A reflection delivered at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology’s 2017 Commencement ceremony:
Near the beginning of every great journey, there is a call. A call to leave home, to leave the known and the familiar, and to step toward something big and wild and scary. For me, that home was on the banks of the Manatee River, which flows out of alligator country to the east and, just a few miles west of my childhood home, empties into the Gulf of Mexico on the edge of Tampa Bay. Because of a young boyhood spent in, on, and around that river, and because of a father who was most at home when he was on the water, that warm, murky current still moves somewhere deep inside me.
Rivers come to mind when I think of what it means to answer the call. Only now, after three years at The Seattle School, it feels a bit less like the slow, brackish waters of the gentle Manatee and more like the cold and raging waters of the mighty Columbia. Calling is a torrential beast, and many of us had learned to fear it and to question our ability to swim. But every once in a while we would catch glimpses through the trees as the sun danced on the water, and something deep inside would tug at our hearts, insisting, “Come and see. The water is good. Come and see.”
And eventually, each of us here answered that call. We chose to no longer ignore the harm in our stories and the way it dictated our lives. We chose to no longer turn a blind eye to the abuses of power and the silencing of voices all around us. We chose to believe that maybe, just maybe, God has something new and glorious to say about who we are and what our work is in the world.
So, perhaps against our better judgment, we stepped, jumped, or fell into the river. Maybe some of us were thrown in while we looked the other way. And as we were swept downstream, sometimes being pulled under and tossed around so much we didn’t know which way was up, with the help of the guides who came alongside us we very slowly began learning how to swim.
Learning to swim, though, does not mean the river of calling has become any less wild. No, the waters ahead of us are deeper and fiercer than ever. I realize this as I sit with clients whose stories of heartache seem without end, and I realize it as Father’s Day passes and I’m reminded that my own heartache is also a lifelong journey. I realize it like a slap in the face each time I see my complicity in the systems that kill people who don’t look like me over and over and over again. To keep swimming, then, we’re risking our very lives. We’re throwing our bodies into the rivers of our calling, not always knowing that we’ll be able to stay afloat.
But I do know this: we have had good guides, who aren’t afraid to dive in and help hold our heads above water. Next time you get pulled under–because it will happen to us again, many times–remember their faces. Remember their voices in your life, and remember that they believe in you because they have witnessed your journey these last few years, and they are standing by to bear witness to the work you are called to do. And all these people gathered around us today, they believe in you too. In fact our guides have taken many forms, but as someone who came to this school very much still a boy — a boy who had lived for too long without a father and had come to fear the movement of the currents — I cannot let this moment pass without thanking in particular those behind me on this stage who have been my guides. You have taught me how to swim and how to read water, and you have invited me to believe that the river of my calling is a wild and glorious creature. I thank you, and I honor you.
And here’s something else I know: you all are fierce swimmers. When you’ve lost your breath and you’re near drowning, I have seen you kick toward the surface and let the currents carry you into ever deeper waters–because you are brave, brave people, with ferocious kindness and deep passion. I believe with all of my heart that when others hear the river of your calling splashing on the rocks, and when they see the sun dancing on its waters and the mighty, fruit-bearing trees in its wake, those trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, they will come to the banks to see what is this new and wonderful river, and there you will be, inviting them in for a swim, tugging at their hearts as you call to them to “Come and see. The water is good. Come and see.”