President’s speech: “The Courageous Bow”

Baccalaureate sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Sunday, May 1, 2011 at the Goshen College Church-Chapel

Scripture Readings: Joshua 1: 1-9 & Phil 2:1-11

“Be strong and courageous!” “Be strong and courageous! “Be strong and courageous!”

Before putting one toe in the Jordan River, before taking one step forward into the Promised Land, God cries out to Joshua three times, “Be strong and courageous!”

Perhaps, no better words than these can be said to you, our dearly beloved graduates, as we send you into a promising but unknown future. “Be strong and courageous!”

Often it’s that first step that matters most.

During Spring Break, my family and I visited the Willis Towers in downtown Chicago. The Willis is the tallest building in the West, third tallest in the world. Near the top, we were invited to step into thin air – into a 5-foot glass box jutting out over the ledge.

In one of the glass overhangs was a group of college kids – and wouldn’t you know it, a smart aleck among them, started jumping wildly up and down with all his might! Of course, everyone screamed and scrambled off the platform. I just wish to the saints above that the architects had put a device such that every time anyone jumped up and down like that – the guide would push a hidden button and make the whole thing shake. It would have been worth more than the ticket price to see that fearless kid, well, soil his khakis.

Needless to say, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, I’m pretty scared of heights; honestly, deathly scared. And it didn’t help that we also saw one young woman hyperventilating for whom an ambulance was called. All to say, that first step was a doozy for me. Proof that I did it can be found on Facebook (along with my birth certificate).

First steps are almost always a combination of excitement and fear. You don’t remember, of course, but your parents can’t forget, those first steps in life when you managed to pull your little feet up under you, and began to wobble, hands all akimbo, the look on your face of thrill-panic, terrified joy!

And now, after years of guided wandering in the wilderness of learning, you have finally arrived at Jordan’s banks, ready to graduate, to cross-over to the other side, where the “Promised Land” awaits you. We call it a commencement, after all, because it’s a new beginning, a new day, and, I’m guessing the first step from student to graduate may resurface some of the same thrill-panic and terrified joy of those first steps you took in life, not so awfully long ago.

For some of you, taking that first courageous step, means typing that first word on the blank page of what could become the next great American novel or your first byline in a local or national newspaper. For others, it will be that first day of school as a third grade teacher standing before your very own class 25 little faces looking up to you in awe. Or, if in Middle School, with the look that says, “Bring it on!” For some, taking that first courageous step means filling out graduate school apps, taking licensing exams, working ER when someone else’s life depends on you, auditioning for the Boston symphony or taking a risk on a dream you’ve always wanted to try or simply deciding ‘what’s next’ or, for that matter, simply getting up out of bed each day.

For one audaciously courageous graduate, it meant not letting a rejection letter from a bank she applied to get the best of her. In response she wrote a letter back:

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for your letter of February 17. After careful consideration, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me employment with your bank.

This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually large number of rejection letters. With such a varied and promising field of candidates, it is impossible for me to accept all refusals.

Despite your company’s outstanding qualifications and previous experience in rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet with my needs at this time. Therefore, I will initiate employment with your firm immediately following graduation. I look forward to seeing you then.

Sincerely, A Courageous Goshen College Graduate

For all of us here, but especially for you who are graduating, there are courageous first steps to be made, today, tomorrow, and the next.

To you, as to Joshua so long ago, comes the “word of the Lord,” “Be strong and courageous!” “Be strong and courageous!” “Be strong and courageous!”

To utter such imperatives, isn’t simply to say you shouldn’t be afraid. Starbuck, the chief mate of the crew facing the great white whale Moby Dick in his first speech to his crew says: “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale.” It seems for Starbuck, a person without any fear was more dangerous to him and his crew than a coward. If courage means anything, it means facing our fears, and taking the first step, to overcome them.

So, whatever you do, take that first step! Mark Twain reminds us, to which most of us who are my age can attest, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Courageous Bow

By the sheer fact that you are graduating with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, you are among a very privileged group of people in the whole world. I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “It’s hard to be humble when you own a Rottweiler.” Perhaps, the same could be said to you, now that you are among the world’s elite, holders of a diploma from a college or university. Only 1 percent of the world’s 6.7 billion people has been given the opportunity or has realized this amazing dream. If expressed in terms of mythology, you are among the “gods” of the ages, or as the Psalmist says, you are “just a little lower than God.”

That is why the strength and courage that you will need, the strength and courage most important for you to acquire as you cross the Jordan into your promised future, is the courage spoken of in the second Scripture chosen by your fellow students in planning this Baccalaureate service: the courage to pour out (y)our lives in honor and service to others.

One of my closest friends, Dr. Wonil Kim, Old Testament professor at La Sierra University in California, slightly bows to me every time we meet. I’ve been with him when he has greeted other Koreans, some of whom are older than he, when he bows even lower to them. They, in return, bow low to him since he is a professor. I’ve thought of instituting this form of greeting here at Goshen College, but I don’t think it would take.

He told me that not only does one’s bow suggest honor of the other, it also shows others that the bower is humble. My guess is that about the only time those of us in most Western cultures bow is if we are an active square dancer or when we are receiving applause.

Yet, it precisely this form of body language that the Apostle Paul is advocating: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself. . .” all the way to the cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)

In a sense, God in Christ took a huge step, an awesome step, a courageous bow before us and the world. God in Christ gave up the claims to the particularities of heavenly culture. God in Christ gave up legitimate well-earned claims, godly prerogatives, even a great deal of God’s own personal identity-markers as God. Why? For the benefit of others, of you and me. What an amazing gracious courageous bow!

I am not here today to suggest you deny your hopes and dreams; that you not feel good, even proud of your amazing accomplishments; nor to suggest ego strength is not a good thing. After all, it was the great “I AM,” the Alpha and Omega, who nevertheless bowed so graciously before us. The Apostle Paul is speaking of an attitude, a mind adjustment, a bowing toward others, emptying ourselves of our own identity when necessary, not just before those we love or who are more like us than not, but to those unlike us, not of our tribe, even our enemies. And you are invited to bow like this precisely because you are so rare, so privileged, so honored, so accomplished in this world now that you will have graduated. From your amazing vantage point, let the words of the Apostle ring loud: “Let this mind (this attitude) be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

I read not long ago that for most of his life, Albert Einstein had portraits of two of the world’s greatest scientists, Isaac Newton and James Maxwell, on his wall as role models to inspire him. Toward the end of his life, he apparently took them down and replaced them with two other portraits. One was of Albert Schweitzer, the famed missionary doctor and theologian. The other, Mahatma Ghandi. Einstein told others that he needed new role models, “not of so much of success, but of humble service.”

Fortunately, for you, for me, for each one of us here today, we have one such role model of servant leadership like no other: God in Christ.

God With Us

Fortunately, we are also not left on our own to take that first step into an unknown, but promising future. We are not left to our own devices to take that courageous bow in honor and service to others.

The story is told of a little first grader, Carlos. His teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Carlos puffed out his chest, stood straight and tall, and with much bravado proclaimed, “When I grow up, I’m gonna be a lion tamer! I’ll have lots of big, ferocious lions and tigers and I’ll walk right into the cage with them.” Then he paused ever so briefly and added, “but I do want Mamá to be with me.”

Little Carlos got it exactly right! Nothing wrong with that. Emanuel, God with us! Mothering God with us in the lions’ dens of life. If Mamá God is with us, any single one of us could very well become a lion tamer, too.

You see, before Joshua put one toe in the Jordan River, before he took a single step forward into the promised land, the Lord God, not only said to him three times: “Be strong and courageous.” But the Lord God also twice reminded Joshua that he could step bravely into his future because: “the Lord God is with you wherever you go.” The promise that God will be with us, wherever we go, is a message of encouragement to all of us today.

Whether you go from Goshen College to discover the cure for cancer, or win a Pulitzer, Emmy, or Nobel Prize. Whether you become an ambassador of this or another country, or travel to space, or rid the world of AIDS, or pastor a local church, or teach fifth graders their multiplication tables, or serve in a war-torn refugee camp half a world away – wherever your choices take you, “Be strong and courageous” because God is with you!

You may not always be sure where you’re going, the going may be hard, the road muddy and rough, but with God’s help, heaven knows, and I have no doubt, that you will get there!

In receiving your diplomas, should you somehow feel that you have both feet planted firmly on the ground, than Goshen College has probably failed you. I hope and pray, rather, that when you receive your diploma, one foot will be off the ground, hands akimbo, and with a wobble or two and a gracious bow, you step into God’s promised future with courage. Amen!