Professor giving a lecture to students in old main
How Shall We Live?
Wofford College Baccalaureate Address
Dr. Ron Robinson
Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion

May 21, 2011

Let me offer my personal welcome to each of you today, and allow me to thank you the Class of 2011, for providing me and those who know you with glimpses of grace during your time here.

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 2011, as you transition into a new phase of your life.

The Baccalaureate service originated in 1432 at Oxford University –60 years before Columbus sailed the “ocean blue.” Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service on this continent. We stand in that line and tradition today.

We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1961 with us this weekend. You arrived on campus in 1957 with a couple of suitcases or a trunk, listening to Elvis’ sing “Teddy Bear” and quickly discovered that “civil rights” was the issue of the day. As you moved into the residence halls, the senator from this state filibustered 24 hours and 18 minutes attempting to keep The Civil Rights Act from becoming law, but it was signed it into law that second week in September as you were adjusting to your new surroundings. That issue profoundly impacted your college experience—and your lives.

By the time you were seniors in 1961 both the college and the country were on the cusp of significant change. You guys must have been tense about something, because you set a $25.00 fine for freshmen who visited a fraternity house before the first smoker. That might not seem like much, but considering the comprehensive fee was $1,295.00, well… that would be $800 in today’s dollars. Pretty stiff!

Your debate team topic that year was “compulsory health insurance.” Glad you resolved that one! But I’m not blaming you. The administration placed four local watering holes off limits, and you accused them of being too paternalistic.

The student body was not allowed to eat or drink in class, but get this: professors were required to provide ashtrays in lab so the students could smoke. Who thought that was a good idea? By the way, that year the science building was named after Mr. Milliken, and he began funding a faculty travel program for 12 faculty. Some things do endure.

By your senior year your music had changed to Etta James’, “At Last,” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. Being sophisticates, some of your lot suggested that you adopt a tradition of wearing coats and ties to class. Class blazers were ordered. The freshmen and seniors opted for blue; the sophomores and juniors chose olive or ivy green. Notably, however, none of your class—not one—ordered a class blazer. The 60s had begun! Meanwhile, beyond the city’s northern border, Freedom Riders were coming South and a wall was constructed through the middle of Berlin.

That wall didn’t come down until 1989, the year most of the Class of '11 was born. That’s right, they are the last class born in the 1980s. The little black and white parental advisory label came out the year you were born. Young MC was telling the world to “Bust A Move,” and the B52s were singing about a “Love Shack,” and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a sensation. The Exxon Oil disaster occurred off of Alaska, and the Tiananmen Square protest occurred but you are more likely to remember arriving here in 2007, reading the very last Harry Potter book, listening to Justin Timberlake, or T-Pain, or Fergie, or Sugarland, Taylor Swift or Big & Rich, or Kanye West, Jay-Z or Lupe Fiasco, or maybe Third Day and Casting Crowns. So many options… A month after you arrived—before midterms- the Dow Jones closed at its all-time high of 14,279.96 on October 7.

And then things changed… they always do...

I remember when you were on campus your very first weekend, sitting in the service of worship in which we bless the entering class. I stood up to speak, glanced out over the audience, and I realized that your heads were down. I thought, “Wow, this bunch really likes to pray.” Only I discovered very quickly you weren't praying at all: you were texting.

More than any other group of students with whom I have worked over the years, I think I am as familiar with the tops of their heads as I am with their faces.

Like many of you I love my little electronic devices. They have become companions for me. Not very affectionate I might add–but full of information.

As I turned mine off and put it down before coming over here for this address, I was aware that Judgment Day, which some have said will happen at 6pm, has missed the other time zones.

Actually, I appreciate Paul Brandeis Raushenbush’s comment: “The more I think about the people who are placing their hope in the current end-of-the-world scheme, the less I want to laugh at them and the more I feel compassion.”

That's the kind of world my generation is handing off to you. We haven’t done such a good job with it. I'm more hopeful that you will do a better job, but I'm not ready to abdicate responsibility just yet. I don’t think that’s fair. In fact, I think it's important that your generation and my generation at least share the responsibility at this point.

Tell you what I mean. I was sitting in a lecture earlier this spring when one of the speakers said, “Yes, we've messed up this environment. But I'm very hopeful,” she said, “That the next generation coming along is going to come up with solutions.” Immediately a text came to me from one of you... It probably isn't good manners but it happened... Immediately a text came to me and it said: (and I've kept it in my iPhone:) “ Why do older folks still expect younger folks to inherit the problems and create the solutions?”

Those words are, for me, haunting, compelling and convicting. You and I share the future. Hopefully your future is going to be much longer than mine. But we enter it together: from this moment forward it is ours-together.
Your generation, my generation, and the generation of our 50 year class.

We’re connected. How then shall we live?

When faced with big questions, I usually turn to the Scriptures of my faith to see what insight and wisdom they bring.

And the gospel you just heard…It begins on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A group of disciples decide to go fishing, but they don’t catch anything. A stranger appears on the shore, inquires about their luck and instructs them to cast their nets the other side of their boat. They catch a haul of fish so large it nearly sinks their boat.

Peter recognizes the stranger as Jesus and swims to shore; the other disciples manage to get the boat and the fish to the shore. Jesus has laid out a fire so that they can make a breakfast.

The story moves on to an exchange between Peter and Jesus.

Jesus asks three times of Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter’s triple denial of Jesus a little earlier is now met with a three chances for redemption. Yes, yes, yes–”Lord, you know that I love you”–will set to right the earlier No, no, no–”don’t know the man!”

But after each question, Jesus doesn’t simply say, “OK.” Each response comes with an admonition: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter’s penance is to put his love for Jesus into concrete action.

If Jesus asks that question of us today, I have no doubt that an admonition accompanies it. “Do you love me?” Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Feed my sheep.”

But what might that mean in 2011 and beyond?

The faculty, staff and students I work with like to talk about philanthropy, direct service, and social change. Take, for instance, the soup kitchen across the street. They need to raise money in order to buy food, keep the lights on, and pay the utilities. Philanthropy. They need people to prepare and serve the meals and clean up afterward. Direct service. But the problem is this cycle can keep going on forever unless someone addresses the root causes of hunger. Why are people hungry? Is it lack of jobs? Lack of education? Addiction, a combination? What are the structures that perpetuate hunger? Who is going to challenge them? And what strategies will they use? Social change.

I like to believe that Wofford graduates have not only the capacity but also the commitment to engage in these activities. I like to believe that Wofford graduates, whatever their faith, are able and willing to respond creatively to this admonition of Jesus to feed the sheep and tend the lambs.

To be sure, sometimes we need encouragement and motivation. Joe Garagiola, former major league baseball star, tells about a time when Stan Musial came to the plate in a critical game. As a super hitter, Musial was at the peak of his career. The opposing pitcher in the game was young and nervous. Garagiola, as the catcher, called for a fastball and the pitcher shook his head; Joe signaled for a curve and again the pitcher shook him off. He then asked for one of the pitcher's specialties and still the pitcher hesitated. So Joe went out to the mound for a conference. He said, "Man, I've called for every pitch in the book; what do you want to throw?"

 "Nothing," was the pitcher's shaky reply. "I just want to hold on to the ball as long as I can.” How many of us know how that pitcher felt?

Sometimes we just want to hold on. Some of us in the academic world do that a lot—“the paralysis of analysis.”

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, can arguably be said to have begun the environmental movement. In it, she recounts the story of how birds–robins–sang each spring. But, after DDT was sprayed, about three years later, there were no robins singing. She discovered that the DDT did not immediately kill the robins. Instead, it rendered them sterile. So, there were no new robins being born. And after just a few years, there were no robins singing in the springtime. Silence. Silent Spring.

Carson was stunned, and saddened, but she did not let the crisis immobilize her. Rather she began talking and writing and challenging the status quo. The people of power tried to dismiss her because she was a woman. But she had none of it, and it didn’t work.

Sometimes a crisis can immobilize us. Silence us. But then we begin hearing an admonition, “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Speak the truth to power.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his Letter from A Birmingham Jail, now known as one of the significant documents of American history, he addressed it to eight clergy, including two Methodist bishops. One was a Wofford graduate, and the other had been your baccalaureate speaker two years earlier in 1961. He was a good and decent man who wanted the segregated South to integrate, but he was concerned–perhaps afraid-- that Dr. King was moving too quickly and wasn’t giving deference to the power structures of the day.

When he received the letter, this decent man responded defensively. Even 20 years later in his autobiography he considered that letter to be simply a propaganda piece. Now that’s sad to me, because I know this man wanted change—I had the opportunity to talk personally with him about it on at least two occasions before he died. But like many of us who find ourselves in positions of power, he thought he knew best how to effect that change.

I know this is a little complicated, but it’s an important concept for Wofford graduates to grasp because you’re likely to find yourselves in positions of power. Some of you may find that difficult to believe today, but it will happen. And when you’re trying to live a life of philanthropy, service, and social change, it is important to listen. It’s important to hear the voices of those who are impacted by the status quo. It’s important to listen. Perhaps the metaphor breaks down here but I’ll push it–it’s important to work with the lambs. Not inflict good intentions upon them, but work with them.

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with one of our graduates who is a former student body president and lives in Alabama. He was helping our Alabama students here respond to the devastation caused by the tornadoes down there. And he helped them- us-- adopt the town of Hackelberg, Alabama, population 1450–just like Wofford–a town that was devastated. Several of you have been running clothing and supply drives for Hackelberg this week, and we just mailed a check to help in some small way with their rebuilding efforts. Our alum, Anthony, works at Huntingdon College, a fellow United Methodist college in Alabama and alma mater of Harper Lee, who received the 1961 Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Anthony relayed this story to me about his students:

After learning that the Red Cross needed volunteers to help in the tornado relief efforts last week a dozen students headed to Eclectic, Alabama on Thursday right after the tornado. They worked in a warehouse sorting clothes, food, and toiletry items that had been donated for disaster response. While there, they overheard some parents discussing that their daughters had lost prom dresses among other belongings in the storm damage. Several students—including one was named Rhett Butler--I thought about leaving that out for fear you wouldn’t believe me-- Anyway, several of them mobilized a new effort: prom dress collection. They called on their friends, some of whom traveled hours to their homes to retrieve and bring back dresses for the cause. The next morning, Friday morning, these students took an estimated 120 prom-worthy dresses back to Eclectic—where the prom was scheduled for Friday night.

You’ve done so many things like that during your time here. As you leave you know there’s a world out there waiting for you—needing you. Do you love?

Feed the sheep. Tend the lambs. You can find a way!