It’s 7:30 Saturday morning, I’m sitting at a local restaurant checking work emails (I’ve been out of the office for four days) and generally putzing around waiting for the day to begin. I’m staying in Burlington, North Carolina, just a stones throw from Elon, the school where I spent four years of my life learning and figuring out and hoping and caring for and singing. The cliché is true, at least it was for me: I knew Elon was home the minute I walked on campus. Throughout the tour, it became clearer and clearer. This was the school for me.
Those four years were filled with friends and trips and papers and pages and pages of reading. The list of experiences could go on and on, but the truth is that there’s a word that sums it all up: Elon.
This trip started with a phone call, followed soon by a tweet.
— Elon Alumni (@elonalumni) October 3, 2013
Honored and deeply humbled, I made my way home to Elon yesterday by way of the United Church of Christ‘s national headquarters in Cleveland. (More on that later.) The second I walked onto campus, I heard myself say under my breath “I’m home.” What a joy to have that feeling! What a joy to mean it!
Last night, Elon held its annual Alumni Awards Ceremony and kick of to the 125 Anniversary Celebration of Elon’s founding. I’m grateful to have been recognized along such remarkable people and hope that I can continue to make Elon proud.
I’ve included my not-quite-3-minute-like-they-told-us-they-should-be remarks below along with a video my dear Greg took. As always, I’m grateful for the support of this community, this online one, I mean; my churches, all those churches I’ve called home; and of my family who beams with pride with me and for whom I beam. I am particularly grateful for Westfield, a church that welcomed this Southerner with open arms and didn’t hesitate to call me their own.
Alumni Award Remarks
I had a professor in seminary who once told use that starting off a sermon with a joke was cheap, that going in for an easy laugh was, in a way, pandering for people to like you. Well, luckily, this isn’t as sermon, a fact for which I am deeply grateful, so I’m going to tell you a joke anyway. A priest, a rabbi, a southern baptist minister, a dog, and Leo Lambert all walk into an emergency room showing symptoms of the flu: one had a headache, one had a fever. Another a cough, another a sore throat. All of them were achy all over. They waited and waited to see someone. Finally a nurse came into the examination room, looked around and said “what is this? Some kind of sick joke?” There it is…that’s it.
Now that I’ve pandered to your affections, I want to take a minute to tell you about a word I discovered at Elon. Well, not so much discovered as gained a deeper sense of meaning. That word is companion.
My sophomore year at Elon, I was in the first cohort of student interns for the then newly created Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. As part of that work, we read a book by Jesuit priest and author Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out. If you’re not familiar with Nouwen’s work, you should know that he dedicated a large part of his later life to working with the L’arche communities–intentional communities that welcome residents of varying mental development to live together, a movement that centers on companionship.
In this book, Nouwen writes of the three movements of the spiritual life, one of which was fruits a movement thatom loneliness to solitude. And the key to making that shift–the shift from loneliness to solitude is this: “In everything keep trusting that God is with you, that God has given you companions on the journey.”
There are few moments in your life that you can point to and say unequivocally that your life changed, that something was different about you before and after that moment. The moment I read that line, I was changed because I knew I to be true.
Elon was the place where I first understood the deep and abiding importance of companionship. And that lesson has informed every decision I’ve made since leaving Elon. It was the belief that helped me through my mothers untimely death. “don’t worry Jon, you’ve got companions on this journey.” It was foundational in my decision to go on to seminary, to keep searching for those companions. And it was central to my decision to ask my partner Greg to marry me–to have a companion and be a companion on this journey of life. And it’s fundamental to my ministry, which boils down to this: being a companion to whoever walks through the doors of my church and to all those outside of them.
While I was flying here from our national headquarters in Cleveland I was struck with a revelation: yes, I’m a pastor. I’m a teacher. I’m a prayer, an organizer, a fundraiser, a planner. But before all of that, before all of those details, I’ve been called to be a companion. And the truth is, so have each of you.
In my tradition, we have a saying: “God is still speaking.” It’s why I wear a comma on my lapel. The second piece of that saying is this: never place a period where God has placed a comma. Friends, I believe that–that God is still speaking, that God is calling us to be companions on the journey.
I’m am grateful to Elon for this award and for the education that taught me so much about the world and about life and about companionship.
Y’all. I’m a companion, a son, a partner. And…I’m a preacher. So I hope you’ll indulge me and let me end with a blessing from my tradition:
Friends, go now with the grace to never sell yourself short; the grace to risk something big for something good; the grace to remember that this world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love. And may God take your minds and think through them. May God take your lips and speak through them. May God take your hearts and set them on fire. And may God, indeed, give you companions for this journey.