Monday, May 5, 2008

Easter 7A

Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. (John 17: 7-8)

I think that it's weird that commencement addresses take place at the end of an academic year as opposed to at the beginning of a term. Commence means to initiate or to start something. Its etymology emerges from the Vulgar Latin word cominitiare (to initiate/consecrate as priest).

Nonetheless, schools and colleges across the country are concluding their academic sessions and we're entering a season of commencement addresses. It's true that collegiate graduates are leaving school to begin new adventures, initiate their professional careers, or commence graduate studies. It's consequently important for commencement speakers to offer their listeners, especially graduates, a knowledge-laden message offering a vision and hope for the future. The question I processed regarding this subject was what commencement wisdom would I offer the Episcopal Campus Ministry Community and its graduating students as we concluded our 07'/08 academic year activities.

I found myself thinking about the meaningfulness of knowledge, specifically what it means to know something, someone, or God as a faithful Christian. Philosophers and historians credit the ancient philosopher Socrates with providing the founding principles and disciplines for Western civilization's philosophical studies. Plato quotes Socrates as saying, The unexamined life is not worth living. This foundational principle provides a framework for the "Socratic method." Lawyers, therapists, organizational development consultants, and other professionals use this dialectic method to explore difficult questions in an effort to explore complicated situations. Participants may discover that a dilemma does not in fact possess a simplistic answer and/or they may be exploring the wrong hypothesis or "truth."

Socrates provides contemporary students a means for understand their values. Individuals may use the Socratic method to discover the reasons they hold the personal beliefs they do. Elizabeth Garrett writes:

The Socratic Method places some responsibility on students to think about the questions silently and participate actively on their own; the element of surprise provides a powerful incentive for them to meet that responsibility. ... The objective is to inculcate in students the habit of rigorous and critical analysis of the arguments that they hear, as well as the practice of assessing and revising their own ideas and approaches in light of new information or different reasoning.
I would hope that students would practice the Socratic method in an effort to not only learn more about themselves, the law, or their professional problems but to benefit other peoples' lives as well. However, undertaking the energy it takes to live an examined life" does not necessarily imply that the student's efforts will impact anyone else in any way. I can learn the basis for my personal questions, values, and behaviors and never take what I have learned from my lifelong learning achievements to benefit someone else.

For example, I recently returned to visit the hallways of my High School. I was an outgoing, musically gifted, fairly smart teenager. I had a relatively solid tennis game. I was also a closeted gay teenager. I "knew" that I found guys more attractive than girls but I did not "know" why I was such a person. This crisis was the beginning of a lifelong, personal Socratic exploration into understanding the reasons for my sexual orientation and how my orientation shapes me as a human being and as an Episcopal Priest. I would note that I, for the most part, examined the questions I uncovered during High School without Organized Christianity's influence. My learning was also principally self-centered and motivated. I have had many friends, Christians and otherwise, who have dialectically engaged me in this process. I'm thankful for their encouragement and support. They have helped me to understand myself more fully. I am learning what it means to be an openly gay person. It can be and has at times been a rather self-centered/focused endeavor.Thus, for all of its worth, the Socratic Method is not the best method for gaining knowledge, at least not for religious people, and specifically not for Christians because it principally values the student, not the students' peers or contemporaries.

Luke's Jesus commands his followers to Love God and to Love their Neighbors as themselves with all heart, soul, strength, and mind. This commandment requires Christians to enter into a lifelong process of coming to know God and their neighbors as much as they know their own situation. It is impossible, according to Jesus' commandment in Luke, to be a self-involved Christian. We are responsible for knowing God. The Greek term that John used for knowing in Chapter 17 is "ginosko." εγνωκαν implies that a Christian disciple must intimately come to know (perceive) God and Jesus Christ. We cannot in fact achieve eternal life without coming to know God in the deepest sense of this word. We cannot achieve eternal life without experiencing God's wisdom and compassion outside of a process to know our neighbors, their fears, hopes, problems, and gifts. Thus, a Christian's vocation begins and ends with living an examined life. The examination method requires us to know ourselves but we cannot know ourselves without knowing God and God's purpose for us. We believe that God sent Jesus to us to offer us The Way to God. We know that this Christian endeavor is learned and examined within the context of praying and acting upon God's wisdom within Christian communities. We have to look under the scariest stones where the worms reside. Why? Because God is there in the shadows of our fears. We have to explore what brings us joy and share such joy with our neighbors. Why? Because God's presence is there in the Christ-like compassion existing in them. The examined Christian life is a life of sacrificial service to one's friends and enemies alike.

This past Saturday I attended the Diocese of Arizona's Day of Discernment. I attended this session four years ago as an aspirant. There was a breakout session with the bishop in the room where the Commission on Ministry interviewed me regarding my postulancy for the priesthood. I reflected upon my experiences in 2004 and 2005 when I was proceeding through the ordination process and where I am today. I know more about living as a priest. Back then, I thought I "knew" what it meant to be a priest. I had a lot of book knowledge about the canonical requirements for being a priest. I had studied a good deal about liturgy, pastoral counseling, Anglican History and Christian theologies. I engaged myself in Socratic opportunities to learn about the priesthood. I now know that I didn't know too much about being a priest. I am still perceiving what it means to "be" a priest.

I have learned through my service as the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Arizona that priests come to know the meaning of their call through the people they interact with on a daily basis. We come to know our purpose through learning with God in prayer and meditation. We know God through the intimate, sometimes frightening, sometimes joyous, sometimes boring interactions we share with the people God sends to us each day. We know God through Christ's presence in the people who sit or stand in front of us. I've come to know that I cannot "know" God, my neighbors, or myself with sure certainty. The mystery of God is present in questions without answers and questions leading to further questions. The certainty of God's love is undeniable when we demonstrate the faith to live into the questions of Christian priesthood in the secular and holy moments of each day.

My commencement message is to beckon listeners and readers to undertake the arduous, sometimes frightening but all-ways rewarding journey of living an examined life. Begin and end with God's help and Christ's resurrective love. Learn to Love God while Learning to Love One another. Realize that everything that we can know resides in the real and unseen existence of the Word of God, Jesus the Christ. It is more than worth it. The dialectic search for wisdom and compassion will indeed bear fruit. Eternal life is possible, in the here and now with and through the process of "Knowing."

Blessings Along the Way,