“What Do You Do When the World Explodes Around You?”

J. Cameron West, President of the College
Baccalaureate May 3, 2013
Huntingdon College Montgomery, Alabama

Scripture Lesson: John 21.1-19

At 2:49 PM, Eastern Daylight Time, April 15, on Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts—yards shy of the Boston Marathon finish line—the world exploded around thousands of people. Bill Iffrig, age 79, from Lake Stevens, Washington, was knocked to the street by the force of the first bomb blast just 15 feet away from finishing the race. Perhaps you’ve watched the incredible video of Mr. Iffrig falling to the pavement as the bomb went off. Three police officers rush up to him, drawing their guns, while on one elbow he props himself up and stares at them.

What we do not see in that video is a race official helping Mr. Iffrig up and walking with him across the finish line. “First thing (when) I got up, I said, ‘There’s the line up there; I can get that far.”

“After you’ve run 26 miles you’re not going to stop there.”

What do you do when the world explodes around you? In Boston that day, an official of the Marathon helped Bill Iffrig off the pavement, onto his feet, and across the finish line. Would Bill Iffrig have made it to the finish line without someone’s help?

Would a young, 27 year-old spectator whose leg was severed at the knee in the bombing have lived if not for the efforts of the now famous Man in the Cowboy Hat — Costa Rican immigrant (who was once an illegal) Carlos Arredondo — who loaded him into a wheelchair and pushed him through the confusion to an ambulance? Would the wounded man have lived without the help of Carlos Arrendondo?

How many people would have died had pediatrician Dr. Natalie Stavis, age 32, who

was running in the Marathon, not abandoned the race when the bombs exploded, broken free of police officers who were trying to restrain her as she rushed toward the carnage, cried out — “I’m a pediatric resident, and I am going to help these people” — and then done just that? How many would have died had Dr. Natalie Stavis not run to someone, then someone else, then someone else, in need of a doctor?

What do you do when the world explodes around you?

I chose the Biblical story read by Mr. Betts and Dr. Rudolph for your Baccalaureate Service because this story offers a wise answer to that question: “What do you do when the world explodes around you?” The world had exploded around the disciples when Jesus was crucified. Simon Peter, Nathanael, James and John, and two others responded to the explosion by retreating into themselves as if their time with Jesus had never happened. Then Jesus appeared on the beach and told them that — for their lives to have meaning — they needed to reach out in concrete, specific, visible acts of grace. “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” “Follow me.”

“What you saw me doing, do yourself. Visit those who are lonely. Make sure those who are hungry have something to eat, those who have hardly anything to wear have clothes. Walk down the hall, next door, down the street to those who are new in your residence hall, on your block, in your neighborhood and make sure they feel welcome. Oh, and maybe the hardest one of all: If that guy in the office next to you ends up in prison for covering up embezzlement when he audits the books at a business, if that girl in the room next to you gets kicked out of school for breaking into your cluster and stealing electronics, don’t forget them. Call them. Go see them. They are still human beings.”

The world explodes around us every day. People hurt … and are hurt around us every day. In Alabama—the world most of you came from and the world to which most of you will return—in Alabama more new babies die than in all but four other states in the Union; more children go to bed hungry than in any other state of the Union; more people than in any other state of the Union do not have enough money to clothe their families adequately, provide them a decent house, serve them a balanced and nutritious meal. In Alabama, in Sweet Home Alabama, the Skies Are Blue; but the world also explodes … people hurt … people are hurt … every day.

This is the world into which you “go forth,” to use the words of the College motto engraved beside the front door of Flowers Hall. We walk into these doors so that we may be prepared to go forth from these doors, to walk back out of these doors, and act wisely. I like to think that you have learned to act wisely here. When all is said and done, that’s why you’ve been at Huntingdon. Such has been the purpose of your life for these last two, or three, or four, or five, or six years: to learn how to act wisely, generously, caringly; to learn how to act boldly, courageously, daringly.
Has your work at and for Common Ground, the Family Sunshine Center, SaveFirst, the Arthritis Foundation’s Jingle Bell Run, Floyd Elementary School, MANE, Make-a-Wish, Operation Christmas Child, Children’s Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Canal Street Church in New Orleans, Montgomery Area Food Bank, Tuskegee home repair days, Adapted Sport Days with special needs students — Has your work’s purpose been just to earn service hours for the organizations to which you belong, or to fulfill class requirements, or to make your resumes look good? Has that what your work has been about? Certainly your work has accomplished these things, but your work has been designed for a deeper, dare we say divine purpose. Service hours, and credit hours, and sharp resumes are means to an end. The service work you have done here has been your training ground for life in a world that explodes every day and that leaves people on the pavement needing someone to help them stand up. Your service work here has been the laboratory for learning a wisdom that God gives you to apply on the day when you go forth from here: Tomorrow, May 4, 2013.

The only real question by which, in the end, I can measure my life and by which my life will be measured by God is this: “Cam, did you care? Cam, what specifically did you do to show that you cared? Cam, how did you respond to human need — to the lonely, to the old man down the street whose wife died last year; to those cut off from everyday human relationships because of their misdeeds; to those without enough food to eat; to those without any decent clothes to wear; to those who were new at the job, in town, on the street. Cam, what did you do when, every day, the world exploded around you and people needed you to run toward them as if their very lives depended on your doing just that: Running toward them?”

“Cam, what did you do?”

My friends, Class of 2013; what do you do, what will you do, when the world explodes around you?

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. (Francis of Assisi, Italy, 13th century)

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