May 12, 2013
The Rev. Mark Wm. Radecke, D.Min.
Chaplain to the University
Associate Professor of Religion
The ship’s captain stood at the helm on a night that boasted neither moon nor stars, but only impenetrable fog. Staring into the void he searched for signs of other vessels. In the distance, he spotted a dim light dead ahead.
Immediately he had his signalman flash the Morse code message, “We are on a collision course. Alter your course 35° portside.”
A reply flashed back, “Alter your course 35° starboard.”
The captain was stunned by the curt response. He signaled back, “I am a Captain in the United States Navy! Alter your course 35° portside.”
Came the reply, “I am a Signalman Second Class, sir. Alter your course 35° starboard.”
Incensed at this rank insubordination, the captain signaled once again. “I am a twenty-five hundred ton destroyer. Alter your course 35° portside.”
The reply: “I am a lighthouse. Alter your course 35° starboard.”
Members of the Class of 2013, as you make your voyage through life, there will be—I promise you—dense patches of fog, and times when neither moon nor stars will be visible to guide you. At such times, remember that there are beacons whose sole purpose is to warn you off the rocks and shoals that would run you aground and dash you to pieces, and lead you to safe harbors. Tall and faithful to their purpose they stand. The Bible, the Talmud and the Qur’an, the sayings of Lao Tzu and Confucius, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, God’s Word incarnate in the crucified and risen Jesus—each of the world’s great religious traditions offers beacons of wisdom to guide you and accompany you on your journey. More than that, they provide a way to understand those who steer by a different light, yet who make their voyage with a degree of integrity and intensity and purpose not unlike your own.
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Much has been made of the fact that the Class of 2013 is the first to graduate under the requirements of Susquehanna’s new GO, or Global Opportunities, requirement. To fulfill that requirement, most of you went blasting through the skies in pressurized metal tubes, while others of you got to experience your faculty members not only as professors and program directors, but van drivers. Some of them taught you the valuable life lesson that when everything’s coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.
From Alice Springs to Ometepe Island; from the Gambia to the Gulf Coast, from Macau to Manila and back again, you’ve immersed yourselves in other cultures, and—equally important—returned to view your own culture with new and often clarified vision. Some lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem "Little Gidding" are especially appropriate to your experience and one of the goals of the GO Program. Eliot wrote:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
To Eliot’s poem, I might add a line: “And know ourselves for the first time.”
Those beacons I keep talking about—sometimes they take the shape of people you met on your GO trips. They point you to new ways of understanding other cultures, your own culture, and yourself. I think of this entry made by a student in her SU CASA journal:
“Tuesday afternoon during a grueling hike through the vegetation of Nicaragua, my group and I encountered a humble home surrounded by an assortment of grazing farm animals. While lounging on his front porch, a stranger, seeing us begin to pass his home, welcomed us onto his property. As I relaxed on one of his wooden rocking chairs, I could not help feeling puzzled about the man’s caring, but uncommon deed toward strangers. That night as I was logging in my journal, I noticed the gospel passage staring right at me. The phrase, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ jumped off the page, and I soon realized that the humble stranger had performed one of Jesus’ spiritual messages of God.”
Beacons can shine in the bright tropical sunlight as well as on murky moonless nights.
Students of literature know that journey, voyage, and quest are fertile and frequent themes in poetry and prose. From the Odyssey of the Greek bard Homer to the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, journey narratives abound. In all these epics, there is a goal, a telos, an end: to destroy the ring, to find the Holy Grail, to return Odysseus to his beloved Penelope. But it is not merely the goal that is important. The journeys themselves abound with meaning. They are adventures, replete with dangers, toils and snares. As ends in themselves and not merely means to an end, the journeys have meaning and purpose and worth.
In the first lesson that Bobby read a few moments ago, God calls Abram and Sarai to leave home and kindred and journey solely by faith in God’s promise. They were, as the author of that part of Genesis tells us, “blessed to be a blessing.” Centuries later, Moses and the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years to fulfill that same promise. Yet in both cases, the journey itself was crucial: filled with conflict and intrigue, faithfulness and faithlessness, cowardice and courage. Through those wilderness wanderings, God led the people of promise “by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.” Beacons can take those shapes, too. (An important side note for those of us a bit farther down life’s road than most members of the graduating class is that God’s call to Abram and Sarai came when Abram was 75 years old. I’ll leave the interpretation and application of that detail to your own spiritual imagination!)
My friends, as you journey on from this place that has been your home, and from people who have functioned very much as your kindred, remember that you journey by faith, pursuing a promise, and the journey itself has meaning. Keep your eyes peeled for those beacons God so prodigiously provides, and for the abundant opportunities to use your blessings in ways that make you a blessing to others.
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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. I feel your pain. Graduates and retirees have that in common: well-intentioned questions that invite cheeky responses. My favorite at the moment is to tell people that I want to pursue my lifelong goal of being a chaplain in a veterinary hospital. (Jack Russell terriers deserve ministry, too!)
Some of you are quite clear about your next steps. Some of you have jobs lined up; others have Fulbright Scholarships and acceptances from graduate and professional schools, and still others have committed their energies to a year or more of volunteer service with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, 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 itself a journey—a process which some—perhaps many—of you have not yet completed. So be patient with yourself. Remember that Israel had to wander forty 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 three 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.
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We’ve reached that point at which our journey together comes to an end. The road forks; our paths diverge. Some of us—perhaps many of us—have difficulty saying “goodbye.” But as the moment for uttering those two syllables draws near, let the origin of the word comfort you. “It was a long while ago that the words God be with ye disappeared into the word good-bye,” but that, too, can be both beacon and blessing.
Let us say it with that bittersweet mixture of sadness and gladness that makes leave-taking so strange: Goodbye: God be with ye.