Prepared text of the Rev. Gail E. Bowman's 2011 Baccalaureate address at Stanford University
This is the prepared text of "The Possibility of God," the 2011 Baccalaureate address at Stanford University by the Rev. Gail E. Bowman, chaplain at Dillard University in New Orleans.
[Prior to Bowman's address, Dante Nicola DiCicco, '11, read from the Gospel of Mark 9:17-24:]
A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."
"O unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me."
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"
"From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
"'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."
Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
[Bowman's address, "The Possibility of God":]
The poem by Gwendolyn Brooks is "One Wants a Teller in a Time Like This." It is gently tweaked to reflect the interfaith sensibility of this celebration.
One wants a teller in a time like this.
One's not a man, one's not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.
One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.
One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:
Put on your [rain boots] and you won't catch a cold
Here's hell, there's heaven. [Keep the Golden Rule]
Be patient, time brings all good things – (and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)
Love's true, and triumphs; and [that which is High, Holy, and Always] is actual.
Deft and determined to have our way as we Christians can sometimes be, please know that I did not request the reading from the Book of Mark in order to try to slide a down-home gospel agenda past you all in the midst of this elegant gathering of many faiths.
In fact, I selected the text partly because it gives everybody a familiar route into our conversation, based on the academic discipline in which you have developed expertise.
In the passage, we have a father with a son whose illness is well described.
So, the pre-med folks here this morning can begin working on a diagnosis.
The son has been denied the ability to communicate by speaking.
So, the speech pathologists can draft treatment options.
We have students – Jesus' disciples – who are botching their mid-term as we watch.
The professional advisors – I am impressed that you have such here – can propose alternative majors.
We have an interpretation of spirit-possession, so the new anthropologists can point out parallels in other societies.
There are also hints of the pathologies of the larger human society for the sociologists, a question of whether the malady is physical or otherwise for the psychologists, and poignancy enough to engage the choreography, portrait painting and orchestrating talents of the artists among us.
Poignancy is the point. The situation depicted in the story is awful.
It's awful with full measures of disappointment, despair, anger and violence: The father's disappointment is turning to despair, Jesus is angry at the behavior of those around him – don't tell me he never got angry; yes, he did – and whatever it is that is making the boy's life a living hell capitalizes on the moment with superb bad timing to throw the child to the ground yet again and send him struggling underfoot.
Miserable child, desperate dad, tension-fraught situation.
Jesus: "How long has he been like this?"
Struggling Dad: "From childhood. It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
Jesus: "'If you can'? Everything is possible for him who believes."
Struggling Dad: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
Folks don't really say "Woop!" anymore – but, nevertheless: Woop! There it is.
In life, the tension is so real between what we can imagine might be possible and what we are sure cannot possibly be – between what we can process and what we cannot, between hope and frustration – that there is even a religious tradition (we have it right here) in which a human being stands face to face, foot to foot and fact to fact with a being he perceives to be The Supreme Being and even then, even then, faith is incomplete.
Maybe you can do something, but I'm afraid to hope.
I'm with you, but part of me is holding back.
I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.
But what I need you to notice, in addition, however, is that while faith is incomplete here – it's still operative.
It's not perfect, but it's working.
* * * * *
This is a big, beautiful campus.
Like you all, Class of 2011, I know the trick of the beautiful campus.
A pretty campus is a plot to keep you blissed out while they try to work you crazy.
"Oh, you go to Stanford? That's such a beautiful campus!"
"It is? You know, I guess you're right. I've been in the library for three days. I hadn't noticed."
You have everything here you could ask for, just about.
An even-steven female-male ratio, Nobel Prize winners in the classroom, 640 student organizations, folks to talk to from almost everywhere in the world, 12,000 bicycles, eats at the Treehouse and the Marguerite to take you wherever you want to go.
Nevertheless, I'm not going to roll down your street without so much as a wave by pretending or assuming everything here was easy. It wasn't easy.
As soon as I said, "It wasn't easy," about-to-be-grads remembered several critical moments; parents and families remembered several pivotal phone calls.
The roommate who invited confidence, then betrayed confidence. The anticipated "A" that came in as an unwelcome "B" – or, horrors, a "C." Love bloomed, then bombed. What seemed clear and certain became less so gradually or overnight. Events at home rendered being at school almost impossible for a time.
You did not do this – this journey, this sojourn, this transformation – in constant 24-7 confidence.
There were moments when your mindfulness, your reason, your wisdom, your faith was incomplete. Sincere, certainly, but incomplete.
But even though you didn't find all the faith, all the wisdom, all the enlightenment there is, you found enough and were helped enough to bring you to this day.
We arrive now, together, at Baccalaureate, Commencement's Eve.
Something is being accomplished for you through the Possibility of God.
In case you are wondering, in the text from Mark the father's son is healed, he rises and, for the first time, he speaks.
Parent and child were intervened for. They were strengthened by. They were loved.
What the dad asks, out of care for his child, is not perfect but it is enough.
This makes for a great ending to the story just as all this makes for a great ending/beginning to your story.
Let's realize, however, that the text does not say the dad's faith, his mindfulness, his reason, his wisdom, becomes perfect from that day forth. It does not. But it doesn't need to be.
He has the possibility of Allah, Supreme Being, Reason, Wisdom, Nirvana, Greater Than There Can Be None in the picture. He has the possibility of God.
Class of 2011, Cardinals all and carriers of the hopes of a wonderful world, I ask you to consider, just in this moment, imperfection.
I ask you to just cleansing-breath-your-way with me to the concept – I just need you to try it on for size – that sometimes the things that do not go as planned, the things that are not executed perfectly, have a power all their own.
And part of the reason that this might could be, as we say in Louisiana, is because of the possibility of Truth, Reason, what- who- how- ever we each know it. Something so high we can't get over, so low we can't get under, so wide we can't get around.
Sometimes, when we are as trapped, as torn, as tremulous, as tested as the struggler in the story – be he "he" or be he "she" – we have to do what we can, so we have to launch a leap too short over a gap too wide and sometimes, what was launched incomplete, gets completed, somehow.
Picture Morpheus launching out of the building, with Neo launching out of the helicopter, closing the gap. It's messy; it's imperfect. But it works, and it's worth it.
Twice in my life, as you might guess from my bio, I've done a re-boot. The first time, I initiated it. The second time, events initiated it. Nothing like a headlong collision with a $125 billion hurricane to re-arrange your plans.
But I wouldn't have had it any other way; the best of my life is in the unexpected of my life. I planned well, but God planned better.
You don't have to be perfect to be marvelous; you're already there.
You don't have to live perfectly to be successful; just be your excellent, talented "Spirit of Stanford" selves and all shall be well.
If you demand a perfect mate you'll be single, if you wed expecting a perfect marriage you'll be sad, if you try to run a perfect business nobody will want to eat lunch with you, and when you come to the point when the imperfections of your parents are obvious and unavoidable, remember, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
In the fullness of your lives, no one here can predict or say where your faith, whatever it is, may take you, but wherever that is – go. Leave your "score card" app behind, and relish the experience.
Study, shape, realize, respond, find, forgive, laugh, love.
Hold, please, the knowledge that WHERE-ever, WHEN-ever, WHY-ever, WHO-ever, however time and events touch you, and are touched by you, there is yet and always the Possibility of – Amen.