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‘Lean in and look up’

Two retiring University of Dubuque administrators inspire seminary graduates with their commencement talks

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Sincerely Media via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Mark Ward and the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Bullock, two retiring administrators at the University of Dubuque, were anything but retiring Saturday, speaking to graduates during commencement exercises at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary with passion and honesty.

Watch the 71-minute commencement ceremony here.

Ward, Saturday’s featured speaker, is retiring this summer after 14 years as the university’s Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty. Bullock, the university’s president since 1998, is stepping down and will be succeeded by Dr. Travis L. Frampton on June 1.

Ward read from Romans 8:19-31, which includes these familiar words from Paul: “We know that the whole Creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, and not only the Creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

“Just because [seminary] was a rich experience doesn’t mean it was easy or fun,” Ward said. “Let’s do a little reality check here: In all those rich experiences, might there have been some groaning?”

“Paul expects groaning and actually bestows groaning with meaning and purpose,” Ward said. “In a sign of God’s common grace, even non-Christians would say groaning is a part of life and that it may actually signal something good.”

Dr. Mark Ward

“From the ancient philosopher Seneca right down to pop singer Kelly Clarkson, we’ve all learned that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Ward said. “But you already knew this. Going to seminary was not the comfortable choice — and still, you came.”

Ward called commencement “an inflection point, a point between being a seminary student and being a seminary graduate.”

“I want to challenge you to make today a point of recommitment,” Ward said, “a renewed investment in God’s call on your life.”

He challenged the nearly two dozen 2024 graduates “to move forward with two guiding commitments as you serve the church.”

The first is to “lean in and listen for the Holy Spirit.”

“It takes a discerning ear to hear what God is telling us through the groanings of Creation, of humanity, of the very Spirit itself,” Ward said. “You leave seminary with a trained ear. The professional musicians among you know that they go through extensive ear training … So, too, you have a trained ear that can listen for and recognize God at work in the world.”

“You don’t groan alone,” he told graduates. “God is present in and knows our challenges, even when we don’t have the words to name them.”

The second commitment is to “look up and live in resurrection hope.”

“The Bible often refers to God’s people as sheep,” creatures “who are physiologically programmed to look down,” Ward said. “Looking up is the shepherd’s job, and you have been called to shepherd God’s people … Your theological education has equipped you to see beyond today, to see today in light of God’s grand plan to reconcile all things to himself. Commit to looking up and living in the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The world needs new leaders “to be authentic Christ-followers, neither callous to the problems of today nor defeated by those problems, a Christ-follower who’s fully present in the brokenness of this world,” Ward said. “We have the good news. We know how the story ends. Your seminary education has equipped you to live more expectantly. Look up! Be that beacon of hope to a world in need.”

“Groan on!” Ward exhorted the class of 2024. “Graduation is coming.”

Bullock offered graduates a moving charge based on his vocation of more than four decades, work that has included congregational and seminary settings.

As a child in a non-churched family, Bullock came to the faith via Vacation Bible School at a Presbyterian congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. “A funny thing happened along the way,” Bullock said. “I felt at home, loved and cared for, and I asked to go again the following year. From that time through high school, I attended church off and on by myself.”

During his eighth-grade year, Bullock’s family moved to a small community, and young Bullock found his way to a Presbyterian congregation’s confirmation class, which got him out of algebra class once a week. “A funny thing happened. I actually enjoyed it. I did the homework, and I started to read and learn. Eventually, I joined that congregation,” he said.

During services, Bullock would sit in the balcony, “where I would see the whole coordinated effort of worship transpire.” But during his junior year of high school, Bullock stopped attending. After a few months, the pastor invited Bullock to his study to learn more about why he was no longer attending.

“Well, Reverend, do you really want to know?” young Bullock replied. “You know, I sit in the balcony, and I look at the choir.” There’s Mr. Smith, “and you and I both know he’s having an affair with Mrs. Parker. There’s Mr. Jones, the town’s most successful businessman. We know he’s as crooked as they come. Reverend, I’ve concluded I can’t take it anymore. They’re all a bunch of hypocrites, and that’s why I stopped attending.”

There was silence for a moment. Then the pastor sighed and said, “Jeffrey, you’re right. They’re all a bunch of hypocrites. But come on and join us anyway, because one more’s not going to make any difference.”

“He was right,” Bullock said. “One more certainly didn’t make any difference.”

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Bullock

“Folks, we’re in the hypocrite business,” Bullock told graduates. “Our specialty is finding a word from Scripture, the word that transcends all words to speak holy sense into the hypocritical, maniacal, broken and dysfunctional world we call home.”

“We of all people have been entrusted to be stewards of that word, that holy and transcendent word from God, and yet so often we do our best to water it down and take away its transformative power and life-giving hope by trying to assimilate it with the latest ideological fads of the day.”

“Friends, if we do nothing else, the text must always be allowed to speak on its own terms —not the manufactured terms we impose on it, because any text taken out of context is a pretext.”

“If you’re really lucky,” Bullock told those planning to serve in pastoral ministry, “the members of the flock will begin to trust you as a pastor, to open up to you — and then you’ll discover what they really care about when they come into your study one evening.”

They might talk to you about their adult daughter who just told her parents that she’d been sexually abused by her grandfather when she was a young child. If you’re trusted as a pastor, a middle-aged couple might come to you “because they don’t know where else to turn. Their marriage is on the rocks. They’ve tried counseling and marriage encounters, and something is still missing.” A couple of high school students might come by one evening to let the pastor know they’re expecting a baby and haven’t yet spoken to their parents.

Sunday morning comes, and the pastor looks out to the congregation, noticing the presence of all who’d come to the pastor’s study that week as well as, seated in the balcony, “that young kid from Jackson, Minnesota, who’s long on judgment and short on grace. He too is there. That’s your congregation,” Bullock said.

“Do you believe for one moment they’ve gotten themselves out of bed that morning to come to church to hear you or me offer our thoughts about the latest trends in Marxist biblical thought or the essential tenets of Christian nationalism? That’s not why they’re there. They’re there because they’re hoping to get a sense of and a feeling of the transcendent.”

“That’s what your congregation, that’s what your ministry, that’s what your outreach wants and needs from you and from us,” he said. “Whether it’s a group of 20 or 2,000, they are hoping against hope that through you they will meet Jesus that day.”

“So, this is my charge to you: In whatever your ministry, dare to be a pastor. Dare to listen — really listen. Dare to be fully present and not encumbered by the things around you. Dare to suffer and dare not to have all the answers. Dare to be one through whom a beautiful, broken and fractured community of seekers can come to be believers and experience the presence of Jesus in their lives. Amen.”

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