Endings and beginnings

As a professor, I come to the end of the academic year with a certain amount of ambivalence.  The spring quarter, especially for soon-to-be graduates, is always challenging in its own way: students want to finish well, but for many, the greater emphasis is on the “finish” rather than the “well.”  Hey, it’s been a great ride, but I’m really, really exhausted and just want to be done–nothing personal.  Faculty, too, have their eyes set on summer break, sighing at what seems like the small mountain of papers and exams that has to be plowed through first.

But there’s more to it than that.  My ambivalence, I think, mirrors that of the students: it’s a pinging between a sense of what is being lost and what is being gained, of endings and beginnings.  To graduate is to accomplish everything required to obtain a degree, to reach another milestone, a desired end.  Its proper celebration is commencement, a word that conveys new beginnings.  We say goodbye to what has become familiar, and say hello to…what?

In our program in marital and family therapy, we have a time-honored graduation ritual, which we celebrated last night.  The faculty gather the students together to say goodbye to one another.  We sit in a rough circle as one by one the students share from the heart about what memories they cherish and what they regret, how they’ve grown, whom they’ll miss, why they almost quit the program–and why they didn’t.  The stories are by turns poignant, inspiring, and funny, and sometimes all three at once.  They want to be done, but they don’t want to say goodbye.  They want to commence, to move forward into new beginnings, but don’t yet know all the details of the destination or who their companions will be on the journey.

If they could, they’d take each other.

This is a gift to me, one to be savored every June.  Most days during the year, I get lost in busyness: lecture preparation, committee work, dissertation supervision, writing, meetings, meetings, and oh, yes–I almost forgot–meetings.

Put differently, in the midst of performing my job, I lose sight of my vocation.  One can teach to fulfill a curricular requirement; one can write to be published.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either.  But that’s not the same as teaching or writing because you know that through you God wants to say something to somebody for some reason that pleases him and serves his purposes.

The ritual restores and revitalizes that vision, prompts the imagination needed to see beyond mere matters of academia to the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle!) push of the Holy Spirit as we all stumble together half-blind down the road of service to Jesus Christ and his kingdom.  These students have been called to serve him, and part of my vocation is to serve him by serving them.  If I forget, I know the ritual will school me again.

We teach our students to begin understanding themselves as peacemakers (Matt 5:9), active participants in God’s grand work of restoring his shalom to a sin-spoiled world.  That is the Christian vocation of which the work of counseling can be a part, the vocation that also contextualizes and energizes the work of training and mentoring counselors.

I feel blessed, privileged, humbled, encouraged.  The ritual lifted me again from job to vocation, from Good grief, look at everything I have to do! to Wow–look what I get to be part of! 

Yes, there is a sense in which this is both a time of ending, and a time of beginning.  But the blank transition between chapters is relative to the story as a whole, the narrative that begins with the creation of a good world and ends with its final redemption and eternal blessedness.

Such is the story we live by.  I am honored to have had a part to play, and grateful for each of our graduates.  Thank you, class of 2012, for the gift God has given to me through you and your faithfulness.

Let the next chapter commence, to the glory of God.