At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Commencement Address to the Class of 2015

[To be fair, I haven't been asked to speak at any commencement ceremony this year. But if I had, what you will find below would be the musings of my heart.]

Esteemed graduates, ensconced cozily in the seats here in front; parents, siblings, and other family members; administrators and faculty and all souls connected in any way to this tear-stained, joy-enraptured, heart-in-your-throat-and-in-your-shoes-at-the-same-time night, I hope to be brief in my remarks this evening while being heartfelt at the same time. Now as a Presbyterian, I know the first half of the preceding hope is well nigh impossible. Because I have Welsh blood, I also know the second part is true above all else.

This blink of chronological time, this pulse of celebration, this crowning eucharistic splendor celebrating your time spent here at this we are...and before you can scarcely breathe in the jubilant oxygen of this evening, it will pass as a memory. Even as you implore yourself, as James Joyce did so eloquently in Ulysees (probably the only time he was eloquent in that rambling tome), to "hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges into the past", you sense the fleeting march of history claiming you step by step. And you wonder what this snowy goateed Ethics teacher possibly has to share with you to thrust into life's backpack. You wonder, blending both your hopes and your insecurities, "What will I do the rest of my life?"

It's anyone's guess, but the odds give us some idea. Statistically speaking, within the next twenty years, the overwhelming majority of you will experience the abruption of a marriage, the death of a child, a major invasive surgery, or the loss of a job. On some level, you will profoundly suffer. Even as you have tried to mark much of your high school years with the twin pursuits of excellence and comfort, you will spend much of your adult lives realizing again and again that digital amenities, the accumulation of possessions and wealth, and the compelling exhilaration of relationships will bring you to a point of happiness that, like tonight, will be there and then mysteriously vanish. This is my roundabout way of saying that if you had in mind this would be the type of speech that celebrates the tender years of life, infuses hope that your generation is our society's greatest hope, and that you can do anything you put your mind to...well, you came to the wrong graduation tonight. And yet the question from earlier hangs in the air with the subtlety of Andre the Giant at a steak buffet. You ask, "What will I do with the rest of my life?"

And I am here, pleading with you to consider that that is the wrong question. That the better path, the higher journey, is to ask "Who will I be for the rest of my life?"

The word shift is a small one, but the differences are seismic. There is a profound difference between what you do and who you are. And if we're bringing God into the equation, I would offer that he most certainly gifts you for the former, but he is much more supremely interested in the latter. Who you are is critically more important than what you will do. Your character defines your action. Being God's child matters much more than the particulars of what you do in God's world.

And in a liberating sense, that means the pressure is off, if you think about it.  No more hyper-prioritizing of getting the best car, or securing that bonus at work, or sending your kids to the best schools. No more worrying--not that you've found it easy--about a tenth of a percentage point to raise your GPA. It means accomplishments take a back seat to obedience and faithfulness to God. It's why Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Matthew to "not worry about these things, but seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness and then...then all these things shall be added to you. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow has enough trouble of its own." In other words, don't worry about juggling the balls of performance, appearance, relationships, and intelligence. Instead, just keep the ball of faithfulness in the air, and the other juggling, God will deal with in his way. Stop infringing on his territory.

That can be scary, granted. Being faithful is not an easy task. One's life journey can be a high-chance contest. But it helps to remember the words of the wizard Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring when the hobbit Frodo bewails having received the  Ring from his uncle Bilbo, having to bear this Ring of evil and take it back to the dangerous terrain of Mordor to be destroyed in Mount Doom. Frodo says, "I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened." And Gandalf instructively says, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in the world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought."

And that is the liberating adventure of faithfulness: A vision for life in all its glory, where you can reach for excellence but be assured of God's unfailing love and presence and provision no matter where you land. It means that--to paraphrase my college professor and mentor, Dr. Louis Voskuil--if you climb the corporate ladder into six- and seven-figure salaries, that's fine. But you don't have to. If you have a family that is large and your home is the essence of comfort and warmth, that's fine. But you don't have to. If you discover a groundbreaking cure to debilitating diseases, that's fine. But you don't have to. And if you write the greatest novel or ascend to political might, that's fine. But you don't have to. All God requires of you is that you be faithful, and the rest will take care of itself. 

The struggle is real. The temptation to define yourself by your accomplishments and actions and the trimmings of life is always close by. But these are shadows of what is real, and if you return more often to what you do rather than to who you are--or dare we say it, Whose you are--then that is the difference between merely getting through your brief existence on one hand and having lived an exhilarating life of true significance on the other.

I've mentioned that my family background is Welsh, and that's appropriate because possibly my favorite poem has to do with faithfulness in spite of what the results might be, and it's by the Welsh poet Ethylyn Wetherald. Four lines, powerfully yet simply written by this magnificent lady, they have been an oasis of peace and liberation for me, as I hope they will be for you.

My orders are to fight. Then, if I bleed or fail,
Or strongly win, what matters it? God only doth prevail.
The servant craveth naught except to stand with might.
I was not told to win or lose: My orders are to fight.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, I want to thank you for your lives lived well within these walls, and for the chance to be a part of that journey, and I want to bless you for the adventure forward. For your sake and the sake of God's world, may you live--whether in ordinary or extraordinary fashion--as men and women marked by faithfulness above all.

Thank you.

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