Commencement Address …

Last week, I was dually honored – with an honorary degree and with an invitation to address the VTS graduates at commencement. You can watch the address online, and I’ve included the text after the jump. I hope it will be of encouragement to church leaders both “new and used!” Here’s the link:

1Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
3At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
4Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7And the man got up and went home. 8When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8)

Thank you, Dean Markham, Bishop Shand, and the whole VTS Board, faculty and staff, for this great honor, the honor of receiving an honorary degree, and of being invited to address this group of graduating students, their families, their faculty, and their guests. I am deeply humbled and grateful. And in fact, I would like to honor some people who are with me to share in this day.
First, my parents. Dad and Mom, you read to me and instilled in me a love for books. You exposed me to history and nature and instilled in me an irrepressible curiosity. You encouraged my creative instincts at every turn. And most important, you modeled a humane and sincere faith. Put those inputs together, and it would have been hard for me to become a Wall Street investment banker or a BP oil tycoon. So the honor that is coming my way today should pass straight through me to you.
And Grace, you have been my partner in everything, my partner and my friend, my friend and my confidante, my confidante and my favorite conversation partner, and when necessary, my most constructive critic. The honor that is coming my way today should multiply to you, Grace.
And students … that I would be associated with a group of people like you is an honor in itself. Thanks for letting me tag a long and become part of the class of 2010 for a day.
When I considered what direction my words for you should take, several possibilities came to mind. First, I considered talking about what I often call the Episcopal Moment. I believe you are graduating from seminary at a pregnant moment in the history of the Episcopal Church, and our time would be well spent considering your opportunity to help the church seize the opportunities this moment provides.
Second, I considered focusing on the mission of the church – to remind you that the church doesn’t exist to satisfy the religious tastes its members. Nor does it exist for institutional self-preservation. Nor does it exist to provide clergy with fulfilling employment and generous remuneration and an unparalleled retirement package. But rather it exists to join God in God’s self-giving for the sake of the world. As the church moves beyond a season of internal tension and conflict, this is a prime time to focus on our dual mission of disciple-formation and disciple-deployment into the needs and unseized potentials around us.
Third, I considered sharing some of my own story – because I have a special love for the Episcopal Church. The best pastor I ever had was an Episcopal priest in this diocese, and through his encouragement I prayerfully considered coming to this seminary about thirty years ago. Although I felt I was led into another path, serving in nondenominational settings over the years, I must admit I have an Anglican heart, shaped by the Prayer Book and deepened by the liturgy, and I would love to tell more about that story.
But the more I prayed and thought about this day, the more I felt I should focus less on God’s work in the Episcopal Church at this critical moment, and less on God’s mission through the Episcopal Church in today’s world, and less on God’s work through the Episcopal Church in my own life … but instead, I’d like to focus on God’s work in your own lives. I’m thinking how about the words of Proverbs 4:23 apply to each of you graduates today:

Above all else, guard well your own heart, for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

And I’m thinking about 1 Timothy 4:16:

Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Your greatest asset in the years ahead, it turns out, won’t be the certification you earn today. It won’t be the title conferred upon you. It won’t even be the knowledge you’ve gained through your studies. No … your greatest asset will be your morale, the internal climate of your own heart, the purity and constancy of the wellsprings of life that arise from your innermost being. Through a strong and healthy heart, you will make use of all these other assets, but without a strong and healthy heart, so much will be wasted. And I need to warn you – as all of the veteran ministers could do if they were in my place – that your morale will be under constant assault.
That’s especially evident in light of today’s gospel reading. When Jesus comes to his home town, he faces tremendous human need – physical need epitomized in a paralyzed man; social need evident in the friends who carry his stretcher, and spiritual need centered in sins needing forgiveness. But the physical paralysis of the man on the stretcher seems easy to heal compared to the spiritual paralysis of the teachers of the law who are stuck in a cramped, critical mode and mindset. All they can do is criticize Jesus – either for what he does, when he does it, what he says, or how he says it.
And that is going to be your experience too. You are leaving this place to go into the world to address multi-faceted human need in the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, and I can guarantee that if you do your job right, there will always be for you, as the was for him, a crowd of religious critics standing by to tell you how you did it, when you did it, what you said, and how you said it were not up to their standards. You will learn that there are two paths of martyrdom – one leading into the den of ravenous lions and the other through the valley of nibbling ducks. And as all the veterans of ministry will tell you, unless you guard your heart well, unless you pay careful attention to your own soul, you will be nibbled and hobbled and worn down by the ducks at your ankles just as effectively as by the lions at your neck.
When they wear you down, you’ll stop playing to win, and you’ll settle for fishing for compliments, and eventually you’ll be reduced to playing not to lose. That’s why I want to share with you, as a kind of last lesson in your seminary education, four friendships that will guard your heart, preserve your morale, and be sure that the great assets you’ve gained at VTS will be supported by a cheerful, constant, and pure flow from the wellsprings of the Spirit deep within you.
First, you must be a friend to yourself. I had a kind of spiritual epiphany that brought this lesson home to me about ten years into pastoral ministry. I was jogging – something I did not for the love of exercise but for the hatred of putting on weight. Whenever I jog, my muscles and lungs talk to me. They say, “OK. That’s enough of this. You’ve proven your point. Let’s just walk now. In fact, let’s go over to Dunkin Donuts and buy a couple of chocolate crème filled donuts to reward you for your good behavior.” I learned that the only way to distract myself from the chattering voices of my muscles and lungs was to listen to podcasts on myIpod, except in those days they were called cassette tapes and you listened to them with a device called a Walkman, which you can probably see in a museum somewhere.
Anyway, I was running and listening to a cassette tape and the speaker quoted Abraham Lincoln who said these words:

I desire to so conduct the affairs of this administration that if, at the end … I have lost every friend on earth, I shall have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.

As I heard those words, it was as if the Spirit of God took them and pierced me to the marrow of my soul, and out of the deepest part of me, I suddenly felt a sob erupt from within me. I realized that I had no friend down inside of me. I had an enemy.
If my friend made a mistake, I would tell him it was OK, that nobody’s perfect. But if I made a mistake, I constantly beat myself up and mercilessly took myself to task. If a friend was working too hard, I would tell him to relax, to take a day off, to go fishing. But down inside me was a cruel taskmaster who was never satisfied. If a friend had some weaknesses, I would be gracious and compassionate, but not so with myself. And so that day I felt the Holy Spirit using a quote from Abraham Lincoln to tell me that if I was going to last, I actually needed to follow Jesus’ words about loving others as myself, which required me to be a friend to myself.
Some time later, I came across a quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who talked about the three stages of love. In the first stage, we love God for our own sake, for what God can do for us. In the second stage, we love God for God’s own sake, for who God is in God’s own character and glory and beauty. It’s hard to imagine anything better than that, but Bernard said in the third stage, we love ourselves for God’s sake. We join with God in seeing ourselves in grace and compassion.
Brothers and sisters, another way of saying above all else, guard well your heart, for from it flow the wellsprings of life is to say be a friend to yourself. Realize that you are responsible for your own morale, and that if you aren’t a friend to yourself, you’ll sabotage the efforts of anyone else to befriend you, and you will fall pray to nibbling ducks.
One of the best ways you can be a friend to yourself, of course, is to give yourself the gift of a few soul-friends. This is the second soul-guarding friendship I want to share with you. By soul-friends I mean people with whom you experience what one of my soul-friends calls a non-utilitarian relationship. You care about each other not for money, not for success, not for self-interest, but for love. These are people you stay in touch with through the years and whenever you meet, you pick up where you left off. You follow the old Quaker spiritual discipline of query … and you ask one another, not just “How is ministry?” or “How is the church?” but rather “How goes it with your soul?”
My guess is that along with reams of notes and the beginnings of a great library and a fantastic GPA, these years at VTS have put within your reach some soul-friends, and so my suggestion to you is that before the day ends, you tell a few of them, “Hey, let’s keep in touch. Not just as old-friends, but as soul-friends.” I’ve accumulated a half-dozen or so of these kinds of friends through the years, and I’ll tell you the truth: it’s worth a round-trip plane ticket to fly anywhere in the world to spend a day with a friend like this.
So if you want to guard your heart well, please be a friend to yourself, and please make and keep a few lifelong soul friends, and third – and this might surprise you – please have some friends outside the church.
A few years into pastoral ministry, I realized that all my friends were inside the church. I didn’t have any margin for friends on the outside. The truth is, I don’t think you can be a very good Christian if you don’t have some friends who aren’t. And I don’t think you can be a very good pastor if you don’t have some friends who don’t go to church. Now I’d say these non-church folks will benefit from having a seminary-trained person like you in their circle of friends. But I’m thinking less about how they’ll need you, and more about how you’ll need them.
Of course, you’ll need them for perspective, because intra-church life can too easily become an obsession. You need to get out of the goldfish bowl and into the big river of life, and friends will help you do that. They’ll help you keep a life outside the church, and that’s important for your life inside the church.
My friend Rob Bell says it in a memorable way that some of you won’t get, which is probably a good thing: he says, “You have to smoke what you’re selling.” In other words, you can become so busy as a purveyor of the abundant life in Christ that you run out of time to actually live that abundant life. You can get so busy talking about and organizing life in the kingdom or realm or dream of God that you forget to actually live it an enjoy it. Here’s how one of my mentors explained it.
Think of three circles. The smallest one is your job. That’s what you get paid to do. The larger one is your ministry. That’s what you do as an expression of your baptismal identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The largest circle is your life … that’s an expression of your humanity as one of God’s creatures in God’s beautiful world. In the little circle, you prepare sermons. In the larger circle, you do good that you don’t get paid to do – an underrated thing, by the way. But in the largest circle – you enjoy life. You pursue a human interest in antique cars or fishing or watercolor painting or birdwatching or playing tennis or hiking the Appalachian Trail or wine-making or Chinese calligraphy. And in that largest circle you will find friends outside the church who are drawn together simply for the love of that human interest.
It’s not good for a banker’s life to be reduced to work. It’s not good for a real estate agent’s life to be reduced to work. It’s not good for a cabinet maker’s life to be reduced to work. Nor is it good for a clergy-person’s life to be reduced to work, and some nonchurch friends will help you be sure that doesn’t happen, and that will be good for your soul.
One last friendship needs to be mentioned, of course. Yes, you need to be a friend to yourself, and you need a few soul-friends, and you need some friends outside the church. But it’s all too easy in the ministry to let your friendship with God languish, and that’s the fourth friendship.
I want to tell you something, by way of testimony, by way of proclamation. This isn’t a proposition of scholarship that I can prove to you. It’s a tenet of faith I can only proclaim to you. Are you ready? Here it is: God is friendly.
God is friendly.
That’s what Jesus reveals to us in the gospel reading today. Jesus, the Word of God, Jesus, the image of God, Jesus, the radiance of God, Jesus, the incarnation of God … is friendly, and that means God is friendly. When those friends bring that paralyzed man on his stretcher to Jesus, Jesus allies himself with them to help the paralyzed man. Jesus joins their friendship. He was known as a friend of sinners, you’ll recall, and that’s good news for all of us sinners.
People will sometimes bless you, and sometimes betray you, and sometimes forget about you, and sometimes disappoint you. But God is friendly. Abraham knew this, and was called the friend of God. Moses knew this, and spoke to God as a person speaks to his friend. That paralyzed man knew this, when Jesus wasn’t bothered by the roof being opened up, but healed him and forgave him that day. And I know this, because I have experienced God’s inherent friendliness.
And so I ask you to imagine yourself as that paralyzed man in the gospel story. You are lying on a stretcher. You look up to one corner, and there you see your own face, because you must be a friend to yourself. And you look to another corner, and there you see a soul-friend, maybe someone here in this room today, with whom you will grow old and walk together through life’s many dangers, toils, and snares. And you look to the third corner, and there is a friend outside the church, someone with whom you share a common human interest, simply a pal or buddy who has the good taste to love and enjoy something in life you love and enjoy. And then, in the fourth corner, is the face of Jesus, radiating to you the friendliness of God.
And so it is to God’s friendship that I commend you now. Surrounded by those four friends, your heart will be well guarded in whatever you ministry will be, and the wellsprings of life will flow, and all will not be easy, but all will be well. Amen.