Giving Thanks and Going Forward

June 10, 2015
Matthew Potts
HDS professor Matthew Potts / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies Matthew L. Potts was the faculty speaker during the Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving for the Graduating Class on May 27, 2015. Below are his remarks, as prepared for delivery:

It's a great honor to stand in this lofty pulpit at any time, let alone this afternoon. I have to confess, it's also a bit of a surprise to me. I didn't expect to be invited by the graduating class to speak today because I've only been on the faculty here a couple of years and didn't think I was well-known enough to merit the honor. A friend of mine suggested that this might in fact be precisely the reason for the invitation: I haven't been around long enough to leave a bad impression.

I have good friends.

Whatever the reason, I'm honored and humbled to stand here now, to address you this afternoon, and I'll do my best, whether this impression be first or familiar, not to make it a bad one. Because there are a lot of bad commencement speeches, right? There are some really great ones, of course. If you get bored tomorrow morning for example (or in the next 10 minutes), I invite you to take out your phones (we see you doing this in class, by the way, so why stop now) and look up George Saunders' or David Foster Wallace's or Conan O’Brien's. (I wouldn't be a Harvard professor if I weren't assigning additional reading, so again, why stop now.)

There are a lot of sort of flat graduation speeches because – let's be honest – commencement is swimming in cliché. It's hard to avoid – there are 50 colleges and universities in the Boston area alone, hundreds in Massachusetts, thousands and thousands across the country, and all those remarks about commencement can't help but sound hollow upon repetition. Indeed, if you can get out of a commencement weekend without hearing some vague platitude about the nature of our world, or the value of education, or the power of diligence and your dreams, count yourself lucky.

I hope to avoid all that by steering clear of the topic of commencement altogether. As many of the bad (and a few of the good) speeches remind us, commencement is about commencing, about beginning, about starting something new. But your commencement is tomorrow, of course, not today. All of that beginning and starting commences in the morning. Tonight, we're not commencing anything. We're doing the opposite tonight. If tomorrow's a beginning, then tonight's an ending. We're not commencing, we're concluding. And as we come to our conclusion, we gather to do what we should probably always do when a good, or a valuable, or a worthwhile thing comes to an end: we're recalling our common past, and we're giving collective thanks. This is a service of thanksgiving, after all.

There's good news in this for you graduates, in my resolve to avoid the topic of commencement. It means I can also avoid the dreaded question. You know the one I mean, the one every soon-to-be graduate hears over and over again each spring, with greater frequency and urgency and obnoxiousness as graduation approaches. I've asked it of you myself, and I've seen the terror in your eyes: So what are you going to do after graduation? What are your plans? Do you have a job? A spot in school? A paycheck? A hunch? I can see some of the people in the back nodding and wanting to know some answers. Even if you're lucky enough to have that job, or that spot, or that hunch, this question is still unsettling, or should be, because the future is uncertain for all of us, notwithstanding any best laid plans. So rest easy graduates: tonight is not about looking forward, it's about looking back; not about commencement, but about conclusion. Tonight is about giving thanks.

I've told this story before, so some of you have already heard it, and I'll ask you to bear with me as I tell it again. On the weekends I serve a Christian church near here. In my first year working at the parish, I was overwhelmed by the pastoral demands of the job. The rector of the church and I buried 31 people in 52 weeks. I remember a lot of those burials, but one of those people, a man named Howard, still stands out in my memory. Howard had been a prominent member of the local town and a regular communicant of the parish, but he'd been declining for years and by the time I began serving the church, he was largely confined to a sickbed at his home. In fact, the first and only time I met him was about a week before he died, when I went to visit with his family and say prayers. He was in misery during that visit, sensitive to movement and to touch, his face twisted and pained, a low moan constantly under his breath. It happened to be a bad day that day when I saw him. Howard wasn't always like that, but he was like that a lot of the time.

When he did eventually die his daughter came to see me and make arrangements for the funeral. We chose hymns and readings and looked at prayers together, but mostly she talked to me about her dad. Just before she left, she said one final thing. She said, "My dad wasn't a particularly religious man. He went to church, but I never heard him talk about God or faith or Jesus or anything like that.

"A couple of days ago," she said, "he had a few minutes of lucidity, when he was calm, when he recognized me, when we could actually talk, and I knew it might be one of the last times, so I wanted to ask him – because he knew he was dying too, just like I did, and I didn’t want him to be scared – I asked him, 'Dad, do you pray?' And he said, 'Yes, yes of course I pray. I pray all the time. I'm always praying,' which was a surprise to me because I never remember my dad praying. So I asked him, 'What's your favorite prayer, dad? Tell it to me. Tell me what you pray.' He said, 'Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.'"

This astounds and moves me. This man, in misery at the end of his life, having lost most of his strength and his mind, in the midst of losing the rest, with what little of each he has left, had only one thing left to say to his daughter, and to the world, and to the God he may or may not have believed in, only one thing left to give: thanks.

Most of my family is Japanese, and in Japan there's a saying, which in some regions is used as a greeting: Okagesamade. Like many Japanese phrases, it doesn't really translate literally; it's sort of a concept surrounded my honorific prefixes and suffixes, but it means something like, "thanks be to…" No object is specified. It's just general expression of gratitude, a recognition that even the most stalwart and successful of us did not get where we are on our own. Okagesamade.

A few minutes ago I suggested that when things come to an end, the polite thing to do is to give thanks for them. But thanksgiving, I think, is more than just politely appropriate. Thanksgiving, I think, is a fundamental expression of who we are, of our contingency, our dependency, our humanity. When we give thanks, we not only acknowledge what has been, we also acknowledge that it might not have been, that we have only so much control over our lives and our world, that there but for the grace of God we might have gone, that we have been graced and given more than we typically acknowledge in any of our numbered waking days. In other words, thanksgiving is about honestly recognizing our own limits, our own boundaries, our own finitude, our own ends.

As she was dying of cancer in the mid-1990s, the English philosopher Gillian Rose wrote a beautiful memoir called Love's Work in which she reflected upon her own life and its impending end. She said, "To grow in love is to accept the boundaries of ourselves and others." She said, "To live, to love," is to be incomplete, "to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, for ever and ever." She said, as she was dying, "I will stay in the fray, in this revel of ideas and risk, learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working."

These are powerful words, words which need little comment. But I can't help but notice how, in this memoir of her past, at the end of her days, Rose slips into the future tense. "To grow," she says. "For ever and ever," she says. "I will stay," she says, as she's dying. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised at this turn towards the future. The great Christian theologian Karl Barth, when he wrote on thanksgiving in the Church Dogmatics, observed that since we are entirely contingent beings, as Rose and Howard and okagesamade acknowledge, the only appropriate response to that contingency is give thanks. But since we are concrete beings too, Barth reminds, mired in history as we are, our response must arise right in the midst of history too, right in the middle of all that mire. In other words, giving thanks is not just about feeling thankful. It's about doing something. It's about giving something. It's about responding to the world. Thanksgiving is in future tense, not the past. This is not the multireligious service of just feeling thankful, after all. It's the Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving, of thanksdoing.

Which raises the question I have just and regrettably promised to you all that I would avoid. Graduates: what are you going to do? It turns out that reckoning fully and graciously and gratefully with our common past means responding with our common future, and so we cannot rightly give thanks tonight without also asking that dreaded question: What will you do?

Notice, however, the questions I am not asking. I am not asking how you will be paid. I am not asking how you intend to continue in the life of opulence to which you've become accustomed as graduate students of divinity. I am not asking where you'll work, or who will sign your paychecks. Others may be asking you that, may keep asking you that, I know, but those aren't my questions. I'm not concerned about any of that, frankly, and neither are my faculty colleagues. You'll be fine, you'll figure that stuff out, you always do. What I want to know is: How will you respond to what you have received here? How will you grow? How will you revel in ideas and in risk? What will you do?

Something ends tonight. And something begins tomorrow, as something always begins with every tomorrow, of course. But today's tomorrow is unique, because in the morning, when you commence at Commencement, you will attach to yourself new labels, new titles, each more powerful than the last: master; doctor; Harvard; Divinity. Let me tell you: you can and you should probably feel some ambivalence around each of these new words that you will take up tomorrow as your own. Like every other thing, each of these titles has its own history; like any of us, each has a past that must be addressed directly and looked at honestly and reckoned with rightly.

But if Karl Barth and Gillian Rose and my friend Howard are correct, as I think they are, then reckoning rightly with these histories will mean responding to them rightly, too. It will mean taking all their worrisome, wonderful, whelming pasts, both gracefully and gratefully, into your futures. So, what will you do? Will you give thanks?

Here at Harvard, we like to say that the world needs HDS. I'm not so sure that's true. Or rather, I think if it is true, then it's only because Harvard Divinity needs you first. And for this, as we come to our collective close this evening, I offer my deepest thanks.

—Matthew L. Potts, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies