Heavy rain didn’t keep a large crowd of family and friends from coming out to New River Community College Thursday night to share in the excitement as more than 300 graduates received diplomas during the college’s 45th annual commencement.
Given the gloominess of the evening’s weather, perhaps it was only fitting that commencement speaker the Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman chose to offer the graduates “a little light, which you might carry with you as you move forward, from this ceremony and on with your life.”
In what he promised to be a “relatively brief” address, Taylor-Troutman, pastor of New Dublin Presbyterian Church, shared two stories — one of his 18-month-old son and one of a 100-year-old woman — to stress the “free will” and choices graduates will face as they move out into the world.
In his first story, Taylor-Troutman recounted how his son, in learning to speak, has mastered the basic words such as “car,” “milk,” “tree,” “truck” and “Momma,” but when he tried repeatedly to teach the young boy to say “Jesus,” asking, “Can you say Jesus?” the tot responded, “in a clear voice, ‘No, no, no.’”
Besides sharing the story of his son to “break the ice,” he said, it is representative of “something a theologian might call ‘free will,’ meaning that each of us has the ability to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to what we choose … That’s relevant to this occasion,” he continued, “because this diploma that each of you (is) receiving tonight is a big, proud ‘yes.’ Yes, you are a graduate; yes, this will lead to new opportunities; yes, this will open new doors.”
However, he noted that the diploma equally grants the graduate an ability to say “no.”
“Indeed, you must make your own decisions, including making up your own mind about that which you value and hold dear. I’ve firmly made up my mind that all the important things in life are much more significant and meaningful and, thereby, holy when they are lived, and not simply spoken,” he said. “And so, you must choose.
“So, the question then is, what will you choose?” he asked before recalling a story that shows the easiest and safest solution to a situation isn’t always the best.
He shared the story of Netta, a century-old South Carolinian, who is “deeply rooted” in the same land where she was born, but ventures miles through “both the insufferable heat of the summer and fields of tall grass” containing poisonous snakes to visit her best friend, Misty, because their homes lie on opposite sides of a “large and swiftly moving river.”
Without consulting with Netta, “because you won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Taylor-Troutman said, “you decided you are going to build a bridge over the river” so Netta will have a shortcut to Misty’s house. But when you show Netta your bridge that proudly displays your handiwork and your expertise, she “looks at you funny, kind of like you’ve lost your mind.”
He said it’s not until she points out the many stops she makes and the people she meets with along the way to Misty’s house that “it dawns on you … as dangerous as it was, Netta wanted to take the long way. And that’s the precise moment when she looks at you and says, ‘Shortcuts don’t mix with love.’
“Yes, you are trained and skilled and smart; and so, you will have the opportunity to analyze a situation and exert your will over it. You may come across a place or a culture or even a person you think is doing something inefficiently or unproductively or just plain wrong, and you may be able to use your training and skills and smarts to affect a positive change, which may very well improve the lives of others.
“And that would be a blessing — a sacred use of what you have been given in order that your life might be a gift to others. But, I would ask that, in the back of your mind, you remember Netta — a woman without a diploma, who cannot even read or write, but who nevertheless has enough wisdom in her words and experience to flood your heart, mind, and soul.
“I would ask you to remember: Shortcuts don’t mix with love,” he said.
An adjunct professor at NRCC, Taylor-Troutman earned a bachelor’s degree from Lenoir-Rhyne University in 2003 and graduate degrees from Union Presbyterian Seminary and University of Virginia. In addition to authoring numerous articles in scholastic journals, he also has written two books, “Take My Hand: A Theological Memoir” and “Parables of Parenthood: Interpreting the Gospels with Family.”