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Ira Vinson "Jack" Birdwhistell

Wishes and Hopes - Georgetown College Last Chapel Lecture

April 20, 2010 • Georgetown, Kentucky

Ed: This probably Jack's most well-known and public piece of writing - it's his Last Chapel lecture delivered to the students and faculty of Georgetown College in 2010.  We have a video of it also on this page.

“This Is My Story—Wishes and Hopes”Georgetown College—April 20, 2010    Thank you.  This is a great honor for me.  Many faculty never have an opportunity such as this.  Here’s what I plan to do.  I want to tell you a bit of my life story, stopping along the way to point out some areas where I ‘wish’ I had done better, and my parallel ‘hopes’ for you, my students.    It all began in May, 1946.  I am the first wave of the ‘Baby Boomers’—Here’s what that means—In the summer and fall of 1945, millions of American soldiers came home from World War II—In the spring and summer of 1946, millions of American babies were born (go figure), including me.  My generation includes such notables Americans as Dolly Parton, Reggie Jackson, Sallie Field, Oliver Stone, Cher, and, not least, George W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton.    I grew up in Lawrenceburg, which my brother Ben describes as ‘Mayberry’.  It wasn’t perfect, of course.  Lawrenceburg was a very race conscious town and a very class conscious town.  However, ninety per cent of us were of the same race and the same class, so that made for a very stable, everyone-knows-everyone environment.  Much of what I have learned about how to get along with people, I learned working at my father’s grocery, the ‘Model Market.’  I went to Anderson High School, where I played two years of mediocre basketball, but I was pretty good at school.  Having received a ‘full tuition’ scholarship to Georgetown College, I accepted.  In the fall of 1964, ‘full tuition’ for the year was $600 (from your reaction, I suspect it is a bit higher now).    The other ’Boomers’ and I arrived in September, 1964, and immediately took over the campus.  We were by far the largest class in Georgetown’s history, and there were more of us than anyone else.  Upperclassmen tried to haze us into wearing beanies, sing the alma mater, but they didn’t have much success.  We were simply too numerous.  Those college years were a blur of hootenannies (folk song sing alongs), football and basketball games, BSU functions, road trips (although freshmen could not have cars on campus then), and Homecoming floats and parades.  We thought of ourselves as living in a Camelot—‘The winter is forbidden ‘till December,’ etc.   In fact, the ‘Belle of the Blue’ (college annual) for 1968 had ‘Camelot’ as its theme—lots of pictures of troubadours, knights, and fair maidens.  And there were some really fair maidens.  Dr. Robert L. Mills was our tall, elegant King Arthur, aided by saintly knights such as Dr. Coleman Arnold (English prof) and Jim Bergman (Dean of Men).  But, really, Camelot?    Maybe not.  While we had a great deal of fun back then, there was a major tragedy—a fraternity pledge drowned in the Elkhorn Creek in a hazing accident.  Lots of heartbreak then.    In spite of four years at Georgetown that I loved, there are some things I wish I had done better.  We were not very world aware.  The Civil Rights movement was changing the country, but not our little world.  Scottie Edwards of Princeton, KY, arrived in 1964 as the first African-American student in the college’s history (we had some African students before, from Nigeria).  This was well after most public schools in KY had been integrated.  As the years went by, there was a steady trickle of African-Americans, until very recently.  I think Scottie and those who followed him would be vey happy to visit our Caf, walk around the campus, and enjoy the Step Team.    We also had a dim awareness of the War in Viet-Nam, hoping that it would be over well before our class graduated, but it was not to be.  And when Dr. King was shot in Memphis in April, 1968, I recall being sad, but I had no idea what a tragedy this was for the USA.    So I wish I had been more aware of what was going on in the world.  I also wish I had been more adventurous.  There were very few opportunities for world travel then—no study abroad that I can recall.  Dr. Mills took a group of students to Europe in the summer of 1968, but that was too much of a challenge for me.  You guys have so many more opportunities.  I hear there will be as many as sixty Georgetown students studying abroad next school year, as well as students headed in several directions for overseas mission trips this summer.  I hope you can travel, travel, travel while you are here.    This wish reflects my unique experience.  I arrived at Georgetown, tested out of some intro courses, and remained in a major that I had soon ceased to enjoy, only because I felt it would be ‘easier’ to finish.  It was ‘easier’ to finish (I didn’t even have a major course the spring semester of my senior year.)  But I really didn’t enjoy my course of study—and some of my friends were in the same boat.  I did fine grade-wise; I simply didn’t benefit from Georgetown nearly as much as I could have.  Here are some of my former students who have done well in majors they enjoy:    I hope you will imitate these students, not me.    But in a way, I made up for it in my next six years spent at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  I read and studied, studied and read.  I was also pastor of the Baptist church in Canmer, KY, from 1970-1974.  At Southern I reveled in the study of Christian history under Dr. E. Glen Hinson, especially enjoying the history of New Testament times, and writing a dissertation on Southern Baptist-Roman Catholic relationships in the twentieth century.  A three week European trip in 1971 to an ecumenical gathering was the first great adventure of my life.  I also taught Church History as an Instructor, in addition to other part-time jobs around Louisville.  We (I had married in December, 1969) did pretty well financially as students.  It was a time for ‘The Lively Life of the Mind’, and I really enjoyed it.    Armed with a completed Ph.D. I went out into the world to be the next E. Glenn Hinson.  I applied everywhere, even the University of Virginia, where I was told they wanted a specialist in South Chinese Buddhism—I wasn’t really aware there was ‘South Chinese Buddhism.’  No teaching positions anywhere.  Due to the kindness of Father Clyde Crews, I spent a year as part of the Campus Ministry Team at Bellarmine College (now University), working with Father Clyde, Father Joe Graffis, and Sister Rose.  I also had a short stint as interim pastor in Irvington, KY, which gave me the idea that maybe I could actually be a Baptist pastor.    In the spring of 1976, I was called as pastor of the Baptist church in Drakesboro, KY, in Muhlenberg County (we were the closest town and church to ‘Paradise’—John Prine).  Drakesboro is located in ‘The Great West Kentucky Coal Field’.  I had never heard of TGWKCF!  But these three years may have been the most valuable in my life, learning about church, people, the ‘real life’ issues people face.  It was here that I met Mr. Lee Hill, the best Christian person I have ever known.  Mr. Hill, a retired coal miner, had lost a leg in the mines, so he limped through life, spreading joy and kindness.  He started work in the mines very early in life, so he never learned to read or Write.  He absorbed his faith through hymns, Sunday School classes, and sermons.  He was simply the kindest, most generous man I’ve ever known.  He was greatly beloved by the children of the church, who by now included my daughter, Cory (born in Louisville), and son, Dan (born in Madisonville).    While at Drakesboro I talked with five different entities about leaving—for a couple of KY churches, for seminaries in Texas and New Orleans, and a big Baptist agency in Atlanta—none of those worked out—and now I’m glad.  You see, in the spring of 1979, word came that Dr. Thom Meigs, who had been with me at Southern Seminary, was resigning as Dean of Religious Life at Georgetown to accept a position at Midwestern Seminary.  I was pumped—Georgetown!  I quickly applied and was interviewed that summer.  I thought I had nailed the interview, but I heard nothing for about three months.  Finally, in late November, the call came to become the Campus Minister at Georgetown.     My first day on the job was January 15, 1980; I recall parking on the circle near where I park today, picking up an empty beer can and throwing it away.  I haven’t seen a can on the circle since—I must have single-handedly wiped out drinking on the campus—or maybe not.      I was so fortunate to inherit some exemplary student leaders when I arrived here.  They were top notch.  In the fall of 1980, H. K. Kingkade arrived as a student from Owenton.  You know H. K. as the dapper, well-dressed, capable Director of Religious Life here at Georgetown.  In those days he was H. K. the Troubador, dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, with his guitar on his back—the most effective worship leader I ever had at Georgetown.  In those days he wrote a song for people in transition, as some of you are.  I’ve asked him to share it with you today.  (H. K. sings.)    The next seventeen years were a whirlwind of ministries and activities that most of you would not recognize: ‘Campus Praise’, ‘Genesis’, Dorm Bible Studies, Spring ‘Renewal’, ‘Manna’. Image’, ‘Elderhostel’, Youth Revival Teams, ‘Derby Infield’. ‘New Student Talent Show’, New Student Retreat, BSU Convention, LTC, Cedarmore Youth Weeks, ‘Summer Servants Commissioning’, ‘Creative Ministries Team’, ‘Son’ Teams—on and on—all designed to help students grow up and grow in their faith.  Lots of great students worked hard, traveled miles, gave generously of their talents.  Looking back, I wish we had 1) done more community service and 2) more evangelism.  I’m very happy that more of both is happening now through Campus Ministry.    On the downside, four students died between 1980 and 1997, far too young.  There were also the deaths of beloved members of the community, such as Coach Jim Reid and Mrs. Martha Simpson.  In each case, the Georgetown community, as usual, rallied in support of the families.    Along the way I taught at least one REL course each semester, two when I could pester Paul Redditt into scheduling it.  Teaching remained my first love.  Then in the summer of 1997 a most amazing thing happened—college enrollment spiked, up 50 per cent from 1980.  Georgetown needed a fourth member for the REL Department.  Dean Charlie Boehms and Dr. Paul Redditt cooked up a plan by which I would be offered the position, joining the faculty as the ‘Church History’ person.  I recall Paul visiting me in my cluttered office, downstairs where Katie McCracken’s office is now.  I was overwhelmed and readily accepted the offer.  It remains the single most generous thing anyone has ever done for me.  So, for the third time: 1964, 1980, and again in 1997, Georgetown College had opened a door for me—and I am eternally grateful.  I was delighted to see so many of you raise your hands in response to Heather’s question.  I’ve calculated that I have taught REL to about 3500 of you over the years—I’m pretty proud of that.  We have discussed all sorts of wonderful matters: TANAK, the LXX, A-H-E-N, the Antitheses, the Ending of Mark, the Synoptic Question, Johnanine ‘Signs’—on and on—and I have enjoyed every minute.    However, as wonderful as the last thirty years have been here at Georgetown, I offer you some ‘cautionary tales’—areas in which I wish I had done batter, areas in which I hope you do well.  The first involves my health.  Because of an onset of minor arthritis, I shut down vigorous physical activity far too early.  I weigh too much, lack exercise, my lifestyle is far too sedentary.  Going on 64, I’m not sure I could make up for lost time, even if I tried hard.  So it brings me joy when I see or hear of colleagues exercising, of former students running marathons, of current students spending time in the REC.  I hope you do much better than I in taking care of your body.    Here’s another problem area—you see the $$ signs there—that stands for money.  I’ve simplified our money problems by calling it ‘Too Much Debt’! With two kids in college, home maintenance, and lots of things, we just charged too much.  These little cards you carry are really ticking time bombs—the card companies are not your friends—they want to get you in over your head.  No bankruptcy, and never missed a payment of any kind, but Too Much Debt.Now, don’t feel sorry for me.  I own a little white house in Lawrenceburg—paid off.  I own a little black car—paid off.  But it took several years and some financial good fortune to get me here, and I’m very grateful.    I hope you will take seriously how you handle your money.  It’s more difficult now than ever.  And many of you will need help—parents, aunts or uncles, a banker, trusted older friend, even Dave Ramsey!  Wherever you can find help, take advantage of it.    Now to relationships, most important of all.  Some of you recall from REL 231 Neil Clark Warren’s ‘Fifteen Factors for Fulfilling Relationships.’  #9 talks about the importance of communication; #10 mentions communication when disagreeing.  I never got that one right.  The longer people are together, the more chances there are for joy, and the more chances there are for disagreements, especially about money. Life can become very complicated, communication can break down.  And so, in October, 2000, I found myself looking at a paper which said, “The marriage is inextricably broken.”  I thought to myself, “Yeah, I’m afraid that’s correct.”  So the school year 2000-2001 was a grim one—I made it through with the help of family in Lawrenceburg, friends and colleagues in Georgetown, and, most important of all, students much like you.    I wish I had done much better—I hope you will do better.  And young as you are, you can find help in our Georgetown curriculum—COMM 200 “Personal/Interpersonal Communication” for underclassmen, PSY 350 “Relationships” for upperclassmen.  Seek premarital counseling, find a successful couple to ‘mentor’ you during the early years of marriage.  Unless you come from a perfect, loving, ‘excellent communication’ set of parents, you need help.  I hope you will seek it.    Here endeth the Wishes and Hopes—now for Two Visions.  You need to know that I’m not a very religious guy.  I don’t see visions, I rarely hear the voice of God, I am the world’s worst pray-er. But hese two visions I read about hit me deep in my soul.  The first comes from the Trappist mystic and monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), who found himself in Louisville in October, 1958—He wrote in a journal, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs. . . .   If only everybody could realize this, but it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around, shining like the sun.”    Hold on there, Tom Merton! I may be neither mystic nor monk, but I have had that experience many times—not at the corner of fourth and Walnut in Louisville, but in all sorts of locations at Georgetown College, most often when coming out the rear of Hill Chapel, looking left and right—seeing students “walking around, shining like the sun”    The second vision comes from the prophet of The Revelation, who, after lots of bloody, violent, gory visions of conflict between the Lord and the Evil One, was given two glorious visions, in Ch. 21, the Holy City, New Jerusalem, and in Ch. 22, this: “A river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street.  And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”    When I first really noticed this passage, I immediately thought, “Those leaves on the tree—I recognize them—they are the students of Georgetown College—and they are for the healing of the nations!”  Some of you spent spring break in Arizona or Texas or North Carolina—for the healing of the nations.  This summer, some of you are going to Haiti--Lord knows how much healing that nation needs--some are going to the orphanage in Brasil, where the kids need healing; some to Chile, Guatemala, Uganda, or places I’m not aware of.  Many of you are spending your summers working with youth and children from very tough backgrounds—they need healing.      Most of you are staying home to work, many in our beloved KY.  Lord knows our nation needs healing—there is so much fear, anger, even hatred out there, maybe especially here in KY.  I have seen it worse, between 1968 and 1974 or so.  That was a HELL of a time for our nation, but we got through it.  Yesterday we remembered a very sad anniversary of hatred in America—the Oklahoma City bombing.  I hope this summer, wherever you are, that you can push back against the fear and anger—with kindness.  I’ve seen this quote ascribed to both Plato and to Philo of Alexandria; “Be kind, for every one you meet is fighting a great battle.”  Whoever said it, it’s true--and some of the angriest people are fighting the some of the greatest battles—and are looking for someone to blame.  “For the healing of the nations . . .”    Wishes and Hopes. Two Visions.  And now, a final blessing from Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known to all of us as Bob Dylan, a prophet for my generation.  Receive now this blessing:

May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true;May you always do for others and let others do for you.May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow u to be true;May you always know the truth, and see the lights surrounding you.May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift;May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.May your hearts always be joyous, may your song always be sung.May you stay forever young!  May you stay forever young! Thank you, my dear, dear, young friends!

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