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In the Beginning

It is an honor for me to participate in these commencement exercises. As a professor, I am not unfamiliar with ceremonies such as these, having, by my own loose account, probably attended just this side of one hundred such exercises.

My own home institution of Saint Louis University offers me no less than three graduation exercises to attend within a matter of a few days: that would be a ceremony for the Graduate School, for the John Cook School of Business where I teach, and then a final round-up for the entire University community.

Though the weather is often hot or threatening rain, though the list of names can be extensive and the commencement speech, I should remind myself, too long, despite all these things or, who knows, partly because of these things, I do love these occasions.

I have received a few degrees, for which I’m grateful; I have conferred a few degrees as well, and for those students I have been pleased and proud. I have also witnessed the graduation of my own children, which stirs emotions of surprising complexity, as I am sure many or you know or are perhaps now experiencing.

But this is only the second time I have been asked to make a commencement address. The first was in 1971 when I spoke at my own high school graduation at Douglas MacArthur High School in Decatur, Illinois. I would like to tell you that I was the valedictorian, but Shauna Harvey received that honor. I would even like to tell you I was the salutatorian, but another Jim, Jim Bundy, had that designation. I was the class orator, a kind of back-handed compliment to the student who talked a lot in class.

My wife, Judy, was in attendance that night, as she is tonight. Judy, who well knows that I throw little of my paper trail away, will not be surprised when I announce that I still have that speech. Nor will Judy be surprised when I announce that I could not quite find that speech for reference here tonight. But, let the record reflect, I did not accuse her of throwing it away.

Let me observe here at the beginning of this address that we call this exercise “commencement,” which of course means beginning. T.S. Eliot, the poet who had his beginning here in St. Louis writes that

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
–Four Quartets: “Little Gidding”

I imagine you graduates feel this beginning, in part, as an end, an end from which you must now begin. So the end leads to a beginning, but the line demarcating one from the other is not always clear.

My own beginning here in St. Louis had a certain ambiguity. I left the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where I was pursuing my Ph.D., without actually having completed that degree. I took my position here at Saint Louis University with the explicit and clear understanding of both my new and old university that I would need to complete my dissertation research. And so I started making a beginning without really making a proper end. There is a special academic acronym given the unfortunate souls, such as myself, who labor in this purgatorial status: ABD–all but dissertation.

The Bible tells us “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) There is more that a little truth to that saying, but accommodations must sometimes be made. And so I traveled between St. Louis and Champaign many times, monitoring the progress of crops throughout southern and central Illinois for more than one agricultural season.

I often thought, “If only I didn’t have this millstone of a dissertation around my neck, how much better, how much more productive as a scholar and effective as a teacher I would be.” Not to mention a more loving husband and engaged father. I often thought “How much happier I will be when I finish this dissertation.”

Well I did finish. To the delight of some, the amazement of others. When people ask how long it took me to do my Ph.D., I simple say, “the Regan administration” and leave it at that. Judy sent out invitations to my graduation that began “The announcement you’ve all been waiting for…” Commencement exercises were held the 22nd day of May in the year 1988. I attended but gave no speech.

So the end is where we start from.

Not long after that, another pivotal event appeared on my professional horizon. I came up for promotion and tenure, a critical juncture in the life a professor when the employer decides whether, as we like to say, you go “up or out.”

And so once again I found myself thinking thoughts quite similar to those I entertained in my ABD years. Won’t life be much better once I clear this hurdle? Will it not be better to have this increased measure of security? To remove the uncertainty, to resolve the tension?

What I am of course describing here is what one of my divinity school professors has called life on the verge. A sense or expectation that a better or richer or fuller life is just around the corner or just slightly beyond one’s reach. If we can just close this chapter, the next one offers so much more. And it often seems so tantalizingly close.

There is a Biblical parallel for this found in John’s Gospel. Where we are told that

There is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me in the pool, when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. (John 5:2-9)

Clearly the dramatic climax is the man’s healing, but what lingers is my mind I the 38 years that this man apparently spent on the verge.

The seminary professor I previously mentioned has written about this passage in a wonderful little book called Minister on the Spot. Jim Dittes draws an interesting connection between the lame man’s status and the challenge of serving in ministry. He writes:

Thirty-eight years must be close to the average length of a man’s ministry. How many of those years are spent on the verge? How many of those years are spent waiting and watching, waiting for the extra help, the extra training, the extra experience, the right moment, the right circumstances which will immerse one fully in God’s healing work… (p. 2)

We observe in our Gospel story that the lame man wants carried down into the pool where he believes he will find healing. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Just a bit of help, he’s almost there, right on the verge.

Of course, that is not at all what happens. That is not how he is restored. Dittes extends and applies this to that minister on the spot, who is, I suspect, like many ministers, like many of us. He says, simply to us all:

There is no such thing as being on the verge. It only feels that way. Either be sick where you are, or else there, where you are, “Take up your pallet and walk…” Wherever you are, however you are, you are living as fully in the world, you are exercising as complete a ministry as you ever will.

Well, graduates, take note of how I have just used my old seminary professor to get a leg-up into this address. It is a deft maneuver that you may consider using at some point in the future. But let me now see if I can’t bring a little more of Jim Fisher and, shall we say, his business sensibilities into the mix. I want to offer a brief meditation on why we often get “stuck,” and feel ourselves living on the verge.

I take as my text, Jesus’ parable of the talents. At the core of this story is a sort of economics lesson. As my friends in the economics department down the street would tell you, all economics is really about two things: choice and scarcity. And so the basic economic question is how will you allocate the resources you hold, scarce as they inevitably are?

And this takes us down another well-trod path in business and economics the age-old consideration of risk, on the one hand, versus return, on the other. It seems whenever we make decisions there is a fundamental kind of determination we make as we weigh potential risk and possible rewards.

So most of us make our decisions with a kind of split sensibility–looking with one eye at the reward we desire and with the other at the risk we can accept. But then how do we actually make decisions?

The parable of the talents offers guidance and a warning about our choices, about the talents given to us and their application in the world.

Simply put, the parable suggests that we undervalue what we have and, at the same time, overvalue what we lack. I can tell you that in my experience as a teacher the most substantial challenge I face in preparing students for the tasks and responsibilities of management is not in the transmission of knowledge and the development of skills, but in the application of that knowledge and skill, to use their talents, if you will, that they have been given.

Managers and executive are paid and frequently paid quite well because at the end of the day, they make good business decisions. They frequently make these decisions under the pressure of time, money and incomplete information.

Some can’t do it. Some suffer, like the invalid at the pool of Bethzatha, unable to move quickly enough. Only it is what we in the business world call paralysis by analysis. A little more time, a little more money, a little more information, then the course of action, the right decision will be clear.

So I don’t tell my students much, certainly not what to think or what to do. I have my own parables–actually we call them case studies–and I drop my students unceremoniously into the midst of a story and ask them what will you do? How will you do it? And then, simply, why?

And I must tell you it is work to get them to take a position. Most are reluctant to say what they would do. Many are uncomfortable making a decision, even a simulated one, because they are unsure, afraid they might be wrong.

And this I think is the other great truth of the parable, that the root cause of our fear–our paralysis, our willingness to remain on the verge–is the specter of failure.

We undervalue what we have and overvalue what we lack. And in a perverse way, I think, we really overvalue failure–avoiding even the risk of it on so many occasions. Like the poor servant in the parable we bury our talent deep–after all we don’t really have the knack our master did for managing. Best not to risk so much when our own resources seem so meager. Why are so many of us afraid of failure?

Here at commencement, at the beginning as we look to the future with hope, with anticipation, with the expectations of accomplishment and, yes, success, let me just stop say a good word or two about failure.

First, not much of significance gets done without failure. Jim Burke, the former CEO of Johnson & Johnson is a sort of lion in the field of business ethics. He was responsible for the fortunes of Tylenol in the 1980′s when tampering with the product resulted in the death of several consumers. He is widely credited with doing the right thing in recalling the product from the store shelves and eventually producing a tamper-resistant product.

He tells an interesting story about coming up through the ranks at Johnson & Johnson as a product manager. One of his first new product introductions was a product called Chest Rub. The product failed and he was summoned to the office of the then Chairman, himself a Johnson as in Johnson & Johnson, who was known simply as the General.

Burke has observed that as he walked over to the General’s office “I was convinced I was going to be fired. And I was kind of excited about it, because I thought you gave it your best shot–at least this company has the decency to have the Chairman of the Board fire you.” He walked into the General’s office and found him dictating memos. The General stopped and picked up a piece of paper and asked, “Are you Mr. Burke?” “Yes, I am, sir.” “It says here that you were responsible for this new product. Is that right? “Yes, sir, it is.” “It also says here that this product failed and cost us several $100,000s. Is that right?” “That is correct.” The General extended his hand to Jim Burke and shook it saying, “Mr. Burke, I want to congratulate you for making that mistake. Make sure that you make other mistakes. But, Mr. Burke, don’t make that mistake again.”

The General said what he did only in part for the benefit of Burke. He told him to make other mistakes, but not that mistake knowing that he would tell that story to others and that that story would contribute to a stronger and better company. I have heard Jim Burke say with such conviction in his voice, “You can’t build anything without a lot of failure. You really can’t; it’s just impossible.”

Let’s also say this about failure or the fear of failure: the associations with which we surround it, the expectations we attach to it–are typically much worse than the experience itself and its eventual aftermath.

David Myers, who teaches psychology at, appropriately enough, Hope College, observes that people think they know what will really make them happy and really make them unhappy, seeking the former and trying to dodge the latter. But his studies and research show that emotions–both positive and negative–really have a relatively short half-life. Even those difficult emotions connected with failure and loss tend to rebound quicker than we might image.

When I heard Professor Myers talk he illustrated this point with the example of promotion and tenure. It turns out studies have been made of professors over time and, you know, those who did not get tenure were not lastingly devastated, indeed, they are doing quite well emotionally, and those who did get tenure, well, they are not doing any better emotionally speaking. And lest you think I am just obsessing about things academic, these findings even extend into issues having to do with illness and disability and material prosperity. David Myers punctuated his talk with these words from the psalmist: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

And so we undervalue what we have and overvalue what we lack. Maybe among the things we undervalue are the stories we carry around with us and within us. As you go out into ministry, as you go out to tell The Story, you must also let your own life speak. God will use it, often independent of your intention or expectation.

Over twenty-five years ago I was in seminary. I had many fine teachers, one in particular taught theology and he had a gift for clarity and a warm and sympathetic way about him. He was thoughtful and generous with students. I think it was in my second year in divinity school that the community was devastated by the news that his wife had taken her own life. As I subsequently sat in class and listened to him talk about God I often wondered about the connection between his theology and the circumstances of loss in his own life. But he never drew that connection, at least not explicitly or in my hearing.

Then about a year and a half ago, I returned to Yale Divinity School for convocation and what also served as the 25th anniversary of my own commencement. One thing in particular that drew me back was that the former professor of mine, still active, was among the featured speakers, offering a series of lectures on the theme of redemption. At the heart of these lectures, as I learned through my subsequent presence and my hearing, was the story of a family, a family whose youngest son was suddenly stricken by a serious illness, nearly dying, and then recovering, but only partially and with significant disabilities that strained to the point of breaking the family’s ability to cope.

Although he told this story in the third person as if an account about some other family he once knew, I myself knew as I sat there and listened that the story was his own. It was a story of suffering and loss but also one of faith and the possibility of redemption and it penetrated me to my core.

He concluded his lecture and I had to leave the chapel immediately to catch a flight to St. Louis. I could not reach the professor before I left to tell him what his lectures had meant to me. And so I walked away with a close friend and former classmate of mine. I asked Ed, the classmate, to tell the professor how much his words had meant to me. He said he would do that but Ed also told me gently and firmly that I should write him and tell him in my own words.

And I did. Here in part is what I wrote:

Dear Professor,

It was a pleasure to see you this past October, when I returned to New Haven and YDS for my 25th class reunion. So much can and does transpire in twenty-five years, but as I sat in the pew with my friends the distance in years seemed slight.

Reunions seem to invite one to consider the relationship between who one is and who one used to be. Certainly I did this, frequently finding my memories colored by a sense of loss. There is, as your lecture observed, the temptation to cling to “nostalgia for something that never was.” But reality can dissipate this sentiment and so the atmosphere of Marquand Chapel, the grounds of the school, and the presence of people so closely identified with YDS was finally a kind of tonic for me–a rich experience superior to any idealized recollection.

But my primary purpose in writing is to tell you how much I benefited from your lectures, how grateful I am for having had the opportunity to–listen is really too passive and pale a word–experience the lectures. Your words–the compelling family story and your consideration of it–seemed so accessible and filled with significance that I was really transfixed throughout. I saw, in my own circumstances, having a son who died last year (named Sam as was the boy in your story), not so much a similarity as a connection to the story.

C.S. Lewis writes in the aftermath of his wife’s death how such loss shakes one “out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs.” I, too, have felt this shift, if not exactly erosion, in the substantiality of what I believe or perhaps its relevance in the face of real loss. For me, your lectures embodied this experience, the suffering that attends to loss, and also offered guidance–a warning, even–as we seek to evade or otherwise dull a harsh reality.

I then closed with an acknowledgement of how I still felt very much like a divinity school student, “deriving his inspiration from his professors. I am grateful,” I wrote, “for this connection, for the opportunity to see you again and to keep alive our former communion.”

I finished this speech last night at about 6:00 pm. I hit the print button and, on a whim, went to my filing cabinet. In the very back of one drawer was a file marked “Miscellaneous” and there is was, my 1971 commencement speech. It was a carbon copy and the carbon itself was so degraded that the two pages were essentially blank. If you held it up to the light you could see the imprint of the letters. I could just make out the title; it was “Fear of Failure.” That I should return to that topic here tonight perhaps shows an astonishing lack of range. But perhaps also some truth to the poet’s observation that

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.
–Four Quartets: “Little Gidding”

Here at commencement, let us all begin, as if for the first time.

Rise, take up your pallet and walk. 

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