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ON WRITING YOUR OWN OBITUARY
Baccalaureate Sermon to Davidson College, Class of 2000
H. Edwin Pickard '44
Saturday, May 20, 2000
Most of us find it hard to imagine reading our own name in the obituary column. Indeed death is the one thing we just don't usually talk about in our modern culture. So my theme today, "On Writing Your Own Obituary," may seem a strange one indeed, to propose for our baccalaureate sermon to the Class of 2000. But "hang in there" with me. Maybe it has more promise for us that we at might first realize.
When I was invited to do this today, I immediately started stammering out my excuses for not undertaking it: 1) I retired more than seven years ago; 2) I had served as an interim pastor for about five years, and had just signed up to undertake one more. Then two days before I was to leave, this stenosis hit me in my back, and I had to cancel those plans. That was over a year ago. I have not even attempted since then to do any preaching until recently. And when I have, I've told my "inviters" that I could only do this if it would be agreeable for me to "perch" on a high kitchen chair. I have pain in my hip when I stand or walk. That limits me pretty much to sitting or lying down. Since once can hardly preach lying down (as one of my elder friends says, " No one wants a 'lying preacher'"), that limits me to "perching." 3) A third excuse I had was that I had recently accepted an invitation to a reunion at a church I had helped found in Texas about 45 years ago. It was to be late in May. So, of course, I felt I had to make sure that did not conflict with May 20. 4) A fourth excuse was that I had no idea what I would preach about. I have served as a trustee at Davidson for a number of years. I have profound respect for all the "intellectuals" around this place-the quality of our students, and of our outstanding faculty. Frankly, I was intimidated!
But, as most of you know, or will soon learn, it is hard to say NO to Bobby Vagt.
I started thinking and praying as to what approach I might use, in the event that none of my excuses would hold up. I did remember an article I had read some years ago about a professor at Stanford University who had given this seemingly strange challenge to some juniors and seniors at Stanford. It was to try writing a brief obituary that would reflect what they hoped would be the accomplishments of their lives. What would they like it to say?
To my amazement, I found at least four of these brief "obituaries" printed out. They had been picked up and published in the Stanford Magazine-which I imagine is the literary magazine of Stanford. When I found in my files a copy of this, I took it as a divine sign that I should try to accept this challenge, if I could. So, here I am, and "what you see is what you get."
Here are those excerpts from twenty or more years ago:
"BRADLEY KREVOY, Class of 1978. He fashioned a brilliant career in broadcast news, solved the mystery of the John F. Kennedy assassination single-handedly, and acquired a chain of newspaper and television stations based on the concept of 'freedom of expression through public participation.'"
"KEN SUTHERLAND, who played the bagpipes in the Stanford marching band, graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1978. He won the Nobel Prize for his outstanding environmental research. But he was also so caught up in the wild music of the pipes that he retired early to the Scottish Highlands. There he joined a pipe band and was elected pipe major.
"KISMET COLLINS, B.S. in chemistry, 1978, attained fame in her research specialty, the physiology of womenŠturning to other fields, she designed and built her own house, complete with a workshop-laboratory, where she invented useful things, such as a fully functioning backpack. In 2012 she published her first novel, an 'unconventional romance' based on her own experiences.
"CYRUS CASSELLS used his 1979 degree in communications as a springboard to stardom. He wrote scripts for, and played roles in television, theaters, and the movies, and wrote eight books of poetry for which he was widely acclaimed. This brilliant tour de force won him an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and a Nobel Prize as well as tribute to his work at the Cannes Film Festival in 2030. His career was always 'half in, half out of this world.'"
We may smile a little bit at these. Maybe they seem a bit naive. Most of us realize the talent and ability represented in the student body at Stanford. But we recognize that there is the same kind of potential at Davidson. For what would you like to be remembered when that time comes for you? Suppose you had been asked to participate in a similar research project. What would you want to say?
Any number of texts suggests themselves to us. But the most obvious one is Jesus' well-remembered Parable of the Talents. One word that immediately comes to mind when we think of the Class of 2000 at Davidson is "Talent." God is the Giver of all talents gathered around us in this class. And what talent there is!
The talent is not a coin like the "denarius." Rather, it is a measure of weight. It might be a pouch of gold or silver or of some other precious metal. Scholars have had a great time in trying to estimate the value of a talent. One of these calculated recently that it could be something around $250,000-a quarter of a million dollars. The point is that it represents a considerable amount of wealth. Jesus' parable reads that the person, going on a long journey, summoned the three to meet with him, and entrusted a different amount to each of them, "to each according to his ability." Thus the "talent" has been taken over into our language as a synonym for unusual ability. We will say of this person, that one, or another, " She/he has a lot of talent." We may say that of great athletes or tremendous scholars or clever writers. (Some of us who perch in pulpits might even hope they could that say about preachers-but too often, alas. . .).
When the owner returned, he had warm commendation for the first and second servants. But the third one stammered out his excuses. The master was not impressed. Instead of his "well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master," he has only words of condemnation. He says, in effect, "You could have at least deposited my trust in a CD at the bank, and I would have received my own with interest."
When we use our talents, they seem to multiply. When we bury them, they rust and become useless. A few examples: One of you may have been endowed with special talents in math. As you employ those talents, it seems that God multiplies those talents, and some other talents are added in management skills and administration. Another may have been given some special talents in the use of the English language. As you start using those, you may find that you have other gifts as an editor, as a feature writer, or as a published novelist. Still another may be gifted as a musician. Then, as that person develops those talents, perhaps she or he develops some additional talents in composing, or arranging, or conducting.
So back to those graduates of Stanford, and to you graduates of the class of 2000 from Davidson. You have had a tremendous education. Many of you will be going on in a very few years, or maybe immediately, to graduate school in medicine, dentistry, law, divinity, business, or other fields. Most of you are clearly multiple-talented individuals-five talent or two or whatever. My prediction, from what I have seen in all the Davidson students I have known, is that you will take the risks, apply yourselves, and develop even more talents.
I have often been amazed at how well so many of our graduates from Davidson have done. And at how generous so many of these have been. (Let me say, parenthetically, that no one in the Development Office has asked me to say this.) When one moves about this campus, there are reminders on every hand of alums and of their families' appreciation for this school: the Little Library, the Vail Commons, the Baker Sports Complex, the Belk Arena, the Baker-Watt Science Complex, the Knobloch Campus Center. All of these and others give witness to the faithful gifts of talents to our school.
But we must not forget the importance of the rather ordinary individuals either.
The story seems to resurface at most graduation seasons about the commencement speaker who was talking at graduation. He asked all those who had gotten mostly A's in their college career to stand and be recognized. They were appropriately applauded and sat down. Then he asked for those who had mostly made B's to stand. They too were appropriately applauded and sat down. Then he asked those who had mostly gotten C's to stand and be recognized. They were the "O-Laudy-Graduates" of the class. It hardly seemed adequate to have given them special mention. Then speaker explained. "Now I want to ask you 'mostly A's' and 'mostly B's' graduates to take good note of these. Because in five or ten years you may want to approach them about a job."
When I was a student at Davidson, approximately 55 years ago, Dr. Kenneth J. Foreman, Sr., was one of our favorite professors. He later became a professor of systematic theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Dr. Foreman was one of the most creative professors I have ever had. He wrote a weekly column in the Presbyterian Outlook, an independent newspaper of the Presbyterian Church. (He usually had very creative titles for his articles, such as one with a title like, "The Engineer Needs to Know Where His Caboose Is.")
Still another he titled, "The Importance of Being Third Rate." It, of course, had to do with the third person in Jesus' Parable of the Talents.
Dr. Foreman began, "Being third-rate may be a sin. If you are first rate or even second, it is a sin to drop beneath your real class. If you are putting out third-rate stuff when you are capable of better things, if you develop no better than third-rate character though you might have been a saint, then you are robbing the world of what you might have given, you are robbing yourself, you are showing ingratitude (if nothing worse) to God.
"But suppose you are only third rate at best?" he asks. "True you will be better than average if you are as good as that. Literally, third-rate brains, talents, capacities, when fully realized, become famous. Measured on the total human scale, weighed in the balance with Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle and the Apostle Paul (for example), few of the persons described in 'Who's Who' rise even to the third-rate level." Dr. Foreman then makes some other good points. But he concludes, "Jesus well knew this. Of his immortal Twelve most were third-rate. Had all the Apostles been first-rate, had they accepted into Christian fellowship only the first-rate, the world would have admired Christianity, but it could never have become a world religion. . ." Good things to ponder.
As pointed out by so many scholars, the real focus of this parable is on the one-talent person. The five-talent person and the two-talent person, in a way, are supporting cast.
Immediately following the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel according to Matthew, there appears Jesus' Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46). In some ways it is a parallel to the Parable of the Talents. Like the Parable of the Talents it also has allegorical overtones. Dr. A.M. Hunter, longtime professor at Aberdeen in Scotland, concludes in a little book he titled Interpreting the Parables, that this "is in part similitude, part allegory, part apocalyptic" (p.88). We could merge and paraphrase the punch line: "Inasmuch as you have done it or done it not to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it or done it not to me."
This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or Parable of the Last Judgment, suggest community service, social action, or ministry to others, emphasizing simple things like feeding the hungry; giving pure, clear, cool water to the thirsty; welcoming strangers; clothing the shivering; visiting the sick and those in prison.
I thought it significant that in the excerpts of the imagined "obituaries" of the forty Stanford University students, each of these saw himself or herself as engaged in ministry. One saw his chain of newspapers and television stations "based on the concept of freedom of expression through public participation" and all the good that they could do. Another envisioned himself as winning the Nobel Prize for his outstanding environmental research. Still another saw herself as contributing through her research on the physiology of women. And yet another as composing poetry, directing films, and using his talents of creativity.
It seemed significant that many of these saw himself or herself as developing other talents such as music, acting, creative writing, artistic expression.
There wasn't much of a theological dimension expressed, other than the service angle. There was no mention of God or of the faith dimension of life. I hope that God comes more into focus at a place like Davidson. I believe that God does.
I have been an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church since 1946. That's fifty-four years. Over those years I have served four different churches as pastor, and four more as interim pastor. Everywhere I've gone I have found our Davidsonians, serving as elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth advisers, committee members. (Someone has quipped that when a Davidson graduate comes into a group, it only takes five minutes for them to make it known. It takes a little bit for them to figure how to work it into the conversation. I hope it is not that obvious!) I have found our Davidson grads serving just about everywhere.
For the past several years, I've been trying to come up with a kind of mantra, or motto, for my AARP-years. What I have come up with for myself, thus far, is simply this: "I want to make my life count all that it can, for as long as it can, in the service of God, and in ministry to others." Maybe that isn't a bad motto to suggest to you of the Class of 2000 as you work on writing your obituary, as you think of what you would like your life-record to be able to say.
Congratulations on having completed a saber-toothed curriculum at Davidson College. And now may God bless you on the rest of the journey as your continue to write your own obituary.
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