A Baccalaureate Message

John 14:15-17The Message (MSG)

15-17 “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you. I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. You know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!

Lately, making rounds on the internet are college graduation speeches that are being given all across the country. Various celebrities, people who have made their mark in one way or another are being asked to share a few words of wisdom with graduating students – give them some food for thought as they step out into the future. These speeches often have a similar but compelling tone: the speeches begin with a story of some hardship or challenge the presenter had to endure or overcome, the process of how they made it through that difficulty, and then words of encouragement or tips for how the listeners can and must find ways to persevere through the challenges in their own lives.

Commencement speeches are plum full of inspiring quotes – here are some examples:

“It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. At some point you are bound to stumble. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” – Oprah Winfrey in a speech to Harvard

“Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” – Steve Jobs in a speech at Stanford

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. – Neil Gaiman in a speech at the University of the Arts

Speeches like this, given at a time of great transition – after much has been completed but also when there is much yet to come – they are powerful.

In the gospel that was read in many churches this morning from St. John – Jesus continues his own graduation speech of sorts. Although there are no caps and gowns, no diplomas, it certainly is a time of great transition. He is talking to his disciples on the night he will soon be arrested and taken away to be killed. He has much to share with them.  He is telling the disciples to continue to live and serve in his name even though he wasn’t going to be with them in the same way any longer, he encourages obedience to his commandments and speaks of the Spirit who will be with them forever.

In Greek the word for the Holy Spirit is paraclete – which can also be interpreted as Advocate or Friend or Helper, Encourager, Comforter.

The Holy Spirit is with us always – promising to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words to express, blessing us with suspicions of hope when everything else might be pointing toward desolation, calling us, shaping us, shifting us, inspiring us. And just as that Holy Spirit is with us always – it affects the way that we are present in the lives of others.

For whom in your life are you their paraclete? Who are your paracletes? Who are those people who have been there for you – helping, encouraging, comforting you on the journey? I bet some of those people are sitting beside you tonight. We need these paracletes in our lives, friends and family, mentors. These people who walk alongside us in our daily living.

About a week ago, well-known comedic actor and Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell, gave the commencement address at his alma mater, The University of Southern California, and he told a beautiful story of how his career found its seeds right there on that campus. He said he graduated from college with a degree in Sports Information and immediately moved right back home – for two solid years. He thanked his mom who was in the audience as he gave the speech. He said, “she recognized that while I had an interest in pursuing sportscasting, my gut was telling me that I really wanted to pursue something else. And that something else was comedy.”

He went on to talk about how the campus became his testing lab and theater. He was always trying to make his friends laugh. He said, “I had a work-study job at the humanities audiovisual department that would allow me to take off from time to time. By allow me, I mean I would just leave and they didn’t notice.”  Ferrell would leave his job if he knew his friends were attending class close by and he would crash a lecture in costume and character. One day a friend told him he should crash his literature class and so Ferrell put together a janitor’s outfit complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling lit cigarette, and a bucket full of cleaning supplies. He then walked into the class, interrupting the lecture, informing the professor that he’d just been sent from Physical Plant to clean up a student’s vomit.

A month later, the professor at that class, a distinguished professor named Ronald Gottesman, grabbed Ferrell by the shoulder when he was walking through campus. Ferrell said he was sure that he was going to tell him to never do that again. Instead, he told him that he loved him barging in on his class, that it was one of the funniest things he had ever seen, and would he please do it again?

So on invitation from Professor Gottesman Ferrell continued to barge in on his lecture class from time to time as the guy from Physical Plant coming by to check on things, and the professor would joyfully play along.

Ferrell said, “One time I got my hands on a power drill and I just stood outside the classroom door operating the drill for a good minute. Unbeknownst to me, Professor Gottesman was wondering aloud to his class, ‘I wonder if we’re about to get a visit from our Physical Plant guy?’ I then walked in as if on cue and the whole class erupted in laughter. After leaving, Professor Gottesman then weaved the surprise visit into his lecture on Walt Whitman and the Leaves of Grass. Moments like these encouraged me to think maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me, and this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me — to come and interrupt his class no less — was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird.”

I loved that story and how that teacher found a way to be encouraging to Will Ferrell – letting him use his own classroom as a lab to test out his comedic talents. Isn’t that great? The teacher could have been so wrapped up in himself and the material he wanted to present and the brief amount of time he had to do it and gotten upset that Ferrell interrupted – but instead he saw this young guy with talent and an opportunity for joy to be shared. You can’t schedule that. You have to be open to it and encourage it when you spot it.

It might seem a bit odd to think of this as a holy thing – and yet we get to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit when we are encouragers. When we are comforters and helpers. This is no small thing. It changes lives. It directs courses and pathways, and even if we accomplish many great things in our lives, this work of encouragement is among the finest work any of us will ever get to do.

So, my dear graduates – you have hopefully had many encouragers who have loved you and supported you and gotten you to this exciting time in your journey. And now, I pray that as you move forward through the days and months and years to come, you will remember to pay it forward. Every day, look for ways to encourage those around you. Think about uplifting words to say. Work hard to be the one who helps joyfully, who serves happily, encourages abundantly. May you, and all of us, excel at this Holy Work in Jesus’ name. God bless you always. Amen.



Fear II

I haven’t overcome Fear.

But I have befriended her.

Not right away.

Not for a long, long time.

First, I tried to hush her

Hide her

Hustle her out of the room

Ignore her

Weep over her

Pretend she didn’t exist.

But then

She stayed anyway

            Winding her cool fingers through my hair

            Crushing me in her arms so tight, too tight…

            Whispering into my breath, “listen to me, listen to me, listen to me…”

                        She was everywhere. All the time.

            Reading over my shoulder at the altar

            Squeezing into the pulpit right next to me

                        I couldn’t even see the congregation anymore

                        She covered me, claimed me, marked me as her own.

                        While I smiled my smile and worked so hard to wish and pray her away.


            Then, one day

            I wondered what might happen if

I looked her in the eye.

My companion for so long.

What might happen


            So I put my arm around her shoulder

            And said, “honey, It’s okay.

I said,

            “I see you.”

I said,

“Let’s do this together, then.”

She didn’t look so scary.

In fact, she looked just like me….

and Fear smiled a small smile and seems okay with that now

                        To quietly stick beside me.

                        To accompany me here and there.

            She doesn’t pull so hard at my shoulders and neck

            When I pay attention to her.

            Notice her.

            Admit she is

            Part of me…

            But not the boss of me.




Today was one of those Sundays where no sermon could fully be formulated until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Then, when it came, I wrote about abundance – the text was about how Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly. I asked the congregation what abundance is to them. After church one of the ladies said to me, “my answer is, ‘my life.’

So then I took my after-church-nap and when I woke up I was thinking about that.

What is abundance to me?

Abundance is:

Time with my children

Time in the sun

Time to write

Time to laugh

Time to talk to friends

Time to follow the leadings of the Spirit in my life

Time to read

Time to remember

Time to walk

Time to pray

Time to think about ideas

Having enough.

When scarcity feels far away.

To be loved

By my tribe

By myself.

Abundance is meaningful, joyful work.

Abundance is Jesus – the Jesus I know and love – the Jesus of justice and grace and hope for the poor, the marginalized, the worried, the worn-down.

Abundance is my little sunroom where I write – I have a little desk here and an old lamp, some beloved bookshelves filled plum full with gorgeous books, a map of Norway pinned to my wall, post-it notes of quotes and poems scattered around, twinkles lights on the ceiling; and my treadmill – for when I need to get my body moving because my mind has stopped moving.

Abundance is the wind in the chimes outside

The geese honking at each other in the cornfield

How my son brushed his hair out of his eyes to smile at me as he walked by just now

And my husband clinking pots and pans around in the kitchen now as he is making supper.

Abundance every which way in this life of mine. My cup runneth over.OJDQ4363

Thank you, thank you, thank you God.


The panic attacks began one sunny autumn Sunday morning shortly after I arrived at that church. Nothing unusual was happening – it was a Sunday like every other Sunday. It was during the final morning service when one moment I was reading the text, the next I felt my throat constricting and my breath slipping away. Heat rose into my chest and face and the words on the page began to swirl. I wondered if I would pass out, I could feel my heart rate accelerating, thumping in my chest. I stumbled over the words as I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to speak them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Senior Pastor. Was he looking at me? Could he tell I was freaking out? Could the congregation see how red my face was? I felt confused, frightened, and extremely ashamed that I was out of breath and faltering over my words. When the readings were over, I went back to my seat with my head held low. What was wrong with me? I went home and cried to Chad in our kitchen as I told him about the terrifying experience. He listened and gave me a hug. I hoped to God that Sunday morning had been just a strange, isolated experience.

It was only the beginning, unfortunately. Panic and anxiety began to accompany me regularly each week to worship. I researched extensively on stage fright and panic attacks and as I did, I tried every tactic I could think of to get “over it.” I quit smoking – which I knew was a good idea no matter what. I began running five miles before church each week and eventually began marathon training. I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. I would write down distracting things on my church bulletin (like the punchline of a joke, or even initial in something dirty and scandalous Chad had said to make me laugh) in hopes that if my mind got distracted with other thoughts while I was reading, I wouldn’t think about the swirling, scary thoughts that made me descend into panic: everyone looking at me, everyone listening to me, screwing up, etc. I took a Benadryl before worship – thinking that maybe if I felt drowsy that would help my heart to not race so much. I did breathing exercises, meditation and visualizations. Everything helped and nothing helped. Sometimes I could go a Sunday or two without a full-blown panic attack, but the threat of them was always there. Nothing could make the threat of them disappear and the worry wore me down. I felt like I lived constantly under the heavy shadow of what my anxiety might do to me. I was not in control of it, I could only avoid it sometimes. Even if it left me at peace for a time, I knew it would be back. It lingered like a ghost in the corner of that big brick box sanctuary – I knew eventually it would always find me again.

Have you experienced panic attacks? If so, what tools have you found to deal with them?

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