Bill J. Leonard
Dean, School of Divinity
President Hatch, Provost Tiefenthaler, faculty colleagues, honored graduates, parents, family and friends. My Lord, what a morning — a not-to-be-forgotten moment. We all retain memories of earlier commencements. Thirty-five years ago today I received a PhD from Boston University. For years after that, my father would proudly remind his coffee buddies at the Rexall Drug Store in Jacksboro, Texas: “My son’s a doctor, but not the kind you take your clothes off for!” I got renamed then, as you will tomorrow, so let’s talk about that this morning.
After that confession, I think we’d better pray:
Our joy is palpable, O God, for goals met, degrees completed, and families together. Speak to us, everyone, as we sit here now, waiting on the Spirit. Amen.
The heavy chunks of earth broke like stones beneath his plow. The hot sun seared beads of sweat into his forehead. The dust of the ground burned in his eyes. He stopped work, walked over to the shade and drank some water from the gourd dipper. An unexpected breeze brought momentary coolness: suddenly time stood still and he remembered Eden, that fleeting moment when he had it all and lost it. “Adam,” a woman’s voice called, “Adam, time to eat.”
We all linger after Eden from time to time, don’t we? Conjuring up thoughts of better days when life was less complex; of things we’ve lost, and things we wish we had never found; of innocence and home; moments that an unexpected memory, word or person can bring rushing back to us. Who among us has not dreamed of Eden, Camelot, Utopia or Oz — occasions we remember or long for when everything worked the way we hoped it would.
Eden was perfection, we suppose, an ideal environment where everything was as it should be, a place we lost but long for still. But the Bible does not really say it was a perfect place, not directly. We have read that into the story. The text simply says: “Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden away to the east, and there put a man (Adam) whom he had formed. The Lord God made trees spring from the ground, all trees pleasant to look at and good for food, and in the middle of the garden God set the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil … The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and look after it.” (Gen 2: 8-9, 15 REV)
Even Eden needed work. “Trim the shrubs, Adam, pull the weeds, clean up the broken branches and watch out for the talking snake. Help yourself to the fruit, but for God’s sake stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” “If you eat from it,” the Creator warns, “you will die.” Eden was idyllic and dangerous all at once.
Tomorrow, next year, or decades hence will there come a day when Wake Forest University seems at least in memory somewhere on the edge of Eden? Eden it is not, calculus and organic chemistry courses alone prove that. (Although Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman claims that calculus is indeed the “Language of God.”) And, as far as we know, Adam and Eve did not take out loans to get there. But is there now or will there be in your memory something “Edenic” (Eden-like) about you experience here? Eden was a kind of primordial “bubble” wasn’t it, a protective environment where danger lurked behind at least one of the trees. To say that Wake Forest is at least on the edge of Eden means this: People come of age here, recognize their pasts as they prepare for and claim their futures; encounter ideas that stretch them to the limit, challenging their intellectual and ethical innocence; ideas that compel a response to matters of life and death.
Everybody knows that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil occupies considerable space around here, in honor codes and blue books, on Friday and Saturday (sometimes even Thursday) nights and every time we play basketball against Duke! On the edge of Eden we capture the terror and the wonder of a proper university education. We also learn to name and un-name all kinds of things — people and places, concepts and ideologies. There is power in naming: Adam had it from the first — but rest assured we’ve all inherited it.
In Genesis chapter two, Adam is formed from the dust of the ground (the ADAMAH) and then, to dispel loneliness, God creates the “wild animals and all the birds of the air” and Adam is required to name “every living creature.” And, God says plainly, whatever Adam called it, “that would be its name.” And apparently Adam accomplished that momentous task. Loneliness remained, however, so the Creator took a rib from ADAM the “earth creature,” and woman appeared, thus community — unknown before — is underway. And the text says: “He called the woman Eve, because she was the mother of all who lived.” In the morning, in Eden, Adam names the world.
Naming is a serious matter for the people of the Bible. Indeed, for the Hebrew writer, a thing is not real until it has a name. One commentator notes that in Hebrew scripture “a name is necessary for … full existence.”
Names shape identity throughout the Bible. Isaac means “laughter” which is all his post-menopausal mother Sarah could do on the way home from the OB/GYN’s office. Esau means red, which is the way he looked when he came into the world and what he saw when his brother Jacob cheated him out of their father’s blessing. Jacob’s name means heel because he was holding on to his twin brother’s when he was born and because he turned out to be one. In the Bible, a name can catch up with you.
Think of all the people you have named and in doing so changed their identity, gave them a new kind of existence: father/mother, friend/enemy, lover/spouse, and teacher/employer. Remember all the weird and wonderful names we give our grandparents — meemaw, papaw-mom-mom, pop-pop, zippity do da? One of my grandmothers, may she rest in peace, declared when my mother was pregnant that when I came into the world that I could call her by any name except “granny.” Overhearing that conversation in uteri, and being at least partially totally depraved, as soon as I could speak I of course called her “granny,” and because she loved me she accepted that name with longsuffering after all.
And what of the people who taught you to name things? Today, can you recall individuals who led you to name letters and numbers, trees and flowers, animals and birds, novelists and philosophers, cutthroats and heroes? How many of us were changed forever because someone in a lecture, class discussion or a text challenged us to name our own ideas and issues the Arts, the Sciences and the Humanities?
So the story goes, the animals came trooping by and Adam named them everyone. And as far as we can tell the animals accepted those names, except, as Ursula Le Guin says, the cats, who “steadfastly denied ever having had any name other than those self given, unspoken ineffably personal names which, as the poet named Eliot said, they spend long hours daily contemplating.” Indeed, Le Guin’s article, entitled “She Unnames Them,” deals playfully and poignantly with the possibility that Eve herself cast aside all the names Adam gave because they were imposed or uninvited. Thus the power of unnaming captures the transforming nature of prophetic spirituality and troublesome pedagogy. Whatever else a college education does for us it must teach us to name what we have not known before and unname (or rename) some ideas and issues we thought we had settled long ago.
Unlike Adam, the things we name are not as manageable as the pliant collection in the garden. The names we give people are not always the names they accept or deserve. Some parents aren’t parents, some friends aren’t really friends. Spouses don’t always acquiesce to the names or the roles we try to force upon them. One scholar writes: “There are some forces surrounding every individual which are like wild beasts that stay wild. We cannot change them by pretending that this is not the way they are. These hearts of ours are not innocent gardens of Eden where nothing dangerous intrudes… We had better call them by their right names.”
If the tree of the knowledge of good and evil blooms anywhere near here, then we’d better help each other learn to unname some things and let them go. At a service in this chapel in February celebrating civil rights victories, I suddenly remembered a sociology class at Texas Wesleyan College in the mid-1960s when I was forced to unname Jim Crow, call it not a mere “separate but equal” distribution of rights and facilities black and white, but dirty, divisive racism, rotten to the core. I’m still un-naming racism that hangs on tenaciously in myself and in the church but the power to do that began in an intro to sociology class with an old civil rights war horse named Jesse Lord. I name him today because he helped to set me free. I hope to God something like that liberation fell on you in this good place.
Sometimes life and grace overtakes us in ways that move us from our individual names to a broader global or communal identity, when we move beyond ourselves to larger tasks and callings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus unnames everybody, renaming those who decide to participate in what seems an audacious, imprudent, life-embracing attempt to extend God’s transforming grace in the world. They are designations full of vulnerability and courage all at once. Will there come a day when one of these qualities is printed on your name tag at some grand occasion here or there?
Poor in Spirit
Pure in Heart
Persecuted for justice’s sake
Peacemaker? These days that seems among the most impossible name of all. Yet sometimes we stumble into those names, get a small taste of the unimagined possibilities they represent. In 2005 I joined colleagues Mary Gerardy and Saylor Breckinridge, twelve Wake Forest undergraduates and one divinity school student for a service-learning project in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, helping to build a two-room school in a commune deep in the jungle. Every day we left our hotel, crossed the wide Mekong by ferry and reached a village so far back in the sticks that the teachers had to pick us up on motorbikes to take carry the last few miles. For days we worked with faculty, students and townspeople painting, planting, and otherwise preparing the building for a new generation of Vietnamese students. Our hosts, a married couple who were civil officials in the commune, made lunch for us daily, and stretched hammocks for afternoon naps around their spacious dirt floored, thatch-roofed house. On one wall there were old photos of the couple in their youth, holding rifles, dressed in the pajama-like uniforms of the Viet Cong. They were combatants in what the Vietnamese call the “American War.”
When the work ended and the school was dedicated, our Wake Forest group departed the village amid the hugs and tears of a brief but astonishingly profound experience. A year later, Dr. Gerardy returned to the commune and discovered that while the school was still intact, much of the village had been washed away in a devastating typhoon that struck the area. The house where we took meals and naps was gone, and only the wooden beams and doorposts remained, waiting on a planned rebuilding.
What Mary also found was that after we returned home, our hosts, the former Viet Cong, had carved each of our names on the beam at the entrance to what had been and would be again their home. And for one brief shining moment, perhaps, a group of all-too-privileged Americans understood something of the unexpected grace of the name Peacemaker carved quite literally on a doorpost in a Mekong Delta commune. Will such halting albeit singularly overpowering moments eradicate decades of geo-political, ideological conflict in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, or Washington, DC? No, of course not. Two-room school houses and names on Viet Cong doorposts won’t transform complex global struggles any time soon. We are not even on the edge of Eden, let alone the Kingdom of God. No, even for your ever so promising generation, names like gentle, merciful, pure in heart and peacemaker still have not prevailed in God’s good creation.
No, not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet. (Make it happen!) Amen.