Reflections on Commencement

Posted on June 11, 2011


Today, it was conferred upon me and my fellow students a Master’s Degree. I have admitted that my personal journey through seminary has been tainted by a begrudging attitude and my feelings are more of relief than they are of celebration. However, after 7 years of continuous movement and investment in a particular direction–by myself, and my family–it seems impertinent to simply “be done” with it. Thus, in an effort to honor the efforts and to respect the institution, here are my [somewhat random] thoughts from this day.


I am grateful to Mark Labberton, our commencement speaker for his clarion call to “commence.” Using Matthew 7 as his text, he asked us in serious fashion if we are now going to “put these words into practice.” I have felt that much of what I have studied has been “so heavenly minded, it’s no earthly good.” Labberton’s address was of grand import to ensuring that seminary is never relegated to, as Jeremy Swigart put it, a “theological data download.” In any educational journey we are behooved to contend with the question, Are we there to think great thoughts and acquire great knowledge, or are we there to become great agents of God’s Kingdom? While I believe many in these institutions arrive there by cognitive competence and stay there because of intellectual status, I am grateful that, in my estimation, the vast majority of people in seminary are there to truly commence.


Labberton told the story of getting on a plane next to a woman who was interested in chatting. Seeing he had some papers that he had written, she inquired as to the subject. “Loving your neighbor,” he replied. “Oh, sounds interesting,” she said. “Is it a work of fiction?” – –  This struck me as profound. Without “commencing,” the Bible truly is a work of fiction and is witnessed as so in many Christian circles. I am deeply grateful for this sentiment and am personally challenged to ensure it is never relegated to that categorization on the shelves of my career.


I have for a while mused about the names of the degrees given to graduates and have thought that they’re misleading, and perhaps contrarian for theological study. For example, upon completion of an undergraduate degree we are given a Bachelor’s. While the term may simply mean “apprentice-level,” (from the Latin), in the economy of Christ, would it not be best to not think of ourselves as “bachelors,” but rather as a “bride?” Are we not beloved of our bridegroom? Should not our attainment of this level ought to be grounded first in our identity as a covenant partner with the living God of this universe? The next level of graduate studies confers the title Master, which is in my estimation, completely antithetical to higher learning, especially theological. Anyone who has engaged with any course of study realizes that the more one learns the more one realizes how much they don’t know. Again, in the economy of Christ, it may be best to see this level, not as a “master,” but as a “servant,” one who is fully submitted to the work of God in this world. After all, is this not what we truly learn as we grow in the knowledge and wisdom of Christ? The final degree of  Doctor seems also inappropriate. After years of learning, study, dedication, hard work, instruction, maturity, ought we not understand ourselves now as “patients,” in that we truly submit ourselves fully and completely to whatever diagnostics, surgery, etc., God desires to do in us? Once we reach these levels of education, ought we fully and completely take God off the examination table and rather put ourselves there and let God work on us?


I have lived by this maxim for a while, and it has become even more true now having completed “mandated study.” In his reflections, Swigart also mentioned that he now knows to “ask better questions,” as a result of seminary. This, I applaud. However, I would add to this tension, that in our era, the institution of “school” is no longer necessary for this kind of inquiry, and this kind of study. This is not to say that school is now irrelevant or unnecessary. I am simply suggesting that there is a lot of education that can and should be done outside of the institution itself. Allow me to qualify and clarify. First, I am not saying that the values and aspects of the institution are no longer efficacious. Community is still very important, as are teachers, curriculum, discipline, accountability, etc. I simply contend that these attributes exist just as much outside the institution of school as inside. Second, I teach at two institutions, a Junior & Senior High School, and at an undergraduate college. I believe school is important, and can be fantastic. I also believe that education is the most important endeavor of any society, and ought to be regarded and supported as such through policies, finances, etc. (The pay scale for teachers is an injustice). But there are still functions of the schooling institution that hinder true learning and education. Here are just a few of my observations:

  • Grading measures what you know and what you’ve been taught, and that in an instant in time. Thus, it is more a measure of your calendar and the proficiency of the teacher than it is a competency of the student.
  • Grading also stratifies and “classifies” students, a label that is psychologically determinative and irrespective of the unique and capable contribution of every person in society.
  • Classroom confinements. Any teacher/student ratio higher than 1/1 means a degrading scale of attention that any one teacher can give to any one student. Thus, higher ratios mean more difficult learning environments, and more challenging teaching, a fact that is so widely known, that teacher/student ratios are publicized as marketing tools for schools.
  • Language acquisition in schools needs a serious overhaul.
  • As Ken Robinson has pointed out, much of our pedagogy hinders creativity.
  • The structures of subjects de-contextualize and compartmentalize. Thus, we essentially learn concepts irrespective of other subjects, an abstraction that can leave a student wondering, “is this every going to be helpful in my life?”
  • Education comes first through experience and practice, theory second. Institutionally, school is set up to be the complete opposite. Fortunately, many are recognizing this as broken and are attempting to remedy it through mandated internships, etc.


I confess. I am thankful. I concede, that school is important. I’ve seen many an example where the “uneducated” (meaning those who did not attend school), pridefully disdain the institution and those within it as lacking a certain austere connection with the “Spirit.” Those teachers perpetuate an ignorance that is detrimental to reality, they misrepresent the Biblical teaching to learn and to grow and to love God with your mind, they teach things that are blatantly wrong, and they establish destructive hindering ideals in the populace that essentially enslaves people to their own ignorance by the shackles of the teacher’s pride. In other words, they are akin to the teachings of a cult. Those who would say school/education is unnecessary are dangerous. In addition, less than 1% of the world’s population have even the possibility, much less the opportunity to have received an education such as I have. I do not take this reality lightly. I understand, as best as I can, the weight of this truth, and the burden of responsibility that comes with it. If what I have been gifted and entrusted with is not fully, 100%, deployed in every way, shape, form, and opportunity, for the benefit of the world around me, I would count myself having engaged in an irresponsibility that is beyond an injustice.

It’s time to commence.

Posted in: Education, Life