Delivered by Bob LuptonEastern College - 1997
Four years ago I knew very little about Eastern College. I knew that a rather wild fellow by the name of Tony Campolo was here and that the tuition was pretty high, especially for an urban worker like me. But God knew what He was doing when He placed in my son, Jonathan's, heart a desire to come to Eastern. The preparation for Christian leadership that he, and you, have received here is a worthy investment. It is a high privilege and great delight for me to have this opportunity to address you on this your commencement day.
Today is a day of new beginnings. All those tedious hours of reading and research are behind you at last. No more all-nighters, no more cramming your minds full of dates and facts and theories that could show up on a final exam. You are done with all that now. You have learned all that you are going to learn from this institution. And whether you have been a serious student or a serious party-er, or both, you will move out from this place today with skills and capacities that your world is sorely in need of.
When I graduated from college nearly 30 years ago, there was a war going on in southeast Asia. At that time our country had a draft system and when your number came up you had little choice but to join the military. I was among that number. During basic training, as we were being taught the fundamentals of warfare, I first learned about a concept called "deployment". Deployment has to do with which troops are to be sent where. As you can imagine, this issue of deployment was of vital concern to every soldier. Where we were to be sent had a lot to do with whether or not we would be coming home, or in what condition we would be in if we did make it back. Most of us hoped that we would luck out and get a cushy stateside assignment. Very few would have volunteered for the steaming jungles of southeast Asia. But when the orders came down from headquarters, they contained the directives we feared most: nearly all of us were deployed to Vietnam.
Deployment to a country at war is one thing. Deployment within that country is still another. You could be assigned to a headquarters job in Saigon in a well guarded compound in a secured area. Or you could be sent out into the jungle to little outposts where your only security was your own alert senses and those of your buddies' beside you. Of course, everyone wanted a headquarters job but it was out in the jungles where the war was being won or lost in daily battles. That's where the combat troops were needed. And so most of us were deployed out into the dangerous areas where our training and skill would be put it the ultimate test.
I learned some important things in those jungles. As a young Christian I learned that nowhere in the world, not even in the remotest thatched hut village half a world away from anything familiar, nowhere is a child of the Kingdom separated from the love of God. I discovered on those long sweltering nights, when danger lurked all around, that the presence of God was closer and more real to me there than I had ever known in the best church services back home.
I learned something else in those jungles. I learned that regardless of the intensity of the fear, or the bloodiness of the conflict, the Spirit of God is always at work, often visibly, providing calm and comfort and sometimes miraculous intervention. God graciously gave me a promise from His word as I was preparing for deployment to Vietnam, a promise from the 91st Psalm:
(7) A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
I clung to this promise like it was a bullet-proof vest. It gave me confidence in the face of danger and freed me up to be a calming influence to those around me.
God's promise turned out to be a reliable one and I returned from Vietnam with body and soul intact. However, I brought home something very unexpected. I came home with a calling of God on my life to work with troubled kids. Over there, God had proven to me that He was more than capable of being my protector. Now He was calling me to re-deploy into another war zone - the inner-city. This time He was asking me to take my wife and two small children with me into the danger. In this new arena of conflict, I learned some other important things about our God.
One of the things I learned is that there is no more secure place in this world than right in the very middle of God's will for my life, regardless of how unsafe the environment around me may appear to be. There are some nights in my neighborhood in Atlanta that the sound of gunfire is as prevalent as it was on some nights in Vietnam. And yet there is a strange sense of internal calm that comes with the assurance that we are right where God has placed us.
I have learned, too, that God is not only our protector but He is our sustainer as well. He will provide all of the material things, the provisions of life, the funding, the supportive allies - and these things in abundance - as we follow Him onto the front lines where the action is. For 26 years my family and I have been depending on God for our daily provisions with no visible means of support except the gifts of God's people. And in all these years, my children have never gone without food, our bills have always been paid on time, we have enjoyed the benefits of owning our own home, we have been able to educate our children and we even have some funds set aside for retirement. The God who calls us, I have become convinced, will see to it that all our needs are amply provided for.
As you graduate today, there is no major war that our country is engaged in. There is no draft facing you, no deployment orders for you to dread. You are graduating into a period of relative peace and prosperity in the land. You will move out into the mainstream of society with talents and training that will propel you into leadership roles. And if you do what comes most naturally for young professionals of our culture, you will soon become absorbed into the pursuit of success - American style. You will become hard working, responsible, church going people who will marry, have children, climb the achievement ladder and enjoy the privileges of your position. And if you follow the course of least resistance, you will join the flow of success-oriented people out of the city and into the suburbs. Like others on your cul-de-sak, you will watch the evening news and thank God that you and your family are comfortably removed from the drugs and violence of urban life. You may work hard at being good parents, good providers, good Christians - but you will not be world changers. World changers are those who swim against the values of the dominant culture. They are the risk-takers who know that history is shaped on the front lines.
Obviously, we are not all called to move into the inner-city. That should come as some relief to your parents. But we are all called to be neighbors. All of scripture, both the law and the prophets, our Lord said, were summed up in one great command: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like unto it: Love your neighbor as your self." Jesus defined for us in the story of the Good Samaritan what loving our neighbor really means. Our neighbor is the one who has been victimized, stripped of pride and possessions and left to suffer alone. The righteous one who fulfills the law of God is the one who becomes a neighbor and personally engages in high touch, sacrificial love.
There is a reason why the cities of our land are in such serious trouble today. There is a reason why an entire generation of urban children are growing up without fathers and why gangs have taken the place of their family structure. It is due in large measure to the fact that "neighboring" has virtually disappeared as a primary value of Western Christianity. The resourced people of faith have withdrawn from the poor, and have departed, along with their families and their resources, to places of safety and convenience. Christianity, American style, seems unconcerned about leaving the poor behind in their isolation, neighborless and vulnerable. We seem quite comfortable using our privilege to locate ourselves and our churches away from those we deem undesirable to have as neighbors. Some Christians preach that personal evangelism is the answer to poverty. And there is certainly cause for rejoicing when a person or family in the inner-city experiences spiritual rebirth. But when that family moves out of the ghetto to pursue a better life, the darkness that is left behind becomes even more intense. Without a theology of neighbor urban communities are left with little hope. Saving souls, as important as that is, is not a substitute for becoming a loving neighbor. We cannot skip over the Great Commandment on our way to fulfilling the Great Commission. The Great Commission to go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel will lack authenticity and power if it is not built on the foundation of the Great Command to love our neighbor as ourselves. I believe that this is the reason why we are witnessing the devastation of our social and moral fabric at the very time when church attendance in our land is at an all time high. Personal faith without the active love of neighbor is impotent to change society, if indeed it is faith at all.
We who follow Christ are members of a Holy Order of Neighbors. You and I are called to become strategic neighbors in our world. We are commissioned to be neighbors to the neighborless, to bind up the broken, to wrap the cloak of acceptance around those who have been stripped of their pride. And where we are deployed will have everything to do with our effectiveness in fulfilling our mission. What we wake up to each morning will profoundly influence how we see our world.
In the days ahead you will be making decisions about where you rent your apartment and eventually buy your home. You will feel pressure to locate in places of beauty far removed from the ugliness of poverty. You will be counseled by well-meaning friends to protect yourself and your children from the dangers of the destitute. You will be told that this is just good stewardship, that it is pleasing to God. You will also experience inner desires for the nicer, finer, safer places in life that your privilege will surely afford you. You must, however, be vigilant to detect and resist the subtle sabotage of the enemy who would draw you away from your mission. Self protection has never been a value of the Kingdom. Self-sacrifice and risk-taking, one the other hand, these are the traits of the saints who have gone before us. You are called to be a redemptive force in history. You are to be agents of reconciliation among a deeply divided people. Engagement, not withdrawal, is the operative word for those who follow Christ. And there is nothing more fundamental to the accomplishment of your mission than engaging as active, caring neighbors.
New vistas of opportunity spread out before you this day. You have earning capacity that you never before had. Banks will send you charge cards. Corporations will compete to hire you. Finance companies will offer you quick credit. You will soon be given the keys to businesses that you will run, churches that you will serve and offices that you will manage. With a bit of hard work and a little ingenuity, you will soon be able to possess more automobiles, homes, clothes and computers by many times over than most people in the world will have in a lifetime. You are indeed a generation of enormous capacity and great promise.
But the question I ask you today is "Will you be world changers?" Will you use the giftedness that your parents nurtured in you and the training that this institution has invested in you to impact history in the name of Christ? How will history remember you? Will the writers of history look back on your generation and describe you as the class that succeeded, that did well, that were good church members, that had good kids, that lived the American dream to the fullest? Or will you be known for something far more noble and redemptive? Will you be the class who caught hold of a vision for changing their urbanizing world, who stemmed the tide of escapism? Will you be the ones who looked squarely into the face of overwhelming urban problems and did not shrink back from the epidemic of drug addiction, teen pregnancy, homelessness, racism and the host of other plaguing problems that defy solution? Will you be the ones who advanced to the front lines and, armed with the radical love of Christ, brought down the strongholds of the enemy in the cities of our world?
You have been chosen to resist the mainstream of the dominant culture and to forge a course of redemptive intervention in human history. You have been entrusted with remarkable talents and quick minds and enormous reserves of energy that equip you to take on the daunting challenges of our world. And you are under orders to deploy as loving neighbors, especially among those society has deemed unfit to be our neighbors. You are fully equipped for the task. The power of God's Spirit is within you. Go forth in the confidence that God's presence, His protection, and His provision will be with you as you take on these great challenges in His name!