Published on May 9, 2012 by Mary Wimberley 

If you want to make a mess for yourself and those around you, forget who you are, world Christian statesman John V. Upton, Jr., told May graduates of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School.

"It is a minister's truth," he said, adding that in life, like in soap operas, amnesia often lets people forget their purpose and who they are.  The church, for instance, has long thought it was in the church business.

"But it was never in the church business.  It is in the kingdom business," said Upton, president of the Baptist World Alliance, and executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.

Upton, speaking during Beeson's May 9 commencement and consecration service, cited three principles that have helped him remember who he is.

First, he said, hold truth and faith together, which can be difficult. "You may not always speak the truth when you need to," he said acknowledging that congregations may include members who praise and those who criticize.  "You must live somewhere between praise and criticism."

 Upton said he considers God to be not only his Father, but a refuge and a safe place.  "Hold hands with truth and faith, and keep the refuge close," he advised.

Upton told about a mission trip to Zimbabwe in which a volunteer, who thought he had no useful purpose to serve, used auto parts to create a badly needed incubator at a hospital. "I was surprised, but mostly at my own reaction," said Upton, who knows that as a pastor he is called to see the greatness and potential in every person. But, he admits, he is sometimes not totally open minded to the call of God's spirit. 

"But when I am open-minded, I can see more. Open-mindedness can change how we regard each other and the strangers that God brings into our lives," said Upton, a Virginia native and former missionary to Taiwan.

Thirdly, he recalled a Star Trek movie's opening lines that speak of going where no man has gone before. Everyone likes odysseys, or journeys of discovery, which tell us about ourselves, he said, adding that living is a journey, "a leaving and a moving on," and about being changed.

While there is no way to know where a ministry is headed, he told the newly-degreed graduates, "I assure you that a hand will nudge you at the right moment, in the right direction." Authentic living, he said, is a never-ending journey. "May your life never cease to be a pilgrimage."

Beeson's May graduating class included one Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree recipient, two Master of Theological Studies degree recipients, and 14 Master of Divinity degree recipients.

The program in Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel included a service of consecration during which each Beeson faculty member prayed with and blessed each new graduate.  Beeson dean Dr. Timothy George explained that having commencement and consecration services together underscores Beeson's place as a community of both faith and learning. "We take both seriously," he said.

In keeping with a long-standing Beeson practice, each of the 17 graduates received a copy of the Holy Scriptures along with their diploma. A new commencement tradition may have begun this year, when a like number of Bibles were provided to members of the Quechua tribe in Peru.



Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.