Your Bag of Wedges: A Commencement Address

I was invited by President Beck Taylor to give the afternoon Commencement Address for Samford University’s winter graduation on Saturday, December 18, 2021 2 p.m. This is my text.. This reflection was originally part of a sermon that appears in my forthcoming book, Shadow Prayers. it will be out soon through Mossy Creek Press.

Congratulations, graduates! What an accomplishment! We are proud of you today and you should be, too. Let me share the three measures of maturity that I gave my three daughters years ago: You’re out of the house, out of school and out of my money. My middle daughter, a Samford grad, came up to me and said, “Two out of three isn’t bad, Dad.”

I know you go out into an odd world. I feel for you. I grew up in such a different time. I graduated college in 1972. We didn’t have these problems. 

Of course, we had witnessed the assassination of a President, his brother, and Martin Luther King, jr. There were protests over the war in Vietnam and racism. Oh, and we were arguing about communism and fascists. And radical groups were setting off bombs weekly. We were also fighting over women’s place in the world, sexuality, and the environment. Inflation was a problem. Drug abuse was out of control. Political corruption took out another President. But like I said, it was a different time. Simpler. Of course, we were pretty sure that the world was falling apart. Global hunger worried us. Time was short, and preachers said it was the end of the world. Hal Lindsay wrote a book and set the Rapture in the 1980s. But you live in a very different time.

Anyway, I got married during college. For three years I worked every spare moment for the McKinnon Bridge company building bridges on Interstate 40 in East Tennessee. My co-workers were a distinguished group—including Wise Owl, the crane operator, who did time for murder, and Elmer, a moonshiner who never wore teeth at work and rolled his own cigarettes. 

A fellow carpenter was nicknamed Love. That came from the tattoos on his knuckles. On one hand was L-O-V-E and on the other, H-A-T-E. One day, two of us college boys were trying to decide whether to ask for a promotion or not. He said, “Boys, I’m going to give you some advice. You got to start at the top and work yer way down.” We got the promotion. Good advice. Kind of a reverse Peter Principle.

Now to build a bridge we erected huge logs and set steel beams from one row of logs to another. 

Before setting the steel beams down, we laid down wooden boards, maybe two feet long, on top of each log. Then we put a row of wooden wedges, as many as 8 on each block facing one way. Then we put an equal number of wedges facing the other direction and laid another board on top of that. Then you set one edge of the steel beam on top of the boards, a kind of wedge sandwich. Then we would build plywood forms and put steel reinforcement bars inside and pour concrete. 

Then, when the concrete was dry on the new bridge, we climbed up with sledgehammers and put a hydraulic jack up to the beam and tightened it. Then we started knocking the wedges out. The weight of those forty-foot steel beams settled on the jack instead of the wedges, which fell to the ground. Then we lowered the beam until it could be pulled out and down to the ground.

It was dangerous work at every stage. Think of this—hundreds and hundreds of those wedges, facing toward one another, held thousands of pounds of steel and wood and concrete and a crew of men until the bridge was done. The wedges had one purpose—to point toward one another and hold in place and then, its work done, be knocked aside. The purpose of the bridge was not the wedges. It was to enable people to travel and get across the river or a valley or a low place.

Think about the lowly wedge. It is a lowly task, having people kick you over and over just so you can hold the door for them. They hold open doors for elderly people on their walkers and canes or while funeral directors wheel the body of someone out to the hearse for the procession to the cemetery.

Chisels are metal wedges. An axe head or a hatchet is essentially a metal wedge with a handle to multiply the force while you drive it into a limb or a log. The purpose is simple—to sever and split. Occasionally humans even kill each other with them. 

So, wedges are powerful little things. As such, they have to be wielded with care. But also, they lift something up, little by little. A wedge can divide, split, destroy. It can lift a steel beam or prevent a car from rolling downhill

Wedges are like human words. And words have the capacity to lift up and build, or to destroy and divide. Now we live in a time that is unlike any other.  Our information age has brought with it disinformation and rumors, anarchists and conspiracy theorists. 

Social media and the internet, our own news media across the spectrum from left to right, have been driving the wedges, harder and harder. Our differences are deep and out there to see. And we have pounded them into our common life, harder and harder, and anger drives them deeper than we normally would. 

It would be worthwhile to note what wedges cannot do. They cannot tie things together or bond that which is separated. Wedges don’t heal the sick or feed the hungry. They are not useful for wiping tears and I cannot think of a single joke about wedges that would lift my spirits. They are lowly, mostly limited things. I mean, how many logs do you have to split? And how much of your day should be spent propping doors open?

And all of this brings me to a few words from Jesus. Jesus knew about words. In the Bible, words are everything. God created by His word. Words can bless or curse. Because you can’t just fling them out there indiscriminately. They have power, words do. The Hebrews understood this. Jesus is, in fact, Himself the Word of God, by which the world was made, according to the first chapter of John. The late William Barclay said calling Jesus the Word meant Jesus is himself an expression of Godself to us. If you want to know what God is like, look here. Be like him. Listen to him. Study his words. The order and purpose of the universe is displayed in him. 

Wedges work by pushing apart. The Apostle Paul declared “God was in Christ reconciling the world closer to God.” 

You have been given an extraordinary gift, these four years (I know some of you have probably done a few victory laps, so it may be more). If you are getting an advanced degree, you have even more privileged—you have been gifted with many tools. And you have worked as an advanced student in bridge building, as I see it. You have the gifts that could make ways for humanity to get across the rivers and ravines and deep places and obstacles built by nature, fear, and ignorance.

All of this brings us to this truth—human words, at best, are a sack of wedges. For four years, words have been your central preoccupation. By them you’ve been instructed, learned, been challenged, grown and argued with others and yourselves. Now you take your toolbox and your sack of words and out you go. 

I hope you know this: the highest purposes of a life of learning are not about driving apart but bringing closer, lifting, and bringing all things into great purposes. Our words have all kinds of uses, but they are not necessarily what is the deepest intention of life. Higher education, to me, like the church, is about building bridges, not splitting logs, hairs, or someone else’s skull. 

I do not know what is up ahead. It is a time unlike any other. Maybe it’s time to face the wedges toward one another and lift something up together for the common good. Raise up good families and children. Lift spirits. Raise up the fallen. Build up others. Lift someone else’s burden. Build hospitals and universities and good causes. Our world needs some bridge-builders. Jesus said our words tell who we are. For good or bad. And on the day of judgment, how we deployed our bag of wedges and hatchets, and axes will be brought into the light. It’s a terrifying image. 

But another way to see it is this—we who are trained in the power of words and ideas have the great opportunity to use them for truth and life and reconciliation 

Here are three ways I’d aim my wedges if I were launching out now. First, I’d understand that I have a personal responsibility sometimes that no one else can do. One day, while wrecking out the wedges, a co-worker accidentally lowered one of the steel beams onto the end of his thumb. He started screaming for someone to help him. Unfortunately, he was down in a tight spot. The boss said, “Son, you’re the only one who can do it.”  Take what’s yours and shoulder the responsibility. Don’t be afraid of it. Some things are yours alone to do.

Second, build a bridge wherever you can. Our call is to see the larger blueprint that makes a way where there is no way, as Martin Luther King once put it. Not to accept excuses or to selfishly live for how much stuff you can accumulate. At the end that all comes to nothing. Bridges last. Build across suspicion, find solutions, contribute to institutions and the larger good. 

Finally, remember my friend Love’s advice: “Start at the top and work your way down, boys.” It wasn’t what he meant, but I think of the teaching of Jesus, and that brilliant exposition in the letter to the Philippians 2: “Have this mind in you that was in him: he laid aside all privilege and honor and position and took on the form of a suffering servant, even unto death.” This is the way—the servant leader, who finds contentment not in fame, or power, or dancing on TikTok, or making Forbes Magazine’s Richest list, but in what you plant deep into the soil of hope and goodness and your relationships.  This is the heart of all that matters in life.

Pay attention to what you do with your wedges. This will bring you life amid the busyness. Someone has said, “Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.” Take your diploma. You earned it, whether you graduated Summa Cum Laude , Magna cum laude, or Laude How Cum, and bless. It’s your time. We need you. It’s a great time to be alive. An important time. Your time.  

Thank you.

Poplar Tent Memories: album release

I have updated and re-released an album I put together with some friends ten years ago, POPLAR TENT MEMORIES. The name of the album comes from the road where I lived after I was born, Poplar Tent Road, in Concord, NC.  There was no Interstate 85 roaring through, moonshiners lived down the road and my grandpa and grandma were two houses away. I attended Poplar Grove Baptist Church before I could walk. My Grandpa Price led the music, and I have memories of the singing from pre-age five.

Poplar Tent Memories is sixteen songs from the 2011 album and some I have added in recent years. It features several friends, including Michaela Bundon (Take a listen to her on “Tell Me the Story of Jesus”!), Nancy McLemore, Melanie Rodgers and Beth McGinnis among others.

I still have my grandfather’s old Broadman hymnal, a shaped note edition from 1940. The church musicians of Baptist life gave us a rich heritage of hymn singing. My grandfather led music in revivals, every Sunday in church, and sang in a quartet that included my mother. So I grew up, as so many Baptists then did, with an affordable upright piano in the house and a piano bench full of gospel music.

Regrettably, I resisted and won on giving up on the piano, but the guitar found me at nine or ten, and the hymns continued to be a great source of personal devotion for me in all the years that followed. I love hymns because they taught me the basics of my faith.  “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and dozens of others were my first instruction in the faith.  We sang every time we came together, over and over we recited and sang them until we knew them by heart.

I miss that part of life. I wonder if part of why we’re so messed up now is that we don’t sing together like we used to. I know people sing in arenas to the latest pop microhit, but that’s not the same. Moreover, it’s how we learned the faith. Sermons, other than the really scary ones at revivals, I remember almost nothing. But hymns, I have emblazoned all over my brain. They bubble up all the time.

When I sing, somehow the crazy part of my brain shuts off for a bit and I touch a deep place again, where Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Beethoven and Lowell Mason speak to  me. The hymns give voice to longings, pain, sorrow and hope, and above all, to Jesus, who is always better than most of Christianity. When I keep looking at that beautiful life, I don’t feel as lost.

I once opened for rocker and contemporary Christian singer Ashley Cleveland at the old Moonlight on the Mountain music venue. Like so many in the music world, addiction overtook her life for a while. It was part of her journey back to her childhood faith. During that harrowing time, she said, it was the old hymns that came back to her and carried her through.

I hope you enjoy these hymns, whether you are a church person or not. There is something universal and accessible to anyone in them.

Ranting the Deadly Sins

My friend LaMon Brown reminded me of this quote from a book i read many times and loved over the years, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechener.

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Perhaps it bears reflection as we continue devouring one another with our mutual condescension and distrust. Our leaders in America today look like us: they play to our outrage because it seems to work. Except it doesn’t. There is no room in continuous rage for discussion, understanding, listening, calming ourselves or self-understanding. The immediacy of social media is the most striking feature that is most unlike anything in my upbringing. You didn’t have millions of people potentially responding to you. And why should you?

Frederick Buechner

Somehow anger, like gossip, is not longer seen as a negative force in life. It has its purpose, but the ancient traditions understood that rage, like fire, could consume, and had to be contained. The important question to ask myself is, “Why has this made me so angry?” If I cannot answer I should wait to speak until I can.

Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

Even churches, it seems, have their fifteen minutes in the social media world of fame. Through the years, that usually comes from outstanding accomplishments by our dcc11b02-024a-44ad-8d38-d692770fbac3-150660_2251members who do something that ends up on the bulletin board.  In my present congregation, having been here nearly 26 years, you eventually get a little reflection of the wonderful things your members undertake, and they are many.  We have graduated people who became ministers, doctors, attorneys, and we claim eminent Baptist historian and advocate for the poor Dr. Wayne Flynt as a former member who was here in his Samford days.  We currently have the Alabama Crimson Tide stadium announcer, Tony Giles, as a member, and in Alabama that accords near divine status for half of the church. One of our oldest members, Bobbye Weaver, was a renowned jazz drummer who played with Lawrence Welk and a host of other eminent people.  One of our late members once danced with Betty Grable and worked on the Apollo space program.  I could go on.  But every church has its luminaries.

What does this “reflected glory” mean for the pastor?  Not much.  For if we take too much credit for the rich and famous, we also must own the other side of our membership.  Let’s not go there.  Give credit where it is due—their families, but more importantly, God, who is the giver of all good gifts.

So, our church is currently agog over Walker Burroughs, who is in the final eight of American Idol.  Walker has been a member of our church most of his young twenty Continue reading Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

The Heart of Billy Graham

In the late 1920s. my mother told me, my grandfather, her daddy, Henry Price took his oldest daughter, Katherine, to the hospital.  The doctor said that she had diphtheria and if he didn’t take her to the hospital she would die. Having no health insurance, Grandpa had to sell every chicken, cow and piece of equipment he had, as well as his his land and his house to pay the hospital bill.

With few other options, he moved his young family down to Charlotte and got a job with a local dairy farmer delivering milk. He would go out to the farm every day and pick up his deliveries and do his route.

Image #: 32382121 Billy Graham held his first stadium crusade in Birmingham, Alabama on Easter Sunday in 1964 and insisted it to be integrated. AL.COM /Landov

Their daughter survived, and when she was 6 she would go with him and knew the farmer’s son, who was about 12 years old.  She said he would pick on her.  She would later say, “He was mean to me sometimes.” But that boy went to a revival and was converted to faith in Christ, and she would have never guessed that the farmer’s son was Billy Graham, would go on to preach to 215 million people in the world and whose body lies in state in the Capitol as I write.

Most of us around Concord and Charlotte watched his rise to fame and came to love and respect his preaching Ministry. My mother says that when I was a baby, she and dad went out to the Charlotte airport to pick up someone for his work, and there came Billy and a couple of his fellow ministers, walking up the terminal hallway. My dad walked over with me in his arms, and according to family lore, Billy rubbed my head and pronounced me a cute child. I did not notice at the time.

My grandmother sent him money all of her years to support the work that he did to tell others about Jesus Christ. As he grew older zeal gave way to wisdom and Continue reading The Heart of Billy Graham