“Get a Life”

J. Cameron West, President of the College
Huntingdon College
Montgomery, Alabama May 4, 2012

Scripture Lessons: Matthew 5.1-12; Matthew 5.13-16

Good afternoon!

The Baccalaureate service goes back eight centuries, to the mid-1200’s at the University of Cambridge in England. This chapel, by the way, is modeled architecturally on a chapel at Cambridge. So as you sit here today, you are connected in every way to true greatness of spirit, true greatness of design, true greatness of learning and life.

The word, “baccalaureate,” is derived from two Latin words, “bacca,” meaning berry, and “laureus,” meaning laurel, and may well refer to the crown of laurel with which a new graduate was once crowned. So think of yourselves as royalty, as women and men who have been given great power as the result of your experience here over the last several years. You may not be wearing a crown of laurel today, like John Belushi wore in Animal House. But you are wearing your Huntingdon hood to signify the bachelor’s degree you will be granted tomorrow morning. By noon tomorrow, you will have been granted access to power that, in the state of Alabama, is the province of only one-out-of-five adult citizens.

George Herbert Walker Bush, when he was inaugurated the 41st president of the United States on January 20, 1989, said that his first act as president would be a prayer about how to use power. Today, as you embark on a life of power, I begin my Baccalaureate to you with President Bush’s prayer. Let us pray:

“Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Amen.”

The title of this Baccalaureate sermon is, “Get a Life.”

“Tell me how to get a powerful life,” a brilliant student graduating from college asked her teacher one day just before Graduation Weekend. In response, the teacher reached into her bottom desk drawer and pulled out a cup, which she handed to her student. Then the teacher invited her student down to the departmental lounge, where she brewed a pot of tea. Taking the teacup from her student’s hand, the teacher started pouring tea into the cup. She kept pouring tea into the cup even when it began to overflow. Finally the student reached out her hand: “Stop pouring; it’s full, the cup is full.” So the teacher stopped pouring and said to the young woman: “You’re right. Your cup is full. You are full. You will begin to get a powerful life only when you are empty. Come back to me when you are empty, and I will show you how to get a powerful life.”

I remember the first day on my long journey to a powerful life. It was the day I learned I was empty. For me, it was not on my college graduation weekend. I was in the fifth grade when I learned I was empty, and my lesson came when I did something that showed me just how empty I really was.

I had entered the fifth grade thinking I was full, and I was pretty full. I was full of it. I was full of myself. Good grades, popular with my teachers, popular with my fellow students—I thought I had it made. I had indulged, at age 10, the biggest appetite in human life. John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote two centuries ago that “no appetite in human nature is more universal than that for honor (Diggins, John Adams, p. 15).” And despite the fact that in his life Adams served not only one term as president but also two terms as George Washington’s vice president and as a co-author of the Declaration of Independence—not to mention that he fathered the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams—despite all of this honor, “throughout his life he was insecure about his reputation and he hungered after recognition and distinction. To be noticed, admired, and esteemed, Adams felt, was the ruling passion not just of himself but of human nature in general (Diggins, p. 10).”

Well, at age 10 I was on my way to fulfilling John Adams’ view of human nature. At age 10 I was consumed with being popular. Age age 10 I equated being popular with being powerful. I had it made. I was full. I was full of myself. I was full of it.

But then two boys began to challenge my view of myself as top dog. Alan Cooke and Johnny Little started getting as much attention as I did from our teachers, from the other guys in class, even from girls. They began to be chosen first at our softball games during recess more often than I was chosen first. They were elected to the Student Council offices to which I had always been elected. Suddenly, I did not have it made, after all. I was not as powerful as I had thought I was, or as I wanted to be.

When you have it all (or so you think), and then all of a sudden you don’t have it all any more, what does it take to get it all back? In my case, I decided that the way to bring myself up a notch back to the top of the ladder and back into power was to push someone living down the ladder even further down. Here’s what I did.

A classmate named Stanley—slow of mind, slow of speech, slow of body—Stanley had always been the butt of almost everyone’s teasing to his face and the butt of almost everyone’s jokes behind his

back. Almost everyone, that is, because I had never joined in the ridicule. Stanley and I got along; I was his friend … that is, until I needed to look better in the eyes of a crowd. So I became Stanley’s chief tormentor. In my 10-year-old mind and heart—even at that young age—I knew that the way back to power was having myself look clever through my teasing and my jokes about Stanley.

Finally one day my wise fifth grade teacher, Mary Lib Webb, saw what was happening and after recess told me to go down to the sickroom and wait for her. My heart sank. I knew without having to be told that I had been found out. Thirty minutes later, in she walked with my father; and she laid out the whole sorry story for my dad to hear. Of course, I denied it all; but as I left school for the day in tears— sent home by Mrs. Webb to think about it all—I knew everything Mrs. Webb had told my dad was
true. I cried until I could cry no more. My cup was empty. I was empty. And that day was the first day on my lifelong journey to a powerful life.

On that day when I realized my cup was empty, I began to understand that I had sacrificed my better self to the god of ill-defined power, of false power—living for the approval of others, saying what they wanted to hear me say, doing what pleased them—all to make myself look good in their eyes, and all at the expense of another human being, my friend, Stanley. And in sacrificing my better self, I had emptied myself of the character God had given me—a character marked by joy, generosity, friendship, kindness, self-control. Thank God for my teacher, Mary Lib Webb. She found me out. She showed me how empty I had become. And through the rest of my life, when I have started to slip back into worrying about what it takes to be admired, noticed, popular, honored—in a word, what passes for being powerful—I remember Mrs. Webb and what she did for me that day 50 years ago.

“Fortunate are you who are poor in spirit,” Jesus said on the mountain to his disciples. Or in the idiom of our first Scripture lesson: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” That
means: fortunate are you who are willing:

to let yourself be corrected by a word from God, to reexamine your views,
to believe you haven’t yet understood a thing, to be taken by surprise,
to have your mind changed, to see your convictions,
your principles, your tidy systems
and everything you took for granted swept out from under you,
and to face the fact, once and for all,
that there’s no such thing as life happening automatically, and that God can ask anything.
(From Louis Evely, “That Man Is You,” altered, p. 64)

One day 12 years before I graduated from college, I discovered that I was at the end of my rope, poor in spirit; that I was empty; that I had lost it all—my popularity (who’s popular who gets banished to the sick room when he isn’t sick?), my self-respect (how could I hold my head up in front of my dad and, even more embarrassingly, in front of my friend, Stanley?), and my purpose for living (what else was there, in my fifth-grade mind and heart, to give meaning to life, other than the power of being the greatest in everyone else’s eyes?).

But I also began to discover that day when I was 10 years old a lesson I’ve had to learn many more times in my life when I have come up empty. I have discovered that, ironically, we are fortunate when we’ve lost it all, because God is always there to fill the empty cup. I have discovered that wanting to be powerful, honored, esteemed above everything and everyone else is not good, for wanting to be all of that above everything else closes our ear to God and to those around us. It puts us on the wrong path. I have discovered that the question, “What does it take to be on the top rung of the ladder?” is a foolish question that reveals a foolish reason for living life. Better, far better, to ask: “What does it take to be true to the way God would have me live? How can my character become more like God’s character?”

God is powerful. What is God’s power like? How can I align my life with that kind of life? Those are the real questions.

As I said earlier in this Baccalaureate sermon, I began to learn these lessons when I was just a boy—10 years old—but, being a little slow, I have to be reminded of these lessons as a grown man, even up until and through this very week. Just ask my wife and my daughter and my son. They’ll tell you. The late English man of letters Graham Greene—you may have read him in a literature class—Graham Greene wrote in an essay that “in the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.” In other words the man, Judas, began to learn how to betray his friends when he was a boy. Graham Greene is right. If we are honest with ourselves we who are adults can look back over our lives and see the seeds of almost all of our adult behaviors planted in our childhood, in our adolescence, in our young adulthood.

Which gives us great hope for you young lives we celebrate today at your Baccalaureate, at your crowning with the hood of power which you are wearing around your necks and down your backs. If you graduates can learn that the first and greatest blessing is to recognize when you are poor in spirit, to recognize when you are empty and powerless, then you can also learn how to be made full and powerful by receiving what God wants to give you—a great and honorable life of power marked by generosity, sacrificial friendship, patience, kindness, joy, self-control. Learning that lesson as young men and women, you will be able to live it out when all of the seductive voices you will hear in the years ahead try to draw you away from what you have been created by God to be. As the Quaker spiritual writer Richard Foster has written, so I leave with you today: “The less we are mesmerized by human voices, the more we are able to hear the Divine Voice. The less we are manipulated by the expectations of others, the more we are open to the expectations of God.”

And so, my young friends, get a life.

Let us pray:

Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: “Use power to help people.” For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Amen.

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