It was the day my youngest child graduated from Kent State University. A family dream had been achieved. Now, all three of our children had earned Bachelor degrees. I was happy. Then, hundreds of graduates marched into the arena. The somber yet triumphant strains of Pomp and Circumstance pierced my spirit. And when I saw my baby daughter in that sea of graduates, I lost it. What she had accomplished and what God had done touched me. God had brought her “through many dangers, toils and snares.” Without missing a beat, my heart sang “Hallelujah.”
Hallelujah, more specifically “praise the Lord”, is the dominant motif of Psalm 150. How strange or normal to utter this word and phrase on such an august occasion. Is this Baccalaureate Service not about countless graduates and their signal achievements? Is it not about families and friends, learned professors and Dr. Hester’s Administration gathered in regalia academic to provide ceremonial leadership, honor these graduates and bear personal witness to this momentous day of farewell? It is, in part. However, tradition demands, requires and desires that more than two or three of us gather together in worship, one more time. Why, you ask; to acknowledge the greatest source of our help on this academic journey and the journey of life, i.e. God.
We have every expectation of celebrating the laudes today: the Cum Laudes, the Magna Cum Laudes, the Summa Cum Laudes and yes the Thank You Lawdys’. Laude, in Latin connotes praise. Translators define Cum Laude as graduating with Praise, Magna Cum Laude as graduating with Great Praise and Summa Cum Laude as graduating with Highest Praise. Like me years ago, some of you may be graduating Thank You Lawdy. For all your diligent striving, your GPA does not qualify for the praise of Cum Laude. However, your GPA does meet the standards for graduation. “Don’t worry. Be Happy.” Graduating Thank you Lawdy with the rest of your wonderful class is a Hallelujah Anyhow!!!
By the presence of parents, professors, friends, guests and the Presidential Administration in this place, we are celebrating and saying thanks to every graduate. Thanks for your diligence and patience. Thanks for “hanging on” in spite struggles with self-confidence, medical issues and unmet expectations of social life on campus. Thanks for choosing to stay connected to God via church, mosque or synagogue. We are especially grateful for those of you who worked and prayed your way through numerous crises and are still graduating. With God’s help, you overcame roadblocks such as a lost scholarship, academic probation, suspension, illness, injury in a car accident or the devastating death of a parent, a relative or schoolmate. Thank you for finishing what you started.
Michael Jordan left the University of North Carolina (UNC) before he finished. It was a good decision. Michael became a superstar in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Yet, his decision shook up his parents. They wanted their son to graduate from the University of North Carolina. People knew that Jordan quit basketball for baseball and returned to the NBA. But people forgot that Jordan returned and graduated from UNC two years later. Jordan earned his Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Geography. Looking back, Michael Jordan offered a rationale for finishing what he started.
“I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my basketball career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”
Isn’t Jordan’s statement powerful? Failure rarely defeated him. It’s a paean of praise, worthy of a Hallelujah? So are these graduates. Are they not a fresh embodiment of wisdom nestled in the sophistry of Ecclesiastes 9: 11?
“The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise; nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful…time and chance happen to them all.”
Graduation Day is a great day to remember a lesson all of us probably learned at home. If somebody gives you something good and appropriate, you supposed to say “Thank you.” Consequently, a word of praise is reserved for parents who paid the bill for your education. Yes, I know they’re expected to do it. That’s true of a lot of people and things. But it doesn’t always happen. Some of your parents worked night and day, weekend and week out to provide for you. They prayed. They sacrificed. Some parents went into debt so you could graduate debt free. Others provided collateral for college loans. Some families lacked financial resources. Instead, they gave you a dream or vision of what they expected. You believed in their belief that “all things were possible” especially if undergirded by faith and a strong work ethic. Voila, it happened!! Graduation Day arrived.
In the April 11, 2014 edition of USA Today, President Obama mentioned a former President who made a difference in his life. The President was in Austin, Texas. He delivered the Keynote Speech at the Johnson Presidential Library. Obama praised the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson for knowing how to get things done. “The master of politics and legislative process,-the major catalyst behind the Civil and Voting Rights Acts was LBJ,” said Obama. Then, his address got personal. “Because of the work of LBJ, the doors of opportunity swung open for a lot of people. And that’s why I’m standing here today,” he said. Although President Obama was twelve years old when LBJ died, he made the connection between past and present by thanking President Johnson posthumously.
Last Saturday, I was in Louisville, Kentucky. Six thousand United Methodist Women (UMW) met for their quadrennial Assembly. Hillary Clinton gave the Keynote Address. In her non-political address, Mrs. Clinton thanked the UMW nationally and United Methodist Women at Park Ridge Illinois United Methodist Church locally for playing a key role in her spiritual growth and development. That simple gesture of thanks evoked great applause and passionate affirmation from the audience. Hillary’s thank you meant she had not forgotten them and that she would be forever indebted to women for what they had done for her.
In a most poignant reminder of the importance of acknowledging our debt to others, the late Howard Thurman told a story of his desire to get an education. After finishing the eighth grade, 15 year old Howard needed to complete high school. Only three public high schools existed for black children in Florida around 1915. Thurman lived in Daytona Beach. The nearest high school was in Jacksonville, almost 100 miles away. If he could make it to Jacksonville he could attend school. A relative had agreed to provide room and board for a year. To earn his keep, Thurman agreed to do odd jobs around the house. One day Howard packed his clothes in a trunk and headed for the railroad station. He paid for the ticket. However, the agent refused to check his trunk. Because the trunk had no locks or handle, it wasn’t considered luggage. Devastated and distraught, the boy sat down and cried like a baby. All he had left was a dollar and some change. Then a black man appeared out of nowhere. He was dressed in overalls and a denim cap. A rolled cigarette hung out of his mouth. “Boy, why are you crying?” Thurman explained his dilemma. He was trying to get an education. “If you’re trying to get an education, I will help you.” The man paid for the trunk, got the receipt, handed it to Howard and left without a word. According to Thurman, the man disappeared down the track and I never saw him again. It was a watershed moment for a boy who wanted to get an education. By the time Thurman died in 1981, he was recognized as one of the great religious leaders of the twentieth century. Howard shared the most interesting part of that story in his autobiography entitled With Head and Heart. Usually, autobiographies are dedicated to a beloved family member or friend. Howard Thurman took a different direction. Opposite the copyright page, the late Howard Thurman penned these immortal words “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dreams sixty-five years ago.” Isn’t that worth a “Hallelujah/praise the Lord?”
Finally, the restoration of Howard Thurman’s broken dream has another explanation. It is more than “a random act of kindness”, more than a timely, heroic rescue from a twentieth century Good Samaritan. In my view, it is one of God’s mighty acts. If Howard Thurman knows that the appearance of the stranger represents one of God’s mighty acts, he does not say so. Why, is a mystery? God performs miraculous rescues like this all the time. Oft times, recipients of such goodness and mercy forget to thank God. “I’ve been there.”
Years ago, I heard Rev. Joseph Lowery poke fun at the notion that they took prayer out of schools. “Not so fast,” he demurred. “I see them praying for a last minute touchdown to win a game. I see them praying for a special girl or boy to accept them. I know they’re praying, please Lord help me pass this test. My parents want to see my grades.” They’re praying in school ya’ll,” Lowery said. Students have sought God out in college because they can’t eat, sleep, exercise, pay bills, study, excel academically, afford a counselor or tell anybody they need help. And God has answered many a prayer for the 2014 graduates. Can’t that truth be acknowledged like the psalmist in 121? “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth: and the professors, classrooms, books, parents, strangers and friends. As a teenager, Serena Williams articulated her belief in God before the world. When Serena won the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament in the midst of a hostile crowd, she thanked Jehovah God for helping her win. Serena’s thanks to Jehovah God has continued. After winning her fifth US Open in 2013, WTA’s number one player became even more specific. “I want to thank Jehovah God for letting me get this far. I almost didn’t make it a few years ago, but now I’m here again and it’s so worth it. I’m happy.” Why? A blood clot and resulting hematoma put her life in jeopardy. One songwriter said it best about God’s help. “If it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?”
To conclude, you’ve heard of George Frederic Handel. This famous German composer spent most of his life in England. He spoke German and English fluently; French and Italian to a lesser degree. Handel wrote Messiah in 24 days. Music historians say “it remains the greatest feat in the history of musical composition.” Other great composers agreed. For example, Beethoven called Handel “the greatest composer that ever lived.” First performed in 1742, Messiah received wide acclaim. So it has remained for 272 years. Rather than make money for himself, Handel donated the proceeds to charities like the Charitable Infirmary, Mercer’s Hospital and prisoner’s debt relief. Because of his prison charity, 142 prisoners were released from debtor’s prison.
Bottom Line, one word dominated the Messiah’s most famous sheet music, namely “Hallelujah.” Time and again, the chorus sang out Hallelujah with majestic voice and power. So rich and compelling was the Hallelujah Chorus that it is said King George II was compelled to stand. In 1759, Messiah was performed to honor George Frederic Handel’s 74th birthday. The enthusiastic crowd gave Handel a standing ovation. Moved powerfully, Handel told the audience what he really thought “not from me - but from heaven - comes all.” Finally, at the end of the Messiah manuscript, Handel wrote his initials G.F.H. Over them was a superscription of three Latin letters S.D.G., specifically Soli Deo Gloria. Translated, the words mean “to God alone the glory.”
Graduation day 2014: who gets the credit for your achievement? Choose. You must and you will. I simply offer George Frederic Handel’s faith statement about his Magnum Opus, the Messiah: Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone the glory.” HALLELUJAH!!
The Bible Psalm 124 & 150
With Head and Heart by Howard Thurman
Rediscovering Handel’s Messiah by Rev. Ed Hird (Internet)
Jordan Quote about missing 9000 Shots (Internet)