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The Class of 1961 remembers

Thanks for the memories

Bob Lewis, MDiv’61

In the name of the one God of us all on planet Earth. Amen.

"Thanks for the Memories!" That is the song the late comedian Bob Hope used to sing at the end of every TV program and every time he entertained the U.S. armed forces over the years.

"Thanks for the Memories!" Thanks to all the people from the very beginning, on up to this very moment, and on into the future. Thanks for all the benefactors, the professors, the administrators, and all the students who have been, who are now, and who will be part of this great theological school. And at this service in particular, we remember the students, faculty, and administrators who were part of the class of 1961.

We remember and celebrate the truth that our history defines us. We celebrate and live in the now. And we have that enduring hope for the future.

I recall some of our professors. Some are now eternally with God, and some are still living.

I remember Dr. Thompson. If you dropped your pen or pencil you lost two pages of notes. I only made a C in his class. But I learned more in his class than in some classes where my grade was much higher.

We remember Dr. Langdon Gilkey. When he lectured on the church fathers and mothers, he almost became them—St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Martin Luther, John Calvin. That is, except for John Wesley. He was not too fond of him. If I recall correctly, he never lectured on Wesley. He simply told us to go to the library and read about him.

Thankfully Mr. Wesley has made a comeback. We now have Doug Meeks, Joe Pennell, Tom Laney—the Cal Turner Chancellor's Chair of Wesleyan Studies and the Turner Center for Church Leadership and Congregational Development. Of course for years we had Frank Gulley who kept the Wesleyan tradition alive even in the midst of an overwhelming Reformation perspective.

Remember Dr. Everett Tillson? On his tests I would ponder his questions for seemingly eternity and never understood them. I then would just write until the blue book was filled to capacity, hoping for grace.

Remember Dr. Ronald Sleeth? You had better have a good introduction to the sermon. And you had better point out the relevance of the Gospel. I remember a student delivering a sermon in preaching class in Benton Chapel. He was preaching on the death of Jesus on the cross. He had this smile on his face as he preached. I can recall to this day Dr. Sleeth standing up and exclaiming in a loud voice, "(The student's name), wipe that smile off your face, don't you know the man is dying and bleeding?" That student sunk to below sight level in the pulpit, and as far as I now was never seen again.

And then there was Dr. Kendrick Grobel, who began every class with "Listen to the word of God as I read from the words of St. Matthew or the prophet Amos." He said this as well when he preached.

Of course, there were many more professors and others who made a lasting impression on the Class of 1961.

We moved from the old Wesley Hall into this new facility—remember? Vanderbilt Divinity School—a great new facility, a magnificent faculty—on the way to being one of the great divinity schools in the nation.

But this was as well the time of the civil rights movement. Our way of life in this country and especially the South was being challenged and questioned. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Nashville at Fisk University. Who could not be moved by his elegance and his call to social justice for all God's people on planet Earth? And of course there was Jim Lawson, our fellow student here at the Divinity School. He was the leader of the sit-in movement here in Nashville. And now he is back as a distinguished alumni and recently served as a visiting professor. We had Christian ethics on Fifth Avenue at Kress and Woolworth in downtown Nashville.

I shall always remember a day at Woolworth. At the food counter an African American young lady was sitting at the counter. A white guy placed the end of his cigarette on her face and burned a place on her face. Her words to him without uttering a tear, "I forgive you."

And many of us remember the day that Mayor Ben West was to hold a press conference. Everyone knew his words would be, "segregation now and segregation forever." He stunned the world by saying boldly, "I have been wrong. Segregation is wrong. We shall integrate Nashville."

And I remember the many meetings we had in G 23. We were not allowed to meet with the chancellor. We could only telegraph one another, even though the Divinity School and Kirkland Hall were only a few hundred yards separated. Thank God for leaders at Vanderbilt who have led the way for social change and justice. This great university today celebrates diversity, social justice, and rights for all people regardless of race, creed, color, nationality or sexual orientation.

Who can ever forget the bold leadership of Dean Robert Nelson, who probably took too much upon himself. When all this stuff had settled down, I was in the student lounge upstairs. There was Dean Nelson. No one else was present. I greeted Dean Nelson and wished him well. Suddenly he poured out his heart and soul to me—to me a student who was not even a leader but a follower in all this. I did not know what to do or say. So I simply listened. Looking back I guess it is true that in the name of God we indeed do minister unto one another, even students and faculty to one another.

So we graduated in June of 1961. We had masters of divinity. Most of us were soon to be ordained in our own faith community. But we knew well that we had much more than a theological education. We knew that theological reflection was a lifelong process. And we knew that our constant theological reflection would undergird us not only as pastors and leaders in the church but our faith in the one holy God of all of us.

In this place I was a follower and a learner. Soon I would find myself to be in a place where I would have no choice but to be a leader and teacher. In a year after graduation, I was the campus minister of the Wesley Foundation at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee. Soon it was decided that all state universities would be integrated. African American students were to be at Tennessee Tech. And most of those students attended the Wesley Foundation. I was told we could not have worship at Wesley that incorporated all the traditions of the faculty and students who attended. Well, we did! Students from all backgrounds met weekly to plan worship. We had mountain gospel, black gospel, classical, traditional, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, banjo, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," and it worked. At least a third of our worshipping community was African American.

The world was changing! The civil rights movement, the Vietnam era, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. King and Senator Kennedy. It was crazy. But my faith was grounded in the One, Holy God of us all, and much of that came from this place.

I was asked to share some of what I remember when I was a student. I hope this has not been self-centered. I hope this reminds us all to recall how we each were shaped. That I think is best how we remember all those who have gone before us, those of us still on planet Earth and all those eternally with God.

Dr. Grobel exhorted, "Listen for the word of God!" Let us listen for the word of God not only in our own faith but in all faiths, in all cultures, in all nationalities, in all places of learning, in art, in drama, in all orientations of life. Let us listen for the word of God, for it comes to us and most often at times we do not expect it.

One time in class Dr. Kauffman was lecturing on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Then he suddenly stated, "The best interpretation of the God as Holy Spirit is Psalm 139, verses 1-18: 

"O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me!

Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;

Thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,

And art acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou Knowest it altogether.

Thou dost beset me behind and before,

And layest thy hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

It is high, I cannot attain it. "

As I recall those both the living and the dead who have gone before us, these words from the poet give us enduring hope.God is, and God is never absent from us.

Thanks be unto God. In the name of the only One who is Creator, Redeemer and Faithful Friend. Amen.