Jun  2017 07
2017 Senior Class Reflection

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited version of the senior class reflection delivered by Travis Ewton at the 2017 commencement of Phillips Theological Seminary, May 20 at First Christian Church, Tulsa.

Board of Trustees, President Peluso-Verdend, Dean Pittman, faculty, staff, friends, family, and fellow students:

Thank you for the honor of allowing me to speak this morning on behalf of the Phillips Theological Seminary graduating class of 2017. I cannot begin to express how incredibly daunting and humbling it is to speak before and on behalf of this remarkable group of people graduating with me today. Throughout the years, each person has brought unique gifts, talents, experiences, and passions, that when shared, have made all of us better: better students, better theologians, better followers of Christ, and better ministers.

Gifts like the music and worship of Joshua Bell and Paul Ellis Jackson brought to chapel, time and again. Shana Dry’s deep compassion for anyone who was hurting, or the way Steven Williams taught me that before I speak, to count one second for each privilege I have in order to allow space for other voices. (Let me tell you, that one is hard, and it will always be hard.)


 Travis Ewton

One of the ministry lessons I learned at Phillips is whenever you are given a platform, you should use it to lift up other voices. So, in putting that lesson into practice, I’ve solicited insights from fellow graduates to share with you throughout this address.

The passage Dr. Mena will be reading for us today tells of two of Jesus’ disciples on a journey to Emmaus. We, too, have been on a journey, and, like all journeys, it has been fraught with peril, sorrow, triumph, and joy. For some of us, this journey has been longer than for others. For some, it has been more perilous. Some of us had setbacks, but we all prevailed. We have made it to the end, together.

I remember Dean (Nancy) Pittman, who taught the capstone course many of us took last fall, marveling at how connected we had become as a group. Indeed, along this journey, we became more than just classmates. We have been companions who ate, laughed, cried, and prayed together. We argued with each other, lifted one another up, and clung tight to each other in times of sorrow. About the relationships we had with one another, Paul Ellis Jackson remarked, “I learned much from our agreements as co-learners, but as you know, I learned so much more from our kind/loving disagreements and will treasure those encounters forever! That we could hold our positions, see each other’s positions as well, and still have good conversations was powerful stuff!”

We did not walk this journey alone. There were congregations who gave grace to the reality that we often had to split our time and attention between our ministries to them and the task of learning. There were the mentors who gave us sound advice and helped us pick up the pieces of our brains off the floor when our minds had been blown.

Most importantly, there were our friends and families who learned to live without us on all those long Tuesdays and weeklong concentrated courses. They encouraged us to keep going when we were spent, endured listening to us tell them about our latest theological “ah-ha” moments, helped edit our papers, and put five-hour energy drinks in our Christmas stockings, knowing we’d need it in a few weeks to pull yet another all-nighter. (Or was that part just me?!)

The truth is, we never would have made it without their encouragement, prayers, understanding, and support. Our deepest and most sincere gratitude goes to all of you who have walked alongside us. You share in our achievement today.

You know, when we’re on a journey we have never taken before, there are guides to show us the way. On this journey, we have had some of the best, most engaging guides we could ask for in the faculty and staff at Phillips.

Who among us will ever forget Dr. Bessler’s theological map, or Dr. Morice Brubaker’s love of Augustine and all things musical? John Wheeler told me that “I will be thankful for Dr. McGarrah Sharp telling me that resourcing my education with novels, books, and even TV shows were appropriate ways of coping in stressful situations.”

Dr. Ward’s use of storytelling has elevated preaching to another level for many of us. In particular, I remember a chapel service where Dr. Ward preached an old-time revival sermon on the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son as a call to inclusion. This was meaningful for me, because it helped me realize I could tap into my rural, evangelical roots to preach a more progressive theology. This spring, just when we thought we were done, Dr. Jacobs taught several of us how to use voices we did not know we had to interpret Paul.

Our journey through seminary mirrors the walk to Emmaus. When the disciples set out, there was nothing initially significant about their journey. The significance of their journey was found in the presence of the risen Christ.

They were just traveling and talking when, “Jesus, himself, suddenly came and began walking with them,” but they didn’t even recognize him until the end. The same can be said for us. You know, there are times when the veil is thin, and we tangibly experience God’s presence. Each of us has had those moments over the past few years. Then, there are the times when we see God in the rearview mirror. It is not until we get to the end of the journey that we realize Jesus has been there with us the whole time.

In all, Shana Dry hit the nail on the head when she shared that the most significant part of her experience at Phillips was grace, stating, “I believe, as a United Methodist, I witnessed unconditional, beautiful grace by so many of the professors.”

With grace, professors shattered our embedded theologies and understandings of Jesus and the Bible. With grace, the staff helped us navigate enrollment and expenses and built up the community of Phillips. With grace, the amazing library staff assisted with research and accessing of resources—can I get an, “Amen!”?

It is in that grace— from professors, staff, family, friends, mentors, and congregations who supported us, encouraged us, listened to us, prayed for us, challenged us, and wept with us—that we see the presence of Christ along this journey.

Now we are at this journey’s end, but we are far from done. Now we embark on a new journey. Some of us are taking on new ministries, perhaps non-traditional ministries. Some of us are currently packing to move to new communities, while others will continue leading the ministries they’ve been leading all along.

For all of us, our callings have been refined, and we bring new knowledge and tools with us to bring hope and healing to a broken and suffering world. We’ve learned to think theologically about every aspect of ministry, and we’ve been challenged to see scriptures and God through the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. Jinx Barber says it well, “I learned that the Good News that Jesus brought isn’t just a feel-good message for Christians, but an admonition to actively subvert harmful systems of power and constantly seek to help empower those harmed and oppressed by those systems. In other words, being a Christian is now harder than ever, because I know that to follow Jesus is to be humble, merciful, and make justice happen!”

Indeed, enlightenment is both a burden and a blessing. Dr. Blue would often tell us that we are the resident theologians in our congregations. (She also said our congregations would try to kill us, but that’s a different story!)

As resident theologians, we are tasked with the awesome responsibility of passing our knowledge on, of helping others see the divine in the ordinary and the sacred worth of all people. We will be called upon to resist the people and systems that bring physical and spiritual death to those around us, as we point toward God, the Author of Life. At times, we will grow weary of the work, but I pray that those relationships we have formed on this journey will sustain us in the next.

In closing, I want to leave you with a few thoughts for the journey ahead:

  • Listen for what’s not being said and whose voice is being silenced. It often reveals opportunities for ministry.
  • Spend more time in the streets than in the office. That’s where you’ll find Jesus.
  • Spend time caring for your own soul. If you’re dead inside, you can’t call others to life.
  • Be willing to challenge the status quo by asking who benefits from keeping things the way they are.
  • Finally, give yourself grace. The goal is progress, not perfection.

Be blessed on your journey. Congratulations to the class of 2017!

Browse more posts by: Seminary Relations Staff, Phillips Admin/Staff
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