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Commencement Address
137th Anniversary Commencement
Ottawa University — Kansas City
Sunday, May 11, 2002

The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn

   Photo: President Neal and Dr Barnet
President Neal, Dr Bittin, Provost Levene, esteemed faculty, honored guests, and worthy graduates, families and friends:

Congratulations to us all in celebrating the achievements in which we all share.

The story is told — it is a classic — of a time traveler returning to the middle ages where she saw three persons hewing stone. To the first, as he was cutting the irregular limestone into a right-angled block, she put the question: What are you doing? He responded with a frown and some irritation: Can't you see? I am whacking stones into blocks. When I  get one squared, they bring me another. This is my place in life. I cut stone.

She put the same question to a second person: What are you doing?  He smiled and said, "See these stones, what I do to them, how I reshape them? With my work, I earn my living. From my sweat, I am able to provide for my family."

The same question to the third, also hewing stone: What are you doing? — The third person answers with some excitement. "The reason we work on these stones is that we are building a great cathedral, creating a sacred space that will offer comfort to those in pain, honor to those who die, and faith for those who live."

Since September 11, we have searched for such a cathedral or sacred space where we can find comfort and meaning and direction. Of course the search actually began much earlier, when we first noticed not only the wonders of the world but also that the world is not the way it should be, that people sometimes let us down, that tragedy and cruelty are woven into the story of the human adventure, along with courage and achievement.
But our lives really are not so much about searching for this sacred space, this cathedral, as it is about building it.
I would like to talk about three stones we must hew for that cathedral: vision, vocation, and valor.

First, vision: What kind of world do we want? What is the content of our vision? Surely we want to be able to trust ourselves and the world — but ice storms, tornadoes, and floods can intrude upon our plans. Car accidents,  crime, and terrorism — the World Trade Center, the pipe bombs in rural mailboxes and heartbreaking difficulties of the middle east — remind us how disappointing our fellow humans can be. And sometimes our own inadequacies and failures make it difficult to take the next step forward.

This is why education is so essential for life — to find the pole star which can guide us through the dark nights. A key purpose of education is character. And what is character?  Aristotle said it best: character is what a person chooses and what one shuns. What kind of vision do we choose?

Richard Seltzer the surgeon, tells of a young man and woman who envisioned something deeper than scars in a hospital room, because of their character, because what they chose. Dr Seltzer writes: "I stand by the bed where a young woman lies.  Her face is post-operative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed.  She will be thus from now on.  The surgeon, myself, had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh.  I promise you that.  Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.  Her young husband is in the room.  He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. 'Who are they?' I ask myself,  'He and this woman with the tortured mouth I have made who gaze at and touch each other so generously, so greedily.' The young woman speaks. 'Will my mouth always be like this?' she asks.  'Yes,' I say, 'It will. It is because the nerve was cut.' She nods and is silent, but the young man smiles.  'I like it,' he says. 'It is kind of cute.'  All at once I know who he is.  . . .  I lower my gaze.  . . .  Unmindful of me, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I, so close, I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I hold my breath and let the wonder in."

Vision, after all, is not detached from, or ahead of, life — so much as a way of seeing that our love for the world, despite its crooked ways, is irresistible. Vision, rooted in character, nurtured by education, is the first stone in building our cathedral.

The second stone is vocation, a word that is somehow out of fashion. Nowadays popular and political culture sees education primarily in the light of getting a job. And the job is simply to make money. Vocation on the other hand, is a way of understanding that one is contributing to the community by providing worthy goods and services.  one reason I am so pleased to be associated with Ottawa is that this school understands that education not just about jobs but also about citizenship, about community, about how we relate to one another. We make a living by what get; we make a life by what we give.

Pharmacist Robert Courtney got instead of giving; he diluted prescription drugs instead of  helping to heal people of cancer and other diseases. Enron manipulated the markets to create an empty and false empire instead of providing energy at a fair price. [Bill Gates, with great marketing skills, defends an inferior product with predatory, monopolistic, and illegal practices instead of producing a platform for genuine innovation.] The goal has been perverted from  providing a service to the community at a fair profit, to making as much money as possible quickly, and even that goal seems to be replaced now by the goal of executive compensation, whether the business is making money or not.

How can we question this now dominant paradigm? Perhaps one of the stories of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, an early Sufi mystic, can make us uncomfortable enough to break out of the [profit] paradigm. She ran down a street with fire in one hand and water in the other. When people  stopped her long enough to ask what she was doing, she said she wanted to douse the fires of hell and burn down Paradise so that no one would love God out of fear of punishment or hope for reward. Otherwise we make reward or punishment more important to us than God. While a fair profit is important, it is not more important than the community which should be served by its businesses and professions. The legal notion on which corporations are created is that the corporation’s purpose is to benefit the community, [not merely to enrich its stockholders.]

Kansas City has some wonderful examples of leaders and businesses provide the community with goods and services while making a fair profit.  Irv Hockaday spoke just before his recent retirement as president of Hallmark at the Cathedral Center for Faith and Work and said plainly that profit is a means, not an end. [Terry Dunn and Tom McDonnell easily come to mind as extraordinarily successful business leaders who care deeply about the community. We are blessed by many such citizens.]

Long before anyone ever thought of me as a columnist for The Kansas City Star, I arranged to spend a day at the paper as an angry citizen-observer to see how all the stupid stuff I saw in the paper got in there. By the end of the day, I was in awe because I sensed that the reporters and editors were doing their best to get faithful reporting to the public so the community could be informed. None of them may have thought of themselves as fulfilling a sacred vocation, but they were performing a duty that helps create a community. Whether the field is medicine, or technology,  or communications, or art, or transportation, or manufacturing — public or private sector — all of us can contribute to the common weal as we realize that we are building a community stone by stone. University President Neal, in his inaugural address set forth Ottawa’s “commitment to attract, challenge, retain, and empower students of all ages to learn for a lifetime of service and substance [ while living a life of ongoing learning.]” This is what I mean by vocation.

The third stone in building our cathedral is valor. Valor is a strength, a courage, a sense of value that is not deterred by setbacks or challenge, and keeps a bold perspective on things.

When a panel of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders assembled to discuss the situation in the mideast, the rabbi began by confessing wicked things had been done in the name of his religion. The Muslim leader also gave examples of atrocities committed in the name of his faith. And the Christian as well, citing both historical and current outrages by those claiming to be Christian.

To me, these were valorous statements because they courageously assessed and described a reality to which we cannot close our eyes, but which must not consume us.

I like the Zen story of Tetsugen. In his time, the holy books of Buddhism, available in Chinese, had never been published in Japanese. So he developed a plan to have several thousand copies printed from hand-engraved wood-blocks. He went from town to town to collect money for this project. After ten years, he had enough money to get the carving of the blocks started.

But then the Uji river flooded,  and there was famine throughout the land. Tetsugen took the money he had collects, and from a distant surplus bought rice for the starving people. Then he started out to collect funds again. Whether the donation was a little one or in coins of gold, he was equally grateful. After some years, he again had the money he needed.

Then an epidemic spread throughout the region. Thousands of families were left without support. To Tetsugen spent all the money he had collected, helping the helpless. When the money was all gone, he started once again collecting for the translation.

Finally, after many years, his great project was accomplished, the holy books of Buddhism had been published for all to read, and he died content. Tetsugen’s edition of the scriptures can still be seen. But those who know, say that the first two editions, which have never been seen, far surpass the third.

With valor, we are able to take great joy in our duty to the world, however it presents itself to us, embedded as we are in the larger human story.

This happy occasion today, celebrating the competence of the graduates and the continuing fulfillment of the university locally, and in its world-wide context, is a time to affirm that we are not merely cutting stone, or even just providing for our families as essential as that is. But we are building a cathedral of community, a sacred place that will offer comfort to those in pain, honor to those who serve, memory to those who die, and faith for those who live. And vision, vocation, and valor are three stones we are hewing for one another and for the future.