cognitive disability — she functioned at roughly the level of a 12-year-old. In those days, she would have been described as “mentally retarded.” Yet, Aunt Ethel was quite skilled at cooking and cleaning, and, especially, at playing cards and assembling puzzles.
I have many wonderful memories of spending hours at that dining room table with Aunt Ethel working on puzzles, with the aroma of spaghetti sauce or vegetable soup wafting through the house. My job was to find the corner pieces and then all of the edges building out from those corners. My Aunt would start in the middle and work her way to the outside. And every afternoon when I came home from school, or every summer morning when my mother dropped me off on her way to work, I would sit at the table and work on that puzzle. Sometimes it would take days, sometimes weeks. But the puzzle would remain on that table, day after day, until we finished.
When I was younger, we would do easy puzzles — 50 pieces, maybe 75. But as I got older, the puzzles got harder. When I was entering high school, the puzzles were the most challenging; you know, the 1,000-piece puzzles of Monet’s garden or “the ocean at night.”
These puzzles usually went on for days. I’d start the puzzle with great enthusiasm. Yet, inevitably, with each passing day, my energy waned. I had finished the easiest parts, with a little less than half left to fill in. The most difficult pieces were left, sometimes taking what seemed like hours to find a connecting piece. It wasn’t nearly as much fun and took intense concentration and a lot of trial and error. And I was easily distracted by the kids playing down the street, or the sound of an approaching train, or even my grandmother’s soap operas, her “stories” as she called them, playing on the television.
Indefatigably, my Aunt Ethel kept working on that puzzle — her patient and focused example brought me back to the task, time and time again. She taught me how to keep going after the easy work was done. She taught me how to persevere. Because of my Aunt, the one others called retarded, I learned how to finish what I started. And when we finished that puzzle together, I learned what accomplishment felt like. I can still see my Aunt clapping her hands together and bouncing up and down in her chair, proclaiming, “We did it, Mark! We did it!”
Each of our life’s journey up until this point — to this time and this place — has offered challenges a lot like that 1,000-piece puzzle. Maybe it was that time you ran your first-ever cross-country meet, and there was that point in the race where you didn’t think you could finish. Or maybe you made first chair in the school’s band, but you weren’t quite sure you’d be able to lead your section to perfect each piece of music in time for the next concert.
On a deeper, more personal level, maybe you live with a disability, anxiety, or depression and there were days when you didn’t know how you would finish the school year, or even get through the day. Or maybe your family lived off one income, and you weren’t sure how you would ever afford to get to college. Or maybe, like me, you are the first in your family to go to college. Or you grew up in a neighborhood where kids didn’t normally leave their hometown, let alone go away to four-year universities.
No matter the specifics of your circumstances, we’ve all faced obstacles in our lives that have made us want to give up — to stop trying. To walk away from the puzzle unfinished.
Valpo Prepares You to Persevere
You wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for perseverance — if it weren’t for someone, something, maybe even your own inner voice telling you to keep going. Keep working. Keep striving. Which makes you exactly the kind of student and potential leader we cultivate here at Valpo.
Each of you has a story of perseverance to tell, and because of that, we believe each of you is motivated to not only improve yourself, but also to make this world a better place. Valpo is distinguished from other universities in our shared desire to seek truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope. We do this by preparing women and men of great character to lead and serve for the sake of the world.
During your years here, there will be times when your perseverance will be tested. College is not going to be easy, and there will be obstacles. But through the people you meet, the friends you make, and the experiences you have, you will learn how to rise above those obstacles, to achieve your goals, to experience the world through new eyes, and to become part of a rich and diverse community of people who are individually and collectively on the journey to pursue Truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope, no matter how hard at times it may be.
Your journey starts today, in this Chapel, as you participate in a nearly 90-year-old tradition of Valpo students who have gathered together for Opening Convocations past; as you sign the more than seven-decade-old Honor Code, which embodies the University’s emphasis on academic honesty and integrity; as you pin yourself with the Shield of Character, a symbol of the University’s dedication to preparing women and men of character and wisdom who will lead and serve in church and society; and as you go forth from this place to persevere in the pursuit of your passion and purpose in this world.
Leadership Models of Perseverance
There are many examples of notable people in our recent and contemporary history who have embodied what it means to persevere in the pursuit of passion, purpose, and the greater good.
A young single mother in Edinburgh lived on welfare while working on her young adult fiction book. After several rejections from publishers, her novel later blossomed into the highest grossing children’s literary brand in history. J.K. Rowling.
A man whose mother was a custodian and father an assembly line worker was influenced by his parents’ strong work ethic. He later became one of the most talented and well-respected basketball players of his era, despite making waves when he announced contracting a life-threatening virus. He has since become one of the most influential African American businessmen. Magic Johnson.
A young man who lived with dyslexia and struggled in traditional academic settings started a company in his garage, and he will forever be known as one of the greatest innovators and inventors of our time. Steve Jobs.
These are the stories of inspiring leaders who persevered through a variety of obstacles, stigmas, and past failures. They sought to be their most excellent selves.
Now, not all of us in this Chapel will go on to become the next J.K. Rowling or Magic Johnson or Steve Jobs, but I believe each of you has the ability to excel and the potential to achieve noteworthy accomplishments. That’s because the people who are gathered around you — the faculty, staff, coaches, OAs, mentors, and returning students — are here because they are dedicated to helping you discover your gifts, navigate adversity, and pursue excellence. To persevere. We will challenge you to think more deeply. We’ll introduce you to learning environments that will stimulate your expanding and curious mind. And we’ll provide you with cross-cultural exposure, internship experiences, and hands-on learning that will shape the way you think about your personal calling and the world’s needs.
Persevering Through Times of Great Change
Why do we make these challenging commitments to you? Because we are dedicated to preparing you for a world that is currently undergoing enormous change, and not all of it good. And this change is coming from all directions — environmental, societal, religious, and of course technological change. Here are just a few predictions:
According to an article in Business Insider, due to advances in augmented reality, smartphones will become obsolete by 2025. Within the next decade, we will see the first self-driven vehicles on roads.[i] And a recent report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers predicts that 38 percent of American jobs will be replaced by robots and other artificial intelligence applications by the mid 2030s.[ii]
According to the Pew Research Center, by 2050, Caucasians will be a minority in the United States,[iii] and the number of Muslims in the world will nearly equal Christians.[iv]
Trends in population and economic growth also impact environmental and health changes. Access to natural resources such as oil, gas, food, and water will become scarcer, causing possible worldwide shortages by 2040.[v] And by 2050, our climate and topography could look much different as we emit increased levels of CO2, our ice caps shrink and ocean levels rise, causing changes in ecosystems and weather patterns both on land and sea.[vi]
Students, faculty, staff, and alumni — within recent years, we have already seen the way we as humans have attempted to adapt to these changes, and how ultimately, we have fallen short.
Demographic, political, and religious changes have led to upheaval regarding race relations, immigration, and religious tolerance. Incomprehensible, shameful events are unfolding before our eyes. Loathsome, vile, bigoted activities like the Klu Klux Clan, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist organizations have been energized by the equivocation and perhaps even tacit endorsement of the president of the United States.
Social media and other tech advances have led to our society becoming increasingly isolated, less informed, more fearful, and more willing to engage in shallow comments instead of deep discussions.[vii] Disease continues to plague our nation and our world, and natural disasters continue to affect millions along our coastlines and in our plains.
Adapting to Change
In his most recent book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration,” Thomas Friedman says we are in such a rapid period of growth that we are and will be unable to adapt to the changes ahead. We as human beings will be ill-equipped to make adjustments in our political structures, organizational and business models, and in our psyches and habits — that is, according to Friedman, unless we stop isolating ourselves, we work and live together well, and we continue to educate ourselves for successful adaptation.
Friedman says, “if you want to solve a big problem, you need to go from taking credit, to sharing credit, to multiplying credit.” And when it comes to working together, to making and adapting to social change, he draws on history. He says, and I say with emphasis, “The principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.”
I believe Friedman is right. History has shown us that successful social change involves people working together across differences, even when doing so seems unsavory, unthinkable, or unimaginable. There are countless leaders who have proven this theory true. Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Nelson Mandela, to name just a few.
Students, colleagues, and friends, if we are to persevere through and adapt successfully in this time of profound and disturbing change, we must do three things. We must learn to do old things in new ways and be open to opportunities for innovation. We must embrace the other. And we must never lose sight of the source of and the values that underpin our understanding of Truth.
The first thing we must do is learn to do old things in new ways and be open to opportunities for innovation. At Valpo, we seek to continually adapt our educational model so we can incorporate discoveries in teaching and learning that will increase your chances of success. As a Valpo student, you will not just learn about the way things were. Rather, you will learn the way things were in order to help shape the way things will be — to use collective human experience in order to more fully comprehend the implications of new ideas, new discoveries, and new paradigms. You will practice this in your Core, Christ College, humanities, and social sciences courses as you draw upon historical theories to discern evolving philosophical ideas and societal norms. In your STEM and arts classes as you test hypotheses, build upon earlier research and creativity, and explore the boundaries of the world as we know it. And you will practice this when you volunteer at a homeless shelter, assisted-living facility, or pre-school and consider the ways societies have previously treated each of these populations and how societies can do better in the future.
The second thing we must do is to embrace the other. As we have learned so significantly in recent years — and even in recent weeks in light of tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia — we will not endure as a society if we do not learn how to successfully appreciate and navigate our differences. Our future as a nation demands that we engage in productive dialogue with people who are different from us — people who come from different cultures, who have different religious and political ideas, who talk differently, eat differently, or pray differently. It is imperative that we listen carefully to those who have different perspectives so we can each challenge ourselves to do better, think better, build better, and live better alongside one another.
Here at Valpo, we have committed ourselves to this important work — to bring together disparate people from many backgrounds to share in a common pursuit of truth; to collectively explore what it means to be human, made in the likeness and image of God. At Valpo, you will do this in the classroom, during meals shared in Founders, staying up late talking in the residence halls, studying abroad, attending each other’s worship services, volunteering, and many other experiences designed to open ourselves up to seeing the world through the eyes of another. Together we seek to make Valpo an exemplary model of what it could look like to live in a community where people love and respect and dialogue with one another across our differences, even when those differences may be irreconcilable.
The third thing we must do is to never lose sight of the source of and the values that underpin our understanding of Truth. As a Lutheran University, our values are informed by our recognition and acceptance of the Divine. Valpo’s culture of scholarship, freedom, and faith means that we seek to remain continually open to and explore and discern Truth in light of God’s revelations, especially in a rapidly changing world. At this nexus of faith and reason, where Athens meets Jerusalem, we seek God’s revelations in both the earthly and the heavenly. In body and in soul. In innovation and tradition. And we cultivate the virtues God has bestowed upon us as humans — virtues such as wisdom, integrity, humility, compassion, generosity, leadership, and service. In an ever-changing world, these virtues at the core of our Valpo identity remain constant, even though much of the world may seem to have lost sight of them.
Hebrews 12:1 is one of the Bible passages we recount often here at Valpo. “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As members of the Valpo community, you now become part of that great cloud of witnesses — those students who have come before you in pursuit of Truth, leaders who have sought to be their most excellent selves, servants who have embodied human virtue, women and men who have persevered through times of great upheaval and change.
Learning to do old things in innovative ways. Embracing the other. Never losing sight of the source of and the values that underpin our understanding of Truth.
This afternoon we welcome a talented and diverse group of students into our distinctive Valpo community. Today you become part of a network of more than 60,000 students and alumni all over the world, along with professors, coaches, staff, and friends sitting right here in this Chapel, who have said “yes” to these three things we must do and who carry the Valpo spirit with them wherever they go. It is my hope and prayer that you, too, will persevere and flourish; that you will carry the torch, modeling for the world what it looks like to rise above the tides of change and work in community with others made in the image of God, in the common pursuit of Truth, and for the sake of the world.
Thank you for your willingness to take on such a charge. May God bless each and every one of you as you embark on this noble endeavor. And welcome to Valpo.
[vii] Thomas Friedman, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration
Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2017.
Everyone looks terrific this morning. Like a room full of gifts all wrapped up and ready for giving. Maybe you have a gift to give to someone today? A set of car keys? A plane ticket? Flowers? A simple memento meant to commemorate the day? An expression of gratitude? Something to trigger a memory? Something to make us laugh?
Gift giving is a great blessing. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure — to get just the right gift, calibrated especially for the person and the day. And sometimes it’s just plain fun.
Let me tell you about the most fun I had picking out a gift. It was for my dad. Now my dad and I had our quarrels over the years, especially when I was a teenager and when I went through college. We were two stubborn Heckler men and we argued about nearly everything, because we were in that period of life when one of us had to win and the other one had to lose.
But then, I got out into the world on my own, got married, had children. And, you know, my dad got smarter and smarter. And he offered me advice. And I heeded it, because I needed it. And, over time, we fell in love with one another again. Father and son. Son and father.
It was my dad’s birthday one of those years after our rapprochement, and I wanted to make him laugh because I love to hear him laugh. So, I went on a mission to find just the right gift that would make him laugh. Off I went to Spencer’s Gifts to find the perfect present. And I did. It’s a wooden plaque, about 18 inches across. Well it’s actually a plastic wooden plaque. And mounted on this plaque is a striped bass. A plastic striped bass. (That’s a fish.)
There is a little red button on the bottom of the plaque. When you press the button, music plays and the fish’s tail keeps time with the music. Then, the head of the bass pulls away from the plaque, looks at you, and moves its mouth, lip synching the words to the song. In between words, the head returns back to rest against the plaque.
And the song? [Whistle Song Opening.] It’s Bobby McFerrin singing “Don’t worry … Be happy.” Now approaching the age of 90, my dad still has that striped bass hanging on his wall singing away:
In your life expect some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy, don’t worry — be happy now. (McFerrin, 1988)
A little bit of wisdom from a plastic fish.
So graduates, today, you are the gift that will bring delight to all those who love you and care for you. And I am the striped bass on the plaque channeling Bobby McFerrin. Don’t worry. Be happy.
Why? Because there is plenty to worry about these days. Perhaps that’s because I am prone to worry. It comes from being a college president. And it comes from my past. As you have learned at Valpo, context is important.
I am a product of a period of great societal disruption. The 1960s and 70s. When I was a teenager, everyone was anxious. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters were using non-violent protest to advocate for civil rights, ultimately leading to King’s assassination in 1968. A presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy Jr., was assassinated in June 1968 just five weeks after his rally appearance here in Valpo’s Hilltop Gym. Major urban centers and college campuses were experiencing unprecedented unrest, largely focused on Vietnam anti-war protests. Four student protesters were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. Three days later on this campus, three student protestors burned down Kinsey Hall, which housed the administration building.
In my first year of college, the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, resigned from office in disgrace. Members of his re-election committee were implicated in a break-in and illegal wire-tapping of Democratic National Committee headquarters. Following that discovery, subsequent actions by Nixon and his administration appeared to be efforts to halt or hinder an investigation into the matter. As a young man now out of the house and on my own, I wasn’t sure who or what to believe about what was playing out on the national stage, but I did sense that what was happening was unprecedented and abnormal. Everything was changing quickly and everyone around me was anxious. No one knew how or if American society was going to emerge from what was clearly a set of unique, volatile and unpredictable circumstances.
Graduates, you can fill in your own lists of incidents and examples from your early life up until this moment that have contributed to another period of widespread societal disruption, manifesting itself in school violence, helicopter parenting, campus protests, mental illness, suicide, addictions of many types, and the list goes on and on. And you may sense, as I do, that the number and scope of things that are changing around us seem to be accelerating with each passing year.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has a new book out, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration” (2016). Friedman examines the acceleration and confluence of three trends: technology, globalization, and Mother Nature, the latter of which he describes as the interplay of population growth, diminishing bio-diversity, and climate change. Friedman draws three conclusions. First, he suggests that we are in the midst of a transformational inflection point in human history akin to what happened over 500 years ago. That’s when a blacksmith named Gutenberg invented a printing machine with moveable type that ultimately fueled a communications revolution in Europe and the protestant Reformation. Second, he posits that the complexity and pace of the acceleration we are now experiencing has outstripped human capacity to adapt to it, just at the point when that acceleration is about to take an exponential leap. Third, he suggests that the intractable disagreements playing out in Washington, D.C., render it as ineffective as governments in the Middle East, just at the time we most need effective and cooperative leadership. Therefore, we must look to how we work across differences in our local towns and communities as the model for leadership and governance going forward. Friedman argues that we must achieve the minimum level of political collaboration necessary to develop social technologies and policies that can help society manage through this inflection point, keep our global economies open, and improve learning opportunities for everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, race or national origin, to adapt effectively to what is coming. Right now is, in Friedman’s estimation, the most dangerous time of all. (Friedman, 2016)
Transportation provides a great example of what Friedman means. At the turn of the 20th century, the most dangerous period to be in a city like Chicago or New York was in those years when the automobile had been introduced, but horses and buggies had not yet been reduced. Two transportation technologies, one dying and one being born, operated simultaneously. (Friedman, 2016) You might imagine what it was like driving down Michigan Avenue in those days, or trying to cross the street.
And in our age, we can look at a transportation innovation like Uber, the ride-sharing service, which is still in the midst of legal adoption and societal norming that will take years, only to be overtaken soon by self-driving vehicles and the mainstreaming of other artificial intelligence applications. (Friedman, 2016) One can imagine the potential end of individual car-ownership, not to mention the disruption that may occur across all types of transportation services that have relied upon human drivers, and engineers, and pilots as part of the business model.
And the disruption of automation technologies and artificial intelligence won’t stop with transportation. Two recent books, Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots” (2015) and Erick Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s “The Second Machine Age” (2014), cite Oxford University research that has estimated that 47 percent of current U.S. jobs could be automated within the next 25 years, especially those jobs that consist of repetitive tasks. (Frey & Osborne, 2013; McNeal, 2015)
So, for someone like me, who is the product of a period of societal disruption, there’s plenty to worry about. That’s why I am drawn to today’s scriptural texts.
Today’s readings are all about why we need to let go of what may be worrying us. In Philippians 4, verses 6 and 7, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Philippi: “6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And in today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew shares Jesus’ words with us in Chapter 6, “25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? …27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? …31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 …your heavenly Father knows that you need [these things]. 33 But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Context is important, right? So let’s look at the context within which these two passages are written to see what insight we may gain into the reasons why we should not worry.
Jesus’ words about worry come in the middle of what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount, covered in Matthew chapters five through seven. Large crowds had been gathering, following Jesus and his disciples as they traveled. Jesus saw these crowds and decided to climb up the side of the mountain and, with his disciples gathered around him, he began to teach them. He talked about those who were blessed — those who grieve, those who are humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and those who are insulted, and mistreated, and lied about because they believe in God. For great, he says, is their reward in heaven.
Jesus calls believers the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He says that we must obey God’s commandments, to control our anger against others and to make peace with them, to be faithful in marriage, to turn the other cheek and forego revenge, to love our enemies, to give to those in need without calling attention to ourselves, and to pray and fast in similar fashion, to store up our treasures in heaven and not on this earth, and to worship God and not money. It counts as one of the greatest if not the greatest sermon ever given and perhaps the greatest wisdom ever shared with humankind.
Jesus pauses at this point in his sermon and says, therefore, or as a result, or consequently, we should not worry about our life. Because we have been fed with the Word of God and God’s wisdom, we should not worry about whether or not we have enough food, or drink, or material goods. The Word of God is sufficient for us. And we must have faith. We must trust God, in the way that the birds of the air and the wild flowers of the field trust that they, too will be nourished. God knows what we need and God will provide. Jesus teaches us that the antidote to worry rests in our faith and trust in God and through making God’s work — that is building God’s kingdom here on earth and seeking to live lives of righteousness — our lifelong focus.
Friends, worrying comes easily, but Jesus tells us that not worrying must be our life’s work, and it’s hard, relentless work. Keeping our faith healthy is like going to the gym every day to stay healthy and toned. It takes discipline, and energy, and focus, and sweat, and tears. It takes study and prayer and praise and worship and community and commitment to building God’s kingdom here and now, and in the place you will next go to live, and work, and study. Keeping our faith healthy means that we cannot put off God’s work until the timing is better, or until we have more money, or fewer pressures, or better friends. So what better time than right now, as you prepare to cross that threshold into the next phase of life’s journey, to commit from your very first day to weave your faith training and God’s work more fully and more richly into each day.
Next, we turn to Philippians 4 and Paul’s exhortation to the church he helped to establish in the town of Philippi, Macedonia, the first Christian mission on the European continent. Paul has a soft spot in his heart for the early Christians in Philippi, and he is troubled by a disruptive argument that has broken out among two women leaders in the church, Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know the cause of the disagreement, but it must have been a doozy because here we are, talking about it almost 2,000 years later. Paul is clearly concerned about the effect their disagreement is having upon the young church and he begs them to stop their feuding, to be gentle with each other, and to rejoice in the Lord.
In the passage we heard this morning, Paul offers us some wonderful advice for how to manage through bitter disagreements that come sometimes divide friends and neighbors and family members. First, Paul says, in disagreements, be gentle; other translations of this word in the original Greek are reasonable, patient, considerate or moderate. In other words, we ought to treat that person with whom we disagree with respect and care, making our need to be right on an issue secondary to being right with one another. Paul says that we need to be right with one another because we do not know that day or the hour when Christ will return.
Second, Paul writes, do not worry, but take your concerns, with thanksgiving, to God. This approach to worry, Paul says, will bring us a sense of God’s peace that is beyond our comprehension. Arguments can come on quickly, especially these days, so Paul’s advice is that, rather than aiming to win an argument at all costs, we ought to pray about it and open our hearts to God so that we might make peace with our neighbor and work through our differences with love.
Third, Paul offers a way for us to engage in right thinking whenever we are in a disagreement. Rather than jumping to that human tendency to find fault with or diminish our thoughts about that person with whom we may disagree, we ought to think about them another way. Let us consider whatever is true about them; that which is noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable. And if we can find that which is excellent and worthy of praise, then we ought to focus our thoughts on those things. Taking the time to be thoughtful about the person with whom we disagree, to consider them fully and richly as a fellow human being, rather than to stereotype or demonize them, can help us enter our conversations with peace and humility and love. Friend with friend. Neighbor with neighbor. Lover with lover. Mother with daughter. Father with son.
Graduates, this day is a day of taking stock, thinking deeply about what we believe to be true — the convictions we hold about ourselves, about God, about other people — and decide what we are going to do about it. Many of you may know the next thing you are going to do — take a trip, go to grad school, pursue a gap year in a service agency, get married, start your first “real job,” set out on an adventure, or move into your parent’s basement and play video games — yet this process of taking stock — deciding what you believe to be true, your convictions, and what you are going to do about it, is just beginning. You may come to discover, as I have, that the process of taking stock and deciding what to do as a result is something you will be doing for the rest of your days on this earth.
In the final book before his death, “Convictions: How I Learned What Mattered Most” (2015), American theologian and Jesus scholar Marcus J. Borg discusses our lives as a triad of memories, conversions, and convictions. Memories he associates with childhood and the process of growing into adulthood. Conversions, he says, are major changes in orientation toward life, including how one understands what it means to be a Christian. And convictions are how one see things now — “foundational ways of seeing things that are not easily shaken.” (Borg, 2015)
I hope that your years at Valpo have helped you to clarify convictions — those things you hold as ultimately true — and that you have undergone conversions that have changed your thinking about yourself and your place in the world. Perhaps you discovered particular gifts you did not know you had and you have found ways to put those gifts to use for the sake of the world. Perhaps you engaged in rich, deep, and loving disagreements with classmates or professors that caused you to rethink something you held as a conviction when you first arrived here. Maybe you came to know and admire someone whose background and belief system was fundamentally different than your own. Maybe you began a journey to love and accept yourself physically and emotionally as a child of God, made in God’s image. Maybe you experienced a conversion from the faith of your parents as it was taught to you into your own Christian belief, born of your own stories of fear and pain and sorrow, the prayers answered and unanswered, God’s quiet voice speaking in those watershed moments, and God’s endless mercy lavished upon you when you least deserved it.
All this is to suggest that your years at Valpo have sought to prepare you for what will be a lifelong dialogue with God and with yourself. You will examine and test your convictions. You will experience conversions, perhaps many of them. You are not the person you were when you first attended Valparaiso University, and the formative experiences you had during your years here will continue to nourish and sustain you as you grow in experience and understanding and wisdom.
I pray that, as you make your way in the world, you will always remember how you were shaped at Valparaiso University. In this place, you learned that the world presents more questions than answers. Here, you engaged in the pursuit of Truth with many others who brought different backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences to that quest. At Valpo, you learned the value of discernment — how to distinguish fact from opinion, how to exercise effective judgement through disciplined assessment. And how to engage with those who may disagree with you, with gentleness, with patience, and with love, even when those disagreements were irreconcilable.
Here, I hope, you have also learned about excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need, or in moments like these when we gather for worship and prayer. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live excellent lives, individually and in community. This is Valpo. This is who you are.
The world will give you many things that do not last — careers, money, possessions. But Christ offers you eternal life. The world gives you lies and deception and arguments and disagreements. But Christ promises you the Spirit of Truth and Understanding. The world gives you fear and worry. But your faith in Christ will grant you peace.
And so, my friends, here you are. Newly minted Valpo grads, dressed and dazzling, and ready to take on the great big world. Your light, your character, your integrity, and your wisdom can be a gift to that world. It will be hard work. And it will take the rest of your life. Don’t worry. Be happy.
And now, may the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phillippians 4:7)
Mark A. Heckler
May 21, 2017
Borg, M. J. (2014) Convictions: How I learned what matters most. New York: HarperCollins.
Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014) The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in an time of brilliant technologies. New York: W.W. Norton.
Friedman, T. L. (2016) Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of acceleration. New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux.
Ford, M. (2015) Rise of the robots: Technology and the threat of a jobless future. New York: Basic Books.
McFerrin, B. (1988) Don’t worry, be happy. New York: EMI-Manhattan Records.
Frey, C.B., & Osborne, M.A. (2013) The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” Oxford Martin (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, September 17, 2013). Retrieved from: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf as cited in McNeal, M. (2015, April) Rise of the machines: The future has lots of robots, less jobs for humans. Wired. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/04/rise-machines-future-lots-robots-jobs-humans/)
The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Friends and colleagues, it has been quite the summer. Someday the historians may label it, “the Summer of Deceit.” Just when we thought the game of he said she said couldn’t sink any lower into the muck that passes for a presidential election, Ryan Lochte and a several of the men’s swim team USA invent a story to cover up a night of drunken vandalism. The Summer of Deceit.
The Brian Williams Phenomenon
Last summer, former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams learned a little something about the importance of speaking the truth. After a thorough investigation that uncovered he embellished several stories about his coverage of the Iraq War, Williams lost what was once one of the most respected and trusted posts in America. In retrospect, he believes he embellished the truth because it would afford him increased popularity and success, a purely ego-driven venture.
He said in an interview, “Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else, put myself closer to the action, having been at the action at the beginning.”
In hindsight, Williams said the entire experience allowed him to grow as a person, to value transparency and truth.
“I am sorry for what happened. I am different as a result, and I expect to be held to a different standard,” he said.
Williams’ story is just one of many we have recently encountered in our current media and political climate. Every week it appears another well-known person’s deceit is uncovered, only to reveal that they came to value success, fame, and ego over integrity, trust, and respect.
Speaking Truth-Seeking Truth
George Orwell is commonly attributed as having said this: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Students, and to our new faculty and staff, you have chosen to be part of a University where truth-seeking and truth-speaking are sine qua non; that is, the very essence of our existence. On this day, as we launch a new academic year at Valparaiso University, I challenge you to remember Orwell’s claim that the act of truth-seeking is counter-cultural, perhaps even revolutionary. And in these watershed times, when deceit dominates our airwaves, when politicians seek to divide us as a people, and when the way forward is uncertain, Valpo’s importance as a place dedicated to the common pursuit of Truth has never been clearer.
What is Truth?
The Apostle Paul, concluding his letter to the early church in Philippi, offers them and us this wisdom:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
So let’s think about this concept we call Truth, shall we?
Pastor Jim read us that passage from 1 Corinthians, where Paul muses on the nature of Truth. He writes,
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13: 12)
The search for Truth, as Paul describes it, is like looking in a cloudy mirror—perhaps we can see its contours, but Truth remains indistinct and elusive. Yet, Paul promises that one day, that day when our earthly lives have passed, the Truth will be fully known. Until that day, our lives are spent in the pursuit of an elusive Truth, a Truth that is continually revealed, but never complete.
How can that be? Are we not the most technologically sophisticated society in human history? How can Truth be so elusive when we have Google at our fingertips?
For centuries and millennia, religious leaders, philosophers, and theologians alike have grappled with this question of Truth — a question that remains at the heart of philosophical inquiry and liberal arts education to this day.
As we consider the evolution of human understanding of what is true, we see that, for all of our technology and unfettered access to the accumulated information of recorded time, the search for Truth becomes more difficult and elusive with each successive generation. Let’s take a few minutes to examine that evolution.
The Pre-Modern World: Religious Truth
In the ancient, pre-modern world, human understanding of the concept and nature of truth came directly from belief in and revelation from the divine. Across cultures and religions, human beings conceived truth from scripture and the interpretation of scripture by theologians and religious leaders—how the world began, the nature of God, our human nature, and our social and sacred responsibilities.
For the majority of the ancient world religions, these truths were encompassed under two broad commandments: the belief and obedience in a Supreme or supreme beings and the moral responsibilities to care for one’s neighbor. Many Christians are familiar with Jesus’ words when he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself… On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
Other major religions share a similar belief, also known collectively as the Golden Rule. Muslims, for example, live by the words of the Prophet Muhammad when he says, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
Modernism to Post-Modernism: Scientific Truth to Debilitating Doubt
This paradigm of truth-seeking dominated societies for thousands of years. But in the mid 17th and early 18th centuries, labeled by historians as the dawn of the enlightenment or the beginning of the modern era, truth-seeking began to transition from scripture to science, from faith to reason as a principle method of truth-seeking.
Galileo, one of the great pioneers of this scientific revolution, described truth-seeking this way: “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered: the point is to discover them.” 
During the modern era, people did just that — we discovered. We discovered truths about our physical world: the laws of motion and gravity, that the earth revolves around the sun. Many people came to believe that all truth was observable, tangible and quantifiable.
In addition, the search for Truth became increasingly driven by skepticism and doubt.
Rene Descartes, one of the founders of modern Western philosophy, said, “if you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
The human march through modernity into post-modernity and to the present time has seen not only the privileging of science and technology as legitimate arbiters for claims about what is True, but also a counter-cultural, even rebellious quest for answers to those existential questions that appear beyond the capabilities of science. Many harbor doubts about those religious truths that once answered life’s most perplexing questions. And in response, some instead cling to ideological truths as the basis for sense-making in an otherwise chaotic world. Some reject certain scientific claims that appear in conflict with deeply held religious or ideological beliefs. And increasingly, as Cartesian skepticism has metastasized in these waning days of post-modernity, when confronted with the question of “what is true?” the answer becomes, “it depends on what I think is true.”
This world roils with injustice–apartheid and genocide, acts of terror and retribution. We face poverty and hunger, sickness and natural disaster, and ever-widening economic disparity. Humanity faces serious questions. Questions about justice amidst violence and oppression, questions about overcoming racial, religious, and political differences, and ultimately, questions about why a good and benevolent God allows evil and suffering in our community, across our nation, and around the globe.
Universal Truths in a Chaotic World
Are there indeed universal truths that transcend science and technology and ideology as post-post-modern distrust throttles leaders, institutions, nations, perhaps even the very notion of hope in our world? Can we derive truth claims from the arc of human experience and wisdom that ought to govern both individual and communal ethical and moral decision making and behavior? What about those universal truths that the world’s religions describe as the Golden Rule: love, respect, and care for all humankind. What of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emerging from the atrocities of WWII, that states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in spirit of brotherhood.” What of the Judeo-Christian commandments: don’t kill, steal, torture, or lie?
Students, colleagues, friends, this place, Valparaiso University, stands as a beacon of light, a bastion of hope in a world wracked with doubt and despair. This University remains a bulwark in defense of the belief that Truth is continually revealed to us by our Creator and that we ought to dedicate our lives to its pursuit.
In Luke 8, Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.”
At Valparaiso University, we live by these words of hope and promise. As a University at the nexus of faith and learning, we are constantly reminded that God is at the heart of our truth-seeking journey. Our motto In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem– “In Thy Light we See Light”–serves as a reminder that the sole purpose of our discovery and exploration of truth is to reveal God’s light in all things.
Valpo accepts that science and religion, faith and reason can and do and ought to exist in virtuous relationship among the many ways human beings seek to know and understand creation. Valpo testifies to the belief that truth-seeking requires bringing noble people of many backgrounds and beliefs together so that we may engage in dialogue across our differences. And Valpo acknowledges that, despite our relentless quest for Truth, “we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now [we] know only in part; then [we] will know fully, even as [we] have been fully known.” This is most certainly true.
The Pursuit of Truth at Valpo
During your time here, you will pursue truth alongside theological, humanistic, artistic, and philosophical scholars in your Core, Christ College, and general education courses. You will live and study in a rich and diverse faith community where you will not only have the opportunity to deepen your own faith, but can learn about the faith of your classmates from other traditions as well.
Enriched and enhanced by your liberal arts education, you will also explore and test empirical truths in your science, mathematics, engineering, business, and health professions courses, as you discover truths about our universe, our bodies, and our industries, infrastructures, and markets.
Experiencing Truth through Leadership and Service
You will also pursue truth outside the classroom through a variety of experiences that will help shape you as global servant-leaders. Some of you will participate in Study Abroad, where you will learn about a culture outside your own. Others will pursue truth when working alongside the poor and marginalized right here in Northwest Indiana or during one of our sponsored fellowships or spring break service trips across the United States or overseas.
Still others of you will gain insight and wisdom as you lead campus-wide organizations and initiatives that impact both your classmates and our local community.
Dialogue Across Difference
Valparaiso University is a place that intentionally brings people together — people from all walks of life, from a variety of races, ethnicities, nationalities and religious creeds, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and ideological beliefs. Together we will pursue Truth, even as we come to discover, understand, and appreciate our differences.
At Valpo, we engage with one another with respect, with dignity, and with love, knowing that each of us is part of creation, that each of us is flawed in some way, and that our shared journey is one of reconciliation and redemption. Together we search for truth, strive for justice, and cultivate character and virtue. And we know that our classmates, teammates, and colleagues’ perspectives only serve to refine and enrich our own understanding and wisdom.
Against the backdrop of this year’s presidential contest and national unrest, this community is called to model for itself and for the world how we can engage in respectful and loving dialogue across our differences, even when those differences may be irreconcilable. To that end, Valparaiso University will mark the 2016-17 academic year as a special year of dialogue. I ask that students, faculty, staff, and alumni of the University consider how we might best model for ourselves and for the world how to engage effectively in dialogue with one another in the common pursuit of Truth. I look forward to working with all of you, and especially our newest students, in making our this year of dialogue an important and memorable moment in Valparaiso University’s history.
At Valpo We Stand for What is Honorable
Students, the dedicated and accomplished faculty and staff at Valpo aim to prepare and support you, not only to become successful in your chosen fields of study, but to become values-driven and truth-seeking leaders long after you leave this place. We will hold you to a higher standard, uplifting and cultivating noble qualities like integrity, generosity, and wisdom.
And we will challenge you, not only to pursue and discover Truth, but also to stand up for what is honorable. At some point in your time here, each of you will encounter a choice — a choice to stand for what is honorable or to stand by and watch. And when you face this choice, it is our hope that you choose what is honorable, whether you stand up for a friend who falls victim to hateful speech, you stand up for a classmate who is bullied for the way he dresses, or you stand up for a teammate for the way she prays.
If, as Orwell suggests, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” then, in this world overcome by skepticism and doubt, standing up for what is honorable and good is an act of courage.
In a few minutes, you will pin yourself with the Shield of Character, a symbol of the University’s dedication to preparing women and men of character and wisdom who will lead and serve in church and society. Shortly after, you will sign the Honor Code, a more than seven-decade tradition that embodies the University’s emphasis on academic honesty and integrity.
As you participate in these Valpo rituals, know that you are joining a community of nearly 60,000 Valpo alumni of uncommon character who continue to seek truth and justice and cultivate wisdom in their own lives and vocations.
The Valpo Challenge To Seek Truth and Cultivate Character
As you leave this Chapel today, I challenge each of you to consider these next years of your life not only as an opportunity to earn an academic degree from a world-renowned institution, but also to both seek and stand for truth as you explore your passions, discover your vocation, come to know your classmates and teammates, and prepare to transform the world.
To our new students, faculty, and staff, may you embark on this journey knowing that you are now forever a part of the Valpo community — a diverse and intentional community of leaders, scholars, mentors, coaches, teachers, and colleagues who are on a similar journey — the pursuit of truth, the cultivation of virtue and integrity, the love and respect for others who differ from us and disagree with us — a journey that continues to define Valpo and will do so for generations to come.
May God continue to bless each of you and Valparaiso University. Welcome to Valpo!
-Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D.
August 23, 2016
Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2016.
Graduates, you look fantastic this morning — all dressed up, the men have their hair combed, the women have their makeup on and some of the highest heels I think I’ve ever seen. And it looks like you all have gotten some sleep. All those worry lines are gone. I love you all, but you were looking pretty tough last week.
I am so pleased that you and your family members chose to begin this important day here, in this place, The Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. A place of worship and prayer. A place of peace and hope. A place of promises fulfilled.
Maybe you are Lutheran, and this Chapel has been a regular part of each week at Valparaiso University. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force that we cannot fully know nor comprehend. And it is fitting that we should gather together to sing songs of faith, and praise, and thanksgiving, and to pray with and for one another.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism, a reminder of God’s Spirit poured out on all who believe, and a re-dedication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
And for some of you, at least, it’s hard to imagine how you even got to this moment. Wasn’t it just yesterday when you were carrying all your stuff from the car to your new dorm room, saying goodbye to your parents and your sibs, and worrying about what college was going to be like? And in the blink of an eye, here you are all dressed up and worrying about what this next stage of life is going to be like.
Of course, you weren’t the only ones who worried. There were plenty of your Valpo professors and staff members who worried about you. I lost a few nights’ sleep worrying about some of you. Parents, friends, and loved ones, you’ve probably had your share of worries too.
We worry a lot these days. Fear seems to have gripped every facet of our society. Fear about the economy and jobs. Fear about the direction our nation is taking. Fear about violence and terrorism. Fear about people who don’t look like us, or talk like us, or worship like us, whoever that us might be. So it’s tough, even on a day of celebration and reflection, to hold the fear and worries of this world at bay.
And in response to all of our worries and fears, Christ says, “Shalom.”
Shalom. That soothing Hebrew word that means both hello and goodbye. Shalom. The word for peace. A peace that means more than just figuring out how people can live alongside one another without resorting to violence. Shalom. A peace that is complete, harmonious, tranquil, prosperous, peace which transcends human experience. A peace that is both within and beyond. (Strong, 1890)
In today’s Gospel lesson from the book of John, Jesus bids his disciples Shalom. “Peace I give you, my peace I leave you.”(John 14:7)
The disciples gather with Jesus that evening in an Upper Room, a quiet, private place above the din of the crowded street below. Clearly, it is an evening of great significance for Jesus, as he conveys important final lessons to his disciples. He washes their feet. He breaks bread and offers it to them, saying that this bread is his body, broken for them. He passes a cup of wine among them, saying that this cup is his blood, a covenant between God and God’s people, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
The disciples sense that Jesus’ signs and symbols hearken to something beyond them, something not of this time or of this world. But they cannot fully comprehend what Jesus is saying to them. Sensing something beyond, but not understanding. It is this sensation that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians when he writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Theologians and philosophers describe this concept as “transcendence.” God transcends our capacity to understand, because God is distinct, set apart from all that God has made, including you and me. Or in the words of Isaiah, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
The transcendence of a supreme being permeates ancient philosophy, Christian theology, and many of the world’s religions. Aristotle and Plato refer to God as a transcendent force, ultimately unknowable for those of us bound by time and place. Yet, both suggest that we are offered glimpses of the divine here on earth.
For Aristotle, the act of contemplation is the human activity most akin to the divine and, therefore, most likely to bring one happiness. (Bartlett & Collins, 2011) Plato describes ideas like “beauty” and “goodness” as something that transcend this world, but when manifested in our world, are imperfect in form. (Plato, 2007) Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism—each of these world religions attempts to grasp in various ways the concept of a Creator’s transcendent knowledge as Truth with a capital “T,” something that exists beyond our human capacities, something that we can only sense from time to time and with great discipline.
During your years at Valparaiso, you and your professors have engaged together in a common pursuit of Truth. Inherent in that metaphor is the elusiveness of Truth, something that is worthy of chasing, but is always just out of our grasp. Last Sunday, in his sermon here in the Chapel, Professor Fred Niedner described his college journey in this way: I entered as a freshman with all of the answers and graduated as a senior feeling as though I had just begun to learn the questions. Perhaps that has been your experience as well.
If Truth, then, is continually emergent in our lives and ultimately elusive; if, as Plato suggests, the idea of that which is Excellent, is imperfectly realized in our temporal lives and actions, then how ought one to live? In this post-modern age, when the answer to every question seems to be, “it depends,” how are we to know what is true, and right, and just? If the ground keeps shifting on us, where do we stand?
Sociologist and Notre Dame professor Christian Smith and his colleagues at the national Center for the Study of Religion and Society have been studying these questions among emerging adults for more than a decade. Two facets of his work focus on how emerging adults operate religiously and how they view morality. And the findings are fascinating.
Smith argues that, among young adults, two religious creeds operate concurrently. First, is the professed religion — that is, the religion one claims to be — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and then, perhaps, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, agnostic, or even no religion. Second, is one’s tacit or actual religion, or that cognitive schema one actually uses to make sense of God’s relationship to the world and one’s relationship to God. Based upon extensive research, Smith describes the tacit religion of many emerging adults as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Smith, 2005)
Despite the creeds one might profess in Sunday worship, here is how many young adults would describe their tacit creed:
- People ought to be morally good (that’s the moralistic part);
- Faith helps people to feel good about themselves (that’s therapeutic); and
- God is good and helps us when we need him, but is otherwise distant and not particularly involved in the details of our lives (hence the label, Deism). (Smith, 2005)
Smith’s research suggests that, for many emerging adults, being morally good and feeling good about it might be the way many people are navigating the shifting sands of post-modern society. But what do emerging adults mean when they aspire to be “morally good.”
In surveying and interviewing young adults, Smith and his research team conclude that a substantial number of young people consider morality to be a matter of individual decision; that right and wrong are determined more by an individual’s opinion rather than a set of fixed principles that ought to govern everyone’s behavior in a society. And when sticky moral issues cannot easily be sorted into categories of right and wrong, more often than not, young people default to an individualistic perspective. Consequently, to a number of young adults, there is no such thing as an objective moral fact. Rather, morality is subjective and relative; perspectives become quasi-true solely because an individual believes them to be true. (Smith, 2011)
When confronted with the question of what is true, what is right, what is just, the answer becomes: “it depends on what I think is true, right, and just.”
In this construct of individualistic morality, then, judgment becomes taboo. Jesus’ words, “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) get taken literally. In this mindset, nobody has the right to tell another person what to think or do. Therefore, if I think someone else may be doing something immoral, I must keep my thoughts to myself. Pope Francis’ words, “Who am I to judge?” strike a chord with many young adults because, for many, judgment connotes self-righteousness, superiority, condescension, and condemnation. (Smith, 2011)
At Valpo, your professors have labored to help you comprehend the value of judgment in your religion, your profession, and your social interactions. Judgment involves the disciplined exercise of discernment, a process of evaluation, the use of critical thinking to grow in understanding and self-awareness. (Smith, 2011) Here, you have been taught the increasingly necessary and uncommon skills to assess and critique intelligently the various claims that are made in this world. Ultimately, we hope that you have learned how to arrive at a thoughtful and nuanced understanding of a concept or a situation prior to forming an opinion or making a decision.
So, let us return to these questions: If in the absence of certainty about Truth, if I am occupying a world filled with people who increasingly subscribe to the principle that what one believes to be true is a proxy for Truth itself, in a presidential election year rife with spectacular displays of moral bankruptcy, if the process of discernment is publicly equated with self-righteousness and declared taboo, what is right living and what is wrong?
To gain a glimpse of the answers, we return to today’s Gospel lesson and that group of confused disciples who are trying to grasp the significance of Jesus’ words and actions.
Days before, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by multitudes of people with palms and shouts of Hosanna. From the perspective of his disciples, Jesus’ reign on earth was about to begin. Yet now, here they are, gathered upstairs, confused by Jesus’ talk and the foreboding sense that he is bidding them farewell. This man for whom they abandoned everything, this man whom they love — rabbi, prophet, mentor, friend — says, “soon I am leaving you. You cannot follow me to where I am going.” The disciples are filled with worry, wrought with fear over the uncertainty of what lies ahead of them, bursting with unanswered questions.
To which, Jesus responds with this promise: Though I will leave you soon, the Father is going to give you an Advocate, a Spirit — that can’t be seen. A Spirit that will live with you and be inside you. The Spirit of Truth. This Advocate, this Spirit of Truth is going to teach you things, like I have done, and this Spirit is going to remind you of what I said after I am gone.
I can only imagine what the disciples must have been thinking. Jesus’ answer to their questions and confusion is a riddle. An invisible Spirit who will serve as an Advocate. An “advocate,” someone who will plead on God’s behalf. A Spirit, an invisible force, who will intercede when needed. The disciples realize that Jesus is not going to answer their questions. Instead, Jesus only offers them a promise. Their faith is shaken. Their fears and worries multiply exponentially.
It is in this moment of confusion, worry, fear, that Christ bids his disciples, Shalom. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you,” he says. (John 14:7) “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
What is this Peace that Christ offers? It is a peace within us that comes from God and not from this world. And it is also a peace that is beyond our understanding. (Phillipians 4:7) It is a peace that silences our worries and calms our fears. It is Shalom.
We know, of course, how things turned out for the disciples. Jesus’ promise was fulfilled. Today’s lesson from the second book of Acts describes that day of Pentecost, when indeed the Holy Spirit descended from above. A violent wind filled the house in which the disciples were gathered and fire came down from the heavens. Tongues of fire appeared above the head of each disciple and each was “filled” with the Holy Spirit. The disciples spoke of the wonders of God, each speaking in a language different from his own. Jesus’ promise to the disciples that night in the Upper Room was that same promise foretold by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy…”
Which leads us from the transcendence of God to the immanence of God. That is, God within all things. God within you. God within me. The promise that Jesus made to the disciples, the promise that was fulfilled, is also a promise to each of us who are baptized into Christ. God’s promise is that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people. That we, as believers in Christ, will be filled with God’s spirit.
The Holy Spirit, this Spirit of Truth, is our advocate, our answer to the question of right living in a world filled with chaos, deceit, and despair. This is God’s Spirit within us, pleading God’s case throughout our lives. Interceding on God’s behalf whenever we go off course. Arguing within us about how to live the excellent lives we are called to live. Igniting the fire within us to build God’s kingdom here on earth. Teaching us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8)
I pray that, as you make your way in the world, you will always remember how you were shaped at Valparaiso University, a place filled with people who believe in both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. In this place, you learned that the world presents more questions than answers. Here, you engaged in the pursuit of Truth with many others who brought different backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences to that quest. At Valpo, you learned the value of discernment — how to distinguish fact from opinion, how to exercise effective judgment through disciplined assessment. And I pray that, while you were here, you experienced the blessing and the power of Christ’s promise fulfilled — the Holy Spirit, God within you — as your advocate, guiding your exploration of vocation and encouraging you to lead an excellent life.
This is a community dedicated to excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need, or in moments like these, when we gather for worship and prayer. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live excellent lives, individually and in community. This is Valpo. This is who you are. Now, take that light that shines within you and offer to others that glimpse of the divine.
The world will give you many things that do not last — careers, money, possessions. But Christ offers you eternal life. The world gives you lies, deception, betrayal. But Christ promises you the Spirit of Truth. The world gives you fear and worry. But Christ brings Shalom.
Today is a day of promises fulfilled. Trust in the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2) Stand not on the shifting sands of this world, but stand on the firm foundation that is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And now, may the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phillippians 4:7)
Mark A. Heckler
May 15, 2016
Aristotle. (2011) Nicomachean ethics. (Bartlett, R.C., & Collins, S. D., Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Plato. (2007) Six great dialogues: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, The Republic. (Jowett, B., Trans.).Mineola, NY: Dover.
Smith, C. and Denton, M. L. (2005) Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, C., Christofferson, K., Davidson, H., and Herzog, P.S. (2011) Lost in transition: The dark side of emerging adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press.
Strong, J. (1890) The exhaustive concordance of the Bible. Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Students, faculty, staff of Valparaiso University, I am going to come clean. I have an app on my phone that keeps track of how much coffee I drink and gives me a free coffee for every twelve I buy. And I have a Yo-Mazing Yogurt punch card so that I can get a free frozen yogurt at Yo-Mazing Yogurt over by the Target after ten purchases. And then there’s LePeep’s “Ten Clucks for Ten Bucks,” that will give me $10 off breakfast after ten visits. I have acquired more than a few of these over the years, and I just can’t toss them. I guess I’m the perfect subject for all of those marketing students who are dreaming up new programs designed to modify our behavior and increase our consumption by offering rewards. We live in a world where rewards are the norm–from “My Starbucks Rewards” to Capital One’s “What’s in your wallet?” and many, many more.
And this mindset isn’t limited to companies trying to earn our business. It’s everywhere. From extra credit in school to merit-based pay raises at work, many of us spend our lives chasing after a panoply of incentives designed to identify and reward those who excel in a particular task—as students, as athletes, as teachers or scholars, as workers in a factory or business or government entity. We are trained to expect these enticements to excel as children, when parents reward us with ice cream for good grades or when teachers gave us stickers for good behavior.
Though our cultures seem to place increasing emphasis on incentives and rewards for things like loyalty, consumption, and excellence, societies have been toying with these ideas for a long time. As early as sixth century B.C.E. in China, the philosopher Confucius initiated the idea that “those who govern should do so because of merit and not inherited status.” As a result, the Qin and Han dynasties used merit-based systems to select government officials on the basis of virtue and honesty, rather than through noble bloodlines.
In his Socratic dialogue, The Republic, the Greek philosopher, Plato, suggested that the wise man should rule. During the Enlightenment, Confucian texts were translated and read among Europe’s intellectual elite. Philosophers like Voltaire, advocated strongly for a government that modeled after the Confucian ideal, and the British Empire began a movement in Western societies toward merit-based administrations, starting in colonial India.
In the United States, a merit-based system was adopted in 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which mandated that government jobs be awarded based on merit rather than through political connections. The effects of centuries of evolution of governmental, cultural, and educational systems toward the principles we now know as “meritocracy” have been pervasive. And you sit here this afternoon as perfect examples of an educational and cultural system that, at least in theory, allows you on the basis of your individual merit, regardless of your background or beliefs, equal opportunity for success, a job, and, of course, an education.
Today you climb another rung on the ladder of educational meritocracy. You are intelligent. You have performed well on standardized tests and earned good grades. You have excelled in other measures of competency—as an athlete, or a musician, or a student leader. And you have been rewarded for your success in the form of awards and recognitions in school and scholarships from colleges and universities.
Now you are at Valparaiso University, a nationally recognized institution with a reputation for excellence. I imagine you are expecting that college will be another round of challenges through which you will demonstrate, to a higher degree, your capabilities to excel as a student. For your achievement, you expect to be rewarded with good grades, with opportunities for leadership, awards and recognitions, a degree, a diploma, and, ultimately, a good job with a great starting salary.
Such are the expectations of those who are climbing the ladder of educational meritocracy these days. Such is the expectation of nearly every entering freshman or transfer sitting in a university convocation today at campuses all over America.
But, students, we have expectations of you. Because you are at Valpo. Beyond the customary chase for rewards and recognition, we expect you to pursue Truth. We expect you to live lives of virtue, to be people of humility, people of integrity, people of character. We expect you to transcend the limits of meritocracy, to discover who you are called to be and what you are called to do in this world.
It is no happenstance that for the past 87 years, Valparaiso University has held convocation on the first day of classes in its Chapel. And for the past 57 years, new students have gathered for convocation in this place — the Chapel of the Resurrection — a place built as a monument to Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. A place of hope. A place brimming with light. A place of worship. A place of prayer.
Maybe you are Christian, and this Chapel will become a regular part of your Valpo week. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of this University’s acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force which we cannot fully know nor comprehend.
Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society. Valparaiso University will challenge you to engage in reflection, to discover your vocation or calling in this world, to live a virtuous life.
And what is this concept we call virtue? Aristotle described virtue as the “golden mean,” that balanced point between a deficiency and an excess of any particular human trait. To Aristotle, virtuous living is a set of endless choices on multiple continua requiring decisions that should be “at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.”
Virtue is moral excellence represented by personal qualities or behaviors deemed by humans in society to be right and good. These characteristics, either individually embodied or collectively shared, exemplify the finest qualities and ultimate potential of human achievement. Virtue lies at the very heart of greatness. Our most excellent selves are also our most virtuous.
During your years at Valpo, you will live and learn in a community dedicated to excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live virtuous lives, individually and in community.
In his new book, “Road to Character,” The New York Times columnist David Brooks talks a lot about the virtues fostered by meritocracy—he calls those resume virtues, and another set of virtues he calls eulogy virtues. He categorizes the resume virtues as those concrete achievements recognized by societies as indicators of success—good grades, awards, leadership positions, diplomas and certifications. Conversely, Brooks describes eulogy virtues as the ones “talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful.” He says that, while we all have a general inkling that, in the long run, eulogy virtues are more important than resume virtues, it appears that our society places a greater emphasis on teaching us the skills necessary to be materially successful. Brooks writes:
“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”
This light that Brooks describes — the one that radiates inside the woman or man of character and integrity — is the same light we saw in you when we accepted you into the Valpo community. That light is reflected in our motto, In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem — “In Thy Light We See Light”— where we are reminded that it is God’s light that shines in each and every one of us who have been called to teach and learn in this place and the nearly 60,000 alumni who have graduated from here to lead and serve all over the world.
Rest assured that Valparaiso University will prepare you to cultivate resume virtues — from developing communication and critical thinking skills to preparing you for your CPA exams or your nursing boards. But we will aim to do more. We will challenge you to live lives of integrity. We will challenge you to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly so that you will enter the world to lead and serve with wisdom. And we will help you learn to harness that light that radiates within each one of you for the greater good. Because, as Aristotle suggests, these virtues “make all the difference.”
In a few minutes, you will pin yourself with the Shield of Character, a symbol of the University’s dedication to preparing women and men who will lead and serve in church and society. Shortly after, you will sign the Honor Code, a more than seven-decade tradition that embodies the University’s emphasis toward academic honesty and integrity.
Both of these gestures symbolize your entrance into the Valparaiso University community. They are traditions that bind our community together, because as David Brooks suggests, “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.”
As you leave this Chapel today, I challenge each of you to consider these next years of your life not only as an opportunity to achieve academically and earn recognitions that will prepare you for success in material terms, but also to cultivate those virtues that will ultimately define your character. May you discover your calling in life, that place where passion meets purpose—your unique gifts put to work for the sake of the world. And may you embark on this journey knowing that you are now a part of the Valpo community — an exceptional and diverse community of leaders, scholars, mentors, coaches, teachers, and colleagues who are on a similar journey— the pursuit of Truth, the cultivation of character, the love and respect for others who differ from us and disagree with us—a journey that continues to define Valpo and shape all of those who are part of Valpo, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Blessings to each of you as you embark on this journey, and welcome to Valpo!
Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2015.
And what a spectacular morning it is! Not only has God given us an iconic Indiana spring day, but look at these young people — all dressed up, the men have their hair combed, the women have their makeup on and the highest heels I think I’ve ever seen. And it looks like you all have gotten some sleep. All those worry lines are gone. Gosh, I don’t remember the last time you looked so good!
We always want to look our best for threshold moments, don’t we? Our lives are punctuated with threshold moments like commencements. Sometimes, like today, they are periods at the end of a sentence, signaling the conclusion of something and the start of something new. At other times they are more like semi-colons or commas — milestones or markers — noting a change, but connecting what has come before with what will follow.
Threshold moments hold great power for human beings across cultures and across time. These are the moments in life when we are propelled, ready or not, into new terrain. Metaphorically and sometimes quite literally, we humans describe these moments with archetypical images, in this case walking across a threshold and through a door into unfamiliar space. The threshold archetype captures both fear and hope — fear of the unknown coupled with hope that what waits for us beyond the door will be better than what is left behind.
Commencements are certainly significant threshold moments. You may have felt that significance when you crossed the threshold and entered the Chapel this morning, with splendid music and voices uplifted. If someday you marry, there will be that significant moment when the two of you cross the threshold into your home for the first time as a married couple. If you have a child, there will be that threshold moment when you cross through the door with your newborn son or daughter. And, in the blink of an eye, there’s the day when that same child walks out the door to leave for college. These threshold moments, the periods and semi-colons that punctuate our lives, continue through to the day when you are gone from this earth; the day when those who remember you gather in places like this to speak about your life until, finally, the pallbearers carry what’s left of you across the threshold one final time.
Anthropologists call these liminal moments. Liminality is like a little death; its participants experience this sense of mourning something lost. (Szakolczai, 2009) As one enters the liminal state, standing before that threshold, marking the line between one phase of life and the next, the participant becomes a tabula rasa — a blank slate — filled with potential, uncertain of that person’s place in the larger community, able to redefine the self as he or she assimilates into society as a “new being.” (Szakolczai, 2009) So, from an anthropological perspective, in commencement there is both death and rebirth. And at this very moment you are that tabula rasa, a new creation, filled simultaneously with loss and fear and potential and great hope. (Turner, 2008) In anthropological terms, it’s a pretty freaky place to be.
As you prepare to cross this important threshold in your life’s journey, I commend you for choosing to begin in this place: the Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. A place of worship. A place of prayer. A place of hope.
Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of each week at Valparaiso University. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force which we cannot fully know nor comprehend. And it is fitting that we should gather together to sing songs of faith and praise and thanksgiving and to pray with and for one another.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism and a re-dedication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society. Together, we choose to begin this threshold moment here.
And for some of you, at least, it’s hard to imagine how you even got here. Wasn’t it just yesterday when you were carrying all your stuff from the car to your new dorm room, saying goodbye to your parents and your sibs, and worrying about what college was going to be like? And in the blink of an eye, here you are all dressed up and worrying about what life is going to be like. And it is equally hard to believe that after so much worrying, so much praying, so many sleepless nights, so much caffeine and sugar, this day would ever come. Yet, here it is. And here you are, surrounded by some of the most important people in your life. Seems like all that hard work and all that worrying paid off.
Of course, you weren’t the only ones who worried. There were plenty of your professors and staff members here at Valpo who worried about you. I lost a few nights’ sleep worrying. Parents, friends, and loved ones, you’ve probably had your share of worries, too. Worries about sending you off on your own — the choices you might make, all the things that could go wrong. Worries about the major you chose to study. Worries about whether or not you would be successful. And, of course, the never-ending worries about money.
I wonder, however, how many sleepless nights we spent worrying about the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated, the oppressed. How much have we worried about things like character, or integrity, or wisdom. It seems so natural to worry about things like our career, success, money, even happiness — our culture has hard-wired us to worry about those things. But, I would like to suggest that we as individuals and as a society ought to worry more about our inner life, our moral foundation, and about the cultivation of virtue.
This morning, we are reminded of all the latent potential we hold in these liminal moments — these rare times when we enter a new phase of life with a blank slate — these moments present us with extraordinary opportunities to establish new habits of mind and heart. This is the time to commit to nurture our virtuous selves, to cultivate the important inner strength, consistency, and moral compass that we will need to guide us through the uncertainty, ambiguity, and profound change that lies ahead.
Humility, devotion, courage, compassion, integrity, and wisdom are but a few of the qualities we lift up as human virtues. Virtue — that moral excellence represented by personal qualities or behaviors deemed by humans in society to be right and good. These characteristics, either individually embodied or collectively shared, exemplify the finest qualities and ultimate potential of human achievement. Virtue lies at the very heart of greatness. Our most excellent selves are also our most virtuous.
In his new book, “The Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks probes this concept of virtue at some length. He differentiates what he describes as “résumé virtues” from those he calls “eulogy virtues.” The résumé virtues, he writes, are “the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.” “The eulogy virtues,” he says, “are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
David Brooks grounds his framework in the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The Rabbi describes two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis and how each represents opposing sides of human nature. He calls these opposing sides Adam I and Adam II. For our purposes, I will also label them Eve I and Eve II. (Brooks, 2015)
Adam and Eve I ought to be very familiar to you. They represent the résumé virtues; they are externally focused, ambitious, and career oriented. Adam and Eve I want to “build, create, produce, and discover things. They want to have high status and win victories.” (Brooks, 2015)
Adam and Eve II are internally focused on those eulogy virtues. They desire “not only to do good, but to be good. Adam and Eve II want to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, [and] to live in obedience to some transcendent truth.” While Adam and Eve I’s motto is “Success,” Adam and Eve II’s motto is “Charity, love, and redemption.” (Brooks, 2015)
These two Adams and two Eves live by differing logics as well. Adam and Eve I understand the world through utilitarian logic: “Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.” (Brooks, 2015) These are certainly virtues that are celebrated in American culture.
Conversely, Adam and Eve II rely on moral logic. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning … In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.” (Brooks, 2015) These are the virtues that are commended to us throughout the Old and New Testament and are reflected in our lessons from scripture this morning.
Today’s lessons offer wisdom and guidance on a particular eulogy virtue — charity, or in today’s parlance, generosity. Jesus tells us that we have a choice to make, because we cannot love both God and money. By attempting to do so, “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) And the Apostle Paul suggests in 2 Corinthians that we, like the farmer in the field, reap what we sow in life. And if we want a generous harvest, we must sow seed abundantly.
What is this virtue we call generosity? The Oxford English Dictionary defines generosity as “Character or conduct characteristic of or befitting a person of noble birth, especially nobility of spirit. A readiness to give more of something, especially money, than is necessary or expected. A generous act; an act or instance of courage, magnanimity, or liberality. The quality or fact of being plentiful or large.”(“Generosity,” 2015)
The word “generosity” derives from a classical Latin word for good breeding, excellence, or nobility of stock (of people, animals, or plants); centuries later, generosity came to refer more broadly to nobility of character. Noble character was more than breeding; it was something that could be cultivated. (OED, 2015) It was only in the 18th century that the concept of generosity expanded to signify munificence, “open–handedness, and liberality in the giving of money and possessions to others.” (“What is generosity,” 2015)
Given its noble origins, generosity carries some baggage that continues to influence people’s perceptions and behaviors today. The Notre Dame University sponsors research on the science of generosity (“What is generosity,” 2015). Their research suggests that generosity is often viewed as a trait to be practiced primarily “by those of higher quality or greater goodness,” that it is “more an ideal toward which the best may aspire” rather than “the duty of all to practice.” (“What is generosity,” 2015) Yet, each of us, regardless of our financial means, can be called to live lives of generosity. And research shows that there are tangible benefits to doing so.
In their book, “The Paradox of Generosity,” researchers Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson suggest that those who give of themselves — their talents, their time, and their possessions — receive much more in return. Smith and Davidson’s research defines generous people as those who exhibit one or more of the following characteristics: they give away 10 percent or more of their income each year; they volunteer; and they maintain strong and caring relationships with family, neighbors, and friends. (Smith & Davidson, 2015)
What these researchers learned was startling. Generous people appear to be happier and healthier than those who are not generous. They exhibit a greater sense of purpose in life and show continued interest in personal growth and development. And they avoid depression and anxiety at a rate that is statistically significant when compared to those who describe themselves as less generous. (Smith & Davidson, 2015)
The paradox, of course, is that those who hold on tightly to their possessions, those who do not give of their time, those who are less engaged and caring with family and friends, those who obsess over protecting themselves against future uncertainties, are “more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes … [for] by failing to care for others, [they] do not properly take care of [them]selves.” (Smith & Davidson, 2015)
What these social scientists describe as the paradox of generosity gets to the heart of those eulogy virtues that David Brooks describes. That you have to give to receive. That failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. That in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. (Brooks, 2015) Virtue is paradoxical. Virtue is counter-cultural. Cultivating virtue requires discipline and constant work, which in turn unleashes tremendous power, liberating and freeing the spirit. Cultivating the habits and discipline of virtue enable our spirits to soar.
In today’s lesson from Matthew, Jesus describes this liberation from the cares of the world. He tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Why should you worry so much about where your next meal is coming from? Just look at the birds in the sky. God cares for the birds, providing them all the food that is needed. They know to rely on God to provide all that they need. (Matthew 6: 25-26)
And why should you worry about the clothes on your back. Just look at the flowers of the field. God adorns them with the most beautiful array of colors on the earth — they are outfitted finer than King Solomon in all his splendor. (Matthew 6: 28-30)
Liberation is a frightening concept, especially in the land of the résumé virtues. The worry kicks in, and we cry out, but “What shall we eat?” and “What shall we drink?” and “What shall we wear?” (Matthew 6: 31) Will I get a good job and a promotion in a year? What will my starting salary be? Will my graduate program set me up for success? Can I buy a new car? Or a house? What about my school loans? Will I need to move back in with my family?
And Jesus answers. Do not worry about tomorrow. This day has enough to worry about. And when tomorrow comes, we can count on it bringing its own worries to bear. Focus instead on the kingdom of God and on God’s righteousness. And God will provide. (Matthew 6: 31-34)
Ultimately, everything rests on our ability to trust in the Lord, doesn’t it? If we are to keep those résumé virtues in their proper place, if we are to be liberated from the cares of the world, we must accept and confess the truth, at our deepest and most fundamental level, that we believe and trust in God the Father Almighty. And we must accept the truth that everything we have, including our own life, is provided by God, that, unlike those Marvel comic book heroes, we are not the masters of our destiny.
Here is how Martin Luther, in the first article of his “Small Catechism,” explains what this means:
“I believe that God created me along with all creatures. God gave to me: body and soul, eyes, ears, and all the other parts of my body, my mind and all my senses and preserves them as well. God gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and land, spouse and children, fields, animals, and all I own. Every day God abundantly provides everything I need to nourish this body and life. God protects me against all danger, shields and defends me from all evil. God does all this because of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, not because I’ve earned it or deserved it. For all of this, I must thank, praise, serve, and obey God.” (Luther, 2008)
This is why the Apostle Paul tells us, in today’s lesson from Second Corinthians, that we should give of our selves, our time, and our possessions “what we have decided in our heart to give,” that we should be “cheerful givers,” that we should not feel compelled to give because we want to look good in the eyes of our neighbors or because it is expected of us. (2 Corinthians 9: 7-8)
Paul tells us that God will bless us abundantly, like the birds of the air or the flowers of the field, so “that in all things at all times, having all that you need,” you will be enriched so much that you can be even more generous. Paul describes the noble and virtuous cycle of giving and receiving even more in return from our ever generous, gracious, and forgiving God. (2 Corinthians 9: 8, 13)
All because of the grace of God. His generous and abundant grace. The gift of his only son, Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven to live among us, fully human and fully among us, who suffered for us, who took on the burden of all our sin, who died for us. And in whose life, and death, and resurrection promises us life everlasting before the throne of God.
What an indescribable gift, Paul writes. What amazing generosity!
That job you are worrying about — it will come to you in time and with persistence. You have been well educated and well prepared. That starting salary — it is a start. With hard work you will earn more. That new or used car — it only needs to get you where you need to go. The world will make demands on your time and energy, you will be drawn to spend your money on possessions that, in time, you will give away or throw away. Many of you will climb that ladder of success and achieve notoriety, perhaps even greatness when measured by those résumé virtues.
Yet, I pray that you will always remember that you were shaped at Valparaiso University, a place that requires and expects more of you than success, more of you than even happiness in this world.
During your years at Valpo, you have lived and learned in a community dedicated to excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need, or in moments like these when we gather for worship and prayer. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live virtuous lives, individually and in community.
This is Valpo. This is who you are. This is the excellent person, the virtuous person you are called to be.
Graduates, as my benediction, I write these words from the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, onto your blank slate as the first words to guide your new lives:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” (as cited in Brooks, 2015)
May these virtues — humility, generosity, hope, faith, love, forgiveness — be your compass as you cross this threshold into the unknown. May they also be the words used to describe you as you cross that final threshold when your journey is done.
And now, may the peace of God, who surpasses all understanding, Guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Mark A. Heckler
May 17, 2015
Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. New York: Random House.
Luther, M. (2008). Luther’s small catechism with explanation. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Generosity. (15 May 2015). Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77534?redirectedFrom=generosity#eid
Smith, C. and Davidson, H. (2014). The paradox of generosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Szakolczai, A. (2009) Liminality and experience: Structuring transitory situations and transformative events. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), 141.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Turner, V. W. (2008). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction Press.
What is generosity. (15 May 2015). Retrieved from http://generosityresearch.nd.edu/more-about-the-initiative/what-is-generosity/
A STORY FOR TOMORROW: RE-VISIONING THE COLLEGE CHAPLAINCY
Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D.
NetVUE Chaplaincy Conference
September 27, 2014
Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Beth, for your very kind and generous introduction. I am honored by the invitation of NetVUE and CIC and feel blessed to be able to share some thoughts with you today.
A Life in the Theatre
As you gathered from my biography, I began my career on the stage. From a young age, I felt drawn to that place of pretense, that place where people gather in the dark in the hope that they may discover some truth about themselves and all humanity.
The theatre is a temple of stories where actors, masquerading in a variety of roles, fool us into believing that they are the people they pretend to be, taking us with them on journeys to our darkest places and back, leaving us grateful for the lives we lead. We leave the theatre, silently thinking, “There, but for the grace of God, go we” (Martin, 2014).
Helen Hayes, the consummate actress of her generation and a devout Catholic, framed the power of stories this way:
We rely upon the poets, the philosophers, and the playwrights to articulate what most of us can only feel, in joy or sorrow. They illuminate the thoughts for which we only grope; they give us the strength and balm we cannot find in ourselves. Whenever I feel my courage wavering, I rush to them. They give me the wisdom of acceptance, the will and resilience to push on.” (Hayes, 1965)
Or in the words of Mrs. Lovett in the Sondheim musical, “Sweeney Todd,” “I do loves a good story” (Sondheim & Wheeler, 1991).
Knowing full well that my kind have, through the centuries, been scorned by the Church, I understand the risk of beginning this talk with a true story. And yet, I am compelled to share it.
A true story.
It was the Tuesday after Easter. Around 5 o’clock. The end of a long day at work. The direct line rang in my office. It was the provost. “Mark,” he said, his voice trembling, “I have some terrible news.”
He proceeded to inform me that one of the University pastors had just been found dead by an apparent suicide. We stayed on the phone together, silent, our minds racing, a jumble of shock and sorrow. I felt like a ship at sea during a storm, anchorless, rudderless, without bearings. And if that was how I was feeling, I could not imagine what my colleagues on the staff of the campus Chapel were experiencing at that very moment. Lord, I prayed, show us the way.
The provost and I could only think of one thing to do. Tell the campus that we would gather together at the Chapel later that evening. We had not yet formed the story we would tell about this death. But we knew the larger narrative that would bring coherence to this incomprehensible act.
And we knew that, throughout the history of Valparaiso University, our students would instinctively be drawn to the Chapel as that place we gather to affirm the story, to come to grips with the incoherent chaos of the world, and to find our way.
In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem, goes the motto at Valparaiso University. Psalm 36:9: “In Thy Light, We See Light” (King James Version).
Another true story.
Just 15 minutes from our campus, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana, you will find deep sandy beaches and dunes, with waves that rival those on the Atlantic coast. It is the custom at Valparaiso for students to spend afternoons at the Indiana Dunes, swimming and sunning themselves on the beach.
A group of our Saudi students were among those playing at the lake that afternoon of the first week of school — and four of the boys were standing together about 20 yards out, jumping in the waves. All of a sudden, one of the boys, quite athletic and a strong swimmer, jumped in the air with his hands up, shouting. Then he disappeared under the water.
His friends thought he was playing. But he didn’t return to the surface. A rip current had sucked the sand bar from beneath his feet, and he and all the sand were drawn out quickly, silently, deep into the waters of Lake Michigan. The student’s older sister and younger brother were among the group gathered at the lake that day.
As the day wore on and the student’s body did not surface, greater numbers of Saudi students and other international students gathered together at the lake in silent vigil, eager to find his body so that he could be returned home for burial. The need, the urgency, was palpable.
Brian Johnson had just arrived on campus as executive director of campus ministries a few weeks before. Brian, who is an ordained pastor in the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, joined these students as they waited on the shore while teams of police and volunteers searched the coastline. He was with these students the next day as the student’s body was located. He was there with the siblings as they identified his body. He was there as I met with the brother and sister to express the condolences of our community.
Back on campus, the collaborative team in our chaplaincy, Pastors Jim Wetzstein of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the LC-MS, and ELCA Pastor Charlene Cox, ministered to the students. While the campus was reeling from the death of this student, it had no language, no ritual, no tradition, no clear way to come together across Christianity and Islam to grieve as one campus. Yet, the pastors knew that we needed to gather together at the Chapel to make sense of things and to find our way. They decided that we would host a silent vigil.
The students and faculty — Muslim and Christian — gathered quietly and awkwardly in this common space. Pastor Jim asked me to open the gathering as the president of the University, to reflect on the loss of this important member of the community, and to invite those gathered to offer silent prayer, each in his or her own way, and, if they chose, to light candles in remembrance.
We had no roadmap, no experience. We lacked a shared set of beliefs. And yet we knew that it was good to gather together, to grieve together, to show our love and support for one another, and that it was important for everyone, in their own way, to pray for this lost one, and for his family.
The Power of Stories
Stories are powerful things. In our time, we have seen compelling narratives start movements, get people elected to office, topple governments, and change lives. The potential for narrative to effect change has been compounded exponentially in these latter days by the tremendous power of social media to transmit, share, and build both awareness and validation of particular narratives, especially those that bring a sense of logic, order, and comprehensibility to chaotic or unclear situations.
People are increasingly curious about stories, why we tell them, how they work on us consciously and subconsciously. Narrative theorists, who come from a wide range of disciplines from literary studies and linguistics to sociology and cognitive science, “[start] from the assumption that narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change.” They explore “how stories help people make sense of the world, while also studying how people make sense of stories” (Ohio State University, 2014).
I believe that this sense-making dialectic can inform the roles and positioning of the future chaplaincy in higher education, particularly as we live through the last gasps of modernity in this in-between age we call the post-modern.
Studies in Post-Modernism: Rashomon and Memento
What has the chaplaincy to do with stories? And why is this aspect of the chaplaincy particularly important in the post-modern University?
To begin to answer these questions, let’s return to theatrical convention. To illustrate, I’ll use two examples from the cinema, another theatrical art form that relies primarily on narrative and role-playing to illuminate the human condition.
First, we turn our attention to the work of master Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa and his 1950 film, “Rashomon.” In one of the greatest films of the 20th century, Kurosawa tells the story of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife through the accounts of four different eyewitness narrators: a bandit, the wife, a wood-cutter, and the ghost of the samurai, all of whom are telling the truth as they see it, all of whom claim a different killer. (Criterion, 2013) Film critic Roger Ebert considers:
The genius of ‘Rashomon’ is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.’
The wonder of ‘Rashomon’ is that while the shadowplay of truth and memory is going on, we are absorbed by what we trust is an unfolding story. The film’s engine is our faith that we’ll get to the bottom of things — even though the woodcutter tells us at the outset he doesn’t understand, and if an eyewitness who has heard the testimony of the other three participants doesn’t understand, why should we expect to? (Ebert, 2002)
At the film’s core, Kurosawa uses “Rashomon” to interrogate the nature of truth.
“Rashomon” introduces a new conceit in the conventions of world cinema: the unreliable narrator. In fact, this concept, called the “Rashomon effect,” illustrates the skepticism of the post-modern perspective, where we have come to conclude that we ought to routinely expect contradictory eyewitness accounts of the same event by different people. Indeed, there is no single truth, no reliable narrative. The modern concept of a logical, rational, coherent narrative is not to be trusted (Heider, 1988).
The second example comes from the 2000 Christopher Nolan film, “Memento.” This film tells two stories about a former insurance investigator named Leonard. Leonard, we learn, has anterograde amnesia and cannot store recent memories, the result of a beating.
In these two stories, a series of black-and-white sequences tells one story in chronological order, punctuated by a series of color sequences that tells that same story backwards. Through these two stories both we and Leonard piece together the story of who murdered Leonard’s wife. And because of Leonard’s amnesia, he is forced to experience the shock and grief of her death anew with each recollection. As viewers, we spend much of the movie as confused as Leonard, trying to piece together the story from tiny clues doled out to us with each ensuing scene.
LA Times film critic Andy Klein’s detailed explication of the film draws our attention to Leonard’s dialogue early in the script. Leonard says,
Memory’s unreliable … Memory’s not perfect. It’s not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable … Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It’s an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts. (Klein, 2001)
Klein (2001) calls this “the very heart of the film.” “ ‘Memento’,” he says, “is a movie largely about memory — the ways in which it defines identity, how it’s necessary to determine moral behavior and yet how terribly unreliable it is, despite its crucial role in our experience of the world” (Klein, 2001).
Ultimately, even after repeated viewings, the audience cannot piece together the truth of what it has seen. The revelations don’t add up. Tattoos appear and disappear from Leonard’s chest irrespective of time. We discover sequences we accept as reality that, upon further analysis, appear to be fantasy (Klein, 2001). In the end, as Roger Ebert concludes in his analysis, “Confusion is the state we are intended to be in” (Ebert, 2001).
So, friends, these films capture the prevailing spirit of where we are situated in post-modernity — unable to trust the narrator, unable to trust the story, unable to trust our own perceptions and memory. What a paradox it is to find ourselves satiated with technology, with nearly unlimited access to the accumulated information generated by human beings world-wide, yet more unsure than ever of what sense to make of it or who to believe. Or, in the words of T.S. Eliot,
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. (Eliot, 1963)
The Chaplaincy and Post-Modernism
All of us are grappling with the dying pangs of modernism, or in the words of theologian Robert W. Jenson, “how the world lost its story.” In his essay with that same title, Jenson describes modernism as our belief in a rational, coherent narrative of human progress independent of God. First generated in the Enlightenment, modernity preaches that each of us as individuals and each of our cherished institutions — government, universities, and the Church — contributes to this larger coherent narrative, all of it moving directionally toward a promised and promising tomorrow (Jenson, 1993).
Jenson (1993) argues that, as Nietzsche predicted, modernity’s collapse was inevitable. And while Nietzsche imagined an emergent ‘superman’ arising out of the chaos of nihilism that ensued with the death of modern progress, we find ourselves instead not in the state of absolute freedom Nietzsche imagined, but rather awash in a post-modern sea of skepticism and confusion. We cannot trust our government, or our universities, or the Church. We cannot trust each other, and we cannot even trust ourselves. As Jenson (1993) suggests, it is a world without a story, a world without hope, and a world without promises.
It is from this place of yearning for knowledge, for wisdom, for Truth, for a narrative of hope and promises, that calls for a deeply rooted, muscular, and visionary chaplaincy in our nation’s colleges and universities. To tell the story that needs to be told. To offer terra firma in a sea of negation. So that we might have promises in which we can trust.
I firmly believe that a strong chaplaincy draws its strength from the identity and ethos of its founding religious tradition. A strong chaplaincy is inextricably interwoven with the intellectual, social, and spiritual vitality and development of every student, faculty, and staff member. A strong chaplaincy is the key to both articulating institutional distinction and setting a clear course toward an institution’s most desired future. I also believe that there are new roles for tomorrow’s chaplains to play in university life.
But before I describe those roles to you, let me share one final narrative with you. One I hope you can trust. This is the story of Valparaiso University and the role the chaplaincy has begun to play in our present and future.
The Valpo Story
Located in Northwest Indiana, just an hour outside of Chicago, Valparaiso University, or “Valpo” as it is colloquially known, occupies an unusual position among faith-based institutions. Founded by the Methodists in 1859 as Valparaiso Male and Female College, it flourished briefly and then floundered during and after the American Civil War. Next, bought by entrepreneur Henry Baker Brown in the 1870s and converted into a proprietary school, Valpo’s second iteration focused on a highly practical educational experience. The campus swelled to 5,000 students and, because of its extraordinary size and energy, was known in its day as the “Harvard of the West.” After Brown’s death, the campus fell into decay and bankruptcy.
It had two suitors bidding for its ownership in 1925 — a group of Fort Wayne businessmen who were members of the LCMS, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod; the other group was the Ku Klux Klan. The Lutherans won the bid, and Valpo’s modern era began in 1925. Yet, unlike other Lutheran institutions of its day, the founders of Valparaiso University chose to keep it independent of any church body, invited Lutherans of all stripes into its learning community, and strove mightily to keep itself fully Lutheran in identity and practice.
In its early Lutheran years, Valpo weathered significant challenges — the Great Depression and World War II, when enrollment dropped to only a few hundred women. After World War II, the campus swelled with large numbers of Lutherans, particularly due to the efforts of the charismatic and eloquent President O.P. Kretzmann, a luminary in the LCMS, whose vision to build a “University under the Cross,” a place where “Athens and Jerusalem meet,” was compelling for Lutheran families at that time.
Kretzmann’s crowning achievement was the construction of the Chapel of the Resurrection in 1959, still the largest collegiate Chapel in North America and recognized as one of the 50 most beautiful college chapels in the world. At its dedication, Kretzmann challenged future presidents with words that still echo strongly on our campus today. He said,
This Chapel was to be a monument to Jesus Christ. It was to say that we, so late in time, still cling to the God of Grace, Redemption, and Sanctification. It was to tell the world of our continuing need for the eternal … sure that our laboratories and libraries, our classrooms and dormitories, were not enough. So, if at some dim and distant time we might have here a faculty, students, and administration who no longer believe in the purposes of this Chapel, it will still be necessary for them to come to terms with what this Chapel represents. They can never quite get away from this silent witness to our faith (Kretzmann, 1969).
Soon after my arrival at Valpo, I observed that the Chapel, that architectural centerpiece of the campus, was largely isolated from the life of the University. A place of ritual and tradition, with an extraordinary wealth of liturgical experience and musical talent, the Chapel faced dwindling attendance and little relevance to the lives of the majority of the students, faculty, and staff, who by then were not Lutheran.
In addition, the University found itself at the nexus of a deepening theological and social conflict between the two largest bodies of Lutheranism in America — the LCMS and the ELCA. As the rift between these bodies widened on issues like the ecumenism and the ordination of women, gays, and lesbians, Valpo found itself in continuing firestorms as it attempted to operate as its own “synod,” a hybrid of the two bodies in polity and practice. Valpo became adept at navigating this conflicted terrain, as considerable psychic energy and political goodwill had been expended in navigating these theological and cultural wars between the Lutheran left and right for more than three decades.
Through a broad-based visioning process, we conceived of a new positioning for the Lutheran identity of Valparaiso University, moving from a model of hospitality (a University for Lutherans inviting others into community) to one of constitution (a Lutheran University constituted by people from many backgrounds and beliefs). We concluded the process with this vision statement for our future Lutheran identity:
Valparaiso University will be a distinguished Lutheran community of learning constituted by people of many and various beliefs and backgrounds in dialogue with one another in common pursuit of truth.
This vision gave us a new story to tell about Valparaiso University; one more aligned with its current body of students, faculty, and staff; one that would position the University to lead and serve future generations of increasingly diverse students through the post-modern age.
We began immediately to re-position the Chapel for this new vision. First, I appointed as University provost Mark Schwehn, a beloved alumnus from the O.P. Kretzmann era, 30-year Valpo faculty member, former dean of Valpo’s honors college — Christ College, author of “Exiles from Eden” and co-editor of “Leading Lives that Matter.” We then changed the reporting structure of the Chapel from the Office of the President to the Provost’s Office. This was done to enable us to both redefine and re-energize the efforts of the Chapel and to bring the Chapel’s work into the center of conversations about the student experience. We hired a female ELCA pastor as a third University Pastor alongside two long-serving LCMS pastors. Provost Schwehn then convened a Task Force to examine the future of campus ministries at Valpo.
Here are a few of the key governing principles that framed the Task Force’s work. They are germane to our consideration of the future chaplaincy.
- Valparaiso is a University, not a church.
- Because it is a Lutheran University, Valparaiso shall continue to give pre-eminent place to the Lutheran tradition, as manifest both in the LCMS and the ELCA, in its worship life and in many other activities that minister to the spiritual lives of students.
- Because it is a community of learning constituted by people of all faiths, Valparaiso shall minister to the spiritual needs of all students, including those of non-Christian faiths, in providing for their worship life and in supporting many other activities that address the spiritual lives of students.
- Because it is a University, Valparaiso seeks the truth and may credibly strive to achieve the unity of truth as seen in the light of the Truth.
- Because it is not a church, Valparaiso, though it should long for and worship in the hope of Christian unity of faith and action, may not credibly strive to achieve unity of ecclesial practice.
You can see, with these principles, a positioning of the chaplaincy at a nexus of the University and the Church, writ large, at the nexus of Christianity and other world religions, at the nexus of Lutheranism and other expressions of Christian faith, at the nexus of the various expressions of Lutheranism, and vitally connected to our quest for truth as continually revealed by our Creator, always illuminated by the larger narrative of Truth that we are called to proclaim.
Operating continually at the nexus of these oftentimes competing and contradictory forces is a difficult task. The chaplaincy must engage us in some of the most vexing problems and vital conversations we must have across cultures, societies, and nations, conversations about the story which binds us together and offers us a promise we can trust, about how we will live together in community even when our differences may be irreconcilable. And in these difficult and chaotic times, it is perhaps the most important task we undertake. Because lives are at stake. And our world is at stake.
Too Many Hats?
If this is the future of the chaplaincy, as I believe it is, then it is time for us to write a new script for the Story, with important roles for our chaplains to play. Even as I say this, I am reminded of that wonderful 1980 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” The play ran for 8 ½ hours and its 150 or so characters were played by a small troupe of actors endlessly changing roles.
Surely, that’s what it must feel like being a chaplain today. You are called upon to play so many roles: preaching the gospel, orchestrating worship, offering pastoral support and counseling, promoting social justice, engaging students in community service, fostering leadership, educating students in church polity and practice. I know from personal experience that playing many roles can be exhausting work, especially when you try to play each role with equal vigor and intensity.
When I transitioned from acting to directing plays, I came to understand that the art of direction — from the staging of the actors, to the colors of the costumes and the intensity of the lighting — was meant to focus the audience’s attention on what was most important at any given moment of the play. This ensured that the story would be told clearly and coherently the audience so that they might make sense of it for themselves and for their living in the world.
In your several roles as chaplains, you face a similar task. How might you best tell the story, God’s story, for those who have come to you to make sense of the chaos around them? My tools were the story, the actors, the costumes, the lighting, and the stage. Your tools are the Story; your selves and your particular gifts; the physical chapel; and the world. You must choose how to best use these tools to focus the attention of those around you so that the Story, that singular and all-encompassing Story, is conveyed in a way that enables students, faculty, and staff to make sense of the Story and use the Story to navigate and participate in the world.
Earlier, I alluded to the complex roles of the modern chaplaincy: preacher, teacher, servant, advocate, change-agent, leader. Yet, if we think of the post-modern dilemma, these roles seem inadequate for the task before us. Perhaps it is time for us to reconceive the roles of the chaplaincy. To that end, I suggest four strategic roles the chaplaincy might play in our institutions.
The Chaplain as Narrator
Particularly in these times of suspicion and confusion, the chaplaincy is called to be the reliable narrator for our institutions and our constituents. To do so requires a deep understanding of the institution’s history, its ethos, its culture, its most enduring stories — those which capture and affirm those deeply held beliefs and values that draw people to it and keep them connected with it over the decades and generations. This is the institutional narrative.
This narrative, however, must be told as part of a larger story, the larger Story of our creation, of our living, of our dying, and of what lies beyond. This Story is the Truth, that ultimate Light on all of our University shields, that illuminates the many pathways we individually pursue in our quest for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
The chaplaincy must seek to tell the institution’s story as coherent and consonant within this larger story. Not two plots intertwined. Not even as a sub-plot, but rather, the story of our institutions as full and unique and enduring expressions of the Story manifest in this time and this place. The institutional story must be authentic and inspirational. It must speak across generations. It must be taught. It must be recited routinely, especially by those chief story tellers — the president and the trustees. And it must continue to evolve even while remaining grounded in history and experience.
Our institutions rely on you to be that trusted narrator, to know the institution both past and present, to imagine its future, and to weave a seamless and persuasive narrative that calls us into our studies, into our work and into the world as our most excellent selves, all for the glory of God.
The Chaplain as Interlocutor
It was in the American minstrel shows of the 19th century that the role of the interlocutor was born. While this form of racist entertainment thankfully has died away, the concept of the interlocutor has survived and represents an important role for tomorrow’s chaplaincy. In the minstrel show, the interlocutor was the person in the middle of the line of performers. The interlocutor was, at times, the emcee, at other times, he engaged the performers on either end of the line in banter, urging them on, cajoling them, pushing the performers toward excellence, setting the tempo, whipping up the crowd and bringing them to rest.
Unlike the minstrel shows of the past, that line of performers is diverse and often at odds. The line extends from the far right to the far left. It is filled with a wide variety of faith traditions and expressions — from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and cru to gatherings of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, from the Chinese Bible study group and the peer ministers, to the secular humanists and atheists — many backgrounds and beliefs.
The Chaplain as interlocutor seeks to make music with these folks, to find the harmonies that allow them to perform in concert with one another. There must be good-natured bantering back and forth, sometimes cajoling, other times praising and supporting. Sometimes the crowd needs whipped up, other times it must be brought to rest. And the interlocutor must accomplish all this without ever seizing the baton or trying to conduct. For the interlocutor, you see, is just one musician in the line, but one who has earned their trust, one who knows them well, is attuned to the individual gifts each brings to the music, and who knows when and how to feature them and when to match them, and when to soften them. The authority to do so can only be earned, and the chaplain’s only baton is gentle persuasion and the permission to exercise it.
The Chaplain as Interrogator
Someone has to ask the big questions, the hard questions.
Because the future Chaplaincy serves as the institution’s narrator, and is its trusted interlocutor, chaplains are situated to question those institutional decisions, policies, and practices that tell another story, one that comes in conflict with the institution’s narrative and its place within the larger Story, decisions which seem out of tune with the music being played on the line.
Interrogator is a particularly important role for future chaplains, as many of our institutions grapple to find a sustainable business model. Under such economic pressure and demands by our trustees and parents to reduce costs and accelerate change, institutions may make decisions contrary to the University’s narrative or upsetting to the delicate balance of backgrounds and beliefs underpinning its culture. If no one is asking questions like, “why are we pursuing this course?” “What might this mean for our identity?” “If this is who we are, what we stand for — if this is our institutional history and our story — then how might we best evolve the institution while remaining true to our identity, our mission, and our best selves?” If no one is asking questions like these, then institutions will most assuredly lose their way. This ought to be a role for our chaplains to play as we evolve our institutions.
To ask hard questions in difficult times, the chaplain as Interrogator must have a seat at the table. Presidents ought to identify and welcome a person with this charge onto the senior team as a full participant in these kinds of conversations. While the Chaplaincy may not perform the role of Interrogator at every institution, I have found this role of the chaplaincy to be of increasing importance for Valparaiso University. For this reason, at Valpo, the Chaplaincy has a seat at the table.
The Chaplain as Sherpa
The Sherpa people, as you likely know, are an ethnic group in the most mountainous region of Nepal. They are renowned mountaineers, particularly for their abilities to guide climbers safely over the difficult terrain of the Himalayas. When I describe the Chaplaincy as strong, muscular, and visceral, I think of the Nepali Sherpa, who, despite their modest stature and build, are deceivingly powerful physically with extraordinary endurance. I would trust my life with them. Why? Because they know the way, they adapt to wildly unpredictable and often dangerous conditions. They know when it is best to forge ahead, or when it is time to turn back from our quest for the summit or when to pitch a tent and spend the night. Sherpa are people you can count on when the going gets rough.
The Chaplain as Sherpa plays this role in many ways: as pastoral counselor and mentor, in the vocational discernment process for students, in the formation process for faculty and staff, and in the institutional discernment process in the midst of unprecedented change. Chaplains know that helping someone in crisis or discovering one’s calling takes a steady, experienced, and patient guide. Chaplains can help faculty and staff to either see themselves as key contributors to the larger institutional narrative or to help them discern a better institutional fit. So, as our colleges and universities continue to be buffeted by rapidly changing and sometimes dangerous conditions, and our students, faculty and staff fall victim to the vagaries of the world, we look to the Sherpa to keep us on the path and to help us find our way forward. And in these latter days, many will entrust their lives to you.
These roles of Narrator, Interlocutor, Interrogator, and Sherpa seem, to me, more strategic descriptors of the primary work of the college Chaplaincy in our time. The story has not changed, but the script is new, our roles have adapted, and we are called to use the familiar tools available to us in new and profoundly important ways.
The modern world may have lost its story, but we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to tell the old, old story anew. And as chaplains at our nation’s colleges and universities, you have an extraordinary contribution to make in helping our institutions craft a clear, coherent, compelling story to guide us, both as individuals and as communities of learning, through the darkness of our times.
Even as I close these remarks and we prepare to depart, I share with you a final memory — a reliable one, I hope. When I think of stories, I am inevitably drawn back to my childhood of Little Golden Books and Tarzan movies, of Sunday School and all the Bible stories I learned from such dedicated and wonderful teachers, and to the hymns I learned, standing in pew with my mom and dad and grandparents, who sang loudly and usually in harmony, even if a little off-key. Even today, when I sing these hymns, I recall with longing, the safety and security of that pew and my parents, even as my spirit is lifted by the blessed assurance that there is, indeed, a story I can count on and pass on. Here is one apropos of this morning. You are welcome to join me.
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know it’s true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else would do.
I love to tell the story,
‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and his love. (Fisher & Hankey, 1866)
Friends, faith is still possible, trust is still possible in these times. We count on you to tell the story, to urge us to sing together, and to guide us through the uncertain terrain. May God richly bless you in your vocations of leadership and service and may you be sustained and fulfilled in the increasingly important roles you will play now and in the future.
Thank you and Godspeed as you journey home.
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Kretzmann, O. P. (1969, October 5) Sermon from the tenth anniversary of the
dedication of the Chapel of the Resurrection. Valparaiso, IN: Valparaiso
Martin, G. (2014). In The phrase finder. Retrieved from: http://www.phrases.
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August 26, 2014
Chapel of the Resurrection
I can’t imagine life without Google. How about you? With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse, the whole world of information is right at my fingertips. A life without Google? How would I look up the weather, order a book, research trends, access Wikipedia, keep up with my favorite band, look up movie times or even get the Blackhawks score?
If there wasn’t Google, how would I Google myself?
Try as I might, it’s nearly impossible to imagine life these days without the ubiquitous search engine with the quirky name that places nearly all the world’s available information at my fingertips.
Now, of course, there was a time in my life when Google didn’t exist.
But for most of our first-year students sitting here this afternoon my riff on Google seems somewhat archaic, because you’ve never known life without Google. The search engine was created in 1996 – in a garage, of course – by two students. They envisioned a way to “organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.” In essence, Google was their solution to help all of us in our seemingly unquenchable need for information.
A few years later, those same students received millions of dollars in equity funding to launch the monster search engine they called “Google.” And today, we rely on this $60 billion dollar behemoth to process six billion search requests every day. Half of which must be people Google-ing themselves.
Google wasn’t the first effort to amass and catalogue the world’s information. People have been trying to “know it all” for a long time. In the 3rd Century before the Christian age, the Ptolemies of Egypt established the Royal Library of Alexandria, described as the largest of the ancient world. The Library’s mission was to collect all the world’s knowledge. The Library was a target for destruction by occupation armies of Julius Caesar, later by the Coptic Pope Theophilus and ultimately by decree of the Muslim caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab. Its storied repositories have been scattered across the globe or lost forever.
In the seventeenth Century, German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz spent his life constructing a logical scheme to capture the totality of human knowledge using mathematics, philosophy, theology, history, and jurisprudence. Leibniz concluded that human knowledge was more complex than he could logically rationalize and convey to any other human being. The results of his knowledge calculus have never been published.
19th century French author Gustave Flaubert attempted to write a story of two men who sought to immerse themselves in every branch of human knowledge – from religion to archeology to chemistry. As a consequence of their quest, Flaubert’s heroes experience great misery and grief, only to return to their lives as copy-clerks. A perfectionist, Flaubert himself was so obsessed with the idea of amassing knowledge that he read more than 1,500 books in preparation for writing his satire on the futility of human knowledge. He hoped that this story, Bouvard et Pécuchet, would be his magnum opus. The work was never completed.
If Leibniz and Flaubert found the quest for all human knowledge impossible, imagine their task these days, where through the marvels of technology, human beings are creating as much information as the entirety of recorded history combined, every 12 months. A recent study by IBM indicates that soon the doubling of human knowledge will occur every 12 hours. As a result, scientists have concluded that no human device can contain and store the extent of human information that has been generated in our time. So they have turned to creation. DNA, in fact.
The New Yorker recently reported that Joe Davis, a scientist and artist, has embarked on a project to store all the information in Wikipedia into the genetic data of apple trees using bacteria that will insert the coded DNA into the DNA of a four-thousand-year-old strain of apple. He aims to create a “living, literal tree of knowledge.” Given the immense capacity of DNA to store genetic code, scientists believe that we will have a nearly unlimited amount of storage capacity for all the information being generated by humans around the world. Maybe in a few years, you will be able to plug into your local orchard and download the latest Beyoncé release. (I have to pause here. I’m having an Avatar moment.)
If human beings can now generate and potentially store all of the accumulated knowledge of recorded time, and if a search engine like Google can retrieve it with the click of a button, don’t we have everything we need. Like, “Library of Alexandria? No problem. Click. Got that covered.”
Shouldn’t open and unfettered access to all that knowledge be sufficient for human flourishing? And if so, why does anyone need to go to college? Why are you here today? Why is it that we still yearn for more? And what is it that we yearn to know?
T.S. Eliot probes this insatiable, uneasy human quest for knowledge in his poetic Choruses from The Rock:
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
Eliot suggests that, amidst all our technological wizardry, medical advances, and two millennia of human progress, we are even farther removed from knowing the Source of all creation and our hope for eternal life. Eliot strikes at the heart of what a rigorous education at Valparaiso University is all about. Here, we seek to turn information into knowledge. Together, we will seek to discover Truth and cultivate wisdom. Here, we offer both a cultural ethos and opportunities for you to draw closer to the essence of Life and Light: the source of all knowledge, the source of all wisdom, the source of all Truth.
Convocation is the ceremony in which we officially welcome you, our newest students. This is the 86th Opening Convocation at Valpo. And like the women and men who sat in these pews 10, 20, 50 years before you and who will sit here 50 years in the future, you are challenged on this day to use your time at Valparaiso University to gain knowledge, seek Truth, and grow in wisdom. We believe you carry the potential to accomplish exceptional things, not only as part of this community but also throughout your lives. You come to us with aspirations, dedication, devotion, hope – a desire to fuel your passions and find your purpose in this world.
Students, throughout your experience here at Valpo, you will begin to discern your gifts and define the work of your life. As a Lutheran institution of higher learning, we understand this as your vocation or your life’s calling. Thomas Merton, a prolific writer in the American Catholic tradition and Trappist monk, said this about vocation: “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
Students, while you are at Valparaiso University, take great care to listen to the “voice ‘in here’ calling [you] to be the person [you] were born to be.” It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at this once-in-a-lifetime place. And it has the capacity to change the course of your life. All of us at Valpo, faculty and staff and your colleague students, are all here to help and support you in this very important process of deep reflection and discernment. Because we know that when your passion meets your purpose, when you find that most excellent thing that you will live to do, your very life will become an offering for the glory of God.
Valparaiso University is a place that will prepare you for a fulfilling life; one lived with knowledge, character, integrity, and wisdom. At Valpo, we bring people together intentionally from different backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures to learn from one another, to participate in important and sometimes difficult conversations, to express a wide variety of faith traditions, to model for one another and for the world what it could be like to live in a community of love and mutual respect, even when our differences may be irreconcilable, and to prepare for lives of leadership and service.
I am pleased and very proud to officially welcome you into this exceptional community of learning we call Valparaiso University. May God richly bless your quest for Truth, from information to knowledge, and from knowledge toward wisdom and understanding. And I most fervently pray that, while you are here among us, you discover that thing that you will live to do.
Welcome to Valpo!
Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2014 at Valparaiso University.
After so much effort, so many sleepless nights, so many prayers and hopes, wondering if this day would ever come, here it is. And here you are, surrounded by some of the most important people in your life. Right in the middle of your very own rite of passage in which you are playing the starring role. Or in the words of that timeless children’s game of hide and seek, you are “It.”
You remember what it feels to be “It?” Freeze Tag. Kick the Can. Hide and Seek. Remember that knot of excitement in your stomach as you close your eyes and count 47-48-49-50? You open your eyes. You look around carefully, hoping to spot someone. Then … Ready or not here I come!
Off you go. Searching out all those dark and secret places, trying to find where your friends are hiding. “I see Jacob behind the tree,” you yell for everyone’s benefit.
The way we played hide and seek, when you called out someone’s name, you had to beat them back to home base and touch it before they did in order to actually take them out of play. I was a chubby little kid, so I vividly remember that high-stakes race back to home base.
Some days we would play sardines. Sardines is hide-and-seek in reverse. One person hides and the group tries to find her. As each person finds the sardine, they hide with her until all the kids are hiding together and one person is left. The last person left searching is now “It.” They become the next sardine and the game begins again. Of course, the sardines almost always get caught, because when you put that many children in a small space, all trying to elude capture, everyone inevitably starts giggling and the whole group erupts in laughter. I loved sardines.
I have to admit, there were plenty of times when I played hide-and-seek and failed to catch everyone. It started to get dark and my curfew was near. And I would have to yell, “Olly, Olly, Oxen Free.” I can still remember the sound of that call echoing through my backyard, “Olly, Olly, Oxen Free.” I can still see the darkening sky and feel the dew fall on the grass as the first stars began to appear.
At this point, the English majors, the theologians, and the Christ College scholars are waiting for me to develop the metaphors; the behavioral science students are recalling the role of childhood games like hide-and-seek in the development of survival skills; the historians, the anthropologists, and the cultural studies majors are recalling that hide-and-seek is a universal children’s game found in every society. The meteorologists and the scientists are questioning whether dew falls that early in the evening. The engineers are questioning whether or not I got the rules right, and the pre-law and nursing majors are imagining all the ways in which the players could get hurt. Of course, the faculty are ruminating on the great unanswered questions, like why do we call the principal player, “It.” And just what is the significance and history of those inscrutable words, “Olly, Olly Oxen free?”
But I digress. So let’s return to the matter at hand — the fact that today, you are “It.” This day is your rite of passage, your “Ready or not here I come” moment. You’re done counting down the years, the months, and the days. Your eyes are wide open and you are ready to embark on the game of life.
How does it feel? Exciting? Terrifying? Or merely out-of-body surreal?
Regardless of your current mental and emotional state, you have chosen to begin in this place: the Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. A place of hope. A place brimming with light. A place of worship. A place of prayer.
Maybe you are Lutheran, and this Chapel has been a regular part of your Valpo week. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force which we cannot fully know nor comprehend. And it is fitting that we should gather together to sing songs of faith and praise and thanksgiving, and to pray with and for one another.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism and a re-dedication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
At this baccalaureate service, we gather one more time at the crux of Athens and Jerusalem, of intellect and faith, for a final reflection before commencement. We entered to a hymn whose verses celebrate this confluence of faith and learning:
God of wisdom, we acknowledge
that our science and our art
And the breadth of human knowledge
only partial truth impart.
Far beyond our calculation
lies a depth we cannot sound
Where your purpose for creation
and the pulse of life are found.
(Troeger, Praise the Source of Faith and Learning)
And this morning we have heard several readings from scripture. These readings hold great wisdom for you, graduates. They are words to guide your living and your life.
These are texts about virtuous conduct, texts for how we might best live and work in community. Micah counsels us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6: 8) Paul counsels us to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. To “bear with each other and forgive one another”… and after clothing ourselves with all these virtues, to put on the cloak of love, the greatest of all virtues. For it is love that binds all of these virtues together in “perfect unity.” Paul exhorts us to “Let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts … And be thankful.” (Colossians 3: 12-17) And finally, Jesus, in today’s Gospel lesson calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. (Matthew 5: 13-14)
Living the virtuous life is at the heart of these texts. The virtuous life. Perhaps this takes you back to your first year at Valpo. What is this concept we call virtue? Aristotle described virtue as the “golden mean,” that balanced point between a deficiency and an excess of any particular human trait. To Aristotle, virtuous living is a set of endless choices on multiple continua requiring decisions that should be “at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.” (Aristotle, 1980)
Virtue is moral excellence represented by personal qualities or behaviors deemed by humans in society to be right and good. These characteristics, either individually embodied or collectively shared, exemplify the finest qualities and ultimate potential of human achievement. Virtue lies at the very heart of greatness. Our most excellent selves are also our most virtuous.
During your years at Valpo, you have lived and learned in a community dedicated to excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need, or in moments like these when we gather for worship and prayer. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live virtuous lives, individually and in community.
How do we live virtuous lives? Certainly we ought to embody the three great Christian virtues articulated by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: faith, hope, and love. (1 Corinthians 13:13) Faith — that we believe in God. Hope — that we desire happiness, knowing that true happiness rests ultimately in our salvation and eternity with our Creator. And the greatest of all virtues, love — that we love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus calls this the greatest commandment. And he commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matthew 22: 37-38)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes this virtue of love: “love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7) A life lived with this kind of love, is a virtuous life, a most excellent life, a life brimming with generosity and gratitude.
Love is not proud. That’s a tough one to take up on this day of all days. This is a day bursting with love and pride. For graduates, there’s the pride of achieving your degree. The pride in what you will do next: a military officer, a graduate student, a great job, life in an exciting or exotic place, an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference. For family members and friends, there’s the deep love you have for these graduates, the pride you take in these sons, daughters, children, grandchildren and the successes they have enjoyed. For faculty and staff, there’s the great pride we take in our graduates’ accomplishments. We all take great pride in what happens here at Valparaiso University and our vision to prepare graduates known worldwide for their knowledge, character, integrity, and wisdom.
Yet, on this day in which we are nearly bursting with pride, the Word of God reminds us of the need to walk humbly with our God, to clothe ourselves in humility, to be the salt of the earth. And so, graduates, as you prepare to leave this place, my final admonition to you is this: be humble.
Be humble. Over the centuries, many have pondered this virtue of humility. The Bible, of course, is filled with references to humility, perhaps the most famous of which is Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and later in Matthew 23: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)
Be humble. Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes Jesus’ life and death as the purest example of humility: “Jesus did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 6-11)
Be humble. How does one be humble? C. S. Lewis describes humility as “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” (Lewis, 1952) Martin Luther suggests that “true humility never knows that it is humble … for if it knew, it would turn proud from contemplation of so fine a virtue.” (Luther, 2006)
However, humility is not humiliation. In his book, Humilitas, Australian minister and author John Dickson offers this distinction: humility is “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself … the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service to others.” To be humble, Dickson argues, is a matter of choice made from a position of “intrinsic dignity and self-worth.” Conversely, humiliation is living humbly due to the power and injustice of others. One chooses to live a humble life, whereas, humiliation is imposed on others; there is no choice involved. (Dickson, 2011)
Humility takes many forms, and in a community of learning like Valpo, intellectual humility must be especially prized. In his essay, On Liberty, philosopher John Stuart Mill provides an elegant description of this virtue. He writes, “In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.” (Mill, 2006)
And lest you assume that this virtue of intellectual humility is strictly a Western idea, Mahatma Ghandi writes, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” (Jarski, 2007)
Simply put, Mill and Ghandi remind us that we don’t know what we don’t know, that we should always remain open to the criticism and perspectives of others, always be willing to re-consider and re-evaluate our position, always acknowledge that we can never fully grasp nor know the truth, but must always look to God, the fount of all truth and wisdom. For God is truth itself. And to assume to know the mind of God is pride of the highest order.
Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” We interpret this in our time as our Lord’s call to simplicity, to humility, a lowliness of mind and spirit that prevents us from “lording over” others. Yet, salt in Jesus’ day had many important functions — to cure and preserve meat and fish, to flavor food and improve its taste, and to heal wounds. To those first followers, Jesus’ allusion to salt spoke to the power of God’s people through virtuous living to preserve that which is good and right in society, to flourish, and to heal that which is sick and broken in the world. Those early Christians also knew that too much salt in the earth would render the land useless, unable to grow vegetation, incapable of yielding a harvest. Humility, hearkening back to Aristotle, must be in the right proportion. For Jesus, being the salt of the earth was insufficient alone. Salt must be coupled with light.
Jesus calls us to be “the light of the world.” Graduates, at Valparaiso University, you have come to know and appreciate the significance of light. And I’m not just referring to those precious days of sunlight during our endless months of polar vortex. I’m speaking of God’s light — in luce tua videmus lucem, “in Thy Light we see Light.” Here, in this place, God’s light has brought you greater knowledge. Here, God’s light has made you wiser through the experiences you have had, through your successes and your failures. God’s light has helped you to grow into women and men of character and integrity. God’s light has helped you to develop habits of mind and conduct that enable you to lead lives of great virtue. God’s light has challenged you to be your most excellent selves. And, as you leave this place and journey into the world, it is God’s light that will make you great.
Today, you’re “It.” You are done counting down the days. Your eyes are open. You are well prepared to lead lives of virtue, to be wise people of character and integrity. Now it is time to find all those who are hidden in darkness. Now it is time to become the light of the world.
Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
“Ready or not here I come,” you cry. And the game begins.
Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D.
May 17, 2014
Aristotle. (1980). Nichomachean ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dickson, J. (2011). Humilitas. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Ghandi, M. K. as quoted in Jarski, R. (2007). Words from the wise: Over 6,000 of the smartest things ever said. New York: Skyhorse.
Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins.
Luther, M. (2006). What Luther says. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Mill, J. S. (2006). On liberty and the subjugation of women. New York: Penguin Classics.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Troeger, T. H. (1994). Borrowed light: Hymn texts, prayers, and poems. (1994). Oxford: Oxford University Press
On February 10, 1982, 46 Apple employees gathered with CEO Steve Jobs to celebrate another milestone in creating the Macintosh personal computer. The hardware cast was ready for mass production, so it was time for some champagne, some speeches, and some signatures.
Steve Jobs approached his work as an artist, and he believed that his employees were artists too. At his guidance, the Mac team signed their work, and soon these signatures were inscribed inside the back panel of hardware cases ready for market.
The origination of personalized marks and signatures remains somewhat of a mystery. Some point to 3000 B.C. when Sumerians affixed seals to verify document authenticity. Others look to wax seals in China, Japan, and Korea or signatures within Jewish and Muslim communities as the invention of the practice.
Signatures appear on the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence, on artworks by Frida Kahlo and the letters of Apostle Paul. They authenticate contracts, pledge commitments, and petition to change course.
No matter the origin, a signature serves as the mark of one’s agency or one’s integrity, honor, and truth for generations and civilizations the world over.
As we begin a new academic year and mark this momentous occasion with the 85th Opening Convocation of Valparaiso University, we aim to leave an indelible mark on you – our students. As we prepare you – each of you – for a life of leadership and service in and for this world, we aim to shape you, challenge you, and encourage you to find yourself and your calling.
This is our signature as an institution and our mission as Valparaiso University: We are a community of learning dedicated to excellence and grounded in the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith. We seek truth, wisdom, and understanding. We value conversations and discourse, expressions of shared beliefs and values – even when our differences or beliefs may be irreconcilable. We measure success through lives enriched and the contributions of the graduates we send into the world.
Throughout your journey in this place, we will prepare you to become Valpo graduates who will be highly sought for your knowledge, character, integrity, and wisdom. For this is truly an extraordinary place of life-changing possibilities where exploration meets enlightenment, where difference meets devotion, and where purpose meets passion. And your journey at Valpo begins now.
Today, we officially welcome you into the Valpo community with arms wide open. We have deliberately sought to shape our student body so that your backgrounds, faith traditions, and world experiences represent and mirror the fullest expression of humanity throughout the world. By carefully and intentionally shaping our community with people of different backgrounds and beliefs, we seek to create a community that reflects our common values at Valparaiso University as truth-seeking, humble, compassionate, service-minded, and ethical individuals.
Now for some advice. My guess is that most of you have been given advice from friends and family members about what you should and shouldn’t do in college. Let me offer mine as well.
If you aim to get the most out of your experience at Valparaiso University, then I recommend you do these three things: seek knowledge, practice gratitude, and have courage.
Seek knowledge in all that you do. Be curious, ask questions, and absorb all the wisdom assembled in this place. You are at a place that believes that it is by the grace of God and not by our own works that we saved. And so, this is a place of intellectual freedom. At this University under the cross, you are free to pursue Truth, knowing that it is ultimately the Truth that sets us free.
Practice gratitude for your many blessings. Many have given much to ensure that you are here: your parents, your family, generous alumni and friends, founders and visionaries who sustained this University throughout the decades, and the faculty and staff members who sit before you and who have dedicated their lives to investing in yours.
Have courage to live a life that defies expectations. Each day is filled with boundless possibilities and countless choices. I encourage you to do something brave. Push yourself. Take risks. Raise the bar. Be bold and be yourself – your most authentic and excellent self, not a lesser or perhaps a safer version.
Inside and out of the classroom, you’ll be tested. Many tests you encounter will not be for a specific class. It is in these real-life tests where you may well discover who you really are and who God has called you to be.
I sincerely hope that you’ll find out what you’re truly called to do, be, and contribute to the world. At Valpo, we understand this as your vocation, or your life’s calling. It’s that nagging inside of you that knows what true joy is and feels like. And, in the words of Frederick Buechner, when your deep joy meets the deep hunger in the world – something clicks. Work is transformed into vocation. Life falls into place in an astonishing way. And you will have discovered how you will make your mark in the world.
Today, we will do something old in a very new way. Much like those innovative engineering artists at Apple, you will be asked to add your signature to a code of honor as you pledge a commitment to uphold the highest standards of academic integrity. For 70 years, Valpo students have signed this code on all exams and coursework. Today you will sign the code of honor together as an incoming class.
In 1943, Barbara Bernthal, student body president, led an initiative to institute a code of academic honor for Valparaiso University. Enrollment was down. And the country was at war. The climate was uncertain, and the future looked bleak. But the students at that time insisted that all those who sought an education at Valpo, as well as those members of the faculty who helped shape their academic experience, should be held to the very highest standard of integrity. This was not the first time that Valpo stood to distinguish itself as a remarkable place, and it certainly has not been the last.
American novelist John D. MacDonald described integrity this way: “Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see [someone] who won’t cheat, then you know [you] never will.”
I have neither given or received, nor have I tolerated others’ use of unauthorized aid.
Fifteen words. These 15 words will help shape and guide you from today on. They are the Valparaiso University Honor Code – a code of academic integrity that, as a member of this community, you will pledge to uphold throughout your experience here. With your signature, you pledge not only to hold yourself to a higher standard, but also to strive for excellence in all that you do. You will do what is right, even when it’s difficult, be authentic with others and yourself, and honor your commitments and beliefs.
These are the marks of a life of integrity. And this is the signature of a Valpo graduate – like those students who sat here in these very pews 10, 20, 50 years ago and those who will sit here 50 years from now.
“Integrity is one of several paths,” stated author M.H. McKee. “It distinguishes itself from the others because it is the right path, and the only one upon which you will never get lost.”
As you take the first step in your Valpo journey, as you set about to make a name for yourself, we at Valpo call you to a higher standard. May your mark on this campus and on our world be a mark of integrity – of honesty, of character, of wisdom.
And may God richly bless you and keep watch over you throughout your academic endeavors and all of your days.
On behalf of all of us, welcome to Valpo!
Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2013 at Valparaiso University.
So, graduates-to-be, here you sit at the nexus of your past and your future. How does it feel? Exciting? Terrifying? Surreal?
After so much effort, so many sleepless nights, so many prayers and hopes, wondering if this day would ever come, here it is. Here you are, surrounded by some of the most important people in your life.
And whether you are ready or not, here you are. Right in the midst of your very own rite of passage. An end and a beginning. A nexus of your past and your future.
Speaking of the past, have you seen Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby1? In it, Tobey Maguire plays the tortured writer Nick Carraway, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby.
In one of the film’s best moments, Carraway says to Gatsby: “Jay, you can’t repeat the past.” And Gatsby looks at him incredulously and says with great ferocity, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.”
We learn over the course of the film that while one cannot repeat the past, one can also not escape from it.
So here you sit on the cusp of your future. You can’t go back, despite your yearning. Yet, your future is inexorably tied to your past.
Shakespeare sums it up nicely in Act II of The Tempest2 when Antonio says, “What’s past is prologue.”
What’s past is prologue. So now, I guess, it’s high time to get on with your story.
A few weeks ago, Dean of Students Tim Jenkins looked across a group of seniors being recognized for their leadership and service and said. “It’s time for you to go. You’ve gotten everything you could possibly get out of this place. You’ve achieved great things here. And it’s time now for you to leave.”
I thought to myself—now there’s the commencement speech that everyone is praying for. Short and to the point.
But you and I both know that this day of speeches and ceremonies is about more than getting to the point. It is about making sense of all of these past years of toil and struggle. Stopping just for a moment at the brink of an irreversible journey and reflecting on life’s purpose and significance before taking that next step into the unknown.
And what a fitting way to begin. In this place. The Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to the promise of new life, new beginnings, new hope. A place of worship. A place of prayer.
Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of your Valpo routine. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force that we cannot fully know nor comprehend. And it is fitting that we should gather together to sing songs of faith and praise and thanksgiving, and to pray with and for one another.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism and a rededication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
This day, in the Christian church, is Pentecost. The fiftieth day after Easter. On this day we commemorate that moment when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and other followers of Jesus. In Judaism, Pentecost is the day of celebrating the harvest—a day of the First Fruits. This day commemorates God delivering to Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Both Christians and Jews consider this to be a birth day of the faith.3
Pentecost is also a day when we are reminded of the diversity of the world, particularly diversity of language and culture. And, of course, Pentecost is all about sending forth, about going out into the world.
When I think about going out into the world, I also think about the story of this Chapel. Those who conceived, designed, and built this building are not known to many of us gathered here. Yet, over fifty years ago they came together, raised the funds from thousands of small donors, all of whom had one thing in mind—to build a monument to Jesus Christ. The architects and artists sought to capture the power and the majesty and the glory of the resurrection of the Son of God in this spectacular chancel. So that all who would enter this place in the generations to come would be drawn forward to this spot and struck with wonder by its splendor, its transcendent beauty.
But the Chapel’s architects had a second intent. That after focusing on the majesty of our Lord and Savior, all who gathered here, after hearing the words, “go in peace, serve the Lord,” would turn to leave and be struck by the unaltered view of the world, seen through clear glass windows. And with this view, the architects sought to remind each of us that we serve the Lord and live out our faith in the world and for the sake of the world—well beyond the walls of this place.
In a few minutes each of you is going to turn and face those clear glass windows. And when you do, ask yourself this question: How will I choose to live out my faith in the world and for the sake of the world?
This morning’s scripture readings offer two contrasting ways to answer that question.
Our first text was from that book about beginnings—Genesis. It is the story of the Tower of Babel. A nomadic people, wandering the desert for millennia, decide to stay in one place. They discover how to make bricks from the earth. And from these bricks, they build a city.
But these city dwellers are not satisfied with this singular and transformative achievement. They say to one another, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” “Let us be known for something!”
And so they decide to build a tower. Not just any tower. They build a tower that reaches heaven itself.
That’s one way to answer the question of living out one’s faith.
In March, Mrs. Heckler and I, along with Professor Chuck Schaefer and Dr. Renu Juneja, found ourselves in an elevator. This was not just any elevator. It was an elevator taking us to the observation deck in the Burj Khalifa, located in the City of Dubai.
The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world.4 It rises 2,717 feet above the desert floor. It is a wonder of the modern age. Impossibly tall. Dream-like. Unforgettable. It is a marvel of engineering. An elegant work of art. A signature human accomplishment, certainly unparalleled in my lifetime.
Our host that day was a proud Valpo alumnus and engineering grad, Jumah Al Maroozie. Jumah owns the company that services the elevator controls for the Burj Khalifa. So there we were, rising swiftly and silently to the observation deck on the 124th floor.
The doors opened onto the 124th floor of the Burj and we stepped out. From that dizzying height, one could see the dazzling architecture of this brand new city of brick and steel and glass, rising up majestically from the desert. Skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes, huddled together for protection against the unforgiving desert sands extending out as far as the eyecould see.
Soon, Jumah guided us back to the elevator and we returned to the earth. Our way to the exit was lined with larger-than-life portraits of the people who came together from 200 nations to build this architectural marvel.
Adrian Smith from Chicago. Engineers from the U.K. and Germany. Construction workers from Pakistan. From Bangladesh. Service workers from the Philippines. From India, China, Thailand. Brazil and Africa. We passed the smiling faces and names of these people from all over the world, people who came together across language, across culture, who together built this marvel of engineering, reaching toward the heavens.
These people certainly made a name for themselves.
As you might have guessed, someone else is working to build an even taller structure. Ground has been broken on the Kingdom Tower, located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom Tower will rise 1,000 meters above the sea, nearly 50 stories taller than the Burj. 5It, too, will be an international collaboration of architects and engineers.
And then there are rumors of another marvel in the planning stages, a building that will rise one mile into the heavens, more than twice the height of the Burj Khalifa.
Let us make a name for ourselves.
Let us come together across language, across nation, across our differences in a common pursuit. Let us show the world what human beings can accomplish together.
There is a second story to tell this day of Pentecost. It is the story of Jesus’ disciples and followers gathered together. They, like you, were at this nexus of past and future. Their beloved Jesus had died on the cross. He had miraculously risen from the dead and walked among them. Flesh and blood. He had talked with them. Taken food and drink. Then, he ascended into heaven. The disciples and followers of Jesus were left with many questions, more questions, perhaps, than answers. Yet certainly, one of the driving questions this day was this: What do we do with the knowledge that we have? That Jesus of Nazareth is the long-promised Messiah. That He has died, He is risen, and He has promised us our own salvation and resurrection from the dead. What do we do with this knowledge? How will we live out our faith in the world and for the sake of the world?
It was at this moment, this nexus, that the Holy Spirit descended upon each of them. Tongues of fire appeared above each of their heads. And they began to speak “of God’s deeds of power,” each in a different language. All the languages of the world. All the diversity of the world engaged in a common pursuit. Those who observed this moment were amazed and wondered aloud, “What does this mean?”
Jesus’ followers understood. Peter understood. The Holy Spirit had answered their question. They were to tell the world about the life, the death, the resurrection, and the promise of Jesus Christ. They were to call upon others to repent, and to be baptized, and to share with others the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
There is, of course, a final story to tell this morning. It is the story of a group of people coming together across the boundaries of language, the boundaries of nation, of religion and race and culture. All in a common pursuit, the pursuit of truth. This is your story.
You have gathered here, in Valparaiso, across your many differences, yet united in your quest for knowledge, your desire for wisdom, your yearning to lead, your calling to serve. All for the sake of the world.
And in this community, you discovered that truth is something continuously revealed by God through human suffering, human intellect, human enterprise.
You have, I hope, discovered that your years at Valparaiso have been about much more than making a name for yourself, much more than making a living; rather, they have been about preparing to make a life. A life of substance. A life of purpose. A life of meaning.
You have seen that meaning, substance, purpose, can be achieved through a thousand different journeys and in a thousand different ways. Yet we have found unity in our diversity through our common pursuit of truth, understanding that God drives our quest. It is God and not ourselves, that answers our ultimate question, one that perhaps on this day more than any other burns in our hearts—why am I here? What is it that You would have me do with my life?
Your prologue has now been written. This story, your story, is only beginning. Answering that question “How will you choose to live out your faith in the world and for the sake of the world?” will take the rest of your life…
“You’ve gotten everything you could possibly get out of this place. You’ve achieved great things here. And it’s time now for you to leave.”
So Go in Peace. Serve the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Mark A. Heckler May 19, 2013
It is wonderful to be back in the Chapel of the Resurrection after a summer of closed doors, construction fences, cranes and jackhammers. Although we’ve only begun our three-year restoration and expansion of the Chapel, it is a blessing to have this magnificent facility open and all of us gathered together again.
In the last gathering we held in the Chapel, May’s baccalaureate service, I shared these words, “rejoice always,” from the apostle Paul’s fifth chapter of First Thessalonians as advice for our graduates from the Class of 2012 as they prepared to leave Valpo and commence the next leg of their life’s journey.
And now, for those of you who have just arrived at Valparaiso University, to begin your personal journey with this very special community of learning, Paul’s advice is just as fitting: Rejoice always.
And why ought we to rejoice? Because we are beginning a new academic year, a time of tremendous potential, a time of great hope. Because, in this new year, we are gathered together for the first time as a community. Those new to campus, together with the old- timers – staff, faculty and even some from that very ancient group – the sophomores, juniors, seniors, grad students, 2L’s and 3L’s of Valparaiso University.
Today we officially re-gather as a community. We renew. And we rejoice. Welcome. Welcome back.
This day is a special one, because we welcome our new students. Students, we believe that you carry the potential to accomplish amazing and wonderful things as part of this community and as you graduate and journey through life. We saw your potential, and we invited you to become part of this place. Part of our traditions, part of our present, and part of our future.
You will learn much about this University while you are here with us. Our stories, our symbols, our motto, the fight song, and our alma mater. And you will learn that becoming a member of Valparaiso University carries with it a great responsibility—the responsibility to explore, to discover and rediscover who you want to be when you grow up. … This is a question most of us keep asking—your fellow students, your faculty, the staff who support you, and your president.
Albert Einstein is said to have asked: “How many people are trapped in their everyday habits: part numb, part frightened, part indifferent? To have a better life we must keep choosing how we’re living.”
Today, through this convocation, we re-engage in the question of how we, as individuals and as Valparaiso University, will choose to live. We begin by reaffirming who we are and where we stand as a University and by taking responsibility for living in accordance with our values and claims.
First, Valpo students, faculty and staff stand for excellence. Our expectation is that every one of us will strive for the highest level of academic and professional performance he or she can attain. … That we will strive for excellence in all that we do—from arts to athletics, from volunteering to venturing forth on a service project.
The English author Dorothy Sayers gained renown as a writer of murder mysteries and as a Christian humanist. In the morning she might have been killing off an unsuspecting victim in a novel, that evening, writing treatises about our relationship with God. She did both well, although the two could not have been more divergent. For her, they were both work, and “work” was a positive word. She wrote, “work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do … the thing in which [s]he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which [s]he offers [her]self to God.”
Students, as you embark on your journey here, you will begin to discern your gifts and define the work of your life, your calling, that excellent thing that you will live to do, an offering of your self, your most excellent self, for the glory of God.
Valpo also stands for leadership and service. We boldly claim that we prepare graduates to lead and serve in church and society, that we will be recognized worldwide for the lives of leadership and service led by our graduates. You have been chosen for Valparaiso University because we believe you have both the capacity and inclination to lead and serve, not only while you are here, but also for the rest of your lives.
Leadership too easily conjures up the image of the CEO of a large corporation, a prominent community figure, or elected official. True, many Valpo alumni have become leaders in these ways. Yet, there are many paths to leadership that, while eliciting less public acclaim, can truly change lives. Teaching. Nursing. Scientific research. Pastoral care. Art-making. Writing. Coaching. Engineering. Business. Law. Whatever unique and God-given gifts inspire you, wherever your personal and professional journey takes you, we expect you to seize life’s opportunities to both lead and serve while you are here at Valpo and beyond.
Finally, at Valpo, we value being a community constituted by people of many and various beliefs and backgrounds in dialogue with one another in common pursuit of truth. This is how we describe our vision as a community of learning, a diverse community, yet one that celebrates its Lutheran ethos and character.
Unfortunately, when we look at nations around the world, including the United States, we see too often that differences are not welcome, nor are they respected. People congregate with those who share their thoughts and behaviors. They seek media outlets and commentators who present information through a lens focused solely on their beliefs. They aim to elect leaders and control governments in a winner-take-all mindset, hoping to force others to comply with their point of view.
The pursuit of truth, careful and nuanced, falls victim to the sound and fury of meaningless sound bites that no one believes, unless they support their particular point of view. Sincere and thoughtful discussion seems barely a whisper when compared to the current contest carried out on our airwaves to see who can scream the loudest—and by doing so—sway opinion.
Yet, this University firmly stands for something more. We are deliberate in our invitation to people who come from different backgrounds and who hold different spiritual beliefs and intellectual positions. We welcome difference in this community.
We aim to respect one another as we live and work together. We seek to model for one another how to navigate our differences by honoring and respecting others, by examining and expressing our own truth claims with humility and caution, by using our differences as opportunities for learning and teaching, and by focusing on our common bonds rather than on that which divides us.
Together, we aim for something more. The world yearns for money and possessions, yet we strive for excellence. The world struggles for power and control, yet we prepare to lead and serve. The world aims to silence difference, yet we respect, honor, and learn from diverse perspectives. The world assaults us with opinions and conflicting information, yet we pursue truth. And we do so for the glory of God.
The extraordinary nature of a Valpo education was never clearer to me than this summer, when my wife and I had the privilege of hearing the Valparaiso University Chorale perform in Leipzig, Germany. Our students sang at the 800th anniversary celebration of St. Thomas Church, the place where Johann Sebastian Bach composed and performed some of the most important musical works in the Western canon.
It was a Sunday morning worship service. Earlier, the cantor had played the Bach Prelude in C Major on the organ, one designed to sound similar to the original instrument during Bach’s time. We listened and imagined what it must have been like to sit in the sanctuary while Bach himself played the very same piece hundreds of years before.
Later, I was standing in line, waiting for communion in this magnificent sanctuary. I gazed at an altar that had been created eight centuries ago. Before the altar rested a large bronze plaque, identifying the final resting place of Johann Sebastian Bach. I stood in the communion line with people of many ages. People of many places, many languages.
The Chorale began to sing a contemporary work by James MacMillan titled, A Child’s Prayer:
deep in my soul forever stay,
joy and love my heart are filling
on this glad Communion day
The music captured beautifully the child’s joy and love for Jesus, fighting its way heavenward against the dissonance and confusion of our age. In my mind and in my heart, I heard the innocence and trust of a child living in our anxious and troubled time crying out to God. As I stood in the midst of this ancient sanctuary, one that has gathered the faithful century after century, I imagined the child’s voice, our voice, heard by that great cloud of witnesses through the ages who composed and performed preached and worshiped and communed in this place. In that very moment, I was cognizant, in a way that I had never known before, of the great sweep and panoply of history, of one century crying out to another, like bells pealing in the night, calling out to the Creator—we are here, God! Deliver us from evil! Deliver us.
I was deeply moved.
And I was reminded once again of what makes Valpo so special. Here were our students, delivering a performance meriting international attention, achieving excellence. Here were people of many backgrounds and beliefs, serving the church, working in harmony, performing an expression of the truth of our time through the medium of music. All for the glory of God.
Students, each of you can embark on a comparable journey—a journey personal and professional that will be uniquely yours—yet also filled with equally electrifying experiences. You may not sing, but there is a song within you. And we yearn to hear your voice.
Today I welcome you into this extraordinary community where Athens meets Jerusalem, where both faith and learning thrive. Today, you assume the mantle of the students who came before you—who chose lives of leadership and service. Whose continued generosity and labor enable us to engage in the pursuit of truth in this University most excellent.
You now begin your journey of discovery of how you will choose to live, and the thing you will live to do, all as your offering to God.
Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to Valpo!
Seniors and graduate students, family members and friends, faculty members and colleagues, this is the day for which we have toiled. This is the time that we have longed for and imagined together when the work seemed so hard and the end seemed so far away. This is the moment for which we have hoped and prayed. This rite of passage has officially begun.
For those of you who began here as freshmen four years ago, does this morning remind you of Convocation, when we gathered here on the first day of classes? I remember that day distinctly, because it was also my very first day of classes at Valparaiso University. It was very hot and humid and the Chapel was filled to capacity. Everyone wanted to meet and greet the new students, see and hear the new president, and celebrate the University’s 150th anniversary.
On that day, I spoke about beginnings and callings, using these words:
We begin. We begin again.
You and I have been called to be here… We wanted to be at Valparaiso University. Valpo chose us and we accepted the call to come.
Now, students, the years have passed and you are ready to pursue your next calling, ready to lead lives of purpose and significance, ready to begin again.
And what a fitting way to begin. In this place. The Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to the promise of new life, new beginnings, new hope. A place of worship. A place of prayer.
Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of your Valpo week. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force which we cannot fully know nor comprehend.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism and a rededication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
Today is symbolic of our shared understanding that at these most important transitional moments in life, it is fitting that we should gather together, sing songs of faith and praise and thanksgiving, and gather together in prayer.
Today is also a day where advice and wisdom are liberally dispensed. Everyone, it seems, has advice for you, students, from the commencement speaker to your little sister, the neighbor down the street, even the pizza delivery guy. All the collected wisdom, the accumulated experience of humanity, all those things people have always wanted to say to you, the sentiments we have longed to express to one… Everyone gathered feels compelled to offer their best advice, share their most profound insight, say that one thing that they have longed to tell you, release all the feelings bottled up inside. Can’t you just feel the pressure to get it all just right? It is palpable!
Why? Because all of these advice-givers, these dear friends, family members, and acquaintances love you. They care for you. They worry about you. They pray for you.
And for you, soon-to-be graduates, this is a lot to absorb. You haven’t gotten enough sleep this week, what with finals and then senior week celebrations well into the early morning hours. You still have packing to do in your room or apartment. Cars to load. Lists of things to accomplish. And then, there are all the uncertainties of the next step you will take in life – your first “real” job, graduate school, travel to an exotic place, getting engaged or married, entering military service, working a temporary summer job, moving back home, or moving to a new place. You have a lot on your minds. Not the least of which is the insatiable craving for a few precious hours of sleep.
With that in mind, I will keep my advice simple this morning. Actually, it is not my advice. It is the apostle Paul’s advice from the fifth chapter of First Thessalonians:
“16 Rejoice always; 17 pray without ceasing; 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
First, Paul commands us to rejoice. And to rejoice in all things and at all times. Not just when life makes us happy or things are going our way. But always. The early Christians took this commandment so seriously, that instead of greeting one another on the street with “hello” or “how ya doin” or “wassup,” they said “rejoice!” “Rejoice!” “Rejoice!”
Rejoice always. Wake up each morning with joy in your heart. Take delight in each task set before you, no matter how challenging, for even in hard work there is cause to rejoice.
Rejoice always. Take heart during times of great sorrow, challenge, and adversity, for it is precisely in these times when God comes to you to carry the load, when joy is drawn up from deep within like refreshing water from a bottomless well.
Rejoice always. Share your joy with everyone around you, day and night. Dwelling on the negative, complaining, spreading bitterness and hate will only take joy away from those who surround you. But in rejoicing and sharing your joy with others, you will only add to the joy within them.
Rejoice always. For you are a child of God. God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. And that is cause for rejoicing.
Pray Without Ceasing
Second, Paul commands us to pray without ceasing.
This day, you are surrounded by ceaseless prayers. The prayers of those gathered here who have taught you, who have served as mentors and role models for you. The prayers of those who have supported your education in some way, from those who cooked and served your meals, to those who cleaned the places where you lived, or kept the sidewalks cleared. The prayers of those who recruited you here, those that helped you figure out how to pay for college, those who answered the host of questions that you raised during your time here. Those who coached you, or conducted you, or advised you.
They are the prayers of the alumni and friends of this University. People whom you have never met, yet who have an abiding care and concern for this University and for each of you as well as those who teach and serve you in this place.
And, of course, they are the prayers of those who brought you into this world. The prayers of those who raised you. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “All that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother. I remember my mother’s prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life.” And so too, for you, prayers that began when you formed in your mother’s womb cling to you, and shape you, and follow you to this day and from this day as you now journey into the future.
And what are those prayers?
They are the prayers of today’s Gospel reading. The prayers of Jesus for his disciples. That you come to know God’s Word, and that, by knowing God’s Word, that God’s Truth will be revealed to you. That you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. That your lives be sanctified, set apart from the world, not corrupted by it. That you be protected from evil. That while you may be in the world, you be not of the world.
They are the prayers of the psalmist, who sings of the righteous, of those who do not follow those who have evil in their hearts, those do not walk in the footsteps of those who engage in destructive and defiling behavior, those who do not join with those who mock or deride others who may seek to live lives of virtue or who choose to worship and love God.
They are the prayers that the conclusion of your living in this world not yield emptiness and meaninglessness, like the husk that is left after the wheat has been threshed, but that your living be like a tree by the riverbank, nourished with clear and abundant water, prospering in years of drought and plenty, bearing good fruit in due season.
They are prayers that you will never know and prayers that you are meant to hear. They are a litany of ceaseless prayers that lead you and follow you, surround you and cling to you. They are the prayers that brought you to this day.
And now, as you prepare to live in and engage with the world, will you join the litany of praise, lift up your own prayers and petitions for loved ones and strangers, join the eternal chorus of those who seek the God’s guidance and wisdom in all things? Will you, with the dawning and setting of each sun, seek to know God’s Word and pursue Truth as a prayerful expression of your faith and trust in Jesus Christ? Will you live your life as though you, in your waking and sleeping, eating and drinking, living and dying, were a ceaseless prayer to God and an instrument of God’s will and God’s peace on this earth?
In Everything Give Thanks
Which leads me to Paul’s last piece of advice, “In everything give thanks.” Living life in a state of thanksgiving and gratitude, regardless of what may come your way, is part of making one’s life a ceaseless prayer to God.
Thank you, God, for the gift of this new day. Thank you for the love of my friends and family members. Thank you, God, for these years that I have spent at Valparaiso University, for what I have learned and experienced here, for the confidence I have gained here. Thank you for my professors and for providing them with the gift of and passion for teaching and mentoring.
Thank you, God, not just for those things that bring me joy and happiness, but thank you, especially, for the adversity in my life, and for the sorrow, and for the pain, that I might know you more deeply, that I might give myself over to you, and come to understand that in times of deep trouble and abject despair, you are there. You breathe new life into me, open up possibilities and grant wisdom that I could not have realized on my own.
Thank you, God, for the promise that, no matter what happens to me, no matter what stupid, thoughtless thing I do, that you will never, never, ever leave me or forsake me. Thank you, God, for your willingness to forgive me, for your boundless mercy, your limitless grace. Thank you for the gift of your Son, who took upon his shoulders the burden of the sin and death of this world, who died from that burden, so that we might have hope of salvation and eternity with you.
Thank you, God, that I am not an accident of chemistry and biology and physics, sitting meaninglessly on this sphere of rock and water hurtling through time and space with no purpose, but that I am a part of your infinite mystery, a piece of your magnificent and imperceptible design, and that you have a plan for me if I but listen for your guiding voice, allow you to dwell in my heart, and believe.
By giving thanks to God in every thing, every time, every situation, our spirits are united with God and we can, indeed, be in a state of wonder, a state of ceaseless prayer with our Creator and our Lord. The poet, John Milton, framed it this way, “ Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
This is God’s Will for You in Christ Jesus
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.
Paul also reminds us that this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. This is God’s will, God’s intention, God’s plan for you.
Even as you pack your boxes, load up your cars, and head into the future on paths unknown. Even as you circulate your resumes, and make your lists, and plan your plans for what you intend to do with your lives. Remember this:
God has plans for you. God’s plans are waiting for you to discover. And you will discover them in rejoicing, your will discover them in living with a grateful spirit, you will discover them prayer.
The last words I leave you are from the prophet Jeremiah (29: 11-14):
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD.
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Advice to live by. Thanks be to God!
Mark A. Heckler, May 20, 2012
What an auspicious occasion! What an extraordinary celebration!
Valparaiso University does many things exceptionally well, but I can tell you that we just get better and better at ceremonies and processions! Well done, Marshall Shingleton! Well done!
Let’s take a moment to look around us. Class of 2015 … new and returning students, faculty and staff … let’s take a moment to remember and savor the joy and the pleasure of being gathered here today, because it is an hour of joining together in solidarity across our many differences, an hour reminding us of our virtues as a community of learning, an hour of refreshment and renewal that will become a touchstone for us throughout the coming year.
Look around at this amazing chapel that, for more than a half-century, has borne witness to so many stories. To laughter and sorrow … to pledges of matrimony and pledges of character. To confession and forgiveness. It stands as a silent witness to our triumphs and failures. It reminds us that we are never alone, even in our darkest hour.
At this very moment, here in the Chapel of the Resurrection, we recall the University’s motto: In Thy Light, We See Light.
We need God’s light to navigate through these turbulent and unpredictable times.
Intractable politics nearly grind our nation to a halt. Society itself seems more polarized than ever. Opposing camps stubbornly stake their territory and dialogue falls by the wayside. Economic pressures weigh heavily on so many. Although more information is accessible to more people than ever before, so, too, is more misinformation. No wonder, so many are confused. No wonder that there seems to be more personal despair. And, no wonder that people flock to simplistic stances that permit no argument, no questioning, no dissent.
Not at Valpo. We offer an antidote to these times. Our distinctive Lutheran character calls for thoughtful leadership, critical thinking and open minds. We develop thinkers who act, who serve and lead. Through academic rigor, through wrestling with matters of faith, through roll-up-your-sleeves, out-in-the-world service, we make sense of times that, at first glance, might seem senseless.
Yes, we live in turbulent and unpredictable times. But this day we find the path ahead illuminated because we see more clearly the light of God’s promise and the promise of all that we can do freely in response. We may not know every step of the way – or even the next step – but we see a future lit with possibilities as we embark on an intellectual, spiritual, and social journey together, in community.
The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”1
For the experts here today, I challenge you to reignite the sense of the possible.
To incoming students, I say: “Do not limit yourselves.” View your personal journey as filled with limitless possibilities. Because this is a wonderful time in your life when possible looms larger than impossible. When “I can” outweighs “I can’t.” You are at the perfect place to explore and nurture possibilities – a supportive learning community.
A community of faith … but one of many and various beliefs.
A community in common pursuit of truth … recognizing that the quest for truth will take us all our days on earth.
A community of high expectations … but no single expectation.
A community as rich, diverse and fertile with possibilities as the world itself.
Today, Class of 2015, new graduate students and law students, and new faculty and staff, I invite you to embrace the inherent possibilities of this community. Join us fully in this journey, join us in this quest for truth. To those returning, let this day be a potent reminder of what we have pledged to one another as a community of learning, Lutheran in character and ethos, preparing graduates to lead and serve in church and society.
Together, this is our quest and our legacy. We continue in the storied traditions forged by the students, staff and faculty who have come before us. A legacy of academic achievement … of generosity … of leadership … and service. Together, we are responsible to ensure this legacy for the future.
Incoming students, I ask you to join us in this responsibility and contribute to this extraordinary legacy.
Stand with us at the nexus of scholarship, freedom, and faith. Join with us in the pursuit of life as a calling, and find yourself suddenly opened to unimagined opportunities … and taken to places you never expected to go.
Helen Keller said, “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something I can do.”2
May you make the most of every opportunity here at Valpo to find that “something” that speaks to you so personally and powerfully that you feel compelled to make it your vocation. That is where responsibility and possibility intersect. That is where scholarship and faith, and service and leadership create a life fully realized.
I return now to this place and to this moment. For the past 82 years, this community has gathered together to commemorate the beginning of the academic year. For more than half a century, new students have gathered in these pews and thought about their journey at Valparaiso University. They have raised prayers. Sung hymns. Listened to presidential addresses. They have gone from this extraordinary place and accomplished extraordinary things.
They have returned years later, grateful for what they have learned, grateful for their teachers and for their friends, and grateful for the ways in which Valparaiso University helped forge their character and nurture their virtues. The students who sat where you sit today built these buildings, created the scholarships that you received, endowed the positions that brought the exceptional scholars and teachers who will teach you. Because of their generosity, their commitment to this community of learning, and their love of this place, our journey will be richer and more fruitful.
Many of you who are gathered here this first day will also accomplish great things. And a student will sit here 50 years from now because you will make it possible. Let us all remember, with gratitude, those who have come before us and embrace with gratitude the opportunity to fulfill their legacy. And to remain true to our shared motto from Psalm 36, inscribed on these magnificent windows: In luce tua videmus lucem
In Thy Light, We See Light
Embrace this community and its celebration of both differences and commonalities. Embark on your personal quest for truth. Recognize that assuming the responsibility this community offers is also a gift.
As you learn and serve and lead … you will find your step lighter … your heart full … your imagination liberated … your spirit lifted by possibility and by faith. You will discover the path forward illuminated, shimmering, unfolding in the Light.
Welcome to Valpo.
–Mark A. Heckler President August 23, 2011
Well, seniors and graduate students, this day is finally here! It doesn’t quite seem real, does it? Yet, here you are, sitting all together in the Chapel, perhaps like you did for Convocation on your very first day of school at Valpo. Only with these awkward robes on, everyone dressed alike.Maybe more than a few butterflies in your stomach. Your family is here. Maybe your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your fiancé. People you love. People who love you. All here to witness a big moment in your life. That moment where everything changes.
For some of you, today has come far too quickly, for others, not nearly fast enough. Regardless of your perception of time or your desire to graduate, this is why you came to Valparaiso University. To get to this day. To be here. Dressed in these robes and wearing these caps and tassels, with friends and family gathered around to celebrate your accomplishments.
I commend you for starting your graduation day here, at Baccalaureate, and in the Chapel of the Resurrection. Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of your Valpo week. You know its every nook and cranny. You studied these windows, the altar, and this amazing Christus Rex breaking free of the burden and death of the cross. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events in this place from time to time, but not fully comfortable with its magnificence and the liturgical rituals performed in it. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your faith, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our shared understanding that at these most important transitional moments in life, it is fitting that we should gather together and take stock of where we have been and where we are headed. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force which we cannot fully know nor comprehend. For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism and a rededication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
We gather here in a day rich in symbolic and metaphorical significance, engaged in a globally recognized rite of passage. We look back to see how far we have come. We look ahead into the wilderness. And now we venture on pathways yet untrodden, to destinations unknown, filled with chance encounters, perils unseen, and opportunities unimagined.
Life as journey.
Students attending baccalaureates and commencements across our nation today will hear someone invoke the ubiquitous metaphor of “life as journey.” Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) consider metaphors far more than a clever turn of phrase. They believe that metaphors articulate powerful schemata or tacit mental maps that human beings use for sense-making, as we perceive and process the extraordinary amounts of information surrounding us. These mental maps form as a result not only of our individual experience, but also through what we are taught by our parents and other mentors, as they pass along the collective knowledge of human experience.
Lakoff and Johnson describe several human cognitive metaphors which transcend language, culture, and time. Among these are “event structure” metaphors, which use human perceptions of space and movement through space as a link to understanding events. Using event structure metaphors, people think of purposes as destinations. Difficulties are viewed as obstacles to moving forward. And lengthy, goal-oriented activities are described as journeys.
So, as you hear commencement speakers use the metaphor of life as a journey, or when poets describe a path not taken, when decisions become a fork in the road, when people become lost in the wilderness, or when someone encourages you to take the high road on a particular matter, recognize that you are engaged in a complex cognitive and linguistic transaction, drawing on thousands of years of human knowledge and experience. This collective experience, captured in our brains, has led to these succinct, powerful, culturally transcendent schemata, enabling us to make sense out of the apparent chaos of human existence.
The followers of all world religions undertake pilgrimages, or journeys through the wilderness and to a sacred place. One travels through landscapes filled with danger, loneliness, temptation, on a journey toward a great revelation or insight.
Life as journey, or perhaps, life as pilgrimage. Through the wilderness and toward a great and noble destination. This is an apt metaphor for the Class of 2011 at Valparaiso University.
Yet, I will offer another, infinitely more powerful metaphor that we can use to make sense out of the chaos of existence and lead us safely through the wilderness.
That is Christ as shepherd and we as sheep. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday in the church year, and this morning we heard two texts which develop this metaphor, Psalm 23 and the beginning of Chapter 10 from the Gospel of John.
Of all the metaphors we might choose for a graduation day, perhaps the image of shepherd and sheep would be the least likely to come to mind. After all, for the Class of 2011, today is your day. We have gathered here to celebrate you, Jessica, and you, Elliot, and you, Johanna, and individual accomplishments of each student gathered here this morning. We are proud of your personal journey through Valparaiso University, and your singular achievements.
I will guess that you haven’t considered yourself a sheep in the days leading up to today. After all, sheep are considered docile, and overly timid. Certainly not very bright. They easily lose their way, and stick closely together in flocks so that they cannot be easily picked off by predators.
No, sheep is probably not the metaphor of choice for someone who worked tirelessly over 2, 3, or 4 years to earn a degree, lost a lot of sleep, faced stiff competition, and overcame significant obstacles; someone who, through great personal sacrifice, perseverance, and sheer determination, has emerged in a graduation robe, cap, and tassel, ready to stand before the vast assembly later today, waiting for that moment when her or his name is read, and shouts of joy go up from the crowd.
No. Not the right metaphor. Not sheep.
On the other hand, there are some ways in which we might redeem this sheep metaphor. After all, sheep are cute and cuddly. They learn their names easily and will respond when they are called. And while they are a talkative lot, they are also humble and don’t take to boasting or lording it over one another. They are honest to a fault. They trust their master implicitly.
Sheep get along marvelously with one another, and like to hang out in crowds. They rally together in crisis, and huddle to protect one another whenever danger appears. Sheep are entrepreneurial, producing wool for the cost of water and an open field, yielding tremendous ROI. They can communicate easily across nations and cultures. No sheep bullies. No sheep terrorists. No sheep wars.
There’s a lot to be said for sheep.
And then there’s the shepherd. The Good Shepherd. Whom Christians know as Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who guides us through the wilderness, along pathways untrodden, to destinations unknown. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, brings us into verdant pastures and leads us alongside still waters, where we might drink after a long journey. It is this Good Shepherd who takes us down the right paths, who helps us to find our way in times of darkness and despair. It is Jesus who prepares the table for us, who provides nourishment for the journey. We can place our trust in Jesus. He will always be with us.
There have been moments in my life when I was filled with doubt and uncertainty. There have been moments of deep despair, times of great loneliness. There have been days of emptiness, times of grief. And there have been moments of unspeakable horror. In each of these times, when there appeared to be nowhere else to turn, I turned to the Good Shepherd, and in those hours of desperation, I prayed the words of the 23rd Psalm.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
As we reflect upon the symbolic significance of this day as a rite of passage, and our gathering together to begin this day at the foot of the cross, I offer these reflections for your consideration.
That despite all that we may privately consider our individual accomplishments, everything that comes to us is a gift from God. Our keen intellect and insight, our creativity and imagination, our individual drive and determination, our physical strength and stamina. These are all gifts from the Creator, and not solely attributable to us.
That while we come together and bask in the individual and collective accomplishments of the students who will graduate today, and while we celebrate their extraordinary potential to both lead and serve in church and society, we also ought to recognize that they, and we, are uncertain, vulnerable, and in need of the guidance and care of the Good Shepherd.
That while we have charted our course, prepared our resumes, engaged in interviews, and perhaps know the next step we will take, we also ought to recognize that God will surprise us, and that gates will be opened for us, if we but listen for the call of our names.
That we will experience part of life’s journey in the wilderness, having lost our way. We will all face times of great darkness, we will all walk in the valley of death. And in these times of fear, loneliness, and isolation, where the world seems dark and the way forward is unclear. It is in these times, especially, that the Good Shepherd will come to you, with words of comfort, with a steady guiding hand. And it is the Good Shepherd who will bring you into green pastures and provide for you an abundant life.
Soon-to-be-graduates, these are the thoughts I leave you as we share this time together in the chapel. Life can be much more than a journey. It can be a pilgrimage. Consider that everything that you have achieved at this moment of your life came as a gift from God. And for this reason, be humble. Be grateful. Listen for the call of the Good Shepherd. He knows your name. He will keep you safe. Trust in Him. He will open the gate and show you the way. And he will never leave you, nor forsake you, no matter how far into the wilderness you have stumbled, no matter how dark the valley.
Let these be the metaphors of your time on this earth. And may your time be forever blessed.
–Mark A. Heckler May 15, 2011
Fifty years ago. 1960. The first day of classes. Here.
President O. P. Kretzmann stood where I stand. The Chapel was packed. It was probably hot.
I don’t know what President Kretzmann said on Convocation Day in 1960. But I do know who heard it.
Sarah Parsons was here. Sarah came to Valpo wondering where her personal journey would take her. Today, she’s an internationally recognized researcher leading the development of new breast cancer therapies. Perhaps she sat where Tiffany Harris is seated this afternoon. Tiffany, why don’t you stand up so everyone can see where you are.
Kenneth Farr sat here 50 years ago. During a 30-year career with the United States Agency for International Development, Kenneth helped create new infrastructure for water, sanitation, roads and bridges in 65 countries. Perhaps he sat where Andrew Schrader is seated this afternoon. Andrew, please stand up so everyone can see where you are.
Sarah, Kenneth and their classmates from 1960 are part of a 152-year legacy of Valpo graduates making this world a better place by using their gifts as scientists, public servants, business leaders, scholars and artists.
What does this legacy mean for those of us gathered here today? What does this mean for Tiffany, a freshman biology major from Chicago who has worked tirelessly to make the dream of attending Valparaiso University possible. Or for Andrew, a freshman engineering major from Idaho following in the long tradition of his parents’ and family’s footsteps. Tiffany and Andrew, maybe a future president will stand up here and tell others about the important ways you will lead and serve after you graduate from Valparaiso University.
What does this legacy mean for each of us — students, faculty and staff alike — knowing that generation after generation of people of promise have gathered in this place, struggled mightily to grow in both knowledge and wisdom, committed to lead lives of unquestionable character, built relationships that sustained them for a lifetime, and graduated carrying within them a light, a most precious light, and a burning desire to lead and to serve.
For each new student who joins us today—freshman, transfer, graduate, or law—today you begin to answer these questions: Where will my journey take me? And what will be my legacy to Valparaiso University and to the world? Now, your personal journey at Valparaiso University begins.
As you prepare to chart your course, let me briefly share three stories about today’s Valpo students. For May 2010 graduate Lindsey Gilman, Valpo was the perfect place to be challenged. That’s Lindsey, up there on the wall. A three-sport student athlete, Lindsey participated in water- quality research with one of her chemistry professors as a freshman. She was one of 12 students in the country invited to attend the national Nuclear and Radiochemistry Undergraduate Summer School. And in a few days, she begins pursuing a PhD in nuclear engineering at MIT — the winner of a fellowship for young researchers demonstrating the promise to help solve the world’s energy needs. Just as Lindsey did, each student here will interact with outstanding faculty and staff. You will work rigorously with other high achieving classmates. You will experience education of the highest quality both inside and outside the classroom. Students, how will you leverage the quality of your Valpo experience to achieve things that today you, like Lindsay Gillman, could not possibly imagine?
We value each student of the Valpo community as a unique individual with unique abilities and opportunities for personal and professional growth. Take Jeff Lange. There he is. Jeff, a senior, is now general manager of WVUR, Valpo’s student radio station. Jeff came to Valpo with a love for working with media and technology. What he did not know was how those passions would coalesce.
After talking to Professor Kocher in Communications, Jeff tailored a program of study to match his passions. He stopped struggling with that nagging question, “What can I do to get a job?”, realizing that, for him, the real question was this: “What interests me that might lead to a job?” After that, he felt empowered and transformed. Opportunities emerged for Jeff to pursue his passion and to lead others. Students, how will your unique interests and God-given abilities come together to reveal a career path well aligned with both your sense of purpose and your passions?
Three years ago, senior education major Chelsey Dunleavy helped launch Valpo’s chapter of College Mentors for Kids. Chelsey, why don’t you stand up so folks can see where you are. Chelsea and a handful of classmates began mentoring at-risk youth every week. Now, more than 40 Valpo students meet regularly with local elementary school children, encouraging them to succeed in school. Through service, Chelsey applied her knowledge, built her self-confidence, and developed a deeper appreciation for diversity and community service. And Chelsey was recognized this summer as College Mentors’ national Chapter Leader of the Year. She exemplifies the poise, wisdom, and concern for others that set Valpo students apart. What will you do this year, like Chelsey, that will make a difference in the lives of others in this world?
Chelsey is not alone in her desire to help others. During the past academic year, over 1,400 Valpo students performed more than 67,000 hours of service. Yesterday, Washington Monthly announced that Valpo is ranked 11th in the nation and tops among the Great Lakes states for our commitment to service. Indeed, Valpo’s record of service is impressive.
Yet I believe that more is required. I know that our community yearns to make an even bigger impact through our service as students, faculty, and staff. How might we impact the world with 100,000 hours of service this year? Valpo, we have been blessed with so much talent and so many resources. The world needs the work of our hands and our minds. Share your gifts. Commit to lifting up the poor, the sick, the suffering, the lonely, the unloved. Together, let us commit to break that 100,000 mark by this time next year, Valpo.
Today, we participate in Convocation, a storied Valpo tradition. Today, we also begin crafting our Valpo legacy. Like, Sarah and Kenneth; like Lindsey, Jeff, and Chelsey; like Tiffany and Andrew. Will you be a thoughtful leader? Will you be a peacemaker, bridging that which divides people? Will you create meaningful change that helps others live abundant lives? Will you devote your life to pastoral care or service? The journey is yours. The answers are for you to discover. One thing I can promise you, students. The faculty and staff with you this day pledge to do our part so that you can make your personal journey, your Valpo journey, nothing less than transformational. For you. And for the good of the world.
–Mark A. Heckler President August 21, 2010
It doesn’t quite seem real.
Here you sit. With these awkward robes on. Maybe more than a few butterflies in your stomach. Your family is here. Maybe your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your fiancé. People you love. People who love you.
Here you sit in this place. Maybe you are Lutheran and this chapel has been a regular part of your Valpo week. You know its every nook and cranny. You studied these windows, the altar, and this amazing Christus Rex breaking free of the burden and death of the cross. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events in this place from time to time, but not fully comfortable with its magnificence and the rituals performed in it. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Yet, here you sit. On this day. In this place. You walked past this chapel each day. You drove past it as you entered the campus. Perhaps, like me, you used the chapel as a point of navigation when you first arrived on campus, so you could find your way to your first classes, or determine the direction of the town, or the Target, or the Dunes. Maybe you used the bells of the carillon to navigate your day, listening for the chimes to determine the hour, or to plot the amount of time before your next class or your next meeting.
Regardless of your background or belief, this chapel is inextricably woven into the life and experience of students, faculty, staff, and those who visit Valparaiso University. It is a place to be reckoned with.
O. P. Kretzmann served as president of Valparaiso University for 28 years. He conceived this chapel, raised the funds to build it, and established many of the rituals that we carry on here today. On the 10th anniversary of the chapel, President Kretzmann, nearing the end of his life, stood in this place and spoke these words:
“When this chapel was built … all who had anything to do with it—designers, architects, planners, generous donors, friends—all had a definite purpose expressed in various ways. This chapel was to be a monument to Jesus Christ. It was to say that we, so late in time, still cling to the God of Grace, Redemption and Sanctification. … This chapel began to call us into the years that lie before us. So, if at some dim and distant time we might have here a faculty, students and administration who no longer believe in the purposes of this chapel, it will still be necessary for them to come to terms with what this chapel represents. They can never quite get away from this silent witness to our faith.”
A half-century later, here we sit. In this place. Reflecting on our past. And like the generations who sat where you are now seated, we cannot help but peer into the years that lie before us.
Some days I wonder if we are in that dim and distant time that President Kretzmann imagined. Political partisanship has polarized our nation and divided us as a people. Rancor has poisoned the national discourse. Greed has toppled or crippled many of our corporations and financial institutions. Our refusal to live within our means has left our nation and much of the world with an uncertain economic future. Our educational system is in disarray. Teachers, revered in many other cultures around the world, are subjects of derision and scorn by politicians and parents. We fear other nations overtaking our prized position as the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world. We worry about being overtaken and overrun by immigrants. We demand our individual right to own and carry weapons and wring our hands about the violence in our cities, our workplace, our schools.
Even the Church of Christ appears paralyzed by crisis, appropriated by politicians for political gain, and torn apart by the cultural hysteria surrounding some of our thorniest questions about the beginning and end of life and the nature of human sexuality and gender. Militant fundamentalism and its unholy alliance with terrorism threaten to plunge the entire world into chaos. And darkness.
In luce tua, videmus lucem.
In Your light, we see light. Psalm 36:9.
This is the motto of Valparaiso University. In 1926, President W. H. T. Dau selected this motto for our campus when Valparaiso University was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by a group of Lutheran businessmen and revived as a Lutheran university.
Soon-to-be-graduates, you have encountered this motto, in Your light we see light, in ways both subtle and overt during your years here. From the torches that greet you at the entrance to the campus and the words sung by the angels that greet you at the entrance of this Chapel, from the words that appear in these magnificent windows to the words that surround the capital V on the university seal on the diploma you will soon receive. These words, In luce tua, videmus lucem, are manifest and manifold in this place.
We also believe that these words, In luce tua, videmus lucem, are manifest and manifold in you and through you. There is a collective story out there in the world that goes like this: You can always spot a Valpo graduate, because Valpo graduates have a light burning in them. The light of knowledge and wisdom. The light of integrity and character. The light of leadership. The light of service. The light of God.
Even in my short two years as president of Valparaiso University, I have come to believe in and tell this collective story about Valpo graduates. I have met our graduates across the country and around the world. Graduates from the 1940s and those from 2009. People like Dr. Kurt Senske, whom you will hear today as your commencement speaker, and NPR correspondent and author Jacki Lyden, who will receive an honorary doctorate today. These are remarkable people. And after my 30 years in higher education encountering thousands of students on nearly every continent, I can tell you that there is indeed something special about a Valpo graduate, that there is something special about you.
There is a light in you and with you. You may not see it yet in yourself, but others can and will see it in you.
Those of us who are Christian associate light with God and with goodness. From the creation story in Genesis, to John’s final words in the book of Revelation that we heard today, we believe that from the dawn of creation to the end of the world as we know it, that God is light, Jesus is light, and that we are called to be the light of the world, the light that darkness cannot overcome.
In today’s reading from Revelation, John comes to the end of an extraordinary account of a vision of the future, a vision given to him by angels sent from God. It is both a glorious and terrifying vision of the end of time and place as we know it. In this closing chapter, John recounts the words of Jesus heard in the vision.
Jesus reminds us, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
Even with the mayhem, death, and destruction John foretells as the future of our world, here are these comforting words from the eye of the Apocalypse. In all the emptiness and loneliness at the dawn of creation, I was there. In all of the chaos and confusion at the end of times, I will be there. And in the uncertainty and worry of today and tomorrow, I am here with you.
Jesus says, I am the bright Morning Star. So bright, so strong, that my light will shine through the night, through the dawn, and into the first day of a new creation. I am here! Set your course, plot your navigation with me in sight.
In luce tua, videmus lucem!
Soon-to-be-graduates, no matter how confident or uncertain you are about what lies ahead for you, know that, through your experience here, the light in you has grown stronger. And if you let your light shine through in all that you do, others will see it in you, and you will be blessed, and blessed, and blessed. Not always in the ways that you may desire or expect. For God is full of surprises.
Certainly, John was surprised as the angels revealed what God has in store for the future of fallen humanity. Most certainly, as John penned the Book of Revelation, he believed that there would be a reckoning, in the same way that President Kretzmann imagined that future generations at Valparaiso University would have to reckon with “what this chapel represents . . . [as a] silent witness to our faith.”
Soon-to-be graduates, throughout your lifetime, you will have reckonings with this chapel and this university. That word, “reckoning,” is a potent one. For accountants, reckoning has to do with the settling of accounts, bringing them into balance. For seafarers, reckoning is the calculation of a ship’s position using astronomical information. For the rest of us, reckoning refers to the settlement of differences, the process of reconciliation.
You came to Valparaiso University, and while you were here, you reflected on the gifts you have been given by God. You articulated your vocation, that which you believe you have been called to do in this world. You peered into the future and imagined who you might become and what you might accomplish in your labors. You came to this place and prayed for God to prosper the work of your hands.
Now, Valparaiso will forever be that place of reckoning, of settling accounts between where you are in life and the dreams you had here, the promises you made, and the prayers you raised. You will continue to navigate through life calculating your course using this place as a point of reckoning. And when you return here, and we hope and pray that you will return, you will remember with both joy and sadness, the days and nights spent here, with these people whom you have grown to love, and the dreams you have dreamt together.
You will take your light into the world and take on the darkness and chaos of these times. You will use the Morning Star to chart your course. And, one at a time, wherever God will take you, you will change the world.
And for those of us whom you leave behind, we will forever be reckoning with the legacy of O.P. Kretzmann and the others who built this magnificent witness. Even as Lutherans and Christians in general descend into greater conflict and chaos, victims of the rancor of these dark and disturbing times, this university will strive to be a beacon of light and a center for reconciliation. We will work and pray, even as Christ prayed:
“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. “
And we Christians, like John, say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Come to this place. Bring others to this place. Fill us with your light. Be our Morning Star.
And I, like John, close this chapter in our lives together with his benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.” So be it. Amen!