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On Saturday, Jason Lief reflected in this space on college graduation and the twin impulses to hit the road or stay where you are. Today, at Western Theological Seminary, we watch students “hit the road” as they graduate, but it is also our version of college homecoming, where we welcome former students back.
Commencement is a grand event, and because I serve as one of the WTS vice presidents, I get to march in the processional. I’d be quite content tonight simply sitting among the assembled parents and spouses and friends, but I do have to admit I get a pretty good seat this way.
It is also our Alumni Day. (Sexist grammatical note: “alumni” is the plural of alumnus, a masculine word in Latin, and technically I should also be using alumna/alumnae throughout this article, if one follows Latin grammar when writing in English. If you are offended, please forgive me. I’m trying not to make this too cumbersome.) Because I am the seminary’s Vice President of Advancement, our class reunion luncheons and the alumni dinner are under my department. I wind up getting pretty good seats at these events, too. We will honor distinguished alumni Vicki Menning and Gordon Laman tonight at dinner, and I am sentimental enough to know I will be choked up by the stories of their long and selfless careers.
But may I tell you about two things I will be especially thinking of today?
The first concerns the class reunions. We have wonderful groups gathering for the 40- and 50-year reunions, and, for the first time, we are doing a 60-year reunion. There are some real giants in the class of ‘53, like Elton Bruins and John Hesselink, and it will be a joy to host them. Members of these classes are coming from coast to coast to be here. But there is also the 25-year reunion happening today. It is my class – the class of 1988 – and, following a trend that’s been happening for many years, there won’t be a large group gathered. Why? One could say that it is because most of the 25-year folks are still working for a living, and that would be correct, but I suspect there is something else going on. I think about midlife, and wonder if some people don’t want to come back because they aren’t at peace with how their lives and ministries are turning out. There can be more tears than laughs at the 25-year reunion. Lives in ministry were launched two and a half decades ago that are not stories of unparalleled success. There is pain, grief, and loss. Even those whom others view as great successes have harrowing stories. I imagine many prospective reunion attendees asking, “Do I want to go back and try to explain how my former church chewed me up and spit me out?” or “Do I want to go back and tell a bunch of people I haven’t seen in years about my marriage ending?”
Then there are those who left seminary and took a dramatic right turn or left turn. I am aware of folks at both ends of the political and theological spectrum of the Reformed Church that do not like us. Some of them are our alumni. I could go on a rant about people who graduate from an institution and later turn against it. They chose to come here in the first place, seemed to enjoy themselves at the time, and now have no use for us. There is something there that rubs me the wrong way, and if plied with restoratives and stimulants I could make quite a speech. But I won’t.
Anyway, there aren’t many returning from the class of ’88 today. When you invite about 50 people to your party and four of them attend (and one of them is you), it makes you wonder. I’m wondering. What should we do with the 25-year reunion? I’m not sure.
But the other thing I am thinking about is the beauty of what’s going to happen tonight. The aforementioned Drs. Bruins and Hesselink are going to participate in our graduation ceremony and help send our latest group of freshly-minted pastors out into the world. Jesus told his disciples to go out as innocent as doves and wise as serpents. The Western Theological Seminary Class of 2013 has the innocent as doves part down. I guess we’ll see in 25 years about the wise as serpents part. And I know I’ll get choked up – just like I’ll get choked up listening to the stories of our distinguished alumni at dinner – watching the graduates leave us tonight. There is something holy and sacred and breathtakingly beautiful about the whole day, the pain of it as well as the glory.