The romance of film suggests that in the large and important moments in life, suitable words should be spoken. This is especially true at times of celebration and moments of parting, and I want to be able to offer suitable, memorable and significant last words. In reality, it doesn’t always work that way. A month ago, my son was heading off to his first post-Baccalaureate job and the afternoon was arranged in preparation for his departure. However, the weather didn’t cooperate, and when a warning of imminent freezing rain and snowfall came in, suddenly we were on our way to the airport four hours ahead of schedule, and he was rather unceremoniously dropped off in a rush so that I could return home before the freezing rain picked up. And the famous last words? I’m sure they got lost in the rush.
The time at Mount Allison has ended for many students, soon to walk across the stage and receive their degrees. Convocation Weekend is such a special time of the year and having gone through more than twenty such celebrations at Mt. A, I always want to offer some suitable if not famous last words to those who are graduating and moving on. Amidst the celebrations and activities, or spending time with family and saying goodbye to friends and professors, the opportunity to speak to students individually is often lost, so perhaps this is my chance for a few last words.
I have now spent more than twenty years in ministry at Mt. A. Not all of it was ministry in the form one might assume. In addition to my ongoing role as chaplain, I served as dean of students for a couple of years. Although the work was different in many ways, it was still ministry, which—since the fourteenth century, has been understood as the performing of religious rites or providing religious services. More broadly, from the Latin ‘ministrare’ it suggests, “serve, attend, and wait upon.” Cognate forms include ‘minister,’ from the early fourteenth century as one who “acts upon the authority of another” (religiously, implying God). Of course, the related term ‘Chaplain,’ from the Medieval Latin cappellanus, denoting ‘clergy’ (the custodian of St. Martin’s cloak), specifies those who minister within institutions such as the military, hospitals and universities.
The essence of ministry distills down to one who serves, a word that, from its medieval roots connotes the rendering of aid, the giving of help. It suggests being useful, beneficial and helpful. This is the charge I would give all our graduating students; there are few who will proceed to a vocation in ordained Christian ministry, many more will follow vocational paths into law or teaching, social work or clinical psychology, medicine; some will open businesses, seek public service sector employment, work in charitable organizations, or continue on to graduate school and lives of research. In all cases, for all students, I encourage a life of service, whether religiously motivated or not. To be of service to the community, the nation and humanity. To serve, attend and wait upon the needs of the world, which are many, through any and all avenues of work. As the popular saying a few years ago suggested, to think globally and act locally—to contemplate the large needs of the world and to see the specific needs nearby.
I remember reading a story about theological students at Harvard who were preparing for the ministry. It is probably apocryphal, in the sense of not being true, but it is a good story nonetheless. The students were taking their final examination on Kant’s Moral Imperative. They were given to write their philosophy with a ten-minute break in the middle. The students wrote furiously for fifty-five minutes and when the break was announced, they went out into the hallway where someone was slumped on the floor, disheveled and in tears. The theological students were busy in conversation with each other, getting a drink of water, taking a bathroom break. They returned for the second part of the exam on what it meant to be a moral human being. Later, the students received their test results: they had all failed. While they had assumed that the test had been written in the classroom, the professor had stood out in the hallway during the ten-minute break and graded them on their response to the person in need in the hallway and who had offered kind words. Nobody did, and nobody passed.
The task is not to be so focused on what we want to achieve for ourselves that we forget the world and its people around us. My last words, then, are those made famous by American author and poet, Maya Angelou. She speaks in words for us all, but perhaps particularly to those who serve in ministry and especially in the vocation of ordered religious ministry. Certainly, her words speak to everyone who will work with people and will at times have such brief contact with them: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” My last words, then, to all of our graduates: live your lives in ministry, service, giving of yourself in the name of something greater than yourself and always, always, be kind to everyone you meet. Be kind.
Congratulations and best wishes; I will watch for what you do and what you become, through stained glass.