The Rev. Mark Wm. Radecke, D.Min.
Chaplain to the University
Associate Professor of Religion
They say that the number one fear of American adults is the fear of public speaking, that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of snakes. That doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, you never see a person walking through the desert, suddenly shouting “Watch out! There’s a podium!” The theme for the academic year now concluding, as you know, has been “Fear,” and my message today is consonant with that theme.
Esteemed members of the Class of 2012: You are about to be graduated into a world that spreads before you a smorgasbord of opportunities:
- To further your achievements
- To expand your leadership and
- To increase your service to the community, to your alma mater, and to the little, the least, the last and the lost of God’s world
The omnipresent partner of those opportunities, however, is fear. “I know how to be a student,” one member of the class told me. “I’ve done that since I was five years old, and I’m pretty good at it. I don’t know how to be a full-time permanent employee, though, assuming I can find a job in this economy, and I worry that if I do, I won’t be able to cut it.”
I resonated deeply with that student’s concern. When I graduated from seminary, I was still quite uncertain about my calling. I remember the first time I answered the telephone after my ordination. I said, “Hello. This is Pastor Radecke.” And when I heard those words pass my lips, I giggled, right into the mouthpiece! “Who are you trying to kid? Two weeks ago you were a grad student in a tie-dyed Grateful Dead tee shirt. And now you wear a black shirt with a funny collar and call yourself a pastor. People are gonna find you out, and when they do, they are not gonna be happy.” I felt like an imposter.
Eventually it occurred to me: a seminary had graduated me, a bishop had ordained me, and a congregation of 800 people had called me to be their pastor. Though I had precious little confidence in myself (some would say with good reason), others had expressed confidence in me. It was through them that God spoke the word that stilled my fears and emboldened me to go on.
Make no mistake: you are equal to the challenges that will arise. When you doubt that you’ve got what it takes, remember that a faculty of 160 learned scholars with a combined total of several centuries of experience and more than a millennium of post-secondary education voted unanimously to graduate you. That action, and the diploma to which it bears witness, is a public declaration that others recognize your record of accomplishment, and have every reason to believe that you will continue to achieve, to lead and to serve.
But what if your fears have less to do with questions of competence, confidence and credentials than they do with underlying worries and anxieties?
I cannot tell you the number of people I know whose fears have held them back, preventing them from making what could have been significant contributions to home, family, community, employer, in some cases even the world, to say nothing of the cultivation of their own talents and the enlargement of their own souls.
How many times, in answer to a question about why they passed up an opportunity, do people’s responses begin, “Well, I was afraid that…”
“I was afraid.” That’s a perfectly natural and normal and even healthy response. Prudence demands a careful evaluation of the circumstances. The powerful emotion of fear can alert us to the presence of unseen dangers, and warn us away from potentially perilous undertakings. Rash acts can, for example, commit the blood and treasure of an entire nation to prolonged wars predicated upon faulty information and justified by dangerous doctrines. Reason calls for prudence. Wisdom suggests caution.
But what about fears that are not prudent but merely paralyzing? Though such fears are legion, let me mention these three: the fear of failure, the fear of suffering and the fear of rejection.
Fear of failure
A few summers ago, I was visiting some pastor friends in Costa Rica. A student from another school was volunteering in medical clinics in shantytowns served by their congregations. The student spoke no Spanish, and the pastors were trying to teach her some basic words. “La mesa” one of them said as he patted the table and invited her to sit down to dinner. “La silla” said the other as she pulled out her chair. “Cuchillo, cucharra, tenedor” as they picked up the knife, spoon and fork. The young woman smiled but said nothing. This went on throughout dinner.
Later, alone with the pastors, I asked how long the student had been at it. Two weeks now, they said. But she had yet to utter a syllable in Spanish. This student had a 3.89 GPA and was headed to med school. What’s up with that, I asked? Quite simply, she was afraid of messing up, of getting it wrong. And as a consequence, she refused even to try.
Any of you who have learned a new language know that there is one iron-clad guarantee: you are going to mess up and embarrass yourself. That’s just the way it is, so suck it up, Sponge Bob; get over it. The first time I was invited to preside at a service of holy communion in a Spanish speaking church, I lifted the chalice and, instead of saying that it was given “para el perdón del pecado” (for the forgiveness of sin), I said that it was given “para el perdón del pescado” (the forgiveness of fish). Gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the term “cleaning fish,” doesn’t it?
Life provides abundant opportunities to soak swollen heads in Epsom salts. Accept the fact that some days you're the pigeon, and some days you're the statue.
Perfectionism, and its chief lieutenant, the fear of failure, can paralyze us into complete inaction, as it did with that student in Costa Rica. Too often, when life affords us new journeys, new adventures, our imaginations run wild with worst-case scenarios in which we are least humiliated and at worst annihilated. Preferring the safety of the harbor to the perils of the sea, we turn our sailing vessels into houseboats and never leave the bay.
Failure chastens, but cannot undo you. Failure to try is the only real defeat. (And spare me the Yoda theology: “Do or do not; there is no try.” In THIS galaxy, life is all about trying.)
Fear of suffering
There is, in our time and in our culture, a pervasive sense that we ought not have to be inconvenienced let alone have to endure suffering. Microwaves, smart phones, overnight delivery and sundry forms of instant gratification foster expectations of “I gotta have it right now.” I shouldn’t have to wait. I shouldn’t have to experience frustration, and if I do, somebody’s gonna hafta pay.
If we cannot learn to endure the inevitable bothers of life, how will we ever learn to deal with the suffering, sadness, sorrow and grief that are inescapably part of it? The poet T. S. Eliot wrote, “Make no mistake: suffering will come, often with an intensity we do not expect.” The beautiful psalm that we sang speaks candidly about the valley of the shadow of death. But that same psalm also speaks powerfully about the God who accompanies us, who shepherds us faithfully through that dark valley. And that is why we fear no evil—not even the evil of suffering—for God is with us.
Preaching against worry, a pastor once said to his people, “Ninety-eight percent of the things you people worry about never come to pass.” Came a voice from the back of the congregation: “See! It works!”
Jesus said, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If you then are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?”
Fear of rejection
Are you gonna audition for the play?
Are you gonna try out for the team?
Are you gonna apply for that job?
Are you gonna ask him to go out with you?
What if I don’t get a part?
What if I don’t make the cut?
What if I don’t have what they’re looking for?
What if he doesn’t like me?
Let’s be clear about this: rejection is real, and it hurts; its sting is sharper than the scorpion’s. You make yourself vulnerable, put yourself out there and some other person or group of people may find you wanting. Ouch! However gently the rejection may be worded, it still hurts.
At root, the fear of rejection is the fear that no one will want me; that others will withhold their approval, recognition and affirmation. Most of your professors have published books and articles. Ask some of them how many letters they have received that begin with the words, “Thank you for the recent submission of your manuscript. After careful review, we regret to inform you that …” Those letters are great for origami. Or, in some cases, wallpaper.
But your profs have also received the letters that begin, “We are happy to tell you that the editorial board has accepted…”
The simple lesson? Persist. Persevere. Back up and try again. Reframe the meaning of the rejection, and recognize that it is not a declaration that your life is without meaning, worth or value. Only God can make that determination, and the Loving Creator who made you of fairly stern stuff and endowed you with gifts and talents is not inclined to do make that declaration. You are of great worth.
My friends, the bedrock message that I want to share with you today is one that is proclaimed with surprising frequency in the Jewish and Christian Bibles: “Fear not. Be not afraid.”
- “Fear not.” God said that to Abraham and Sarah when God called them to leave home and family and begin a new life.
- “Fear not,” Moses said to the people of Israel when they stood with the Red Sea at their backs and Pharaoh’s charioteers closing fast.
- “Fear not. I have called you by name. I have redeemed you. You are mine.” God said that through the prophet Isaiah to a defeated and dejected Israel in exile in Babylon.
- And in the passage that formed our first reading today, “Fear not, but let your hands be strong,” God said when the exiles returned to a homeland in ruins.
- “Fear not,” the angel said to Mary when she was told that she would bear a son and call his name “Jesus.”
- The angel said it again while announcing that birth to shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy.”
- And in today’s gospel reading, “Fear not,” Jesus said to those who were anxious about their lives and their futures. “For it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
- “Fear not,” said the angel to the women at the tomb on Easter morning, when the powers of death had done their worst.
- And in the passage that formed our second lesson: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
The perfect Love that delivered Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead is the perfect Love that calms our fears.
To you, members of the Susquehanna University Class of 2012, no less than to God’s people of old, God says, “Fear not. Do not be afraid.” Why not? “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The God who created you in love lovingly accompanies you through all the changes and chances of this sometimes scary life.
Now for a few questions: “So what are you going to do, once you leave this place?” That’s the question everyone asks you, isn’t it? For many of you, answering that question is as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.
Some of you are quite clear about next steps. Some of you have jobs lined up; others have acceptances at graduate and professional schools, and still others have committed their energies to a year or more of volunteer service with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Captive Free and Teach for America. Some have not yet discerned the precise shape of the future to which God is beckoning you.
Fear not if you leave this place unsure precisely where the Spirit is calling you to go; what the Spirit is calling you to be or do. Discovering your calling is a process which some—perhaps many—of you have not yet completed. So be patient with yourself. Israel had to wander 40 years in the wilderness before arriving at the Promised Land. Your parents hope it won’t take you that long (they have plans for that room!), but neither do they expect you to have an epiphany by the time the Provost calls your name around 3 o’clock this afternoon.
Sharon Daloz Parks, who researches the faith of young adults, writes, “I have observed, among some of the most talented, many who simply have been lured into elite careers before anyone has invited them to consider the deeper questions of purpose and vocation.”
I think that it is difficult to graduate from a place like Susquehanna University without having encountered those deeper questions. On the outside chance, however, that you have reached this juncture without having considered them, let me urge you to do so now, better late than never.
- What do you want your life to mean?
- How are you going to make a difference?
- How will you live a life that is not curved in on itself but rather open to others and to God’s promised future?
- How will you invest what the poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life?”
- Have you listened deeply to your life, to your passions, your hopes, your dreams and visions, those things that touch you, move you, break your heart and then make it sing? Can you imagine yourself being satisfied investing the only life you get in something less than that?
- If all you are interested in is making a killing, I pity you.
- If you are interested in making a living, I respect you.
- And if you are interested in constructing a life, I salute you.
May the God who acts in history bless you. May wisdom guide and accompany you; and may the perfect love of the Eternal One keep you as you go boldly and without fear into the future to which God now beckons you. Amen.
Note: Taken from prepared text. Actual remarks may have deviated from what was prepared.