India 2016: Day 9

The Beautiful Controversy: Go First and Going for Them

Below is my commencement address to the second graduating class from Immanuel University. I am so proud of these students. Most of them are Dalits in India. Their unbelievable achievement is that of finishing an MBA in a culture where they are considered untouchable and those who are not low in the caste system, but literally outside of it.

There have been many first moments in my life. The first time I road a bicycle, and crashed into a bush. The first time I preached in a church, and got so nervous that for a few seconds I couldn’t speak. The first (and only) time I got married and my wife and I began to giggle uncontrollably during our wedding. The first time I spoke to a community of people who had leprosy, and I was surprised at how I thought I would minister to them, and realized that their smiles and joy changed my life forever. And, the first time I met you. You all are living reflections of God’s glory, power and grace in our world.

And Bishop Joab, what you may not know is that this is my first commencement address, so we will see how this goes. If it makes you feel better, my Dad reminded me to make it short, and my mother reminded me to make it simple.

There is no question that I can be a controversial guy. I have had many moments where I have caused a controversy for some of you, and I apologize for that, partly. I love moments of silliness when sometimes it may seem inappropriate. I love pranks and silly jokes. And, I love to see the lights turn on in someone’s eyes when they realize that something I’ve said is different from what they expected. I attempt to be sensitive to the needs of others or the culture and to the needs of the people I serve, but in some cases I choose to embrace the controversy when the Lord prompts me or it serves a purpose for you graduates. And, there are certain principles of going first and going for them that I would like to send with you graduates today.

Going first and going for them requires us to make a decision about how to be thoughtful about how and when we will go first. It is not going first that is the hardest part. It is maintaining our willingness to see the moments where it is what we are supposed to do, versus what we do simply for the sake of doing something different. I experienced one of the most powerful moments of my life yesterday when I had a conversation with Pastor Prakash, Simon, Dufan and other friends and they told me that because of the color of my skin and because I am from the United states and my face is white, that I am in the high parts of the caste system. We laughed together at how absurd this assumption was, but in the moments that followed I would see a physical and deeply emotional controversy that would put flesh and reality on that conversation. As a team, we had felt that God had called us to touch the feet of the pastors here at the pastor’s conference. As we began the process of touching the feet of each pastor, the controversy began in both the pastors and in us. In me, the controversy was the realization that this was profoundly important because it was breaking the bonds of culture that are so powerful in India and our world. It was not difficult because it was humbling for me. I have just as much shame and unwillingness to receive God’s love as any of you. To the contrary, it was difficult for me because it was difficult for each pastor. While each pastor and I were well aware that we are all one and equal in the eyes of Christ, the internal struggle was so real. For me the struggle was my desire to be sensitive to the fact that this controversy was making each pastor very uncomfortable. Pastor after pastor attempted to stop me from touching their feet, but I think in each of these exchanges we each felt that something important was happening. I cannot speak for the controversy in the hearts of each pastor or in each of our team members, but I can speak to my own. I knew that this is what Jesus preached, and I knew that what we all experienced was a living example of what God did when He humbled himself to death on a cross in front of a crowd of people who mocked him. An act that no one had ever seen from the God’s they had invented or imagined.

Going first and going for them provides a path to wholeness and to a deeper relationship to God and to one another. Many of you know that one little rebellious act of mine has been to have Prima give me henna tattoo on my forearm. I watched as many of you women giggled when you saw it and said, “men don’t usually do that.” As we began to talk over this small controversy on my arm, I saw the path that God had provided because of this simple and silly little decision I made as you then felt that I may understand you better than you think. When done thoughtfully and in submission to God, it provides moments where we see our humanity and are able to be ourselves, to tell our story. God went first when he hung on the cross and said, “My God, why have you forsaken me.” Or when in the garden he said, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” These were powerful moments for Him and for us because he provided a path into our humanity. He provided the first image of himself to us of a God who knows our fears and hesitations. Your fears and hesitations…..and our sorrow and doubt. It is not only His victory over death that makes us whole, it is His willingness to become human and to feel the human emotions of doubt and loneliness. My faith is made whole not only because of His resurrection, but because of the doubts and fear he expressed. You see, our fears and doubts are not sins. It is our unwillingness to consider breaking the chains that oppress and bind our hearts that make us sinners. It is our unwillingness to open ourselves to the wholeness of God’s story and love for us, and to instead hide behind the safety of our vanity, our insecurities, and our will.

You see, having the courage to go first and go for them causes a controversy inside of us and for those around us. It is controversial because it is something that we have not seen, thought or done before. It is controversial because it breaks our models of what is appropriate. As we experience anything over and over again in life, our hearts easily become trapped in the concrete of our traditions, our habits and that which makes us comfortable.

Some of you in this room will remember Robleh, a member of our team who came with us two year ago. After our time here, Robleh asked me if I would officiate at his wedding. His request moved me so deeply because I had not only mentored Robleh, but I had mentored his fiancée Rachel as well and I was there when they met for the first time in one of our team meetings. But, there was a controversy because while I was an ordained minister, I had never officiated at a wedding before. I will never forget the moment right before we marched into their wedding ceremony and Rachel’s father came up to me and said, “So, you must have done hundreds of these right?” To which I responded, “Actually, this is my first wedding.” As we say in the United States, “This is my first rodeo.” I saw the panic begin to build in him. He then asked, “Well, how long have you been a pastor?” To which I responded, “Well, that depends on how you define pastor?” then I saw some very really panic and controversy building up in him. So, finally he asked, “Well, where did you go to seminary?” To which I responded, “I haven’t been to seminary, but I am the son of a seminary president if that helps.” And so, while looking straight into the controversy he was feeling, I said as I grabbed his arm, “Don’t worry Bob, I’ve got this.”

After Bob heard my comments during the ceremony and how I described God’s grace as the only path to a happy and successful marriage, I knew by his comments that he knew to trust me. But, the controversy in him before that was real.

Like you, I am trusting in God who says, “Rob, I’ve got this.” If any of my comments sound like they are coming from a man who has it all figured out, you would be mistaken. Like you, I am on a journey with God that only He fully understands. My hope is that you are encouraged by my story of going first, of stumbling forward, and of leaning on God to provide the meaning, the power and the path.

You see, Jesus Christ is the God of the ultimate controversy. He turned the world upside down by prioritizing widows and orphans first. He turned the world upside down when he told the story of the father who was willing to be shamed by his entire community when he ran to his son who had squandered his inheritance for nothing. He turned the world upside down when he expressed fear and reluctance in the garden and on the cross. He turned the world upside down when he went first in dying for us, for everything we are…our sins, and doubts, our fears, as well as everything that makes us beautiful. He went first, and he went for us. He was willing to face the controversy and to be misunderstood by all of us if necessary, to provide us the ultimate example of what it means to go first and go for them.

You can do this. Through God’s power and light shining through you, you will be the strong and sacrificial leaders who will face the controversy head on. My prayer for you graduates is that as you take the many first steps to lead that are to come, that you will thoughtfully and courageously face the important controversies that are ahead, and that you will ultimately do it for them.


Graduates of the 2016 class from Immanuel University, you have now have the skills to do courageous things in our world, to face the controversies head on. To serve those in our world in the greatest need. In places where you do not have the skills or knowledge, you now have the skill of how to go and find the answer.  May you have courage. May you lean heavily on God’s power as the source of your power, and may you go first, and go for them.  Amen!!!!!



-Dr. Rob McKenna

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