Charge to the Graduates of 2018


Delivered by Emilie M. Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School on May 11, 2018 to the 2018 graduating class.

i have no new words for you that you do not already know

that you have not already heard

that you not already seen or tried to live,

if only occasionally sometimes

so instead, i will remind you of some things and wish you well as you go

i’m on airplanes a good bit

one of the things that the flight attendants always do is some form of the safety check with the passengers

i am always struck when this part of the check is given: in the event of loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. Tighten the mask by pulling on the straps like this. If you are traveling with a child, place your mask on first before assisting them…in other words: save yourself so you can save others!

graduates, there has been a loss of pressure and your masks have dropped

the world we live in that we both help create and try to survive

in, is spinning toward crisis in so many areas of our lives

our religious communities

if we are fortunate enough to find one that is that marvelous blend of being welcoming and also holding us accountable

our neighborhoods

that may be more like enclaves, though we hope there are places where we learn how to get proximate with one another

our schools

that we hope do more than indoctrinate, but help us learn how to learn, ask questions, keep growing, and never settle for what we see and feel now as God’s final word in creation

our homes

if we have them, we hope for a place that gives us respite for the journey rather than force us into narrow casings of being-ness

you came here looking for something

and it was not a uniform something

so, with all that you know right now, i want to encourage you hold on to these 4 things:

first, get the right amount of wrong in your lives

i encourage you to perfect the fine art of being a holified pest in the halls of hatred and sorrow and fear-mongering

we have reached a time in this country where it’s become acceptable to hate people and call doing this faithfulness

don’t believe and don’t live it

please, please remember that what the world needs is love and compassion with a good mess of orneriness thrown in to help us stick to the things we know to be true and right about growing God’s good creation

second, do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief

this means, don’t be tempted into being or becoming a lone ranger

doing the work of faithfulness, whatever that may mean for you, requires friends and allies

friends to remind us that we are human

and allies to call us into account as we build strategies for justice, hope, and love in the worlds we live in

yes, see the grief and do not ignore it

but remember that heavy burdens should be shared and you can’t handle the vastness of grief in our world with a weak-willed dyspeptic alleluia

third, do not live your faithfulness in the abstract

active faith cannot be lived in a silo of saintliness

or a sideshow of intellectual religious fa la la

these things tend to lead us down the pathway to annihilation and building religious communities of complete, if not total, irrelevance

the new Jerusalem does not come in a compartmentalized people who disdain one another and sit in the hollows of their fears

your job is to read the times, call out injustice, suspect spirituality, and  dubious intellectual gibberish in clear voices with sass and swag

finally, do not let anyone or anything convince you that hope is a trivial or trite thing to help guide your way

it’s hard out there

and it’s far too easy to fall into cynicism, doubt, nihilism, and despair

so i remind you that living on the wrong side of the tracks of hope does not grow pesky holy people, citadels of welcoming communities, or vibrant tomorrows

who speak out against the sewage drain of injustices we have roiling around us and in us in these days

for all that you have learned about deconstruction

i urge you to hold fast to being folks who build for you are not being called to be the poster children of the status quo of despair

or to practice an over-religified, solipsistic matterhorn

surrounded by the chants of inept kumbayas and sashaying alleluias

your ministry, whatever its character, matters and we need you

your humor

your passion and compassion

your intellect

your faults and your strengths

your love

your faith

your hope and more

the mask has dropped…

Explore Story Topics