In his last address as dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, Founding Dean Timothy George began his remarks during the school’s spring commencement and service of consecration May 3 by addressing the “class of perseverance.”
“Every graduating class at Beeson has its own distinctive personality, shaped in the crucible of a common, lived experience over three, four or more years,” George began, “And that the characteristic of this graduating class is perseverance. They haven’t quit.”
Several of the 15 May graduates overcame many challenges to get to this day. Raphael Pierce began his journey in 2009 when his daughter was still in the womb. A decade later, his 10-year-old daughter was present on Friday to watch her father receive his Master of Divinity degree.
Another student, Lauren Gatch, began her degree in 2014. After being forced to withdraw and reapply due to serious health issues, Gatch graduated with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Other similar stories could be found among this class of students who have persevered through different circumstances to graduate after five, six, seven and even 10 years.
Preaching from Hebrews 11:31–12:3, George said, “As our text says, you have run with perseverance the race that was set before you. Today we say with family and friends and with all your dear ones: We love you. We are proud of you. Godspeed!”
George recalled one of Beeson Divinity’s most unusual commencement speeches—the only time commencement was held in the evening to accommodate the speaker’s schedule—by the famous Elizabeth Elliott, wife of the late missionary-martyr Jim Elliott.
“We all hung on her every word, not because of what she said, but because of who she was,” George said.
On the morning of the mission from which Jim and his colleagues never returned in 1956, the missionaries gathered for prayer and worship. They sang together a hymn, “We Rest on Thee,” which was sung during the commencement and consecration service just prior to George’s address. His address entitled, “Through the Gates of Pearly Splendor,” came from the last stanza of this hymn.
When Elliott published her husband’s journal, George said that she believed Jim and the other missionary-martyrs belonged to the great cloud of witnesses referred to in Hebrews.
“And so do you,” he continued. “It’s as though when we get to the end of that passage someone has put the words, ‘To be continued.’ The story told in Hebrews is a ‘to be continued’ story. You are part of that story.”
Hebrews 12:1 is the theme for Beeson’s Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel as well as the divinity school, George said while pointing to the great cloud of witnesses depicted in the chapel’s dome.
“The saints of old are not complete without us nor we without them. That is a part of the message of this chapel, too,” he said. “We do not worship saints. We do not pray to saints. They are translucent icons. We look through the saints so as better to see the face of Jesus Christ and his nail-scarred hands.”
George concluded by reminding the graduates that the perseverance they learned and practiced at Beeson Divinity School will aid them in the gospel ministry that lies ahead as they follow a crucified Christ who still bears the marks of his wounds in his hands.
“Dear persevering graduates, the class of perseverance, this is the Christ we are sending you out to follow today,” said George. “I charge you to follow wherever the Savior’s love may lead, into small country churches, into barrios and back alleys of urban landscapes. For some of you, it may be a faraway jungle like Jim Elliott, to societies where it is illegal and dangerous to be a Christian. For some of you, it may be to struggle against injustice and evil, some of you to the bedside of those who suffer in pain—the hospital rooms, on the battlefields, behind prison bars. We are sending you out to follow those nail-scarred hands wherever the love of Jesus Christ may lead you.”
“Whenever you find yourself flagging in your faith, remember what you have learned at Beeson Divinity School,” George concluded. “Remember what has shaped you here; remember this chapel and its story. Remember this service and the blessing it imparts. Dear persevering students, be ever steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain, and I will meet you in the morning with all the saints just beyond the gates of pearly splendor. God bless you.”
Earlier in the service, Samford President Andrew Westmoreland led the congregation in a standing ovation for George “in recognition of his work among us and the legacy he is leaving in Beeson Divinity School.”
He also welcomed the graduates and guests to commencement.
“Now to the graduating class, we salute you at this milestone on your journey of faith and service,” Westmoreland said. “As you receive your degree, we send you into the world—a beautiful and broken world—as Samford’s only legacy that will last into eternity. You carry our cherished hopes and dreams.”
Five students graduated with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree. Nine students graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, and one graduated with a Doctor of Ministry degree. Two of the M.Div. graduates received a missions certificate and one received an Anglican certificate.
George, who retires as dean June 30, was recognized for his 31 years of service that evening following commencement during a tribute dinner. He will be succeeded by Douglas A. Sweeney July 1.