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Charge to the Divinity Graduating Class of 2012

Ted Smith, assistant professor of ethics and society
Vanderbilt Divinity School May 10, 2012

This charge is for all the rebel apostles. It is for country pastors who will sneak up on the seemingly sophisticated. It is for high priests of the fabulous, for preachers of the Word and poets of the world, for ministers of presence, studious malcontents, rebuilders of the walls, seekers of calls, and future faculty legends. It is for all the schooled prophets of the Class of 2012.

Not in my own name, for you deserve a better charge than I can live, but in the name of all that is best about this place, in the name of Antoinette Brown, James Lawson, Kelly Miller Smith, Walter Harrelson, Edward Farley, Sallie McFague, Renita Weems, Harmon Wray, and more, I would charge you to live lives of rigor. “Rigor” is a magic word, so full of positive connotations and so empty of content that it is almost impossible to oppose. But these names suggest the kind of content that invites both opposition and commitment. They give a charge to all of us.  

This list of names presses me to speak words that judge me more than they judge you. The world has plenty of people who care about justice when it costs us nothing, who like to browse books and hold forth, who accessorize ourselves with the names of thinkers we barely understand, who care as long as we are on the clock, who make a tidy career managing benevolence, who like to hear people call us reverend, or doctor, or the reverend doctor. This school calls us to something more. 

 It calls us to give it all up for the cause. Play for keeps. Take a stand. Learn the language. Go to the archives. Work behind the scenes. Follow through. Say no to demands that don’t matter so that you have time to say yes to those that do. Make the right compromise. Reject the wrong one. Live a life of such integrity that if people get a peek behind the scenes they believe you more, not less. Do it not just as a student, when it is easier. Double down when the stakes go up. 

This charge comes with a warning. Rigor can go wrong in many ways. It can slip into the role of a fetish, a stand-in for the good we really try to seek. Then we think that if we are working hard, if it is painful, it must be good. But this is to mistake means for ends—in theological language, it is to mistake piety for God. And it is fatal. Rigor can also go wrong by curdling into resentment. Resentment sets in when we take our eyes off the prize, look at what rigor has cost us, and glance with envy at those who have not paid those costs. It leads us to contempt for others and ourselves. And it can eat us alive. 

The antidote to these risks is not doing less, but believing more. Both risks are rooted in a forgetting of, or a loss of faith in, the God we set out to serve. And so that is the second half of today’s charge: believe more. I don’t mean to call for some kind of willful gullibility, some naïve credulity, but for a growing depth of perception that can see the ways of life at work even in the trials of the world. The great saints of rigor have doubts. But these doubts produce depth, not despair. The great saints of rigor find themselves disappointed by the people around them and by themselves. But this pushes them to irony and compassion, not contempt. Dorothy Day, Baruch Spinoza, Bob Moses … these rigorous lives are marked not by resentment, but by joy. 

We are made for joy. But I can’t charge you with joy, as it is not something we can make or do. It can only be received. But I can tell you story after story of women and men who lived rigorous lives, kept their eyes on the prize, and found themselves filled with joy. May it be so for all of you, for all of your years. And may it be so for all of us. 

Prayer for the graduates
Gracious God,
You have led us to this place through many years.
If the road has sometimes been stony,
If the rod has sometimes been bitter,
You have always been faithful.
You have given us the joy of friends,
The patience and support of loved ones,
The delight of new ideas,
The ability to keep on in the face of obstacles,
And teachers who have lived up to their titles, and then some.
We have called upon you, and you have answered.
You have supplied our needs, body and soul.
We give you thanks and praise.
We ask that you will pour out your Spirit upon these graduates.
Stir them up, that they may stir your people to justice.
Grant them peace, that they may offer your peace to others.
Teach them wisdom in the secret places of their heart,
That they may teach others things that matter.
Give them dreams of beauty, that they may illumine the world as yours.
We ask that you will give each of us what we need
And that you will keep our hungers keen
So that we turn always to you,
The source of every good thing.
In your holy name we pray,