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Wedgwood shooting victim among 378 new Southwestern graduates

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As 378 seminary graduates were commissioned for ministry, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Kenneth S. Hemphill urged them to keep a sense of balance in their ministry by pursuing righteousness and fleeing temptation.

Jeff Laster, who was wounded during the shootings at Wedgwood Baptist Church Sept. 15, was one of the graduates, receiving his diploma and graduate diploma in Christian education during the 199th commencement exercises May 12 at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary.

Laster was scheduled to graduate in the fall, but his graduation was delayed after he was shot and spent one month in the hospital recovering from his wounds.

“It feels really good,” Laster said of his graduation, “especially considering in September there was a question as to whether I would graduate or not.”

He expressed his appreciation to the seminary for allowing him to finish his class work and to faculty members who were “real good, real patient about working with me.”

Laster plans to walk across the stage again next year with a master’s degree. After that, he said, “Wherever God puts me, that’s where I’ll go.”

At the commencement exercises, which the seminary calls a commissioning service, 427 degrees were conferred. Students from 29 states plus Puerto Rico, as well as students from 15 foreign countries, took part in the ceremony.

Twenty students earned diploma and graduate diploma degrees, 315 were awarded master’s degrees, and another 20 were given their doctorates. Sixteen certificates of education and ministry in the Seminary Studies for Student Wives program also were conferred.

In his graduation message, Hemphill drew from the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy, reminding the students that a lack of balance in one’s spiritual life, just as in athletics and finances, can lead to trouble. He urged the graduates to heed the apostle’s advice to Timothy to pursue righteousness, fight the good fight and to keep God’s commandments.

Part one of a twofold formula for spiritual balance suggested in 1 Timothy 6, Hemphill said, requires that Christians flee from temptation.

“We cannot afford to flirt with sin,” Hemphill said. “We can never put ourselves in the area of temptation. The four most dangerous words in the spiritual realm and in your ministry are the words, ‘I can handle it.'”

Assuming one can handle sin on his own, Hemphill warned, leads one into “risky territory.”

“Stay as far from the edge as possible,” he added, noting that while flight is sometimes seen as cowardice, it is a mark of wisdom and a means to victory when dealing with temptation.

The graduates were also called upon to pursue righteousness, the second part of spiritual balance.

“Righteousness is essentially that conformity to that which is right toward God,” Hemphill said.

Pursuit suggests eagerness, tenacity and focus, he added.

In pursuing righteousness, Hemphill said, a minister needs to develop certain qualities if he or she is going to be effective in serving God.

The first is godliness, being conformed to the image of Jesus.

“If and only if you understand that the only goal of ministry is to be like Christ will you be successful,” he said.

The second is faith, an “utter trust in God,” as Hemphill put it. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God, Hemphill said, quoting Romans.

But “faith also comes through trusting, trying, proving [God],” he continued. “You will grow through steps of faith, finding that God is always faithful, even as you have through these years at seminary.”

Hemphill reminded the students that there were probably days they thought they wouldn’t or couldn’t make it through seminary, but in the end their faith in God was confirmed.

“There were days that you wanted to give up,” he said, “but you tested him and proved that he was faithful.”

Ministers also need to pursue love, perseverance and gentleness.

Perseverance, or “stick-to-itiveness,” is especially important today, Hemphill said.

“I want to exhort you in this area because we are being bombarded by dropouts,” he said, adding that the numbers of those in evangelical denominations across the country who are leaving the ministry are “perplexing and concerning.”

Ministers need a spirit of tenacity, of grabbing hold of their calling and never letting go, he continued, noting that Christians often give up right at the point of breakthrough.

“How much spiritually have we missed because we gave up too early?” he asked.

“Are you pursuing these five qualities with as much fervor as you have done your grades?” he challenged the graduates. “Will you pursue them with as much zeal as you do your career or your reputation?”

In addition to these qualities, ministers need to remain disciplined and endure “to fight the good fight,” as Paul commanded Timothy, and to maintain a “good confession in the presence of many witnesses,” Hemphill said.

In conclusion, Hemphill told the graduates that as they go into the world to serve the Lord, they should remember, like Timothy, to “keep the commandment” to teach and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Preach and teach sound doctrine,” Hemphill said. “Maintain it intact. Embody it in your life and transmit it faithfully.”

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  • Cory J. Hailey