En route and off

Last week we went to Ottawa to celebrate the convocation of my middle daughter, who has completed a degree in mechanical engineering. We were exceedingly glad to celebrate the day with her and her friends. This was most interesting in that we have heard stories about many of them, and met a few along the way. The convocation, of course, also gave us occasion to meet some of their proud parents. Afterward, my wife made the observation that the convocation ceremony was notable in that, aside from siblings and grandparents, the audience was in the range of our age. It is rare that we gather in mass with people from our generation, that is the end of the baby boomers.

I thought about that a bit on our trip home. We travelled from Ottawa via a more northernly route, camping one night at Canisbay Lake in Algonquin Park. Along the way, we stopped to grab some food for supper, and my wife suggested we buy some bread, cheese, and veggies for a picnic along the way. An hour or so later, we managed to find a pull-in station along the highway, where there were picnic tables alongside a lake. We had a leisurely lunch, enjoying the sights before we continued on our way. As we travelled, we chatted of our memories of doing this quite often as kids, and with our children when they were young. At one point, in Alberta where we lived at that time, road side camp shelters were quite common. These were not over-night camp sites, but spots where folk could stop for a bit of a rest along the way. People would often take a break, and allow kids to run. I distinctly recall their demise. A would be premier, promising more services for less taxes, promptly shut them down upon his election. It was a sad day in my then province. I do not know if they have been returned with a recent turn in government. We have been happy to find a few here in Ontario, but I do not know if the current state of affairs represents a decline, or not. I suspect , in part, that they are probably less used if even still in place. This is sad since they are a pre-eminently civilized diversion in the increased rat race of our travel habits, now complete with hands-free phones, food on the go, and road rage. I recall, as a child, travel as decidedly more leisurely. Perhaps these days can be resurrected. If so, it will take some of us with a little bit different memory of the past to call attention to a different way to be, which brings me to my first observation.

In a way, a convocation is a profoundly important inter-generational experience. It isn’t exactly a passing of batons, but there is something of that to this important event. As a new graduating class makes their way into the world, they will make and influence choices for good and for ill, just as have those who sit in the audience. It is given to both to work together, in both dreaming and recollection. The past is not pristine, but neither is it obsolescent and progress is not the purview of the future alone. Theology, amongst other disciplines, knows these treasured truths and forgets them to its peril. The path forward is sometimes behind us and the future might well be where we finally meet our past. Memories are the repository of dreams and the obverse obtains, and no place is as replete with memories as a convocation hall.

The convocation hall, in a way, is a great symbol as a meeting place of both past and future, of many generations. It is a location of being together, which is surely the condition for the possibility of true community. Perhaps this, in a way, is the most important commencement address. We are community in being together, across generations for the task of celebrating these achievements and perhaps we ought to make this being together a habit, so that we might learn from both past mistakes and successes as we dream a world whole and well.

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More than Parchment

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.

Black and White, and Colour too

Last Friday evening my wife and I attended the annual Gala celebrating Waterloo Lutheran Seminary’s graduates. The class this year was nearly 30 in number; young and not so young women and men who will make their mark in the world as counselors, chaplains, educators and pastors. It is always a proud and bitter sweet moment for us. Our students are the diamonds in the rough of the academy; they make our jobs worth the while even while they sometimes complicate our carefully crafted theologies and challenge our scholarly sense of self importance with the demands of teaching people rather than topics. We take this time to bid them well and adieu. Alongside this celebration, we also fêted Robert A. Kelly, our church historian who is retiring after 28 years at our school. Bob has been something of a institution in our institution. Students all have favourite Dr. Bob memories: his witticisms, his passion for the Gospel, his endless patience for students, and his utter lack of patience for entitlement and self-importance. Bob has been a compass in our community and we will miss him terribly.

Many colleagues and students stood up to recall fond, funny and formative memories of their interactions with Bob. As I listened to them, it struck me that this moment was one of those rare times in a life when you see something of the whole of someone. Random recollections from a broad selection of interactions gave me a richer picture of Bob. As I sit, now, and think about this it was rather as if I had been looking at a black and white picture that, for a moment, became multihued: or perhaps the reverse was the case, since both black and white and colour, too, have a peculiar beauty related to their different utilities. In my mind, black and white brings certain things into relief even while seeming to instill in us a sense of the ambiguous, mystical quality of life. Colour, by contrast, seems to celebrate not only diversity but also the utter incongruity of existence: how can it be that we are, rather than are not? Of course, both black and white and colour are good, true, and beautiful. We need to celebrate both the mystery of a person as well as their flesh and blood concreteness. We need to see both; to embrace both.

Friday was an important day for many reasons. It reminded us that we are a people composed of those who gather together. Next fall, when Bob is a visitor to our school, we will be a different folk. Our face changes as faces change; and this is both celebrated and mourned. This is both black and white and colour; both mystery and facticity – all nourished by memory. On Friday we remembered Bob and the students who leave with him this year; they are not gone, but they are differently present. Friday gave us opportunity to see who we were even while we anticipate who we will be. It was a moment to delve deeper into our identity; to remember that identity is slippery business, but a blessed business because we are remembered by God as well as we are remembered by one another. God knows us inside out because God sees us in black and white, and colour too.