A New Tune
Ron Robinson, Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion
Let me offer my personal welcome to each of you today, and allow me to thank you the Class of 2010, for providing me and those who know you with glimpses of grace.
As the college chaplain, my role in this moment is to connect us with a sense of the sacred, perhaps offer one more glimpse of grace, and encourage you, Class of 2010, as you transition into a new phase of your life.
The Baccalaureate service originated in a 1432 Oxford University statute, which required each bachelor’s degree candidate to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. During its earliest years, each Wofford student did a similar thing. Some traditions are worth keeping, but I bet you are glad some have changed.
When higher education moved to this continent, Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service. Perhaps you have heard of Harvard. It’s a good school. We stand in that line and tradition today.
Class of 2010, I remember when you came here on late August morning nearly four years ago and moved into the residence halls down the way. You arrived here listening to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, “Déjà Vu” by Beyonce and Jay Z or tunes by Big & Rich, Toby Keith and Brooks & Dunn or some other country, or hip-hop or alternative or rock or rap or gospel or world music artist.
Mostly, you brought with you a variety of emotions and anxieties and expectations. And you brought with you many viewpoints and beliefs and hopes and dreams. Some of those hopes and dreams have come true in this place, and some have not. Some of your convictions have deepened and some of the things you believed then you no longer believe. Some of the viewpoints you held then you no longer hold. The veracity of some of your opinions has been challenged and sustained. And with others, well “You have changed your tune .” If your experience here has been successful, you have changed. You are in good company: The prophet Isaiah says unto the Lord a new song. Let the inhabitants of the coastlands and the desert and the towns and the villages and the mountaintops sing unto the Lord a new song.
3. Class of 2010
Your life has been filled with songs, literally. A 160 gb iPod can hold 40,000 songs. That’s more than 3,300 albums for you in the class of 1960. The top songs the year you were born were Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child of Mine,” “Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” and George Michaels, “Faith.” The Wonder Years was the hot TV show, Flat screen lcd color tvs were introduced the year you were born, and so was Prozac.
The year you were born the top films were Rain Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Big.
4. Class of 1960
The year you graduated you had Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho, Spartacus, The Alamo and Inherit the Wind. You were listening to “Cathy’s Clown,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Let’s Twist Again,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Lil Darling,” and “Stay.” Some of you (2010) know those as well!
Evidently you liked your tunes, too. The Old Gold & Black noted that you students were pressing for the construction of a music building. You had Elliot Lawrence and his orchestra, voted the nation’s outstanding dance band of the year, providing entertainment for your Winter Ball. The Four Freshmen performed here in the spring. And Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs performed for your Military Ball.
I tried to find out a bit more about you so I could tell the Class of 2010, and I came across this fall semester observation from “The Stroller” column in the local paper:
“… last week’s panty raid upon Converse College was the first sign of life shown by Wofford students in many years.” (That fact was also in the Parents’ Weekend edition of the OG&B.) I don’t make this stuff up; I just do the research…
You must have had some fun that winter, because Coach Gene Alexander’s basketball team went 25-6, winning the district tournament and earning a bid to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City. It was known as the most successful Terrier basketball team ever...well, until this year!
But things were changing quickly in your world, and you were introduced to all sorts of new tunes.
In January a young U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On February 1 up in Greensboro, North Carolina, four black students from North Carolina A&T began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. That event triggered many similar nonviolent protests throughout the Southern United States, and 6 months later the original 4 protesters are served lunch at the same counter.
On May 6 – President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law, and three days later The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the world's first oral contraceptive pill.
The Sixties had begun. Whether you wanted it to happen or not, the world was changing in dramatic ways, and your tune began changing along with it.
5. Whale song
Back in February I came across a story that helped me understanding this phenomenon of changing tunes. The article I read said blue whales are singing a new tune, too. It seems male blue whales use songs to warn away other males and attract females. But that song has been changing.
John Hildebrand of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography studies whale sounds and says blue whales have “been shifting the pitch to be lower each year. And that ... has resulted in song that is now about 30 percent lower than it was in the 1960s.” He says the change is happening in blue whale colonies all over the world.
There is speculation as to why this is happening, but no one disputes the finding that blue whale songs have gone down in pitch.
One of things I really liked about that article on whale songs was this: Whales were taking their old songs and adding to them or adapting and altering them and they were singing them in a different voice.
Billie Holliday, the great jazz singer, said, “I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know.”
We do that as societies, and we do that as individuals.
Parker Palmer has said, "Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am." Listening, or as Dr. King used to say, “Exegete the Zeitgist.” Which is to say “understand and interpret the spirit of the times.” And that begins with the skill of observation. One of my memories is traveling with some of you in this class to Namibia and Botswana. We saw elephants and lions, and giraffes and rhinos, but my life was impacted most when Dr. Abercrombie convinced us to look –and listen--for smaller forms of life, and soon we had spotted over 100 species of birds.
Some people were attending a conference in a major city. During a lunch break a couple of the participants took a walk. As they stretched their legs along the busy sidewalk, one suddenly stopped, turned to the other and said, “Do you hear that?” The new friend paused and considered the bustling noise of the city. “Hear what?”
Planted along the downtown sidewalk was a small row of trees. At the base of each tree was a circle of flowers. One walked over to one of the trees, knelt down, reached beneath one of the floral clusters, then stood and opened his hand, revealing a small black bug. “It’s a cricket.” Dumbfounded the other replied, “How can you possibly hear that?” At which point the first fellow reached into his pants pocket, took out a handful of coins, and threw them into the air. As the coins hit the cement, people from all directions stopped and looked down. The guy turned to his companion and said, “It depends on what you’re listening for.”
As we compose our tunes, it’s important to listen …
When the Class of 1960 had Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs play for their Military Ball, the band was just off a hit that had been #1: The song was Lil’ Darlin.’ By the time Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs came through Wofford, they had a new song they were getting ready to record: “Stay.” And by November of 1960 it reached #1.
By the way, it was the shortest song ever to reach #1. The record label said it was 1:50, but it was really 1:39. The Four Seasons put the song back in the top 20 in ’64 and Jackson Browne had it there again when I was a Wofford senior in the late 70s.
And it has endured—had staying power, if you will. Last week when I met with the Goldtones, they began humming and singing it. “Oh want you stay…”
Maurice Williams says he wrote it when he was 15 ‘cause his girlfriend had to go home, and he wanted her to stay. Maybe you can ask him about it tonight. Because 50 years later, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs is playing for your graduation dance this evening!
8. Staying and Sustaining
There are things in our lives we want to stay. Not the least of which are this planet and our species. The word “sustainability” has been part of the vocabulary of the Class of 2010 most of their lives. The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
As well-educated people you can grasp the difference between sustaining, which is a task in progress, and being static.
Even Jesus disciples, whom he needed to sustain his movement, when they were up on the mountain, wanted to stay. Peter said, “Let me build three shelters and we can stay.” They were experiencing what Christians call the transfiguration and it was amazing. But Jesus ignored their request, and just a little later the text says they, “went down the mountain.”
I hope you have had some mountaintop experiences here at Wofford College. And I hope they have profoundly impacted your tune. But the time has come…
Look: Through the ages Christian folk have believed that as we come to understand the world and develop a truer vision of it, we will be led to act in new ways. They have understood the integral connection between knowing and acting, and have sought to be "contemplatives in action." They did not want to have the experience but miss the meaning.
“Every one, though born of God in an instant, yet undoubtedly grows by slow degrees.” John Wesley said. He also said, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.” Perhaps Ignatius said it more succinctly: "Go, and set the world on fire."
All right, it’s also important to “Know when to tune out, if you listen to too much advice you may wind up making other peoples mistakes.” (Ann Landers)
So, simply, Go, sing a new tune; Go, set the world on fire.
But you don't have to do that today, or tomorrow. Do that Monday. Today stay, just a little bit longer.
But then, then...it’ll be time for your new tune.