To my friends at the beginning of their new journeys, I come here with a heart full of eager anticipation for all of you.We were freshmen together, but I graduated early with strangers. Now a year later, I wish I could say that I am here talking to you because I have exciting and inspiring tales from the other side of college: success stories of a job, world travel, or even an unpaid internship. Stories that make you confident, make you feel better. That is not why I am here. What I can tell you from the other side is that the easy part of your life ends today, your real work has now begun, and even your great college education can’t have adequately prepared you for the remainder of your existence.
Several of you will begin to study to be pastors and counselors as you privately cope with an addiction. One or two of you will begin, for the first time in your life, to honestly question your sexual orientation and the implications that that will have on your adult life. Some of you will move to Washington to attempt to balance Christian ethics with the tangle of political ambition. And some of you, like me, will wrestle through months of discouraging unemployment while searching for work, bewildered by your failure.
Your character cannot be attributed to the nurturing of this school. It was, and always will be, a matter between you and God and the challenges that are coming your way. This season will be weighty, and how you approach it matters very much. Are you ready?
I am going to tell you a story you’ve heard before, because you helped to invent it. Once upon a time, some friends of mine got married after graduation in 2012. Their wedding was flawless. They fixed up a new house and he started his great engineering job. Then they got pregnant, and came back for homecoming with twinkling eyes and whispered the news to their close friends. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the ideal postgraduate narrative we’ve all co-written. However, that isn’t where their story ends at all. I must finish by telling you that they had a miscarriage. It doesn’t match the story. How can I parallel their beautiful wedding, success, and expectation of happiness with the pain and horror of losing a baby – the emotional trauma, physical exhaustion, and bitter disappointment they did their best to bear?
I wouldn’t dare to lump all five hundred and ninety of you into one way of thinking, but I know enough about a lot of you to suppose that somewhere in your mind is seared a specific success story. This story doesn’t begin with a diploma today. It begins way, way back with the private preschools, violin lessons, Latin and Spanish, choir competitions, debate clubs, robotics tournaments, basketball championships, and the letter that came in the mail to welcome you here. It’s the momentum of success that your parents proudly began, the momentum you carried here. And your story today extends into the future, one you hope will be full of wealth, or fame, or acceptance, or adventure. A success story.
Whatever it is, I’m guessing that you’re clutching on to it today as you sit and sweat and celebrate and worry. Your story will have beauty and adventure, engagements and job offers, sure. But success and happiness is never the point, nor will it constantly be given to you. Your story will have a bewildering amount of confusion, darkness and death, things that can’t be confidently posted on Facebook or pridefully summarized in all of the “what are you doing after you graduate” conversations.
Amid your joys, your story will have its own tragedies of mental illnesses, natural disasters, debt, rebellious children, war, and broken marriages. Your experience here at college has not made you immune in the least. College has only distracted you as it fed the momentum that powered you through it all. Now we are here, and it is right to be afraid. More than celebrating a milestone, today marks the day where you must be responsible for how you respond to the weight of darkness that comes with living on this earth. You cannot do this alone.
A dear friend recently told me a story of a dark and fathomless ocean, with black waves roaring as an infinitely stormy sky churns overheard. In the middle of the ocean is one rock, and on the rock is a person. These brutal waves pound on this rock constantly. If the person were to stand up, they would immediately be swept out into the vast nothingness of the dark ocean, or pummeled to death on the sharp surface of the rock. Their only choice for survival at all it to press their entire body to the rock, gripping onto it in desperation as the cold waves tear at them hungrily. The bleak truth is that they cannot let go or they will certainly die. As she tells it, this is the essence of our human existence.
When I left behind a very hard summer job to move back home after graduating just to wade through underemployment and loneliness, my bitter question was, “why the ocean, Lord?” Why bother creating a fathomless, dark ocean of a world, full of failure, miscarriages and divorce? If life on earth is just a time of clinging to the rock before we die, why would God bother to create anything at all?
I said earlier that success was never the point. I meant it. Whatever you might have been told or told yourself while at this institution, the point is not businesses started, money saved, ideas published, or community cherished. As I cling fiercely to the rock during this season, the answer to my question becomes clear. The only point of the ocean is to draw us closer to the rock. Let me say that again so you really hear me. The only point of the ocean is to draw us closer to the rock. The terrifying waves and fathomless ocean draw us closer to God, to help us see and know, consider and understand together that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created this world. That’s from Isaiah 41. Friends, the point is glorifying God by clinging to him intimately. That is life. That is the point of everything.
My exhortation to you today is simple. Wherever you go, in joy and pain, you will find the Lord there waiting for you. There is an ocean, and only one rock, and there is glory to be given. When you create an app, write a book, wait tables, run a ministry or study plankton, you will find glory there to give back to the Lord. When you battle cancer, lose a grandparent, can’t have children, or struggle with crippling depression, you will find glory there to give back to the Lord.
If you do not choose to draw close to God in the circumstances you are bound to face in your lifetime, some of which are unique to this postgraduate time, I can promise that you will be pulled out into the vast ocean and carried away into the darkness of casual spiritual ambivalence and selfish ambition. You must daily choose either the ocean or the Lord. There is no other way to go through life on earth.
The sector you are going into does not need someone easily discouraged, entitled, stubborn, or addicted to success. We do not need more greedy doctors, lazy teachers, selfish accountants or unethical researchers. The powers of darkness already have plenty of those. The kingdom of God needs your willingness, not your willfulness. I encourage you as you walk across this stage away from your college experience and into the darkness of a fallen world to let go of needing a personal “happily ever after” and instead humbly lay down your life for God’s glory. It will be the most radical thing you will ever do.
My prayer for you all comes from Psalm 131:
O Lord, our hearts are not lifted up; our eyes are not raised too high; we do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous for us. But we have calmed and quieted our souls, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child are our souls within us. Oh class of 2014, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.
Thank you, and God bless.