Charles Marsh, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Project of Lived Theology, speaks to Messiah College's graduates at the 97th Commencement ceremony.
I appreciate very much the honor of your invitation to speak at the Messiah College commencement. I am one of this school’s biggest fans. I hope you know that. And I hope you also know what an encouragement it has been to me over the past several years to have been able to build friendships with many members of this remarkable community. Teaching theology and religious studies at a secular university has its pleasures and rewards: at the same time, having the privilege to take part in a fellowship of shared intellectual and spiritual convictions such as this place offers is a precious gift. So I thank you again for your hospitality and for the honor of this invitation.
As I was preparing for today it occurred to me that although I give lots of talks and lectures at colleges, churches, and conferences, I have never before given a commencement address. So like a good scholar, I immediately got busy researching the genre of “commencement,” and like a good scholar in a hurry, I sat down and “Googled” the words “commencement address.” The common traits I discovered in this peculiar genre probably come as no surprise to you. Most of the addresses were delivered by accomplished middle-age men and women and sounded at times a lot like motivational speeches. In fact, several brought to mind the late comedian Chris Farley’s character on “Saturday Night Live,” the motivational speaker Matt Foley who—in hilariously manic fashion—encouraged young people to set good goals for themselves or else they would end up like him, “living in a van down by the river.”
We all need motivating and inspiring words from time to time; but the commencement addresses also seemed to lay a lot of heavy expectations at the feet of graduating seniors. Even the moral idealism in many of the speeches felt slightly oppressive—like confessions of disillusioned and world-weary adults: my generation has made a mess of the planet. Now go save it. Have a nice life—don’t forget to buy my books on the way out.
There is much work to be done in our world, and I am quite hopeful that your generation will do better than mine in resisting the idols, in affirming the deep interconnections of God’s good and glorious creation, and in restoring wholeness to the fragile economy of our earth. And I hope all of you will follow your dreams and achieve your goals, and take risks and live passionately into the fullness of each and every day.
And, yet, as I think about the graduates sitting here today and the complex times in which you have come into adulthood, and as I think about the moral dispositions and sensibilities that you will need for the uncertain decades ahead, my thoughts keep coming back to a different message; my thoughts go back to Psalmists ancient wisdom, the admonition found in Psalm 46:
“Be still and know that I am God.”
This may seem very much like a counter-intuitive message to speak in our culture and in a commencement address, a slightly off-key note for a group of talented and resourceful students, with cutting-edge intellectual skills and moral energies revved up, ready to move into action.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
Psalm 27 tells us to: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” We are instructed here to be strong and to take heart—do not forget—but to remember that strength and courage are found in waiting on the Lord.
There are many interesting differences between the kinds of commencement speeches that students at my university hear year after year and those delivered at Messiah College; but really the basic difference comes down to the astonishing theme of these verses: the trust and confidence of the Psalmist in the peaceable presence of God. That message might even be the real mark of our own counter-cultural identity as Christians. And in any case I think that is precisely the message that you need to hear this morning: that as you go forth into the world, equipped with the gifts of your extraordinary and unique education, be forever mindful of the Psalmists wisdom that there in no greater source of courage and strength than that found in being still and knowing the glory and beauty of the living God.
Being still is not something that comes easily to students, or to most Christians. To those of us who care deeply about justice and mercy, being still before God may sound even positively dangerous. It may sound like the ultimate heresy. At a conference on urban ministry in Chicago a few weeks ago, a student working in the inner city asked me after my lecture, “We encounter in our world so many pressing demands, so many calls to urgent action, so many injustices—how can we be still and wait?”
I understand that concern very well. I came of age in the American South during the 1960’s, and most of my fellow church people were quite happy to be still when it came to matters of racial equality and civil rights. Faced with the grave and overwhelming moral demands of our time—social justice for the disenfranchised, the reform of a complacent and acquiescent church—most of us in the white congregations opted for the country clubs, for lavish summer cotillions and for the comfortable spaces of our segregated churches and neighborhoods--for serene detachment. My mission and vision as a scholar, writer and teacher is, in a profound sense, born of the haunting memories of my evangelical boyhood, of a quest to understand how we in the white churches could imagine ourselves to be so holy and righteous and yet at the same time ignore with silent contempt the sufferings and hardships of African Americans living under the iron hard rule of Jim Crow.
Stillness can be a not so polite form of entitlement, or indifference to injustice.
But this is not the stillness of God, the stillness that finds strength and courage in waiting for the Lord. This year we celebrate the anniversaries of two powerful witnesses to justice and reconciliation: the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 100th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth. Both of these Christian peacemakers and martyrs gave themselves fully to the challenges of their age. Both participated in dramatic movements and momentous historical events and led protests and campaigns against great evil; and yet both of these witnesses spoke of the deep stillness of God as the wellspring that nourished their active lives.
In his eloquent meditation on Christian community—I mean, of course, that beautiful little book Life Together—Bonhoeffer spoke of a stillness “before the Word” and a stillness that “comes from the Word.” He affirmed the wisdom of the Psalmist; the importance of a listening silence; a silence—Bonhoeffer says— that brings “purification, clarification, and concentration upon the essential thing."
Bonhoeffer wrote this book during the years in which he was directing an illegal seminary in the north German town of Finkenwalde. The seminary’s mission was to train pastors in the Confessing Church, the only Christian body in Germany that formed in opposition to Hitler and the nazified German Evangelical Church. Being still before God was hardly about idleness or indifference; rather for Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian and activist; being still before God was a discipline that enables us to see with heightened perception the concrete places in the world that cry out for wholeness and for redemptive action.
In stillness before the Word, we allow our perceptions of life to be transformed by the new vision of God.
Marsh challenged the new graduates to rest in God and work hard to “restore wholeness to the earth.”
Many of you know the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr., in the early weeks of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, reached a place when he felt he had become a complete failure in his leadership of the protest against segregated buses. On a night in late January 1956, Dr. King returned to his parsonage after a long day of meetings and after enduring the ordeal of his first arrest and incarceration. He was completely exhausted and ready for a good night’s rest. But then the phone rang and from the other end of the line rushed a torrent of obscene words and a death threat.
Unsettled and worried, not only about himself but even more for his wife and baby daughter, King got of bed, walked down the hall to the kitchen, and made himself a pot of coffee. In the deep stillness of the Alabama midnight, King buried his head in his hands, bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. “Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I still think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. I am afraid. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”
Waiting now in the silent room and house, Dr. King heard a voice say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” King heard the voice of Jesus.
“I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
King waited on God in the silence of the midnight kitchen, and he was given strength and courage for the turbulent years ahead. The movement emerged out of the discipline of waiting.
In a time such as ours, when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is often reduced to a partisan talking point and too much Christian speech in the public square has served to humiliate the Word rather than to bring glory to God, learning to be still and wait, learning to abide with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, may be our only hope for renewal and meaningful action. Bonhoeffer asked in his final years, “Are we still of any use?” He answered by saying, "What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward people.” We will need young men and women who in their honesty and straightforwardness help us remember that being a Christian is about learning to live in and out of the stillness of the Word and who show the world in their vocations, habits and testimonies that the stillness of God is the peace the world longs for, the healing we so desperately need.
—Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Project on Lived Theology.