Dec. 14, 2018, will be the 235th commencement ceremony for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary since the school began in 1908. Approximately 300 graduates from 31 states and 15 countries will graduate with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Yes, graduates have completed degrees, but it is a commencement rather than a cessation ceremony that is celebrated. Graduates are embarking on a new journey. Upon completing preparation, they are being sent out on behalf of the over 47,000 churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to serve as God has called them. They are ending one journey and commencing another.

J.R.R. Tolkien speaks of “journeys” in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, through Sam and Frodo as they are about to leave the Shire:

Sam: This is it.

Frodo: This is what?

Sam: If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

It is true that our graduates are embarking on a dangerous journey—we are indeed in a spiritual war, and the enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). However, I am confident that our graduates will “keep their feet” in the midst of spiritual warfare. My confidence is based on the six-fold testimony of faithfulness exemplified by the graduates’ commencement ceremony.

1. The faithfulness of God. A given and perhaps a bit cliché, but oh so true. God has been faithful to the graduates—“know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God” (Deuteronomy 7:9a). He has been quite active, working in their personal lives, working in chapel, and working in the classroom. He has spoken through His Word as graduates poured over verses as they studied the entire Bible, from table of contents to maps. He has provided finances, housing, physical energy, mental acuity, spiritual growth, mentors and disciplers, lifelong friends, and so much more. Graduates can truly attest that “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

2. The faithfulness of the graduates. The graduates were faithful to their call to become equipped for a lifetime of ministry. They remained steadfast through the countless pages read; hours of study; innumerable papers, essays, tests and quizzes; the bane of footnotes and the style guide; hours of reflection; years of classes; and the never-ceasing juggling of school, family, work and church commitments. They permitted the Holy Spirit to remove the dross and refine them as instruments for His work and glory. Yes, it was sacrificial and even painful, yet they persevered. They remained faithful to the call of preparation.

3. The faithfulness of family and friends. All of the graduates will testify that they have not earned their degrees alone. Spouses, children and grandchildren, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and friends also sacrificed to support their respective graduates. The support system remained faithful in prayer and encouragement. The graduates needed time to study, and family and friends gave of themselves to provide that time. When the graduates were exhausted, frustrated or spiritually attacked, their families and friends picked them up to continue the call to be equipped. As graduates walk across the stage, they represent more than themselves.

4. The faithfulness of professors. Professors were faithful in their call inside and outside the classroom. They sacrificially invested knowledge, wisdom and spiritual formation into the graduates. They mentored and discipled the graduates in class, over coffee, in chapel, and through walks in the hallway. Professors invited students to their homes, walked through death and medical issues with students, and celebrated marriages and births. They did life with the students. Graduates know that a professor’s task is never truly done—Southwestern’s professors remain a phone call, text, email or visit away to help the now alumni at any time.

5. The faithfulness of churches. Inscribed on the historic academic seal of Southwestern Seminary are the words pro ecclesia—“for the church.” Southwestern Seminary exists for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. To be sure, churches have remained faithful in supporting the graduates with prayer, mentoring, service and training opportunities, and financial support. Regarding the latter, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention provided $2,282,302.00 through the Cooperative Program specifically for this semester’s graduating students. On top of this, churches routinely send designated gifts directly to students through Southwestern Seminary. The faithfulness of the over 47,000 SBC churches motivated the graduates when times were tough, as students realized they must persevere in studies as a matter of stewardship.

6. The faithfulness of donors. Christian higher education is increasingly economically challenging. It is a matter of fact that it takes more than tuition revenue and Cooperative Program funds to support education. Donors with a passion to expand the Kingdom of God through the equipping of students have stood in the gap, faithfully supporting the graduates. As they provide prayer and financial support for the graduates, they invest in the next generation of ministry servant leaders.

The graduates from Southwestern Seminary and L.R. Scarborough College begin a new journey on Dec. 14. Some will go somewhere familiar, and some will go the “farthest away from home [they’ve] ever been.” Yet, they will not be “swept off”—they will “not turn aside from the words which [God] command[s] [them], to the right or to the left” (Deuteronomy 28:14). 

As graduates are “going out [the] door,” recall that the commencement is more than the accomplishment of a degree or the embarking on a journey; it represents an exciting testimony of faithfulness.