June 9, 2003

Matzo and Wonder Bread

Steve Kraftchick is associate dean of academic affairs in the Candler School of Theology.

In order to deliver an address befitting what you have accomplished, I did extensive research into commencement speeches (I read two) and found that they should include profound and witty remarks about the meaning of life and making the world a better place.

This is no mean feat. Unfortunately I don’t do witty that well, and profound is out of the question. So I am stealing from Kurt Vonnegut who, when he spoke to the graduates of Agnes Scott a few years ago, touted liberal application of sunscreen and the smoking of cigars as the means for getting through life successfully.

Vonnegut also offered advice gleaned from his Uncle Alex, who thought one of the most objectionable traits of human beings was that “they so rarely noticed when they were happy.” Vonnegut’s uncle did his best to change this, so whenever there were good things surrounding him, he would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

I do not have an Uncle Alex, but I like his idea, and this seems like a good moment to follow his example. Look around. You are here, surrounded by friends, family and loved ones who, if they are getting this right, are fawning over you. For this moment, you are the center of their attention, and it is well deserved.

You have successfully negotiated more than your fill of papers, reflection seminars and Con Ed verbatims. You have endured more than a fair share of strange prayers, stranger sermons and, strangest of all, you have learned from people, some of whom you were convinced could not teach you a thing. If we have done this right, over the last few years you have put into your toolbox the abilities to read judiciously, to enter into fair conversation and to think long and hard about difficult things.

More than that, if we were even close, your eyes are more focused on the people around you and your ears more attuned to the sighs of the world. Your heart is just a bit more tender and your mind more acute, your spirit is emboldened and you trust your faith enough to entertain doubt. You now understand that studying theology is unlike studying any other topic, because you cannot do it without studying yourself and you cannot do it well without discovering things about yourself that are less than pleasant.

We should note that you have been willing to do this, and as a result you have experienced the joy and sorrows of such study. Through this experience, with the help of friends and foes alike, you have learned a great deal about the material of theology, but more importantly about the needs of the world in which you live. We should also note that through the hope, care and support of your family and friends, through this study you have achieved a significant milestone in your life (for which, by the way, you owe them a significant amount of thanks). This is a sweet moment, and we ought to pause. If this isn’t nice, what is?

You need to cherish this moment, savor the feelings of accomplishment, of pride and intimate care, and bank them for future times when life is not as sweet or peaceful.

But there is a reason that this is called Commencement. In truth, for all that has been achieved, this is a beginning. Make no mistake; the easier parts are behind you, and as sweet as this moment is, there are more important ones ahead. Applying your tools with alacrity is no small task. Somehow you must find a way to take what you have learned and make it serve the goal of cultivating intimate relationships, respecting both the fragility of existence and the resilience of the human heart. Starting today, you are to use what you have learned here to create small fissures in this world’s structures so the realm of God can gain a toehold.

A passage from Ephesians calls this “equipping the saints,” and the key word is “equipping.” Not mollifying, not catering, not entertaining or impressing the saints, but providing the people you encounter with the language and skill that allows them to enter into their own tasks of service and helps them to achieve their own maturity and strength. Now, that could be somewhat daunting, but in the spirit of commencement addresses, we come to the part where the speaker offers the magic formula for success. Here it is: Take some bread for the trip. As good Southerners, my wife and daughter recommended homemade biscuits, but I think a box of matzo and a loaf of Wonder Bread will do just fine.

Why these two? Well, matzo is easy and straightforward, the bread baked by the Israelites as they fled Egypt. Matzo has a number of virtues: simple, tough, unpretentious, it is a bread of humility and reminder. With it you can recall the affliction that faces all of us as we try to make sense of our lives. It is also a bread of ritual, and with it we can help the saints construct symbols of hope and actions of trust that beneficence is the fundamental reality of the creation. Matzo is the symbol of penitence, and when there is a need, it can remind us to purge the leavening agents from our souls. Find the equivalent of theological matzo and make it part of your repertoire.

On the other hand, one must admit that matzo is a little short on flavor, and it definitely lacks flexibility. It is a very bad choice for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It also fails miserably in sopping up barbeque sauce. And, try as you might, you will not be able to form it into dough balls for bait.

When you need to play, matzo is not your bread of choice. And sometimes equipping the saints is encouraging them to play, to go easy and enjoy the sloppy messiness that makes up life. My suggestion here? Wonder Bread, good ol’ store-bought, 99-cents-a-loaf Wonder Bread.

Bring it up and people will tell you stories of how they ate it mushed into a ball or dunked in milk or slathered with bananas and marshmallow cream. And the saints need a place to tell their stories; indeed, in a world that has so little time for us, they need to learn how to tell their stories.

Wonder Bread is an amazing product, developed in 1921 and for more than 80 years the staple of thousands of kids’ lunch boxes. No matter where you buy it, you know what you are getting. A purist will tell you it’s not “real” bread. So be it, but sometimes purists aren’t so helpful. Sometimes you don’t need nine-grain, triple-rise bread, good-for-you, politically correct bread. Sometimes you need smash-it-up, stuff-it-in-your-mouth-whole bread. You just need some stuff to help enjoy the exuberant messy facts of life.

Wonder Bread is also self-effacing; it calls no attention to itself, content to serve as the attendant to a sandwich’s more exotic members. It has no holes, so it is the perfect surface for peanut butter and jelly or mayonnaise and tomatoes. If you want to equip the saints, prepare yourself to be a quiet supporter rather than the center of attention. Sometimes you need to play with your food, have fun, and do the non-nutritious thing. So find your version of Wonder Bread and invite people into the safety it provides, the joy it produces and the celebration of goodness it allows.

Not much of a secret, I admit. But it beats “the answer is 42,” and it is on par with Vonnegut’s sunscreen and cigars—and he got paid!

We wish you well in this responsibility that is now yours. And we hope that, if you are true to what you have learned, then at some point, in the midst of equipping and serving, you will be able to stop, look up from the matzo or the peanut butter sandwich, and, interrupting the proceedings, ask, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

This essay was adapted from Kraftchick’s address to Candler’s Class of 2003.