College presidents consider themselves fortunate to have one wise person speaking to their graduates at Commencement. This year at Houghton, we had the good fortune of having two such speakers: Dr. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, delivered the formal Commencement address; Dr. Carolyn Paine Miller spoke briefly in response to receiving the Houghton Medal—an award made at Commencement to someone who, over the course of a lifetime of service, has embodied the Houghton mission to “lead and labor as scholar-servants” in the name of Christ in the challenging global circumstances of the 21st century.
Both speakers spoke passionately about the work to which God has called them; Dr. Beckman about the advocacy work of Bread for the World, which combats hunger and extreme poverty in this country and around the world; Dr. Miller about the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators, which seeks to provide the written word of God in the first language of every people group on the planet. Both challenged the graduates that their involvement could truly make a difference over the next several decades, in eradicating hunger and extreme poverty in our world in this century, and in delivering the written scriptures to the remaining 1600 people groups who do not currently have the word of God in their own language. (You can learn more about each organization at their websites, www.bread.org. or www.wycliffe.org .)
I am guessing that to many in the audience these speakers represented two rather different approaches to doing God’s work in the world. Some may even have been more sympathetic to one over the other. I wish everyone could have heard the lively conversation that followed at lunch. We learned that Dr. Beckmann and his wife had at one time considered going into Bible translation. We also heard Dr. Beckmann and Dr. Miller speak about the areas where their respective work overlaps in promoting the freedom and wholeness that God intended in His good creation. Both Bible translation and meeting the basic physical needs of those in poverty promote the empowering work of literacy and strengthen the family structure. Both Bread for the World and Wycliffe Bible Translators find that much of their work is with ethnic minorities who, for one reason or another, have been disadvantaged by the political arrangements of their respective countries. We also had the opportunity to hear from recent Houghton graduates about how their time at Houghton has led them to pursue a future with one of these organizations.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for Houghton’s large vision of how God works in the world. In fact, this vision is at the very root of the Wesleyan Methodist revival and social reform movement that gave birth to Houghton College in the 1880s. In the writings of our founder, Willard J. Houghton, we see his clear vision that the Holy Spirit’s work is one work—bringing healing and wholeness to bodies and minds as well as hearts and spirits, and bringing restoration and reconciliation to communities as well as individuals. Somehow that whole and hopeful message of holiness got lost in the “religious wars” of America’s early 20th century.
Today, here at Houghton, despite our best efforts to see God’s work whole, there are still hints of this tension. Some students consider the work of “missions” as closer to the heart of God than the work of “social justice”—and vice versa. As I think about our politically and theologically bifurcated world, I know very well that Bread for the World would be more welcome on campuses of our nation, even some Christian campuses, than the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators. I also know that that Wycliffe Bible Translators would be much more welcome on some Christian college campuses of our country than Bread for the World.
I am glad that Houghton is rooted in a tradition that makes room for both. When students come to Houghton, they are offered a large vision of how God works in our world and how He might want to use their gifts. Our graduates will go out and serve in a full range of organizations on the Christian and humanitarian spectrum. Wherever on the continuum they end up serving, I am convinced they will serve more effectively because they have been nourished in a context that recognizes the full range of ways that God’s Spirit is working to bring redemption, reconciliation and restoration to our world.
May God continue to teach us what it means to love Him and to love our neighbor with all that we are and with all that we have.
Grace and Peace to you today.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976