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Goshen College 2009 Commencement Ceremony: "Pilgrim's Mind"

Goshen College Commencement

April 26, 2009, Goshen, Ind.

President Brenneman, Chair of Faculty, members of the Goshen College Board of Directors, faculty, administration, and staff, honored guests, families and friends of the graduates, and members of the great class of 2009, I am honored to be with you on this very special day.

Gary Trudeau, the genius behind the Doonesbury comic strip, is reputed to have remarked that commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that graduating students needed to be sedated before entering the "real world." I hope that's not the case!

Several years ago, a prominent person whose name I won't reveal did the commencement circuit, giving what was essentially the same speech. By the time he reached Harvard, the students had figured this out and they prepared bingo cards. As he'd get to key phrases in the speech, students would shout out "bingo!" That won't happen today as I prepared this talk for you and you alone.

I want to begin by congratulating the graduates. Today is a major milestone in your lives. Savor it. Celebrate it. Secondly, I want to congratulate the families of the graduates. We never make our life journeys alone, and your love, care, and support made this day possible for those who will receive their degrees. Finally, let me congratulate all of you who work at Goshen College. Together, you have created a very special educational environment--a remarkable place of learning as well as a remarkable place of social, religious, ethical, and moral formation. I know I speak on behalf of the graduates, their families, and the alumni of Goshen who admire what you do when I say "thank you."

President Brenneman wrote me recently, saying that he looked forward to 'welcoming me home." I appreciated his warmth, and this is indeed a homecoming for me. I grew up in Goshen and, for the first years of my life, my then small family lived immediately across the street from Goshen College. We lived in a small house on Main Street, located opposite Kulp Hall. We were surrounded by members of the College community, and my earliest friends were children of College faculty. Returning to this site in such close proximity to my earliest home in Goshen, then, is a very real homecoming.

My return to campus represents a homecoming of another sort as well. Goshen College is woven into the fabric of my family; so much so that it would be impossible to separate it from our collective or individual identities. My father was a member of the Class of 1941. He loved this College and the friendships he made here over the years. And he gave it many years of loyal service, believing in its distinctive educational mission and believing that it had opened a world of possibilities for him and, by extension, his family. I became what they call a "legacy" student, graduating from Goshen in 1973. Amazingly, every member of my immediate family except one, took courses at Goshen College. And, as if Goshen needed to have more influence on me, I married my high school sweetheart, Judith Gardner. Our wedding was officiated by then Goshen College President Lawrence Burkholder. Judith too is a Goshen graduate, and her parents and siblings were equally enmeshed in the College. In fact, at the risk of embarrassing him, I must give a special greeting to Ben Jacobs, a member of this year's graduating class and a member of the Gardner clan, who is my "grand nephew."

When I was named President of Union College, now almost four years ago, a member of the Union faculty made a trip to Goshen--walking the campus and talking to people--in an effort to learn something about me. Similarly, I'm told that the students who live in Union's environmental theme house--Ozone House--bought a copy of the 1973 Maple Leaf on Ebay. They say that visitors to Ozone House continue to peruse it with great interest. Frankly, I think they want to see if I had long hair in my college days, but the Union faculty and students are right to assume that by understanding Goshen College, they better understand me.

My time at Goshen College led to more than incremental change; it led to transformative change. Thanks to the remarkable intellectual care that I received here, I developed a love of learning that has lasted a lifetime. Thanks to the inspiration-by-example of faculty, across many fields of study, my own career aspirations were dramatically altered. Thanks to the formative process that resulted from Goshen's curriculum and co-curriculum, my faith was nurtured and deepened. My time here still influences the choices and decisions I make today and continues to guide me as I determine which doors of life to open and which doors to leave closed. I hope that your time here will prove to have been transformative as well.

One bi-product of all the travel a college president does is that he or she has time to read--especially while waiting for and flying on planes. One book that I have read during my presidential travels was Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. It's a New York Times bestseller and a great read--what the Library Journal calls a "jaw-dropping epic." I recommend it to you all. It's the story of the Pilgrims, their voyage across the Atlantic, their settlement of Plymouth Colony, and their changing relationship with native people. If you do indeed read it, I promise you that Philbrick will make a familiar story new and he will shatter many of the stereotypes you carry.

One cannot help but be astonished by the account of the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620. 102 people ultimately made the 65-day voyage across the Atlantic. 102 people, intent on establishing a new life in a new world, squeezed themselves into what was called the "'tween deck." Philbrick describes the 'tween deck as a crawlspace located between the upper deck and the hold of the ship. He describes the space as "dank and airless" and estimates it to have been less than 5 feet high and about 75 feet long. Claustrophobic space, to be sure, and made worse by the leaking salt water that steadily fell on their heads throughout most of the voyage.

Due to delays resulting from the lengthy search for an appropriate vessel, repairs that needed to be made before leaving, and disagreements with sponsors, the voyage of the Mayflower took place far later in the year than planned. This resulted in a much longer and rougher crossing. From the moment the Mayflower left the shores of England, many passengers experienced seasickness--undoubtedly making the already uncomfortable space nearly insufferable. The travelers to the New World were frequently ridiculed by the crew of the Mayflower. And, long before their journey was completed, they were chilled to the bone and reached the bottom of their water casks, leaving them to drink the "slimy" remains. With limited food and drink, the passengers of the Mayflower began to display the unsettling signs of scurvy.

The Mayflower encountered steady headwinds and westerly gales. One such gale was so severe that the crew had to furl the sails and basically surrender the ship to the elements. In mid-ocean, the ship encountered such rough water that a structural timber cracked, threatening the end of the journey or worse.

The wild seas, the illness, the ridicule the passengers endured must have been compounded by uncertainty about what was ahead of them. Other than Jamestown, every other attempt to settle on the North American continent had failed. And, the Jamestown experience--well-known to the sick, hungry, and cold passengers on the 'tween deck of the Mayflower--was hardly encouraging. After all, during the first year of the Jamestown settlement, 70 of the 108 settlers had died. They couldn't have found much hope or consolation in that.

All this led the Mayflower's Captain, Christopher Jones, to deviate from the original plan to drop his passengers near the mouth of the Hudson River, on shores near today's New York City. He instead made for the nearer coastline of Cape Cod.

One can imagine the relief that those on the Mayflower felt when they neared land. Their first morning off the coast of the North American continent revealed a beautiful day, brilliant autumn colors, and a clear blue sky. They must have been profoundly thankful and, as William Bradford who chronicled the trip said, more than a little joyful.

The Mayflower captain found little time to celebrate, however, and his priority was clear: to get the passengers to their destination and ashore as quickly as possible. So they sailed south toward the mouth of the Hudson. Initially, things went well. They were on an easy "reach" (sailor's language for a gentle and steady wind coming over the side of the ship) and the passengers were crowded on the now sun-filled upper deck, taking in views of the new world. However, as they moved beyond the "elbow" of Cape Cod, near today's Chatham, Massachusetts, they encountered a new set of challenges. Sailing amidst roaring breakers, the water depth dropped dramatically as did the wind, leaving the Mayflower vulnerable to the shoals of what is known as Pollock Rip. The Boston Cruising Guide still warns today's sailors that the Rip can "generate conditions that range from merely disorienting to completely treacherous," and Philbrick reports that half of all the ships that wrecked along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States are believed to have done so in this same area.

Just when it seemed that the Mayflower might share a similar fate, the wind shifted, coming from the South, and it strengthened. The decision was made to turn the ship north and let the wind drive them to the coast of New England where they ultimately established the settlement in Plymouth. The rest, as they say, is history.

What lessons does this 17th century saga hold for us in these early days of the 21st century? While I recognize that the passengers on the Mayflower were hardly models of perfection and know that their descendents did things that were downright shameful; I believe that they continue to offer us important lessons on living.

Their's is certainly a story of human courage. Years after the ordeal of crossing the Atlantic, William Bradford observed, "all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be overcome with answerable courage." For Bradford and the other passengers on the Mayflower, they knew that there would be risk in the crossing and in the establishment of a settlement. They all knew--just as those who set off for destinations like Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago, or Canterbury knew--that the pilgrim path was marked with discouragements and danger.

Indeed, John Ure, in his book Pilgrimages, notes that for a pilgrim to leave home was to enter a world full of hidden dangers, some real (like robbers and wolves) and some imagined (like demons and dragons). The passengers on the Mayflower understood this and faced it with courage. "They knew," wrote Bradford, that "they were pilgrims."

The Pilgrim story is not only a story of courage; is a story of perseverance. As rough as the voyage of the Mayflower was, it is even more amazing when you consider that it came after two false starts. The initial plan had called for two companion ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to cross the Atlantic together. The Speedwell, however, had been rigged for the voyage with extra large masts which resulted in leaks in the hull that debilitated the ship. Twice the Mayflower and the Speedwell had set out together only to return to port. On the first occasion, they left Southampton and got as far as the Isle of Wight before having to return to port. On the second occasion, they got 200 miles west of the southwestern-most tip of England, at Land's End, before again having to return to find safe harbor. It was after that second failed attempt to cross with the Speedwell that the decision was made to load all the passengers--that is, all those still willing to press on--on the Mayflower and cross the Atlantic in a single vessel.

One of my predecessors at Union, its 4th President Eliphalet Nott, holds the record for the longest serving President of any U.S. college or university. He served for 62 years! I can feel President Brenneman sinking in his chair as I report this--all college presidents do. Nott was among the most imaginative and important voices in 19th century higher education. His signature phrase was "perseverance conquers all things." It was more than a slogan; it was the way he approached life. It could have just as readily been the signature slogan of the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrim story is also a story of discernment. Discernment is, in part, a matter of making decisions. In the Christian tradition, however, it also carries the quality of determining God's will in one's life. When the Pilgrims decided to press on after two failed starts in overcrowded conditions, knowing full well that it meant they would encounter more turbulent seas, they did so through discernment. When they decided to wait out the gales in the Atlantic, it was through discernment. And, when they decided to discontinue their voyage south to their planned destination, in the face of shifting winds and the treacherous waters of Pollock Rip, they did so through discernment. The Pilgrims discerned, in other words, when to push ahead when common sense said to turn back, when to furl the sails and wait, and when to change directions, letting the wind push them along toward their ultimate destination.

 The lesson of the Pilgrim journey is that life often demands courage, perseverance, and discernment. My wish for all of you is that you will be able to summon these qualities in your own lives. If you take seriously Goshen College's motto "Culture for Service," you will inevitably confront challenges, perhaps not a dramatic as those faced by the Pilgrims but challenges none the less. The lesson we can all find in the Pilgrim experience is that those challenges--the "headwinds" and "shoals" of life--should be confronted with courage, perseverance, and discernment.

The Pilgrim experience also gives us clues about the sources of these qualities. Their courage, willingness to persevere, and their ability to discern stemmed from deeply held convictions, enduring bonds to one another, and an abiding belief in God's active presence in their lives.

John Ure suggests that the greatest threat that all pilgrims have faced was losing their way. That's perhaps hard to imagine in an era of Global Positioning Software (GPS) and navigation systems. I just read about a new product that allows you to electronically mark your location via satellite when you park your car and the device will guide you back when you are ready to return. It's hard for us, surrounded with such technologies, to do so but try to imagine the challenge of finding your way without road signs or accurate maps. But, that was what it meant to be a pilgrim in the ages past.

Even with GPS system in hand, it is easy to lose your way in the 21st century. I am not talking, of course, about difficulties in finding your car. I'm talking about losing your way by losing track of life's purpose, focusing on self gain at the expense of the common good (an all too common story in today's headlines), or forgetting the opportunity and obligation we all have to make a difference for the better. Convictions helped the Pilgrims on the Mayflower stay on course and you--like the Pilgrims--will need to sharpen and rely on your convictions in order to avoid going astray.

As a sociologist, I can tell you that this will be easier if you have some fellow life travelers who will affirm you and your convictions. Experiments on classroom teaching reveal that if you place students in one corner of the room and have them enthusiastically nod when a teacher makes a point, while others in the room remain seemingly indifferent, the teacher will soon be looking at and teaching to the nodders in the corner. Such is our human need for affirmation. Such was the nature of the Pilgrim relationship, formalized in the Mayflower Compact as the ship sat off the shore of the New World. They were thousands of miles from governing authorities and about to enter a largely unknown world but the document professes unambiguously the value of community. Community will be no less important to you. Value it, prize it, and take steps to nurture it in your life.

And, importantly, courage, perseverance, and discernment flow from and are strengthened by a belief in God's presence in our lives. Mind you, I'm from a generation that was heavily influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan, who warned us to be wary of people who insisted they "had God on their side." I remain wary but I also believe that one must make space in his or her life for the discipline of faith--creating time for study and reflection, finding ways to extract oneself from the busy-ness and noise of daily life, celebrating our covenant with each other and with God.

I urge you to never lose your deeply held convictions, to find fellow travelers who you can trust and who will affirm you, and to constantly nourish your faith in God. Hopefully, your time at Goshen has helped. If so you have been well-served and you've been prepared to serve well. The Pilgrims survived, they dared to dream, and they were sustained by these things. You will be too.

Please don't get me wrong. Living out the motto of Goshen College is not about living a bleak life. There will be times, many times, in your lives when you will find yourself on an "easy reach" or even propelled forward by helpful tailwinds, allowing you to accomplish greater good, far more quickly, than you imagined. There will be many times when the satisfaction of loving relationships, of making a difference, of improving the lives of others, of working for a shared purpose will remind you of the feelings the Pilgrims must have had as they basked in the warmth of the sun, on the upper deck of the Mayflower, in those autumn days of 1620. Enjoy those days.

At the same time, do not fear or flee from the challenges ahead of you. The world needs you. Have courage! Persevere! Discern what is right and good! To me, this is what it means to have a "Pilgrim's mind."

Godspeed fellow pilgrims!