This year I was honored to deliver the Charge to graduates of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. I’m posting the text of my address here, much as I delivered it, except for a side trail or two.
Sisters and brothers, good people all. I have two challenges to you: FIND BEAUTY AND CULTIVATE IT.
Directly across the street from the red brick building is the Belltown P Patch. It was established in 1995 and contains 35 plots. It is small. In recent years, it has seen its surrounding neighborhood transform, from decay to high density urban living.
It has become a unique little oasis in our neighborhood.
Surrounded by busyness, noise. But settle in for a short while. Listen. Attune to the place. What’s beneath the surface?
What do you hear? Birds, wind. What do you see? Butterflies, bees, flowers. You can reach out your hand and touch the succulents, the kale, the raspberries. What do you smell? What do you taste?
This place is a haven of whimsy, delight, in the midst of the built environment.
But it is imperfect; it is no Garden of Eden, unless the Garden of Eden also resounded with the sounds of traffic horns and idling engines, and was occasionally littered with used needles and other refuse. BEAUTY IS SELDOM PERFECT, but that is what makes beauty delightful. Beauty surprises.
I have begun to wonder if that little pea patch teaches us something not just of how God invites us into participation with Godself in creation, but also of who we are as a community of education and practice.
That little garden (and perhaps our school) was designed to be an urban oasis in our neighborhood. Perhaps you’ve even experienced this school as an oasis, providing you a place of rest and recovert after some time in a less than welcoming climate.
But the thing about oases is that we’re never really supposed to stay there. We spend time in an oasis, getting refreshed, and we pass through. Even the Garden of Eden was only our home for a time.
Imagine yourself back in the P-Patch. Look up around you. You discover rooftop gardens thriving atop the newly built condominiums and office complexes. More beauty. Somebody has cultivated that beauty, hoping that you would discover it.
In fact, if you could zoom back out, take a higher perspective, you’ll see a surprising amount of greenery in the city; you’ll see the flowers on rooftop gardens and you’ll see the dandelions thriving in sidewalk cracks.
You’ll see surprising glimpses of beauty.
In our time together in this school, I have no doubt that you have been surprised by glimpses of beauty. In the smile of another; in the tears of another. In the compassion you’ve experienced as your story has seen the light and a measure of healing. In the satisfaction of work well done, of a helpful new idea, of the redemption of a story marred by trauma, of your surprise at the passage of time.
The P-patch shows us that beauty is everywhere, surprising us by how frequently it can be found once we look. Sometimes we have to look up, zoom out. It also tells us that beauty is cultivated. 35 plot tenders caretake a small piece of soil in the Belltown P-Patch, and thers is now a 2-year waitlist to caretake a plot.
The beauty of your life may surprise you. Formally and informally, you have cultivated that beauty in your time here. I believe that underlying your work and study and formation here is a desire to be cultivated, so that you may discover and cultivate beauty in others. You’ve discovered here that you are not the only one who sees your beauty and who helps you to cultivate it. You’ve seen that in other students, in other community members.
Please understand, though, that I’m not saying that everything around us is beautiful, or that cultivation is easy. We live in a world and a time proud of our humanity, but we witness and experience tragedy, decay, pain and violence far too often. We must work hard to see beauty as we prophetically say that Black Lives Matter (calling into being truths that are not yet fully formed), and we see beauty when we hear from teenaged Pakistani girl Malala Youssef that young girls matter and should have access to education and to personhood.
Cultivation of the beauty we DO find is not blissful either; we spread compost and pull weeds to allow the frail good we see to thrive from tender and frail beginnings. But we know that you can cultivate the beauty you see; you’ve all completed Practicum.
And, you’ve seen that you are not alone in cultivating beauty. You’ve seen it in the way that God has been faithful to sit with you, laugh and cry with you, and pull a few weeds when necessary. Your beauty and the beauty you discover in the world is cultivated by A whimsical, wild and untamed God. A smiling Father. A wise and free Spirit. An Son with arms opened wide in embrace to each of us. A God who calls us beyond ourselves into the hard work of re-creation, redemption and reconciliation.
Look around you. ATTUNE TO THIS PLACE. Where do you see beauty? In whom? Where and in whom have you cultivated beauty?
Tomorrow, after the celebration of today is over, you will again see beauty, and you will cultivate it. And will again on Monday, and then as you settle more deeply into your vocation, sent in this ceremony and by this community.
How will you keep your eyes open, looking up, preparing to be delighted? And how will you discover beauty within yourself, and within those you love and serve? And how will you partner with God to cultivate it?
Good people all, sisters and brothers: Find beauty. Cultivate it.
JOHN O’DONOHOE POEM: For a leader (To Bless the Space Between Us) – not attached, in respect of copyright – buy the book or audiobook or eBook, or all three, as I’ve done.