May 18, 2018
Profs. Jenny Peace and MT Davila teamed up to offer wonderful words to our graduates and their families during baccalaureate at the Union Church on May 18, 2018. Their transcripts are offered below.
Prof. MT Davila
Well, at this incredibly momentous occasion, Jenny and I both struggled with the urge to say all of the things. I mean, this is the end of a really good book. Maybe not the last book of the entire series, but surely this moment comes close to the end of, say, The Two Towers, or at the very least the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? No? How about the end of epic movies? Like that letter at the end of The Breakfast Club that tries to encapsulate who each of the characters really is, despite the principal’s best effort at defining them and putting them into neat little boxes. No? What about the end of the gospel of John, when the disciples are gathered, scared, in the upper room, at that moment when all hope had been lost? Maybe it feels kind of like that.
For me these examples all represent moments when the characters search for just the right words to encapsulate their identity and their journey, to gather up hope for the future, to build courage to leave behind a reality that no longer exists or that has radically changed, and lead with determination and commitment into future challenges. All of this while woefully aware of their shortcomings, their incompleteness, their brokenness, their being utterly undeserving of success in any battle or challenge that is to come.
I look out at you and years of Andover Newton alumni and faculty past, and, what do I see? I see a motley crew of woefully undeserving folk. You came to Andover Newton for a degree that you knew was way beyond your reach. As a faculty member I taught every single year, pretty much every single class confident in the knowledge that I was not up to the full measure of what is required of me, not even by a long shot. In one way or another none of us should be here.
And this is how inadequate we are, how undeserving we are to be here. You all - WE all, have TOO MUCH of the stuff that the world and the powers say we ought to do without in order to be successful, and TOO LITTLE of the stuff the powers and principalities say we do need for success…
- -We are too old/too young
- -Too black/too white/too brown/too Asian/ and for the rest of you: too in between
- -Too Baptist/Too Catholic/Way too Unitarian (and not enough Universalist)
- Too experienced
- Too queer, too Native American, too European, too African, too not from around here
- Some of us are even too Puerto Rican
- More than a few of us were too poor, too hungry, too unhoused, too sick for seminary.
- We have too much of an accent, regardless of where we come from
- We’re too darn challenging, too smart for this, and a number of you have way too many degrees.
There is likewise a list of all the things we don’t have enough of…
- Many of us still feel we’re not smart enough
- We’re not pretty enough, not able enough, not brawny enough, or strong enough, not healthy enough.
- And more than a few of us never had enough money, enough food, enough books, enough memory in our computers, or enough internet.
- And I can definitely say that I never had enough humor, enough time, or enough concentration.
I imagine that that rowdy, unfit, undeserving, and very much not pretty enough motley crew gathered in the upper room after Jesus’ resurrection looked as unfit to build the beloved community as we do right here, as generations of ANTS graduates have looked in the past (sorry Alumni). I mean, seriously, their leader denied Jesus three times, but then jumped into the water – almost drowning! – because he recognized his beloved Jesus on the shore and wanted to get to him first. Unfit – undeserving – unqualified, for sure.
But it occurs to me that there will always be some Pentecost. Perhaps that’s what all these years at ANTS have been all this time: one extended, ongoing, constant Pentecost - Holy Spirit poured out again and again on the undeserving and unqualified (all of us), for the task of some of the most transformative and life-saving ministries.
“When the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said “Peace be with you… As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.””
And at that moment that crew of unprepared and misfit disciples of this wayward rabbi were made just right for the task: though poor they became rich in faith; though inexperienced they became bearers of hope, though not smart enough they cultivated curiosity and awe wherever they went, though deathly afraid they witnessed to courage and gumption. All these years at Andover Newton have been a constant Pentecost. Where there wasn’t enough of anything, abundance became a surprising guest at meals, at chapel services, at study groups, in the classrooms. Receive the Holy Spirit, again, and again, and again.
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you – says the oracle of God – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” Now, just to review, we were never enough, ever, not even right now when it’s time to turn the page and close the cover on this installment in our book series. But you have been my Pentecost throughout these years, each and every year. Holy Spirit poured out, setting our hearts aflame. And because of you being in this world, I AM SURE THAT GOD HAS A PLAN FOR WELFARE, NOT FOR WOE, SO AS TO GIVE US ALL A FUTURE OF HOPE.
Prof. Jenny Peace
Part of the challenge of putting these reflections together is that there is too much to say; Too many feelings to name and express; too much still to glean from the texts, traditions and stories we are each drawn to or drawn from. In this graduating class I see resiliency, wisdom, compassion, humility, curiosity and faithfulness. I see students across theological spectrums, who are UU, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. My impulse is to include a story about how each one of you has contributed to making Andover Newton a special place. But that would be like trying to contain an ocean in a glass of water.
And that’s our predicament. We are limited. Finite. Subject to beginnings and also endings and I have only about 5 minutes. So let’s wade into this ocean.
Our opening hymn, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee is one of my favorites. And I think it contains a seed of what has made Andover Newton such a wonderful place to teach and learn. We take joy seriously. Did you know that Joy is one of Andover Newton’s core values? Check the website – it’s on there. I love that Joy made the list.
I particularly love the phase in our hymn: “well-spring of the joy of living.” Deep joy comes from a connection to this Source of Life. From the word rejoice, joy inspires worship: Full hearts spilling over in gratitude and praise to the one who knew us when we were “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” (As the psalmist writes, 139)
“Is joy the appropriate response to the world as it is?” Some may ask. You don’t have to look far to find ample evidence that all is not yet made whole. However, to disparage joy in these times is to misunderstand it.
Joy is not a denial of pain. It is a profound act of hope and resistance. And, I would add, our capacity for joy seems directly related to our willingness to acknowledge the suffering around us and in our own lives.
This has certainly been the case for me. Suffering and joy have stretched my heart like an elastic band. As I’m pushed to grow in response to pain, my capacity for joy expands in equal measure.
And this image of an expanded heart leads me to another quality that makes ANTS special – a refusal to split head from heart, mind from body, or theory from practice. We educate whole embodied people – celebrating both what makes us unique and different as well as what binds us.
In graduate school I read a book called A Body Knows. The subtitle is A Theopoetics of Death and Resurrection. Written by theologian Melanie May in 1995, it introduced me to the radical idea of rooting theological reflection in the wisdom of the body. “What does my body know? May’s book prompted me to ask, and I’ve carried this question with me since reading it.
I’m convinced that learning that lasts must go more than skin deep – It must reside in the heart, the muscle memory, the bones. We can do our best as educators to create the conditions for learning but transformative learning ultimately happens in the body of the learner. So I encourage you to ask yourselves, “What does your body know?”
Let me give you three examples from my own body’s wisdom:
1. Childbirth taught me I’m not necessarily in control of everything I would like to be in control of. But it also taught me that this is OK. The body knows what to do. Each one of us here is living proof that some body knew what to do when it came to ushering in new life. And the vulnerability and surrender involved in childbirth have been essential lessons for me in my own spiritual growth.
2. Three years ago I threw out my back, easy words to say but “lightning bolt down my spine,” probably conveys the feeling better. As I lay recovering, my body seemed to whisper one word over and over – alignment. The lesson for me here is: if I want to be well, I have to live my life in alignment. This includes everything from attending to my body’s need to move, stretch, strengthen, breath; as well as the vertical and horizontal alignment of living out the Great Commandment to love God and my neighbors as myself. This commandment, at the heart of my faith, directs not only my own spiritual growth but compels my commitment to interreligious relationship-building and all manner of bridge-building or breach repairing for that matter.
3. Finally, as the academic year comes to a close and I prepare to leave Andover Newton along with all of you I’m asking myself, “What now?” “What’s next?” “Where is God calling me?” When I listen for what my body knows about these questions, the wisdom I get back is whole-heartedness. I don’t need to rush through this period of discernment. I can trust that when I feel the tug of God’s call, my body’s response will be a whole-hearted, “yes!”
In her poem, “Don’t Hesitate,” Mary Oliver writes; “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” She adds, “Joy is not meant to be a crumb.”
A former Andover Newton student who is now a hospice chaplain recognizes that she doesn’t hesitate to run towards places that others generally run away from. I think this might actually be a good description of our graduates in general. Whether your call is to wait with those who are dying, offer water to those who are thirsty, or expose ideologies that diminishes human dignity, remember to lead with Joy.
While we each must discern the contours of our specific call, God’s plan in general is plain. In a world that can seem dimly lit and lacking in true joy, follow the one who says – “I’ve come that you may have life. And have it abundantly.” Once you start looking for joy, you find it everywhere. As the Psalmists write, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but Joy comes in the morning,” (Psalm 30 v 5).
Surrender, alignment, whole-heartedness, this is what my body knows. May you each listen for your own body’s wisdom and may we all be bearers of God’s joy in a weary world.