MBU Commencement 2002
History does not record the name of the person who first decided that an address should be a part of the exercise of graduation and there is probably good reason that he would want to remain anonymous. Once when I was speaking at a commencement at a college in another state the president gave me this advice, “Think of yourself as the body at an Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much.” It is not my intent to delay the celebration unnecessarily, but I do have a few words to offer, and I offer them from the perspective of one who deeply cares about you.
I stand before you not to assail you but to praise you. I remember well when you first showed up on campus. We went to Cosmic bowling, fed you well as if that is what it would be like every day. You came to your first chapel where Dr. Boren prayed over you, I pronounced you Spartans with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto (you chuckled at that phrase then, it takes on a bit more meaning today), and you heard a message called “Who Gives You Your Grade?” You were off to the races. It seems like only yesterday. The better I have gotten to know you; the more interesting you have turned out to be.
Your generation has variously been referred to as Millennials, Bridgers, the Net Generation, and, most commonly Generation Y. Some have bemoaned your obsession with e-mail, chat rooms, and instant messenger, your lack of interest in reading, and your obsession with materialism. Cool is important to you. It is not always clear what that means. In fact uncool is sometimes cool but whatever it is, if it is to count with you it needs to be cool. You present a monumental challenge to marketers and admissions recruiters. You are a contradiction. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Gap, Limited and Old Navy have spent millions trying to figure you out. I will personally never forgive you for Survivor and Fear Factor, perhaps not a very nice thing to say as a member of the generation which plans to plunder your Social Security!
Having said that let me be clear that I come to praise you, not to assail you. If you have not at times taken the world’s problems seriously, my generation has taken them too seriously. We have been consumed with discovering meaning in our lives, actualizing ourselves, discovering self fulfillment, saving the whales, eating diets low in saturated fat, getting you to dance, soccer, and Suzuki lessons, going to the Spa and YMCA to get washboard abs, and we still look like this at fifty. We’re tired! All that seriousness wears us out!
One of the things I like about you is that you don’t take everything so seriously and that brings me to the first point. Keep a sense of humor. Let yourself laugh. There were some people who were bothered with your reaction in the aftermath of September 11. They thought you should have taken longer to get on with your lives. You were there, volunteering, praying around the flagpole and somehow you managed to shake it off faster than some of my generation. Some matters are too serious for joking but it is a short list. Jesus mocked the religious folk of his day who, “strain out a gnat, but then, swallow a whole camel.” Remind you of any college bureaucrats?
The Harvard Class of 1939 was known for the remarkable achievements of its members, including John F. Kennedy. They were part of a group that won World II, rebuilt the economy, and fought for racial justice. A study of the graduates revealed that one of their greatest gifts was humor. Their considerable creativity was due in part to their ability to step back from themselves and laugh.
Another thing that I really like about you is that you have a strong sense of curiosity about things. This will serve you well. Have you ever wondered why we call this event commencement? Commencement is a beginning not an end. Beginning of what? Life? You are already a third of the way through that. It is the beginning of your real education. This College has trained you in how to learn. It is utterly important that you maintain that learning stance toward life. For years I have thought we should have renewable diplomas. About every five years we would bring you back, find out what you had learned, check your alumni giving record, and if you pass muster give you a sticker to put on your diploma. Sadly my idea has never caught on.
Life on the other side of graduation is more difficult than we have led you to believe. No amount of reality TV can do justice to the shock and surprise of real life. Sociologists tell us that your generation is optimistic, confident, traditional, passionate, and empowered. You will need those God given traits to keep wonder alive. Yearn for a richer, more layered understanding of reality. The world is more than cause-effect. Your generation knows that, and you have helped to put modernity on the ropes.
Much of what we have made you learn does not kick in until you are older, wiser. But one day you will thank God that we have told you about places to go when life has caused you to ask why?
In C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is an exchange between two children who have just landed on a remote island where Ramandu, a dazzling personification of wisdom, meets them. Lucy, one of the children, asks Ramandu about himself. “I am a star at rest, my daughter,” he says. This strikes the child as strange. Eustace, one of the other children says, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Wisdom replies, “Even in your world, my son that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
It is a cliché but it is true that life is a journey. It is a journey that moves in three directions at once, inward, outward and upward. My first two points fall in the inward and outward category but now I want to talk about the upward journey. In some ways this is the most difficult because knowing God is not like knowing algebra. Instead of the usual sensory processes, we have a marvelous capacity given by God called “faith.” It is up to each of you to exercise that faith in developing your soul to be compassionate, caring, truthful, farseeing, and selfless.
Culture tells us that there are two ways to explain how you got to be the way you are. One says that you are free, autonomous, and able to choose direction. The other says that you are fixed, determined at birth. Let me suggest a third. This way is from the Bible, from the ancient book of Genesis.
Joseph, who came from a far more dysfunctional family than probably anyone here, was one day disturbed from his leisure by his father and sent out to check on his hardworking brothers. Responding to bottled up resentment against the favored teenager, they roughly and callously threw him into a dry well while they ate lunch and debated Joseph’s fate. Some wanted to kill him but in a stroke of good fortune some Midianite traders happened by and they decided to sell Joseph into Egyptian slavery and tell their father that he had been killed by wild animals. Now, give Joseph credit here. He took this dose of reality like a man and he landed on his feet in Pharaoh’s palace. He was eventually put in charge of all of the Pharaoh’s public works. During a great famine his brothers, the same ones who sold him into slavery, show up looking for food. They have no idea that the official standing before them is the little brother they tried to get rid of years before. When it does dawn on them they were so terrified at his presence that they were rendered speechless. This part is dearly beloved by little brothers and sisters everywhere. It’s payback time.
But that is not what happens. Joseph calms their fears and says he will bless them, give them the food they sought, and even reunite the family. Then Joseph says something to his brothers that I want you to note. Reflecting on all the trials, tribulations, odd events, heartaches, and hurts he tells them, “You meant this for evil. But God meant this for good. You didn’t send me here. God sent me.” Surprise! It is not only Joseph and his brothers who are the protagonists in this drama. There is also God. When the brothers were contemplating evil and Joseph was simply trying to survive, God was also busy making meaning in the story.
Augustine once said that when you look back over your life, the steps you have taken can first appear like chicken tracks in the mud, going this way and that without direction. But through the eyes of faith, sometime those seemingly purposeless tracks take on pattern, direction. They suggest the hand of God. While you were busy making your choices and decisions, God was also busy. Weaving. Creating. There is a claim on your life. You live not just for yourself.
We have prepared you to serve. Indeed our motto is gateway to knowledge for service. There are hungry to be fed, illiterate to be taught, enslaved to be set free, lost to be saved. Opportunities abound. Some of you know I was privileged to meet with President Bush and a small group of people for about forty five minutes this past March to dialogue about his faith based and service initiatives. (By the way, the statue of limitations on this illustration is about a year. By the end of the year it will be a private meeting for 1 ½ hours). He has it right. If we are to change the culture of our country we must find a way to get our citizens interested in others and not just themselves. When Dr. G. Earl Guinn addressed the 199_ graduating class he put it well,” I challenge you to take as your example the One who rejected the throne in favor of servanthood and the cross. This is the noblest expression of a truly enlightened mind.”
So graduates, go forth with joy. Life is indeed beautiful, even more so because of its brevity. When a student asked Billy Graham, “What is the greatest surprise you have found about life?” he responded, “The brevity of it.”
Stop worrying about washboard abs. Start worrying about growing up and looking like your parents!
Having numbered your days, savor, risk and delight in the gifts that God gives. Breathe spirit and passion into everything you touch and do for the world what your alma mater, which means “soul mother,” has done for you.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, 1952, Collier Books, p.180
“Obligations of Privilege” G. Earl Guinn, MBC Commencement 1997
Louisiana College Commencement Address, R. Alton Lacey, 5/24/97
This address borrows material from the baccalaureate addresses of Dr. William H. Willimon delivered in Duke University Chapel, 1996-2000.