The Rev. Luke Powery urges the Class of 2015 to ‘sing the blues’

In his May 22 Baccalaureate address, the dean of Duke Chapel at Duke University offered the graduating class advice about transcending life’s unexpected events.

The Rev. Luke A. Powery, dean of Duke Chapel at Duke University, speaks about "singing the blues."
Life is complicated and full of surprises.

And regardless of a person’s education, job success or socio-economic status, there will be times when life’s sweet expectations turn into bitter disappointments. Rather than railing against plans gone awry, the Rev. Luke A. Powery, dean of Duke Chapel at Duke University, suggested dealing with it by “singing the blues.”

“This is why it is important for you to learn how to sing the blues as a spiritual response to life circumstances as you face a world with much tragedy and agony,” Powery said.

In his message aptly titled, “Singing the Blues,” delivered during Elon’s Baccalaureate service in Alumni Gymnasium Friday afternoon, Powery told the Class of 2015 that in addition to their field of study, he hoped they were leaving college with a better understanding of reality and God. He also hoped they knew how to express the blues.

“To sing the blues is to willingly inhabit the world of sound to interrogate life, and to tell the truth about it while transcending it in order not to be destroyed by it,” he said.

Ordained by the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Powery has served at churches in Switzerland, Canada and the United States. He serves as the secretary of the Academy of Homiletics and is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Study of Black Religion. He is the recipient of numerous scholastic fellowships and awards, and, in 2008, was named one of “20 to Watch” by the African American Pulpit.

During the Baccalaureate service, a multi-faith ceremony held each year in honor of the graduating class, their families and the Elon community, Powery told those in attendance: “This is a day to sing and celebrate your accomplishments.”  

But in the bulk of his message, which he delivered with much enthusiasm, Powery focused on ways to overcome life’s inevitable hardships. He even sang the blues.

Powery reminded the graduating class that beyond the “ivory tower world of ideas” is life, which includes suffering. He also understood that Commencement weekend was a time of endings and goodbyes, which would be bittersweet.

“So in the midst of this great weekend full of joy and dancing and laughter, we should remember as poet Langston Hughes wrote that the blues is a kind of ‘humor that laughs to keep from crying,’” he said. “The laughter expressed this weekend may actually be an expression of the blues.”

In his address, Powery spoke about the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. “I was expecting him to rain down doom and gloom because isn’t that what prophets do? But this prophet sings,” Powery said. “He hums. He chants a warm melody of a love song for his beloved, John Legend style. Isaiah surprises me. But what we expect is not always what we get.”

Initially, Isaiah is happy. He plants a vineyard on fertile ground and does everything he knows to do so the vines bear fruit, except that’s not what happens. “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” Isaiah asks.  It’s a question that Powery suggested crosses everyone’s mind at some point in time.

The lesson Isaiah teaches is that life’s “spiritual pilgrimage is full of unmet expectations and surprises and disappointments.” One way to get through the hard patches in life, Powery said, is by singing the blues.

“When life bends you with heavy winds, the blues allow you to still sing and make melodies as a sign of life and resilience,” he said. “To sing means that one is willing to give oneself for life and refuses to be silenced. It is a prophetic calling and cry.”

University Chaplain Jan Fuller and several members of the Class of 2015 participated in the Baccalaureate service through song, prayer and personal reflections.
Several members of the Class of 2015 participated in the Baccalaureate service through song, prayer and personal reflections.

“Now looking back over my four years here, I’ve discovered that the running theme that kept me going was love,” said Yasmine Arrington ’15. “Love brought me here. Love kept me here, and love is directing me toward my future.”

Before Powery spoke, University Chaplain Jan Fuller remembered Lauren Astley, a member of the Class of 2015 who was killed by her former boyfriend a month before she would have started her studies at Elon. Fuller recognized Astley’s parents, who attended the service, and spoke on their behalf.

“Lauren would want us to celebrate the beauty of your lives and the hope you represent for this world we share,” Fuller told members of the Class of 2015. “Let’s make a difference in Lauren’s honor. She would say to us now: keep on sparkling.”