WTS Commencement Address – April 27, 2024

Jun 4, 2024

About Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel

Before joining Western’s faculty in 1994, Dr. Carol Bechtel taught at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. She has also served as a teaching fellow at Yale Divinity School and as interim pastor of Turn of River Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Connecticut. Dr. Bechtel preaches and teaches widely and is a General Synod Professor of Theology in the Reformed Church in America. She served as President of the RCA’s General Synod from 2009-2010. She also serves as the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society.

Dr. Bechtel grew up on a farm in Fulton, Illinois. She attended Hope College, Western Theological Seminary and received her Ph.D. in Old Testament from Yale University in 1992. She now lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband, Tom Mullens. They have four children and ten grandchildren. Her hobbies include singing, cooking, gardening, and the Celtic harp.

By Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel

Professor of Old Testament

What a beautiful sight you all are! And what a privilege it is to give this thing called a “commencement address.” Truth be told, I don’t have much experience in this genre, so it may come out sounding suspiciously like a sermon. I hope you’re OK with that. To paraphrase Peter, “Commencement addresses have I none, but what I have, I give unto you.” And in a few minutes, you can take up your diplomas and walk!

It could be argued that I’ve had 3 years to preach to you. (And in some cases, more than 3 years….) So, what more is there to say? Fair question. However, I would point out that Moses had 40 years to instruct the Israelites, and that didn’t stop him from laying the whole book of Deuteronomy on them on the brink of the Promised Land. I’d call that a precedent! Though I promise it won’t take me 34 chapters to say what I’d like to say. In fact, I’ll limit myself to two “parting shots” delivered with love from—of all places—the book of Job.

Now, I know that all the graduates are familiar with the basic storyline of the book of Job. But just to make sure we’re all on the same page, here’s a recap: A righteous man suffers much and wants to know why. His three so-called friends insist that he’s being punished for some secret sin. He maintains his innocence, and in the last chapter of the book—that’s the one we just read—God vindicates Job and refutes the friends. We’ll say more about the story in a minute, but that’s enough to get us started.

So, here’s my first “parting shot.” It will sound familiar because I borrowed it from the oath that doctors take as they “commence” their calling: First, do no harm.

I’m sorry to strike a negative note on such a happy day, but it needs saying. Like it or not, you are graduating at a time when the reputation of the Christian Church has suffered from the sins of its members and its leaders. Sexual scandals, financial scandals, and a well-deserved reputation for pure meanness have sullied the name of Christians, if not of Christ himself. And not just those outside the Church have formed this negative opinion. Those inside the Church seem equally disgusted. The disillusioned faithful have headed toward the exits in what’s been dubbed the “de-churching” of America. The experts tell us that 40 million Americans have stopped attending church in the past 25 years.

At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, I think we need to acknowledge that our own behavior has had a great deal to do with this. I’m sorry that this is the situation which you have inherited; but I’m hopeful that you won’t do anything—individually or collectively—that will exacerbate it. In the words of Psalm 23:3, I pray that God will “lead you in right paths”—not just for your own good, but for God’s! We pray that God will lead us in paths of righteousness for “the sake of God’s name” the psalm says. God’s reputation is at stake in our behavior!

So, on this joyous day—a day in which you can rightly be proud as well as thankful—I risk dampening the mood to remind you to “first, do no harm.”

I don’t think anyone needs me to itemize all the ways one can “do harm” in Christian leadership. But I would like to highlight one of the things that often gets left off the list: bad theology.

I know this isn’t news to any of you, but bad theology hurts people.

The story of Job’s friends is the perfect illustration of this. They’re like ancient advocates of the Prosperity Gospel: “Just believe, and God will reward you!” Sorry, but that’s no gospel. And in the hands of professionals, it’s ministerial malpractice.

Perhaps the friends mean well. And we do have to give them credit for showing up. But from the minute they open their mouths, they make matters worse. Clueless as to the real reason for Job’s suffering, they confidently proclaim that somewhere in his youth or childhood, he must have done something bad. 

How their words must have hurt poor Job, who had been stripped to the bone already. Their certainty, like salt in his wounds, must have been agony. Again I say:  Bad theology hurts people.

It’s tempting, when we have shiny new degrees, to overestimate our own insight. But it’s important to remember that—even with shiny new degrees—we walk around (in the words of George Eliot) “well-wadded in stupidity.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted you’ve earned those degrees! And in a way, I’m preaching to the converted since YOU are the ones who have taken the time, work, and money to come to seminary to learn how to be better pastors, social workers, and teachers—to learn how to be better Christians…better humans! Bless you! But don’t let your new knowledge seduce you into thinking you know more than you do.

Those of you who have taken my Wisdom Literature course will know that I argue that the central theme of the book of Job is “the limits of human wisdom.” The mistake that Job’s friends make is in ignoring those limits. They are so certain—and yet they are so wrong. God tells them as much in the last chapter: “You have not spoken of me what is right.” Ouch. That must have stung.

In our culture, certainty “sells.” People are certain about which political candidate is “God’s choice.” People are certain about who God’s enemies are. People are certain about exactly how to interpret Scripture. What’s more, they are certain to want you to shore up their certainty—and if you don’t, it may cost you your job. 

And then there are those who are NOT certain, but who want to be. They will come to you looking for answers. But beware. There are some questions that no amount of theological education can prepare you to answer. Questions like: “Why did my child die?” or “Why didn’t God answer my prayer?” And when you’re tempted—as you will be—to give people the answers they want to hear, remember this little talk we’re having today. Remember the misplaced certainty of Job’s friends. Remember the limits of human wisdom. In the words of one of tonight’s graduates in his paper on the book of Job, remember that “You’re human; stay in your lane!” (That was a quote from Bryant Russ. You see—we DO read your papers!)

At the end of the day, all you can do is love those certainty-seekers. Love them and pray for them and teach them what it means to live in the confidence of the ultimate question and answer. You know it. It’s from the Heidelberg Catechism. Question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Answer: “That I am not my own, but I belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

It takes faith to say that, and faithfulness to live in light of it. The character of Job knows something about both, so let’s turn to him for our second “parting shot.”

One of the things I ask my students to do is to compare Epilogue Job to Prologue Job. In other words, I ask them to compare how Job changes over the course of his ordeal.

At the beginning of the book, Job is portrayed as a kind of religious super-hero. He not only offers sacrifices for his own sins, but he offers sacrifices on behalf of his ten children just in case they have sinned. He’s like a religious version of a helicopter parent. And underneath all that frantic righteousness is an assumption: That if he is “good,” he and his children will be rewarded. 

But it doesn’t work out that way, does it? Job—and Mrs. Job—lose everything. All of their property, all of their livestock, and every last one of those precious children. Now, without going into all that ensues (that would be the 34-point version of this address), I’d like to skip ahead to talk about the contrast between “Prologue Job” and “Epilogue Job.” What is Job like at the end of this story?

I would argue that Epilogue Job is a man much changed. There are superficial similarities, of course—his former wealth is restored twice over and he even gets ten more kids. (I doubt that made up for the loss of the old ones.) But in any case, his attitude seems markedly different. Gone is the helicopter parent. Now he’s giving his daughters frivolous names and-–of all things—inheritances! (That was incredibly counter-cultural for that day.) But most importantly, he seems to have given up on that old assumption that if he is very, very good, he will be rewarded.

This is a man who has learned that now matter how “good” he is, it can all be taken away in an instant. This is a man who risks loving those new children even though he know that, as the Jewish prayer book says, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” This is a man whose faith is less transactional. He’s no longer trying to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with God. Instead, he proves that he is willing to serve God whether there is anything “in it” for him or not. He’s willing to have faith and be faithful even without having all the answers.

We see the moment this “new Job” is born at the beginning of the chapter. Fresh from the “reality check” of the whirlwind chapters, he realizes that God is God—and he is not. His demands for an explanation—while understandable—are unrealistic. He could no more understand the explanation for human suffering than Einstein’s dog could have understood the theory of general relativity. And so he says—and this is a translation I find more helpful than that of the NRSV—“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore, I recant, and reconsider about “dust and ashes.”

What does that mean? To “reconsider about dust and ashes”? There’s a clue back in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 18:27 Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. I who am but dust and ashes.” “Dust and ashes” is shorthand for “human.” We are, as our opening hymn said, “frail children of dust.” So, in Job’s case, he’s saying that he is reconsidering about what it means to be human—what it means to live faithfully even without all the answers. What it means to live within the limits of human wisdom.

Isn’t that what we’re all called to do? Isn’t that what it means to have faith?

Now, why, you might be wondering, would I want to spend precious minutes talking with you about THIS part of Job’s story?

I began by reminding you to “first do no harm.” Now I’m reminding you to let your life and your ministry reflect confidence, joy, and trust. Epilogue Job teaches us that all these things are possible even if we don’t have all the answers.

At the risk of embarrassing your colleague, Bryant Russ, again, I’d like to read another section of his essay on “Epilogue Job.” After noting the “contentment, delight, and whimsy” of Job’s naming and treatment of his daughters, Bryant writes: “My hope and prayer is that the lessons of Epilogue Job [will] be realized in our modern ministry context, not simply because humility, freedom, and joy are better ways to live, but because they demonstrate a life in relationship with the truly Living God.”

Amen. Preach it, brother. I could not have said it better myself. And my guess is that if you live your lives in humility, freedom, and joy—it will preach more eloquently than any words you might say from the pulpit.

So, let’s review. (In case there’s a test!) I took two “parting shots.”

  1. Based on the negative example of Job’s friends, I pleaded with you to “first, do no harm”—especially with regard to claiming more certainty than is warranted as humans with limited wisdom. 
  2. Then based on the positive example of Epilogue Job, I encouraged you to “let your life and your ministry reflect confidence, joy, and trust”—even within the limits of human wisdom.

I think I’m beginning to see why Moses went on for 34 chapters there on the edge of the Promised Land. It’s hard to let go. But at a certain point—like a parent handing over the car keys—you just have to stop giving advice and start praying.

So to conclude, I’d like to share a brief story about a professor who prayed for me using Psalm 90 – fittingly, a psalm of Moses.

Most of you are too young to remember Professor Richard C. Oudersluys who served as a beloved New Testament professor at WTS for over four decades. Dr. Oudersluys lived to be 103. He gave his last lecture at the ripe old age of 90—and I’m told it was good!

I went to visit “Dr. O.” just a few days before he died. I remember walking into his room at Hospice and seeing a sign clipped to the foot of his bed. “Richard,” it said simply. Not “the Rev. Dr. Richard C. Oudersluys.” Not even “Dr. O.” as he was affectionately called by his students. But simply “Richard.” There was something both moving and significant about that for me. At the end of our days, titles and degrees pass away. We take nothing with us but our baptismal name.

I asked “Dr. O.” –I never could muster the courage to call him Richard—if he’d like me to read a psalm with him. He said, “yes,” and without hesitation, chose Psalm 90. 

It was an excellent choice. “Our years come to an end like a sigh,” the psalm says. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty if we are strong.” At this point Dr. O. smiled and added, “Or 103 if we read the Greek New Testament every day!”

But when we got to the end of the psalm I had what you might call an “aha” moment—and it’s relevant for all of us here tonight. Here are the words we prayed together:

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,

 And prosper for us the work of our hands—

O prosper the work of our hands!”

In that moment, I realized that Dr. O. was praying for me…for me and all the generations of students he had taught. We were the work of his hands, and he was praying for us. Just as Moses was praying for the covenant people there on the edge of the promised land. Just as we, your professors, are praying for you now. 

We have poured whatever wisdom God has given us into you, and you have received it more or less eagerly. But now the time has come for us to send you on your way. We do so proudly, praying with all our hearts that God will “prosper the work of our hands.” 


We may all be “frail children of dust.” But our strength lies not in ourselves; it lies in God. And so, as the hymn says: “In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail. Thy mercies, how tender—how firm to the end. Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.” Of that, we can be certain.

God be with you all. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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