By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — In this time of pandemic and social upheaval, Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D., encouraged candidates for graduation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, to focus on one thing: love.
In a livestreamed address during the seminary’s Aug. 22 commencement and commissioning service — delayed from early May and held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Ollenburger explored concepts of God’s love, drawing on 1 John 4:12-16.
“In this time of isolation, we have learned that our very human love of one other is as vital as our very breath,” said Ollenburger, retired professor of biblical theology at AMBS and an author and storyteller. “We are not created to be alone.”
He observed that the first mention of love in the Bible appears in Genesis 22, when God instructs Abraham to prepare to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and refers to Abraham’s love for Isaac — the love of a parent. This sacrificial moment would not be the last time love and loss would be joined, Ollenburger said, pointing to the New Testament and the passion of Jesus: “God’s love for the world displayed in the supreme gift, and Jesus’ love for us displayed in the supreme self-giving.”
Followers of Jesus make God’s love known through their willingness to lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters as Jesus did, Ollenburger noted. In these months that “have reminded us that fear-fueled hate is love’s persistent, murderous rival,” he encouraged the graduating class to love God and to love one another “as Christ has loved us … as God so loved the world.”
Most of the 15 graduates participated in the online service from their homes, dressed in their commencement regalia, which they had received by mail along with their diplomas and a small brass replica of the bell that rings on the seminary campus. Several campus residents watched together from the seminary lounge while the commencement speakers were being filmed nearby in the chapel.
The service, which was viewed by more than 180 people, also featured customized blessings for each graduate given by members of the AMBS community as well as composite recordings of hymns sung by ensembles of students and seminary employees. Following the conferral of degrees by President David Boshart, Ph.D., the graduates — visible onscreen — celebrated with joyful bell ringing, a commencement tradition.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and ethics, gave a theopoetic charge to the graduates, urging them to cultivate connections by loving God, themselves and their neighbors; immersing themselves in the “joy of ecological intimacy”; being curious about the feelings and needs of others; and understanding their everyday life as being “dependent on Sonlight/sunlight.”
Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., associate professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, offered the prayer of blessing, asking God to give the graduates compassion, courage, resilience and creativity as they lead the church in these times of disorientation, isolation, anxiety and loss; confront forces of racism and xenophobia; and “envision a beloved and a loving community that welcomes all.”
A socially distanced in-person reception was held outdoors on campus that evening for the seminary community, the graduates and their guests.
The 2020 graduating class
Of the 15 graduates honored during the commencement and commissioning service, 10 earned a Master of Divinity; two earned a Master of Arts: Theology and Peace Studies; and one earned a Master of Arts in Christian Formation. Two students received a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies.
The graduating class comprised nine women and six men from five countries — Canada, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya and the United States — on three continents. Six of the graduates completed at least part of their seminary studies at a distance, some through the Master of Divinity Connect program, which began in 2013.
Six of the graduates are serving in pastoral ministry or chaplaincy roles or are seeking pastoral assignments. Three are discerning future options for ministry, mission or service work. Four are pursuing further graduate studies, and two are serving with nonprofit or mission organizations.
Thirteen of the graduates are members of Mennonite or Mennonite Brethren congregations; eight are members of Mennonite Church USA. One graduate comes from a nondenominational church, and one from a Reformed church.
The graduating class’s gift to AMBS is a portrait of the Christ of Revelation 1:12-18 created by graduate Jacob Curtis (MDiv 2020).
Retired Professor of Biblical Theology Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D. (at right), gives the commencement address during AMBS’s Aug. 22 livestreamed commencement and commissioning service as other faculty speakers listen. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)
Faculty members leading AMBS’s Aug. 22 livestreamed commencement and commissioning service included (l. to r.) Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., associate professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible; Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., vice president and academic dean; David Boshart, Ph.D., president; Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and ethics; and Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D., retired professor of biblical theology. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)
A composite image of the 15 candidates for graduation at AMBS was positioned beneath the webcam for the speakers at the livestreamed commencement and commissioning service on Aug. 22. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)
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