A Communion of Words: 2016 Convocation Address

The 2016-2017 academic year officially launched with the annual Convocation ceremony at St. Mark’s cathedral, where our entire community gathered to affirm and reaffirm our commitment to the culture and mission of The Seattle School. Here, we’re featuring a video snapshot of the first week of our new year, followed by the 2016 Convocation address from Dr. Keith Anderson, President of The Seattle School, who celebrated the vibrant, diverse, and defiant acts of belief that are at the heart of everything we do.


I stand before you aware that today is a pivot point in human history. I wonder if you believe that along with me. Today is a pivot point in human history—a moment alive with trembling possibility, a moment literally filled with something we do not yet know. So, at The Seattle School, we make sure not to rush into or past such a moment blindly. Instead, like ancient Israel we mark the beginning of a new academic year in sacred assembly with ceremony, symbolic actions, and also with the sacrament of words. We start by bringing together past and future into this present moment; we bring together alumni and new students, along with faculty, staff, and continuing students in a sacred time of convocation. We mark this pivot point with a ceremony of words and sacrament.

But I wonder, he says, musing out loud from a very tall pulpit very far away from where you all sit, I wonder: words, stories, symbols of reality, sacraments, and icons—do they matter anymore? Our culture doesn’t stand in lines for ceremonies like this as they do for concerts, political rallies, or trivial events with celebrities. Do ceremonies of words still matter?

On my worst days I wonder if my words, our words, make any difference at all. On most days, however, I remember I stand in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses—scribes, artists, preachers, elders, mentors, and teachers whose words changed me, shaped me, challenged me, undid me, took away certainty, and called out from me convictions of steel.

“There is a communion,” someone said. It is not words alone that transform us but words within a communion—a people in time and place that honor words, ideas, concepts, and maybe even truth. Present to us in the words of education, there is a story to be investigated, explored, and met in conversation of soul—we go deep because we believe something, no, someone larger than we ourselves inhabits the story.

Keith-Anderson1-300x200I sat in Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago and listened for the first time, to “The Resurrection” by Mahler. I couldn’t predict what would happen nor could I anticipate how I would be propelled into emotion by the second movement. It became, for me, a spiritual encounter—I am quite sure I stopped breathing at more than one point. Was it the genius of the composer, the brilliance of the orchestra or superb skill of the conductor? Of course, yes, to each of these, but I do not for an instant believe that was all. In that moment there was a communion—I can think of no better way to say it. For an instant in the upper balcony on Michigan Avenue, we became the visited planet. Carrie Newcomer calls such moments, “a gathering of spirits, a festival of friends.” She writes, “Aren’t we standing in the center of something rare and fine/some glow like embers or light through colored glass. […] But there’s heaven in our midst.” In this time in our history, it is imperative, I believe, that we say that out loud: we live our lives surrounded by presence and by voice.

I will tell you why it matters to me. It matters, because we publicly claim that we gather as a community of belief. We say that our education is not abstract, detached, and merely scholarly. Although it may be all of those, we come to the work animated by our faith, deep or shallow, strong or struggling, convinced or curious. At The Seattle School, we are grounded in the Nicene Creed as our starting point. It starts with two breathtaking words: “We believe…” Few graduate schools this fall will start with a declaration of faith, but we do and always have. We gather in what we might even call a collective act of defiant faith.

We say that our education is not abstract, detached, and merely scholarly. tweet

We are part of a communion which gathers around scripture to listen to the voice of revelation and to debate, disagree, argue, and create theological discourse in the name of Yahweh, and in the name of Jesus.

Palm Sunday 1980. My third year in a little urban church in Tacoma, Washington. My fifth year in ordained ministry. I stood to say out loud what my study of gospel had showed me. I proceeded to speak until I could not. I did not freeze as if I forgot my lines. No, I looked out on a congregation of people who had followed Jesus for decades. I was 31. How dare I deign to tell them how to follow him? They had followed longer than I had walked the earth, most of them. My tears fell and I said I could not assume to preach what they already lived. But they asked me to go on, they told me I would teach them as I learned it myself. They reminded me the words weren’t mine but ours, that we were, together, a communion of bold, defiant faith. So as a child reminds a parent how to see the wonder as if for the first time I spoke the words aloud. I named what we believed. I confessed what I longed to be true. In the speaking of the words I learned “words about God,” theology. From those old women and men I was humbled as I learned from their communion as it formed my conviction.

During the Cold War, religious life was curtailed and, in some cases, banned altogether in the USSR. But as light dawned in 1991 on a changed political reality, one thing became clear: religion had not died. Christian faith had not been obliterated because it had been banned by their culture. Biblical teaching had not been silenced because it had been muted. While Bibles were made illegal, courageous souls, often the babushkas, the old women, hid their Bibles and prayer books—sometimes under floorboards or behind pictures on the wall, sometimes in their memory. But the remarkable story of the faith that persisted in contested cultural mores is that common, ordinary, sometimes uneducated people of deep faith became readers together of God’s Word and of God’s own self in an environment hostile to their convictions. Though religion was contested, companions on the journey of faith who were sometimes singled out and persecuted for their beliefs found each other and read and spoke words together. With candlelight around kitchen tables or in the hay lofts of barns, they continued to read words together. They read the narratives of the Old and New Testaments. And they talked of faith and life and continued to learn God together. Some undoubtedly mentored others in the fierce faith they themselves practiced. They read not only words, stories, and texts; they read their lives in Moscow, Kiev, and Chechnya, with a desire to know the heart, mind, and hope of God. They would tell you they lived as pilgrims learning to see with eyes of faith and to hear with ears of obedient trust.

So I say to you today: In memory there is hope. In memory there is a living link to the great cloud of witnesses whose conviction, conscience, commitment, and courage call us to remember we do not come to this moment in the human story alone. In memory there is always a call to honor the price others have paid for their faith in Jesus, which passes down living but ancient creeds in a new  world.

We are here with such great privilege as Christians because others lived their faith with ultimate courage which we must never take for granted. By contrast, I wonder sometimes if we take seriously enough the scandal of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I wonder if we take for granted what many of us learned in family, church, texts, and stories. Do we take for granted the words which are familiar and mute their thunderous power because we believe education has taken us far beyond all of that? Do we somehow believe we can now ignore the sacrifice of their faith as we take on more words in education, add sophistication to replace childlike faith, and convince ourselves we have grown up and beyond those who came before?

I wonder sometimes if we take seriously enough the scandal of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. tweet

Graduate schools are places of words, many words. Some words we will ignore, mute, or silence because they are too familiar. Some words will breathe life into us in the surprise ambush of the classroom. But, in the end, words are dangerous because living truth is embodied and animated in words. You see it, don’t you? Words make our temperatures boil because they mean so much. And, in this place, it will not be like every place you’ve been before, not if we’re doing our job well. The Seattle School is a place where you will hear divergent words, differing thoughts, and even conflicting intellectual ideas. You will be challenged to listen to words and then to read, write, and craft your own views, but one thing you may not doyou may not suppress others whose views will differ from yours. We are a school of red state and blue state theologies. You may disagree with the words of others, but you may not suppress or silence or even mute those with whom you disagree.

On Friday I was writing sections for our next accreditation document. I decided to state what, for me, is the obvious and non-negotiable truth: I said, “From our founding, leaders in our institution have kept us focused on the intersections of theology, psychology, and spirituality as central to the stewardship of our mission, essential to our distinctive identity, and faithful to our convictions as a Christian institution for education. Our theological DNA is neither afterthought nor “added value,” but rather central to mission, pedagogy, and practice.”

Our theological DNA is neither afterthought nor added value. tweet

Most of you are training to become therapists—you will always hear words that do not match your theology, politics, or worldview. So you start here to learn the most dramatically profound skill of allto listen. Some of you are training to become pastors—you will always hear words and encounter people whose theology, politics, or worldview does not match yours. So you start here to learn the most Christ-like skill of all—to listen, which is a form of love. Some of you are training to be artists, leaders, and creators of new forms of ministryyou will everywhere hear words which theology, politics, and worldview seem either arcane and passé or too progressiveso you must start here to practice what the world seems most to have forgotten in this summer of continuous assault: we are a communion, joined together as a common humanity.

And here, joined together around a common faith, a credo that has been ours before this moment on the timeline. It is our theological DNA—that which founded us, formed us, and that which will give life to all that follows. For while we disagree on many things, in this community we start always, year after year, with two words which tell our story in staccato sounds that I hope will echo through all of our days in this coming year and in all our years to come: We believe…we believe…we believe. Now stand together with me as we declare ourselves a communion of words that matter.

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