My Speech to Seminary Graduates

Once again, no seminary has chosen me to give the speech at their graduation service. My mother and I don’t get it. We both feel like I’m the perfect person to hand out the kind of inspirational hoo-hah that young ministers need on their big day. I would do a good job of droning on about how the word commencement means to begin and so this is not the end of something but the beginning of a lifelong journey of ministry, a time of marching to the beat of our own drums, taking the road less traveled, lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness, and following our hearts. I can tell them that ministry will be wonderful and that ministry will be hard. They need to do ministry in old ways and they need to throw out the old ways of doing ministry. The church needs more poets and the last thing the church needs is another poet. I had begun a rough draft just in case:

Prominent president, illustrious dean, weary faculty, absent alumni, distinguished trustees, assorted rich people—write a check and you can be a distinguished trustee—I am grateful for the lack of judgment that led to this invitation. Congratulations, graduating seminary students. Today you get more initials after your name and an extra line in your obituary. Your parents are proud and your loan officer is waiting. Your seminary has prepared you to make very little money.

But this is the day the crowd goes wild, mint juleps on the infield, Bubba Watson putting on the green jacket, and you leading the parade, high-stepping it in front of a brass band— trumpets, trombones, and tubas, smiling like the Pope on Easter.

We have set this day aside to applaud and remember.

Remember the students you met in Spiritual Formation who didn’t seem like they belonged in seminary any more than you do.

Remember debating whether you should preach like your professor taught you if you’re in shorts and sandals at youth camp.

Remember the look on your teacher’s face when a student—now a former student—asked, “Instead of Paul Tillich, can I read Joel Osteen for my book review?”

Remember wanting to turn to the person next to you and ask, “Did you know the animals wouldn’t fit in the ark?” but you were smart enough to keep it to yourself.

Remember the first time you heard the word “phylacteries” in New Testament and laughed out loud.

Remember how you wanted to raise your hand to say that your pastor back home has a different idea about the Book of Revelation.

Remember all the books by dead people that they made you read. You wished Augustine had seen a therapist, Brother Lawrence had gotten out of the kitchen once in a while, and Teresa of Avila had received the medication she so clearly needed.

Remember when you started to get it.

Remember when you began hoping to see particular people on the first day of class.

Remember the first time you changed your mind because you were here.

Remember reading a passage in Ezekiel and thinking: “I didn’t know that was in the Bible. I’m not sure that should be in the Bible.”

Remember wondering why the pastoral care professor said you should never sit on a hospital bed. One day you will try it and realize she was right.

Remember falling in love with the church again.

Remember when you thought: “The Jesus in the Gospels is a lot more complicated than what I learned in Sunday school, but I like this Jesus more. I want to follow this Jesus.”

Remember the capstone class that almost made you wish it wasn’t over.

Remember, because now it is time to go make a difference.

Go, lead the church to be more like Jesus than most have imagined a church can be.

Go, lead the church to learn the stories of faith for the purpose of becoming faithful followers.

Go, lead the church to care for one another, share their hopes and dreams, and become sisters and brothers in Christ.

Go, lead the church to overcome the boundaries of race and economics, filled with warm hearts and open minds.

Go, lead the church to honestly look for truth because we are looking for the one who is truth.

Go, lead the church to take the past seriously because it takes the future seriously, to call for authentic worship, costly discipleship, and genuine ministry.

Go, lead the church to become better followers of Jesus.

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Silly Prayers

Jim Nantz pushes through the screaming crowd to ask, “How did it feel when you hit the game-winning shot?”

The beaming player answers, sort of: “I just want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God was in control. God was not going to let us lose. We owe it all to God. Yeah God!”

Don’t you wish Jim would respond, “Let me get this straight. You think that in the moment you let go of the ball, God said, ‘I’m through letting the best team win. I’ll take it from here.’ Explain this to me, college educated theologian. If you think God fixes basketball games, why do you suppose God doesn’t fix the mess in the Central African Republic?”

Brent Musburger could interject, “If you really believe that God is the reason you win, why doesn’t your team skip practice to fast and pray? Better yet, why don’t you spend the time caring for poor children? Given your theological perspective, why wasn’t Mother Teresa a deadly three-point shooter?”

Wouldn’t you love to hear Dick Vitale shout, “Listen, diaper dandy, you played Awesome with a capital A, but if you think God is the PT prime time performer for your team, how do you think that makes the other team feel? What does God have against them, baby? Unbelievable.”

If God picks the winners, why does God want Mercer, my school, to ever lose? How often would Mark Fox, the Georgia coach, have to go to church to win as many games as John Calipari, the Kentucky coach? If God is picking games why do the Blue Devils keep winning and St. John’s keeps losing? Why should Las Vegas ever beat St. Mary’s? If God is in control, why doesn’t Notre Dame win more often? What are Baptists to make of Brigham Young having a good team? Where in the Bible can we find anything to suggest that God is more interested in the Final Four than the hungry?

We should challenge silly ideas about prayer. God is not a genie and prayer is not rubbing the lamp. God does not need to be told what needs to be done or that God needs to get to work on it as quickly as possible.

From God’s point of view it must be amusing and sad to listen to prayers for contradictory wishes. People pray vehemently on opposite sides of wars as well as basketball games. Some pray for God to rig the lottery. Some pray for our hair to grow back.

If we pray believing we will receive anything we ask for, then we will find it hard to keep praying when we do not. We may find it easiernot to pray. Many of us have been praying all of our lives and still feel like beginners.

Every once in a while you promise to pray more. You decide to pray for ten minutes. You find a quiet place: “God, it’s been a while since I’ve prayed. I know I don’t pray enough, but I’m praying now.”

You think, “This isn’t a good prayer. I have to pick up the pace. I need to praise God or something.”

God, I praise you for being so praiseworthy.”

Well, that sounds redundant.”

God, I thank you for everything I should thank you for.”

That’s stupid. Maybe I should confess. That doesn’t seem like fun. What’s in the freezer? Do we still have any Cherry Garcia? I don’t need ice cream. I should get up early and go to the gym. Maybe I can pray on the treadmill.”

Prayer can feel like talking to ourselves. Without thinking about it, we stop praying for a while, and we don’t miss it much.

We need to keep praying because we need God. We need to pray even when we don’t know what to pray, when we have bad memories that won’t go away, when our addictions seem more powerful than we are, when our child is troubled and we don’t know how to help, and when we can’t pray like we wish we could.

You and I may feel like our prayers are silly, but if our prayers are sincere, then they are not foolish at all. So we pray in the shower, at breakfast, on the way to work, at work, at school, at home, and before we go to sleep. We pray for justice, honesty, and compassion. We pray because when we pray God is there turning hatred to love, doubt to faith, and despair to hope.

When we pray, God does not always answer our prayers the way we want, but God comes, and deep in our souls, that is what we are praying for.

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