On May 11, 2018, the night before BSK’s annual Commencement ceremony, Dr. Laura Levens offered remarks entitled “Well Done, Graduating Students” at the Graduates Banquet. Please read Dr. Levens remarks below:
Well Done, Graduating Students
Good evening, and thank you all for being here as we celebrate our 2018 graduates. I have been given the delightful task of speaking benedictory words—and I do believe that they have called the assignment “benediction” to remind me that yes, it must be true—you four must end your time as students and venture out into the world to make your own way. I lobbied, quite softly, to find some way for us to keep you, but that is the selfishness of an educator’s heart. For though we are teachers with professional titles, deep down we are truly learners, aching always for companions to adventure with us on the trails of scholarship and experimentation. You four have been great companions to me, and I am here to wave you gratefully onward to your next journey.
It took me awhile to figure out what to say to you as you go. When I graduated seminary (the first time), my cherished Old Testament professor gave us a sermon on Elijah’s flight to the wilderness and his search for God. She solemnly warned us repeatedly about the isolation, risk, and shouting matches with God that we would encounter on our ministry journey. So you know, if you’d like that very realistic and not entirely untrue parting word of warning, I guess you could see me after dinner. I have a nice book for you on the struggle of prophetic identity. A second option was to give closing words of advice and wisdom out of my years of lofty experience. And while I am of course wise beyond my years, it seemed a little presumptuous of me to give four very unique and gifted people some general prescriptions for your future. And besides, half of you took Intro to the Bible with me, and you know that proverbial precepts are not my thing. I’m much better at provocation and imaginative wildness. Methodical, in-depth, detailed, and well-organized chaos gets you an A in my class every time.
It seemed to me, therefore, that only one good option remained: to name the special gifts you have blessed us with during your time here at seminary. I give back what I have received from you, so that you may courageously offer them elsewhere—in the darkest of days, in your wildest dreams, and in the muddy middle. And I will do it in the most embarrassing manner possible and call you out by name.
To Ben Burton: I give you back your virtue of justice. For you, Ben, justice is not merely a lofty ideal, though you do hold very high self-expectations. Justice is about and for and with people. You exude your sense of justice with your water-bottle stickers, your careful speech and your willingness to do what’s needed or to support someone else, for the sake of justice. Once Ben asked me to create a course on Social Justice in the Baptist Tradition because he thought it would be a good idea to recover how different Baptists like Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King Jr. had shaped the justice tradition. Then, based on his graduation requirements, he didn’t take my class. But you know, it did me a world of good anyway, and as the dominoes fell we had the opportunity to have activist Ruby Nell Sales here for the Hinson lectures. Ben sat onstage with me and interviewed this civil rights legacy with gusto. Well done, Ben.
To Sabrina Smith: I give you back your virtue of hope. I was tempted to call it tenacity, but I realized that your strength and determination to continue on is an important part of your greater gift of hope. Sabrina was our 2017 nominee for the Addie Davis Excellence in Preaching Award, and my goodness, she ran with it and took me along for the ride as well. I think she probably could have found all of those preaching opportunities on her own, but I am grateful that I was part of planning, sharing of frustrations, and hoping for more. I am also quite proud of the biblically, theologically, and practically rich sermons Sabrina crafted for these occasions. Sabrina continues to hope even when hope is dashed. You especially hope that one day your hometown community will accept and celebrate people like you as ministers. And I believe, and hope, in you. Well done, Sabrina.
To Marcus Pernell: I give you back your virtue of peace. Marcus, from the moment of his arrival, has exuded welcome, grace, and the gentle calmness that leads people to relax and just be their quirky, unique, real selves. His ability to bring welcome is one outlet of his deeper stance of peaceful being and sharing of himself for the world. Marcus is a giver, not a taker. I still have the blessing letters that Marcus wrote to me his first semesters of school, which so happened to be my first semesters of teaching as well. What better way to thank a professor, than to include and show his comprehension of important key terms like kenosis and theodicy in thank you notes. I did teach Marcus how to become “righteously indignant”, but it was who he already was that led him to lecture us on Slow Church—that we must all “actually slow down to become more aware of where God’s at work and what God’s doing.” Well done, Marcus.
To Sara Herrington Jones: I give you back your virtue of joy. Sara came to us already well educated and experienced in children’s catechesis. It became clear to me very early on that it was unwise to underestimate Sara’s theological acumen and discernment—no no! The open secret was how wise, deep, and insightful Sara is because she is so well-versed in the joyous theological world of the Good Shepherd. Because the Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name, calls them out, and leads them, Sara has been ready to care for each and every person and circumstance she meets because there is joy to be shared. Sara’s joy makes her a fierce advocate, such as her role in connecting the student community to the presidential search process. Thanks to Sara, plastic figurines of Baby Jesus, Joseph, and a sheep are still on my desk and in my blazer pockets, as tokens of the joyful presence of the kingdom of God in our midst. Also, we have a president of our institution. Well done, Sara.
Well done, well done, well done, well done, Christ’s good and faithful servants. It will be very hard to say farewell to you. Of course you will join the grand host of alumni saints and all that, and I very much wish that you all will continue to let us know what you’re doing and invite us into any schemes of holy mischief that arise. Remember, your professors continue to be your adventurous companions for learning and experiments (mwah ha ha). And it is a blessing to me, and to us, that in giving you back the virtues you have given us during your time as students, those same virtues will remain here after you are gone. You have shaped BSK by your justice, hope, peace, and joy. Thank you, and well done.