Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished faculty, administrators, friends, family, and — of course — relieved graduates:
I am honored to be here on several levels. I once sat where you graduates are sitting and never in a million years would I have thought to have considered the possibility of my being up here, speaking.
I trust next year you can find a real speaker, and my apologies in advance for my deficits at the microphone. I will say right now that I’m a writer, and not much of a public speaker so that when I am finished, you don’t need to turn to the person next to you and say, “You know what? She’s not much of a public speaker.” She knows that already.
I collected my Hartford Seminary degree in the fall of 2001, post 9-11, an interesting time about which I still don’t know what to think, save for this: While all around me people were telling me to be fearful, to be cautious, even to hate, I couldn’t. I’d just come off of six years sitting in classrooms with people who physically resembled me only slightly, who hadn’t grown up reading my sacred text, as I hadn’t grown up reading theirs, yet with whom I shared the most basic commonalities to the point that during some breaks in my classes — most of which were at night — I would wander outside and stare up at the stars and think about what just happened.
Who knew a little boy growing up in Pakistan would have the same questions as a little girl growing up in the Missouri Ozarks? Who knew we all shared so much?
If you look at the percentages of faith groups represented here, Congregationalists are about neck and neck with Muslims. You have to run your finger far, far down the list to find people like me, non-denominational, fundamentalist Christians, and yet at no point in my time here was I made to feel like an outsider. If anything my — let’s call it “unique” — religious perspective felt even more welcome because I was coming from a theology many in my class hadn’t experienced, or even seen from a distance.
So while all around us in 2001 I read and heard and saw the message to crouch down and be fearful, I couldn’t and wouldn’t. I had just completed a course of study at a school with the country’s oldest center for the study of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. I had taken an eye-opening course on Jewish-Christian misunderstandings through the centuries. I’d read the sacred text of other religons until I could read no more. And then I kept reading.
My experience at Hartford Seminary taught me there’s shockingly little to fear — save for silence. If we don’t talk to one another, we will be fearful. And if we don’t get each other’s perspective, we’re sunk, because while that little Pakistani boy and that little Missouri girl may be pondering the same life questions, we only know that if we share that.
I also learned that you have to be brave enough to risk asking stupid questions. The seminary taught me to go ahead and ask. We’re all friends here.
I don’t know what brought you to the seminary, but I came for context. I’d grown up in a strict Christian religion and the vestiges of that, for me, were the afore-mentioned fear, and a freakish ability to quote the Christian scriptures. I knew my Bible backward and forward — or, rather, I knew how to quote scriptures from my Bible, but what I wanted — ached for, really — was some context of what I thought I knew. To be honest, I wanted to come to the seminary and have someone tell me what to think of all that Bible study, those Sunday school lessons, those church camp Bible bowls. I wanted, frankly, to have my theology spoon-fed to me, and it wasn’t until somewhat deep into my career here on Sherman Street that I realized that just wasn’t going to happen. I trust you came here with a more mature faith. I was only looking to get comfortable.
How very young was my faith, that I expected it to make me comfortable. The faith I found in the white building behind me made me most uncomfortable — deliciously so. The Hartford Seminary gave me the gift of discomfort and I shall be forever grateful.
As it turns out, I didn’t get comforted and I didn’t get the context I sought, though I was shown how to find it for myself. No one was going to tell me how to think or interpret sacred text. I was, instead, going to learn how to do that on my own.
Ah, but I am hard-headed and it took me a while. I’ve told this story before. Let me tell it one more time and then maybe I’ll retire it: I signed up first for a New Testament class because, well, I wrote the New Testament and I figured it would be an easy A. I walked into my first class taught by a then-new teacher, Efrain Agosto — now the dean. I was pretty sure I would impress him with my mad Bible skills and I was wrong. He dove right in and within 15 minutes I suspected I’d do us all a favor if I quietly left the room.
But I didn’t leave. I grew to love the classes and the readings. I drank in the lectures and even enjoyed writing the papers — and yes, I know how weird that sounds.
I don’t know the mechanism for learning — how the brain absorbs and retains information — but over time the seminary kicked the doors open for me and made me think for myself in a way I hadn’t thought possible. I will be forever grateful for that, too.
Maybe in your time here, you had child-care issues. Or work issues, or trouble balancing your schedule to make it here on time for class. I had that. It was always on class night when one of my sons would pull up lame and my husband would be at work and the full weight of my family would fall on my reluctant shoulders. Maybe your spouse was a little nervous about you going off on this particular tangent. Mine certainly was. He grew up culturally Catholic; the weight of the old rugged cross rests only slightly on his back, and he feared I would become enmeshed in a cult, I suppose, or become a televangelist with big hair, as that was his only exposure to Prostestants in action.
As it turns out, he was right to be nervous. I did not become a televangelist and that’s not even on my long list of career goals. As it turns out, I came to learn to ask questions for myself and once you’re free to do that, you are a dangerous being, indeed. Once you understand that religion isn’t an easy chair into which you relax, you can accomplish amazing things.
I can’t guarantee you will remember all your classmates’ names, but I guarantee you that in the near future, you will be in a discussion with someone and you will harken back to some classroom discussion and you will be grateful that you had the opportunity to take a moment, sit a spell, and think hard about your approach to the holy. That, along with the discomfort, is the gift the seminary keeps on giving. Or you’ll read something in the news, or you’ll hear someone talk about something remotely religious and you’ll have much-needed perspective. We need people who can freely move between faith groups and help us understand one another. You just may be that precise ambassador to make all the difference.
To be honest, I’ve done shockingly little with my degree — if you measure using your degree by how you earn your living. I work at the same job I worked when I started as a seminary student. I wrote a book that came to me while I was a student here, but if you’ve ever written a book you know that unless you’re among a select few, you don’t earn a living from writing a book.
I didn’t get my answers here — at least, I didn’t get my answers the way I’d expected, in a thunderstorm with God reaching down to hand me a list of do’s and don’ts. I got, instead, the understanding that I will always have questions and the answers won’t always come easily. And that the answers might not make me comfortable.
And that’s O.K.
I found a new God here, a God that was more inclusive, a God that allowed me to be a sinner and fall short. I was exposed to a radical kind of theology here that demands your entire being. It was like feeling my heart open and for that, too, I am grateful.
I am also grateful for the gift that comes with knowing that neither I nor my theology has all the answers. For some of those answers, I just may have to come to you.
You are walking out of here with the highest kind of degree, a degree of the soul. Maybe you already know what you’re going to do with it. Maybe you, like me, are going to fold it into what you’re already doing. Whatever your choice — or whatever the job market forces upon you as a choice — I guarantee that your life will be fuller for the time you spent here.
I maintain that the will to connect with the holy is as basic as our need to eat. We ask, as did one writer: “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Searching for the theology that drives our nation, we can at least comfort ourselves that its impetus is not entirely greed-based. Our need to connect with God — however we define God — is so great that we will find God, one way or another. The holy calls us and we must answer. We will connect, be it through our mosques, our temples, our churches, one another. In some way, we will connect.
Eileen Guder worte in her book, “God, But I’m Bored:”
“You can live on bland food so as to avoid an ulcer, drink no tea, coffee or other stimulants in the name of health, go to bed early, avoid all controversial subjects so as to never give offense, mind your own business, avoid involvement in other people’s problems, spend money only on necessities, and save all you can.”
To which I would add: “And you can settle into a comfortable corner of your theology until you die and they say nice things about you at your wake.”
Back to Guder:
“You can do all those things [avoid stimulants, save your money, keep your hands to yourself, live a careful life] and you can still break your neck in your bathtub. And it will serve you right.”
I’d rather be uncomfortable. I hope you’ll join me.