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2015: Baccalaureate Speaker

Remarks as given by Jonathon Walton, Pusey Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church
May 17, 2015

To the President of this fine university, distinguished faculty, administrators, and trustees, and to the incredible Class of 2015, I need not pause to say how delighted I am to share this unforgettable occasion with you this morning. I am indeed honored to be a part of this Commencement weekend. I appreciate your President, Dr. Nathan Hatch. Certainly those of us who research and teach in the area of American religion remain indebted to him for his leadership and for his scholarship. His most insightful and inspiring book, The Democratization of Christianity, provided a language and a history for my own faith tradition while an undergraduate at Morehouse College. Twenty-five years later, it is an enduring tale that I continue to place on my own course syllabus at Harvard University, confident it will inspire the next generation of scholars of religion, just as it inspired me.

To the Dean of the Divinity School, the towering New Testament scholar, Gail O’Day. Her scholarship on the gospel of John and contributions to the New Interpreters Bible have informed the preaching and teaching of numerous pastors throughout this planet, including my own. Wake Forest is so blessed to have her. And to all of my other dear friends who are a part of this wonderful Wake Forest University family, we thank God for you.

Yet as excited as I am to be here on the soil of my family roots in North Carolina, and surrounded by dear friends at Wake Forest, I make no mistake as to why we are here. We are here today to celebrate the accomplishments of you, the Class of 2015. Give yourselves a hand!

But you, Class of 2015, must make no mistake as to how you ended up here. So many of you here today are standing on the shoulders of parents, grandparents, teachers, and community members who have made innumerable sacrifices to get you to this point. Whether you are graduating, summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or just plain old “Thank the Lawd,” we cannot forget to thank those who made it possible. ____________________________________________________________________

Today’s scripture lesson comes from the book of Proverbs, chapter 4, verses 20-27 I want to speak from the topic this morning: Thinking With Your Heart

Today it is quite en vogue to refer to our time as an “age of anxiety.” Conduct an Amazon book search. Beyond W. H. Auden’s 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning poem, you will find over a dozen books with Age of Anxiety somewhere in the title. Hope in the Age of Anxiety. Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety. There are books on motherhood, teen life, and professional advancement in the age of anxiety.

In these days of high speed innovation, economic insecurity, and horrific international unrest, it is easy to feel a little emotionally off-kilter. This is particularly true of your generation, Class of 2015, the so-called millennials. You were raised at the intersection of ambiguous avenue and paradox place. Consider this. You are the generation that was raised by that hovering group of weird people that we like to call helicopter parents. Every minute of your day was structured. Yet your generation is among the most independent and filled with the most innovative thinkers our society has ever seen. Many of you were pampered beyond belief, even as you were pushed to the limits to excel and exceed all expectations.   This is why I often hear my students say that they were raised to believe that they had four career options: they can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or a loser.

What is more, you are the first generation to come of age hyper-connected on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Yik Yak. The lines between public and private, reality and performance art, personal identity and constructed avatar are so blurred that it is now hard to assess the human condition. This is why in the words of Shirley Turkle, your generation lives Alone Together—expecting more from technology than you do from one another.

This might explain why so many of us our anxious about our present and the future. The vacillating seas of life are increasingly unpredictable due to the shifting winds of society. But though your social situation may be different from those who have come before you, I want to suggest that the most pertinent question remains the same. Now that you are a graduate of Wake Forest University, how will your life contribute to our world?

This is the question Wake Forest chaplain Reverend John Allen Easley asked on May 22, 1931 to that year’s graduating class. How will you use your own particular talent, that special thing that God endowed you with, in order to respond to the call that we all must give ultimate account? And, along this line of questioning, the writer of this morning’s proverb offers up advice on how to ensure that young people do not simply live, but actually have a life worth living.

This is why the writer says, “be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them escape your sight. Keep them within your heart, for they are life to those who find them and healing to all flesh.” You and I find life when we are attentive to God’s call, incline our ears to God’s voice, and keep our eyes on God’s purposes. We are to remain alert with our primary senses in order that we might discover what God will have us to do with our lives.

To be sure, the writer is referring to practical tips and teachings on life, love and the pursuit of wisdom that are laid out for us in the wisdom literature. This is why I am not talking about God’s call, God’s voice, or God’s purposes in some esoteric, hyper-spiritual sense. As my grandmother loves to say, “there is no need in being heavenly minded, if you are no earthly good.” The writer here is talking about the ways that you and I might fulfill God’s requirement to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly by concerning our selves with those God is most concerned with—the least, the left out, and the left behind.

If we look at examples from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, we will witness the form and function that God’s call takes. It is typically a need coupled with an opportunity to address the need. Need plus opportunity equals a calling. A simple equation that is far from simplistic. This is what Jesus offers up parabolically in Matthew 25. Who inherits the kingdom of God? Those who met the needs of the least of these. When the need was hunger, those who offered something to eat. When the need was thirst, those who offered something to drink. And when there was a stranger, God honors those who opened a welcoming door. According to the writer of Proverbs, to fulfill God’s call for our lives is to make decisions with our heart.

I realize that to suggest one should make a decision with one’s heart may not be language befitting of a Harvard professor. As you have learned over the past four years, the academic enterprise is defined by scientific methods toward factual identification and empirical verification. This is a wonderful thing. Scientific discovery and verification is instructive and important. Nevertheless, you and I must also acknowledge that there are dimensions of the human experience which supersede our finite comprehension. There are affective dimensions in life that defy our so-called rationality.

Love, for instance, cannot be placed under a microscope. Care and compassion, more often than not, are philosophically illogical, if not impractical. And evidence reveals that empathy and altruism are a fool’s errand in a natural world that privileges self-preservation. But the ancient Hebrews did not make this division between the heart and the head, born of the age of Enlightenment. This is why the writer of Hebrews encourages us to keep these teachings in our heart. The Hebrew word for heart can also be translated as mind, because they understood the heart as the center of knowledge. So when the writer says, “keep these teachings in your heart,” and “keep your heart with all vigilance because from it flows the spring of life,” they are acknowledging one’s heart as the center of moral decision making.

Today, when you and I think about those who have left us a most lasting legacy, they are more often than not those figures who thought deeply with and acted upon the motivations of their hearts—people who disrupted comfort and convenience and troubled tradition in order to make our world a better place. Many of us hare here today because there were people who were willing to sacrifice acclaim in their own time to stand on the side of right for all time.

This is exactly what our society needs from you, Class of 2015. We need you to be social architects. Social architects imagine with their hearts the details of a more just society. We need you to be change agents. Change agents use their influence in all fields of human endeavor to challenge the status quo and provide access to the least, the left out and the left behind. And we need you to be what former Wake Forest president William Louis Poteat referred to as prophets who confront the world. Do not be like those who President Poteat condemned for taking a laissez-faire and self-absorbed approach to life. Those who just figure that we should let those born of the wrong parents and in the wrong place evaporate into a noxious gas of social misery, while we build higher and higher gates around our privileged existence. No. Think with your heart. Find your call. Find your voice.

For the tragedy of life is not in our failures, but rather it is in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in living below our capacities. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have said it best. We can be like the masses of individuals who worry themselves into nameless graves. Or we can try to be like the few great unselfish souls who forgot about themselves into immortality.

One such unselfish soul stood right here in this pulpit on October 11, 1962. Former President Harold Tribble and the College Union Lecture Committee invited a moderately known Baptist preacher from Atlanta named Martin Luther King, Jr to speak here in Wait Chapel. Addressing the fight to end segregation in the South, King called on the student body of Wake Forest to use their education to become maladjusted to the social order that defined the age. For the greatest figures in history, the prophet Amos, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Reverend John Allen Easley, they were not well-adjusted people, but rather they refused to conform to the injustices that structured their existence.

In the same way, you are entering a world Class of 2015 where economic inequality is creating a caste system in American society. You are entering a world where the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its people than any other nation on this planet. And you are entering a world where 30,000 Americans die by gun violence each year in comparison to less than 200 in the United Kingdom. What are you going to do? Are you going to turn a blind eye or stick your head in the sand? Or are you going to take the brilliant education that you received here at Wake Forest University to identify and answer God’s call on your life?

So as we leave this sanctuary this morning, I ask that you dare to dream big. Dare to think with your heart so that you might have the courage to live up to your capabilities. Then we can testify with that anonymous poet who declared:

I am tired of sailing my little boat
Far inside the harbor bar
I want to go out where the big ships float
Out on the deep where the great ones are
And should my frail craft prove too slight
For waves that sweep the billows oer,
Id rather go down in the stirring fight
Than drown to death by the sheltered shore.

Dream big, Class of 2015! Think with your hearts.