The Colgate Scene
July 2002

The courage to be

[Photo by Tom Brown]

John M. Buchanan, pastor of Chicago's historic Fourth Presbyterian Church, delivered the sermon at the baccalaureate service prior to this year's commencement. Buchanan, who also received an honorary degree, is the editor and publisher of the interdenominational journal The Christian Century. The following remarks are excerpted from Buchanan's sermon.

Commencement 2002

The culmination of an extraordinary year
The Class of 2002's time at Colgate was "marked by change" that included the turning of one century to another, the transfer of executive power in the nation's capital after an "unprecedented" election and three presidents within four years at Colgate.

The web of happy ones
International relations major Arnoldas Pranckevicius '02 is one of only 70 individuals in the world to receive the prestigious Rotary World Peace Scholarship from Rotary International.

Honoris causa
Honored at commencement with honorary doctorates were Mary Frances Berry, John M. Buchanan, E. Virgil Conway '51, Muhammad Yunus, as well as commencement speaker Charlie Rose, who cited his fellow recipients as examples to behold.

This event happens at a critical moment in our history. We are all a little bit tired of hearing September 11 referenced in every public utterance and, yet, there is truth to the over-used euphemism that we live in a very different world now. And my proposal to you this morning, in this extraordinary time, my admonition and my prayer for you is that you will respond to this moment in history and this important moment in your histories with — courage.

There is a story almost 3,000 years old that is tailor-made for the occasion. I use this story cautiously; painfully aware that there are people dying in Palestine and in Israel on the basis of this story's historical uses — geographically and politically. And I want at the outset to disassociate myself entirely from the appropriating of this story to support anybody's ideological or political agenda.

Having said that, I want to use it anyhow because there is truth in it. Not about geopolitics — but about the geography of the human heart.

Back almost on the edge of recorded history a loose federation of nomadic people had been wandering around in the desert for 40 years. And now they need to decide what to do next. It is a time of high anxiety, high potential and not a little fear. That is to say, they are not unlike the class of 2002 on graduation day.

They are standing on a hill, looking over a river, and seeing for the first time, the Promised Land — the future. For forty years they have been moving from oasis to oasis. Their liberator and leader, Moses, always pushing, prodding, pulling, scolding, teaching, not unlike a parent or professor or dean or advisor. But now he's old. It's the end of the line and he knows it. He's not going with them any further. And so he gives them a lot of last-minute advice, says the kinds of things we parents are inclined to say — you know, do your laundry, eat vegetables, get your sleep, tuck your shirt in, clean up your room. So old Moses is going on — "Do the right thing, obey the law, hold onto one another" . . . and the climax of what he says to them is this: "I call heaven and earth to witness — I have set before you life and death. Choose life so that you may live."

Someone said that if Michaelangelo had been afraid of heights, we'd have the Sistine Chapel floor There's a remarkable idea in that little sentence: that people are responsible for their future. The matter was and is in their hands now.

They have a choice to make and it will require courage — the courage to be. That is the title . . . of one the most important books of my generation, written by the late Paul Tillich, one of the most important philosophers and theologians of the last century, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Tillich wrote: "Courage, as the universal and essential self-affirmation of one's being is an ontological concept. The courage to be is the ethical act in which humans affirm their own being in spite of those elements of their existence which conflict with their essential self-affirmation."

Shakespeare said that a little more poetically and clearly: Hamlet laments, "O God! O God! How weary, stale and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world."

And then in lines that put the matter powerfully and clearly: "To be, or not to be: that is the question."

The truth is — and if you haven't discovered it yet, you will — the truth is that life sometimes knocks the courage to be out of us. Paul Tillich said, "There are elements of existence which conflict with our essential self-affirmation." What was he talking about? Well, fear, for instance. Fear of the future. Fear of failing. Fear of criticism. Fear of death. Fear causes us to give up, give in, lower our sights, expectations, hopes, [and] aspirations, and choose non-being instead of being.

And fear limits and paralyzes. Fear of failing prevents us from trying something new, stretching and risking. Children humiliated by a teacher are afraid to speak up and ask a question — sometimes for the rest of their lives. Fear of rejection keeps us from going out for the team, trying out for the part, applying for the job, saying, "I love you, I want you." Someone said that if Michelangelo had been afraid of heights, we'd have the Sistine Chapel floor.

So, in the midst of all the advice you will receive today, the good wishes for success and happenings, may I have the privilege of this challenge?

Don't be afraid. Have the courage to care passionately. Find something you care about enough to weep, and work; something to live for, something you love enough to die for.

The gift of life is given to us without condition. It is yours to live, to enjoy, to give. How you do that is a matter of courage.

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: The culmination... Next: The web of happy ones >>