Lexington, Virginia • June 3, 2009
Good morning. I cannot begin to describe the honor it is to be with you this morning and my gratitude. When President Ruscio asked me to speak at this ceremony, I have to admit I thought it was one of my Washington and Lee roommates playing a really good practical joke. Thankfully, I did not respond that way to President Ruscio, and I am more than humbled by the invitation to be with you on this day.
I can hardly believe that it was 12 years ago that I first set foot on this lawn as a student. From the optics lab to the lacrosse field, it still feels like yesterday. And as I have reflected on my own time in this place and the influence these halls and professors and friends continue to have on my life today, I struggled with how to approach this address. Following in suite with hundreds of new books every year, I thought about going the free-advice route. If everyone else can do it and write a book, I could probably manage a speech. But knowing that approach had the potential to go horribly wrong, and thinking about my vocation as an Episcopal priest, another thought was to take a strictly theological approach – grounding words of wisdom in history and sacred text. But, I thought better of that as well and ended up in the language of poetry. A language which unlike my own free advice or some theological language can speak to us all no matter where we are in life.
And thus with that said, Wendell Berry, teacher, poet, essayist, and farmer, begins his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” with the following words of wisdom:
“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,/vacation with pay./…And you will have a window in your head./ Not even your future will be a mystery/ anymore. Your mind will be punched in a card/ and shut away in a little drawer.”1
Some of these words have almost certainly gone through the head of every graduating senior or been spoken to a graduating senior by a concerned parent or friend over the past few weeks and months. Be successful. Lack for nothing. Have material abundance, and all will be well. And yet, all of these notions and assumptions are challenged by Berry and perhaps ought to be challenged by us. If nothing else, the instability of these economic times into which you graduate presents a challenge to our notions of success and happiness; presents us with the opportunity to think about whether we want our happiness to be determined by the ups and downs of the world around us.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that it is a bad thing to love profit and raises and vacation with pay. In fact, this great university likes it very much when we do these things and then especially when we remember the university, as so many before us generously have. But as Berry is clear in his manifesto, and as our education here has underscored, profits and raises and paid vacations are not the only things in life. And so from the poetic words of Wendell Berry, I offer to you these three cogent yet challenging observations.
“Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.”
Sequoias, or redwoods, are not only the tallest trees on earth, but can live to be more than 2000 years old. Their diameter can be 2-3 times the width of a Graham-Lees dorm room and their height up to a 38 story building. But it takes 100s and 100s of years to see them grow to this size. And planting sequoias is a crazy suggestion. We will never see them in their full grandeur. We have no idea how they will turn out; if they will make it; if they will be one of the giants. Planting sequoias asks us to think big and way outside our limited selves.
But if you stop to think for even a moment, already in each of your lives someone has taken the time to plant a sequoia. Someone has taken the time to create a legacy they will never see. Perhaps it was through a word of encouragement or even admonition. Perhaps it was taking the time to teach you how to be a better writer or to cultivate some other skill. Perhaps it was an idea they nourished. Whether it was when you were five years old or while you have been students at this remarkable place, I imagine each of you can recall that teacher or coach or mentor or friend who instilled in you something that makes you who you are. We have all had someone who planted a seed in us, hoping it would take root and reach for the stars, but knowing they might not ever see its fullness, knowing they might not ever see us in our grandeur; knowing they might not see you as you sit here today on this lawn, about to graduate from this great university, in part because of a seed they planted.
And yet it is not just people who have planted seeds in our lives, but sequoias that have been passed onto us through tradition, as well. The Washington and Lee motto non incautus futuri – not unmindful of the future – suggests that planting sequoias and investing in the millennium is what we do as Generals. George Washington invested 100 shares of stock, an unprecedented gift and the largest of its kind, in a tiny Virginia academy over 200 years ago. He planted a sequoia having no idea that from this investment would grow a top caliber university with just over 400 bright graduates about to be sent into the world. Little did the person who started the speaking tradition know that it would no longer be normative in our culture to say hello to people as we pass them throughout the day. And the honor system in particular will continue to form you in a world where we are supposed to do anything to get ahead, even if it challenges the limits of ethics. These traditions, these sequoias will continue to grow, form, and nourish you for the rest of your lives, no matter where you go and what you do.
In our fast paced, fast return culture, if an immediate benefit or payment is not evident, many are hesitant to invest the time or the energy or the resources. And when you do, some will think that you have lost your mind. But in those moments, you have only to remember those who have planted sequoias in your own lives; you have only to remember the people, the institutions that have formed you. And now, this is your duty as graduates of this place, to invest in the millennium, to nurture and to plant sequoias.
But this is not your only task as you leave this place. For another important piece of wisdom from our poet friend Wendell Berry is a bit strange but also quite simple: “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.”
At some point or another, we will all have to do this. We will feel like we are going backwards before going forwards. We will feel like we have already been there and done that. We will feel like something is beneath our caliber or ability or intelligence or gifts. We will have to make more tracks than necessary. But as Berry reminds us, this is just like the fox – a wise creature that can outsmart and out maneuver many bigger, faster prey and predators. Sometimes we will have to go backwards to be where we are supposed to be. Sometimes we will have to start at the bottom to reach the top. Sometimes we will do what is not the upwardly mobile thing in order to live life to its fullest.
One of my housemates from W&L went to Harvard Law School. She graduated at the top of her class at Harvard and she had many opportunities to work for judges and at top law firms in Boston, Chicago, and New York. But she took a different path. And while folks told her she was making a mistake, not living up to her potential, taking steps backwards, she took a job at a small firm in Chicago working on issues of affordable housing for those who have no voice. It wasn’t the usual path or the upwardly mobile thing to do, but it is exactly where she is supposed to be and she will tell you she loves every minute of it.
My first year at Washington and Lee was the year the Shepherd Poverty Program made its debut on campus. And I think folks had their doubts about how it would work. What was a poverty program doing at a wealthy, prestigious university in the Shenandoah Valley? What was a professor doing taking time away from his chair to begin this strange program? It was a step in a different direction; a march to a different beat; like the fox, this program took a very different approach. Like the fox who sometimes takes more steps than necessary, so this program had to work hard to convince folks it was the real deal, it was worth the investment of time and energy and like all parts of a good education the risk of learning something new about yourself. But as many if not all of you can attest, the Shepherd Poverty Program changes lives. Whether you have taken a course, completed the program, served in the campus kitchen, been a summer intern, a Bonner Leader, or part of Nabors Service Day, you know the difference this program has made in your life and the lives of others. A program that isn’t so much about changing the world through your great service but changing the world through changing you, opening your eyes, teaching you strengths and revealing a world where you can not only make a difference, but never stop learning and growing and being challenged.
Be like the fox. It may not always make sense at the time, but sometimes going backwards, making more tracks than necessary, has its own purpose. Those seemingly backwards steps are, in the end, things that can most define who we are. And those seemingly backwards steps are the things, the setbacks and the intentional choices, that can make us secure in our ability to survive. We really don’t know our strengths until we face adversity, until we are challenged in what direction to go, until we can no longer leave all our options open. And when we get to this place and recognize that the route of the fox isn’t all that bad, such knowledge is truly a gift. For whether the way for us is clear or not, the fox demands that we go in the direction we are given boldly, intentionally. Sometimes we discount the fox, but when we do we are always outsmarted.
And the final piece of advice from our poet companion is to “practice resurrection.” Now this is not like a dress rehearsal for what we may or may not believe happens to us when we die. Rather, it is the realization that there will be places throughout our lives where we will have the chance to practice resurrection, to bring new life. The chance to practice something that is always larger than we imagine; and that always demands more of us than we can fathom. Resurrection is a slow process for those impatient in everything. It is hard for those of us who would like to skip the middle stages and get on to the end. And yet, we have the chance to practice resurrection all the time.
We practice resurrection whenever we open our hearts and minds to the pain of the world and help bring those who are suffering back into the land of the living. We practice resurrection when we cultivate relationships, old and new, and the walls of separation in our world come crashing down. We practice resurrection when we laugh and sing and cherish life. Resurrection is in the making when we accept God’s grace in our lives and see it in the world around us. We practice resurrection through our gratitude, when we don’t take everything for granted. We practice resurrection when we welcome guests and foreign ideas with graciousness. Your work for justice, freedom, equality, and peace sets the stage for resurrection. When you feed the hungry and stand up for the oppressed, you practice resurrection. Every time you bring to life another’s sense of wonder and imagination, you practice resurrection.2
So while you can love the profits and the raises and the paid vacations, your task, your vision as graduates of this university is to something greater than this. Your task is to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before and to think not only of yourselves but those who will come after you, those whom you may never meet or know. Your task is to be mindful of the future, for it is in your hands. Your task is sometimes to go backwards, sometimes to slow down, in order to truly do what you are supposed to do in life. Your task is to practice resurrection.
And thus in the words of a Franciscan blessing, may you go forth:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed with those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.3
1 Wendell Berry, "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 87.
3 “A Franciscan Benediction” excerpt from Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it make any difference? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 105.