In addition to Prof. Bramsen’s invocation yesterday morning, one other HiPPos professor spoke during this spring’s Commencement ceremonies at Bethel: historian Chris Gehrz, who was asked to deliver the address at Friday night’s Baccalaureate worship service for graduates and their families. The text for the evening was Colossians 3:12-17.

Greetings to parents, grandparents, and families, and congratulations to the Class of 2022! You’re almost there — by this time tomorrow, you’ll be enjoying all the rights and responsibilities that come with a bachelor’s degree.

But before you get to Commencement, you might be wondering why a history professor is speaking to you. Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that President Allen has decided that you all need to complete one last CWC lecture. I told him I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea, but he insisted. So for the next 70 minutes I’ll be talking to you about St. Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen, Pietism, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The good news is that I’m totally kidding.

No CWC, no lecture… but you still have a history professor up on stage. While Commencement is all about starting the future, it did seem like a good idea to spend some time at Baccalaureate thinking about the past. As you well know, your graduating class is a particularly special one: not just because each class is special in its way, but because your commencement marks the end of Bethel’s 150th anniversary year.

It’s been a busy year to be a Bethel historian… when I write or speak about Bethel history, I tend to focus on famous individuals — presidents like our founder John Alexis Edgren or Carl Lundquist or George Brushaber, who died last December — or landmark events — like the move from Chicago to St. Paul in 1914, from St. Paul to Arden Hills in 1972. And no doubt, those are important moments in our story. They’ve made us who we are today.

But they’re not the only moments. So tonight I want to approach Bethel’s history differently: more personal, more intimate even. I want us to think about how our stories intersect with Bethel’s story.

Let me start with a visual metaphor, one that a few of you may remember from our department’s Intro to History class. It comes from C.S. Lewis, the great English Christian writer, who once said that the past was like a waterfall — or, in his words, a cataract.

Maybe like this waterfall, to be specific: Angel Falls in Venezuela, one of the tallest in the world, over half a mile high.

Creative Commons (Paulo Capiotti)

First, Lewis said that the past was like a waterfall because it rushes by, then vanishes from sight into the mists below. The present is here, then gone. Everything about your college experience that once seemed so fresh in your memory — the exuberance of Welcome Week, the joy of meeting your best friend or future spouse — it too will start to fade.

So we need to put in work in order to recover the past before it disappears: to remember it, to preserve it, to make sense of it and interpret it. Let me encourage you to find ways to do this with your own story of Bethel: stay connected with friends and mentors; visit campus once in a while, and maybe not just at Homecoming; maybe even look back through a paper or presentation on a rainy day.

Commence your future, but don’t forget your past.

Lewis’ waterfall analogy comes from a 1950 essay on “Historicism”

Second, Lewis said that the past is like a waterfall because something this impossibly vast is composed of something impossibly small. Staggering and sublime as this waterfall is, it’s ultimately nothing more than billions upon billions of molecules of a simple chemical compound.

Likewise, the past is composed of billions upon billions of individual moments in individual lives.

And that includes the turning points I usually talk about when I talk about Bethel’s history. Imagine that this waterfall is Bethel’s past…

We look to the bottom and see a Swedish immigrant named John Alexis Edgren in 1871, founding a tiny Baptist seminary in the embers of the Great Chicago Fire. Then a little higher up, it’s 1914 and the railroad baron James J. Hill is writing a $10,000 check to let Bethel start its campus by the State Fairgrounds. Above that it’s 1943, the middle of another world war, and a young man from Kansas named LeRoy Gardner becomes the first African American to attend Bethel — at the same time that six Japanese Americans left the camps where they’d been interned by their own government to study at the same institution. Then it’s the early 1960s, and President Carl Lundquist is praying about whether or not to buy the dynamite testing grounds where we’re now standing… Or, closer to the top, the construction of this beautiful Great Hall in the 1990s, or even more recently, a walk-off win in the NCAA softball regionals.

Most of the moments that make up Bethel’s past are much less famous, but no less important. Most of Bethel’s waterfall consists of moments in the lives of relatively anonymous people like us: thousands of students, and hundreds of faculty and other employees.

So as a way to practice remembering before you leave this place… let me encourage you to pause and try to see yourself in this waterfall, in Bethel’s past. Think back over your experience of Bethel.

Now, imagine a key moment from your years here, perhaps a “turning point” that sums up your experience in your memory. Close your eyes if it helps, but one way or another try to visualize details: what are you doing, what’s happening around you, where are you, who’s with you… I’ll try to prompt a bit if a moment hasn’t already leapt to mind:

Maybe it’s the moment when you first started to make your faith your own… not something to be inherited from godly parents or repeated from well-meaning pastors, but a faith that has come through honest questioning and even doubt and come out the other side ready to sustain you and give you purpose and meaning as a beloved child of God. Maybe it’s a moment when you first started to make your faith your own.

Or maybe it’s the moment when you first heard God’s call on your life… maybe you were on an education field experience or a missions trip in Appalachia, or playing a sport or rehearsing a play, or sitting in a lecture or just reading a book, and you heard a voice like thunder or a voice like a whisper pierce the noise of this world and say, “This is who you are and who you’re becoming. You have a gift, a passion, an ability that can glorify me and do good for your neighbors. Your deepest gladness can meet the world’s deepest hunger, and here’s how.” Maybe you’re thinking of a moment when you heard God’s call on your life.

But maybe it’s a moment when your path forward seemed clear… until you stumbled. Maybe you struggled with an organic chemistry test, or you didn’t get the internship you wanted, or you struggled to follow the apostle Paul’s advice and bear with someone or forgive them (Col 3:13) and a relationship suffered… Maybe you’re thinking of a moment when you fell short, or you did something that felt like failure… but someone picked you up, challenged you to try again, and then supported you when you did. You tried, and you succeeded; then you tried something harder, and you grew and grew, becoming more and more the person God made you to be.

Maybe it’s simply a moment when you met Jesus, or saw him with new eyes. Maybe here in Chapel or during Shift, but maybe you saw him in an art studio or a science lab, as the Word by whom all that is was created… or you saw Jesus in a European history class or a social work practicum or a nursing clinical where you found him in the midst of suffering or injustice, weeping with those who weep or turning over tables.

Or maybe somewhere you caught a glimpse of his resurrection dawn, as hope and love prevailed over fear, despair, and hatred.

The moment I’ve been thinking about the past week took place in March 2003. I was on campus to interview for a job. I was fighting a fever, but we didn’t quarantine, mask, or distance back in those days, so I went from interview to interview, teaching event to teaching event. And while I didn’t know the first thing about being a Christian college professor, I started to hear something like a voice. At the end of each hour, I felt someone or something telling me, “You belong here. You belong here.” Halfway through the visit, I knew God was calling me to Bethel.

Stacey and Chris, 2008
Stacey and Chris at Bethel’s 2008 Commencement

Now, it wasn’t like I literally heard God speak to me… but one voice sticks out in my memory of those two days: the voice of Stacey Hunter Hecht, who taught political science at Bethel for almost twenty years. She was on the Appointments committee, and she clearly had decided that I was going to get and accept the job, because halfway through that meeting, she just started telling me where to buy a house, which church to go to, which mechanic to use… Five months later, I was moving into my office, kitty corner from hers, and she was showing me the ropes — something she did for the next twelve years on a daily basis, as we became not just colleagues but close friends.

We don’t have the time to sum up what Stacey meant to me. All I can do is share what I said after she died from cancer in December 2015, at the memorial service we held in the former seminary chapel, what’s now the big classroom in Lakeside Center:

While Stacey liked to think of herself as perpetually seeing the glass half empty, she actually lived life in profound hope. Not hope as some kind of world-denying, wait-for-heaven sedative, but hope as a stubborn determination to leave Creation a bit less fallen than she found it. “I like Political Science,” she wrote, “because it suggests to me that it might be possible to fix some of the messes of this world”… 

Most of all, Stacey lived in the hope that what we do as teachers, mentors, and advisors matters — that the impact of our lives on those of our students is not negligible. That even on our worst days… God gives us the potential to help students see him, themselves, and others anew, to hear a calling, to be changed and to change the world.

Almost none of you here knew Stacey, but I suspect that each of you got to know someone at Bethel who means as much to you as she did to me. In fact, I’d bet that when most of you thought of your Bethel moment, you imagined someone else there with you: if not a professor, then a coach or a campus pastor, an RA or a work-study supervisor, a mentor, a friend, or Geetha wishing you “good lunch” at the DC.

And that’s as it should be. Because if Carl Lundquist, our longest-serving president, was right, then a Bethel education has much less to do with facilities and equipment and spaces and curriculum and classes, and everything to do with what he called “the impact of one life upon another.” So it was for me with Stacey; so it probably was for you.

But here’s the thing… let’s go back to our visual metaphor.

Waterfalls run by gravity. To keep Angel Falls crashing down, nothing is needed besides Newtonian physics.

Bethel doesn’t work that way. We don’t run on gravity, but grace and gratitude.

The only thing that keeps these moments happening, the only thing that keeps lives impacting lives is God’s grace. Bethel remains Bethel as the future becomes the present and the present enters the past because God pours out his tender mercy and sends forth his abundant love through all the people who support and sustain us: faithful Christians who have prayed for us; employees like Stacey who have given decades of their lives to us; parents like those in this hall who have entrusted faculty like me with the education of the most precious people in their lives.

Above all, what keeps our waterfall moving is the group of people who make up the reason for our existence: our students. You.

And so tonight I find it easier than usual to do what the apostle exhorts all Christians to do: to be thankful (Col 3:15-17). In this last chance for me to encourage you to let Jesus’ message of unearned, unlimited love dwell richly in you, I sing to God with gratitude in my heart.

And as Bethel recedes into your past and your future comes into view, let me charge you to do whatever you have been called to do in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Amen.

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