This last Friday, our school celebrated Convocation. Students, who have spent two three, four, perhaps more years with us made their way across the stage, newly hooded and eager to shake the hand of the university President, our seminary’s Principal Dean and then to hold in their hand a piece of parchment. Now they will be Masters of Divinity, Masters of Arts in Theology, and Doctors of Ministry. As I stood to congratulate them as they wound their way from the stage back to their seats, I could sense both excitement and a bit of trepidation. Endings are odd events. A sense of completion and satisfaction attends them as well as uncertainty and that anomie that accompanies a future not yet crystalized.
Convocation is not only an emotionally charged event for the students; staff and faculty too have mixed feelings. We are so very proud of the hard work that has enabled our graduates to achieve a goal that will hopefully open new doors for them. But with them, we also experience a little bit of sadness. Many of these students have shared themselves in hallway conversations and class papers. While writing on topics of theology, more than a few have poured out their hearts, making me aware of their experiences, their passions, their hopes and fears. They have shared themselves with me. I am changed by my students. I am not being polite in saying this. I really do feel myself shaped by the encounters that make up my experience as a teacher. I suppose, I too, share something of myself with them along with the facts about history, theological vistas, and hopefully some passion for our subject matter. Something happens in this interchange that really includes a change in me. I am forever being prodded, challenged and stretched. Many of them have experiences that are foreign to me. Many of them have interests that are embryonic in me. They all bring something to the table, and I am the better for it. So I lament their walk across that stage even as I celebrate it.
Students really are in some ways like a book. They need to be read with both a lot respect and a little bit of appreciative criticism. Sometimes they want to generalize their experiences, and sometimes they discount their experiences; sometimes they can’t get out of their heads, and sometimes they really don’t want to get into them. Of course, all of this is true of me as well. But if I am willing to encounter them with the supposition that they have something to offer me, I will never be disappointed. I might not like what I learn, but I always learn from them. Hopefully, I’m able to return the favor. So in this season of convocation, I’m mindful that two words hide in this synonym for graduation. “Vocation” is rooted in the Latin word for call (vocare) and the Latin preposition con means “with.” To convocate is to be “called with.” No-one convocates on their own because we are all called to learn with others and to teach with others. Knowledge is only knowledge in its being a shared phenomenon. I thank God for my students, my teachers, and this gift called learning. The parchment is important, but what really matters never ends. Learning feeds that hunger that paradoxically feeds humanity.