We’re in graduation season. This week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the institutions, faculty, and friends who shaped my life. Both my undergraduate college (Geneva College) and seminary (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) are holding graduation exercises this weekend. I graduated from Geneva 38 years ago. I graduated twice from Gordon-Conwell. . . 30 years ago and 11 years ago. I highly value both places and the formative role they played in my life. This is always a time of year for me to give thanks for both schools.
Last weekend it was my privilege to deliver the commencement address at Simpson University in Redding, California. On a beautiful day with Mt. Shasta in the background, several hundred grads ended their college years and commenced the rest of their lives. Rather than deliver what’s become normal, predictable, and cliched, my desire was to tell the graduates something valuable and true about life. Because Simpson asked for a title, I gave them one: “Scripts.” The Scriptures that were read prior to my address were Proverbs 3:1-12, and Jeremiah 29:11.
This week, several folks requested a copy of the transcript of my address. Since I only worked off some hand-written notes, I’m just now typing it out. For what it’s worth, I’m posting it here. I pray that someone might find it encouraging and helpful.
It’s always exciting to be asked to speak at a commencement. Each and every time I’ve had this privilege, I think about artist Andy Warhol and the now-famous words he included in the printed program for a 1968 exhibition of his work in Stockholm: “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
Well, it’s 2016. . . the future. But I’m fully aware of the fact that even though I’m standing up here in front of all of you and you’re looking at me, this isn’t my 15 minutes. In fact, the reality is that I’m the most insignificant and first-to-be-forgotten part of this day.
How do I know that?
I’ve been thinking back to my own college graduation thirty-eight years ago. It was 1978. I graduated from Geneva College with your Provost here at Simpson University, Dr. Copeland. I remember it like it was yesterday. . . sitting there. . . looking around. . . taking it all in. . . my friends. . . the whole thing. I didn’t want to lose the moment. I remember the ceremony ending with the singing of our Alma Mater, and I got a big lump in my throat while tears streamed down my eyes. An amazing four years coming to an end. I remember it all. But I have absolutely no idea who spoke or what he or she said.
I was hoping I was alone in this experience. . . that it was just me. But sadly, that’s not so. Every time I’ve been asked to speak at a commencement I survey people. . . this time on Facebook. . . and I ask these questions:
- Do you remember your college graduation?
- What do you remember about it?
- Do you remember who spoke?
- Do you remember anything the speaker said?
Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve heard from folks. . .
- “What do I remember? My diploma folder was empty because I had to complete my coursework over the summer.”
- “I remember nothing about the actual ceremony except that it was a zillion degrees outside. Everyone had their gowns unzipped.”
- “Some business guy spoke. . . I think.”
- “I remember a little. Ted Turner was our commencement speaker, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This guy is unimpressive.'”
- “I remember being there. It was a very windy day. That’s about it.”
- “Someone spoke? Are you sure?”
- “It was fine, but I felt slighted because our school President gave the commencement speech, rather than someone cool.” (Well, you guys get neither today?)
- “It was game 6 of the Western Conference Finals! Don’t remember anything else.”
- “I had my picture taken with my girlfriend. Two weeks later, she gave me the heave-ho!”
This is an impossible task! So, what can I say that might be truthful, be meaningful, be helpful, be important. . . and maybe remembered?
What I will not say today is this. . .
- “Dream Big!”
- “Carpe Diem”
- “Change the world!”
- “Believe in yourself!”
- “Imagine it. . . and make it happen!”
- “Follow your heart!”
- “You can be and do anything if you put your mind to it!”
Reality is, that’s nothing but a bunch of hooey. . . and I’ll leave those messages to Oprah wherever she might be speaking today.
Here’s what I want to tell you. . . To the Simpson University Class of 2016, on this special and wonderful day when we’re all here to celebrate your hard work and great achievement, I want you to remember. . . You have your whole life ahead of you, and it will not even come close to being what you think it will be. . . and that’s just fine.
Earlier this week I was listening to the radio and heard what is today the #2 song on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. . . “7 Years” by the Danish band Lukas Graham. It’s a song written from the perspective of a young person who is looking ahead with dreams for the future. One line that caught my attention was this: “soon I’ll be sixty-years-old.” I’m going to turn sixty in a couple of months. . . and I realized as I was listening that life is like a flash. You blink at it blows right by. I can hardly believe it.
And I thought back to “yesterday”. . . 38 years ago. . . and the time that Dr. Copeland and I had with our friends. We, like you, spent four years living, eating, learning, and dreaming with each other. I remember how we would sit around tables in the dining hall. . . with few cares other than an upcoming paper or exam. . . and we would laugh about our lives and dream about our futures. In effect, we were talking about the scripts we had planned out and expected for our lives. And we had absolutely no idea that God would rewrite each of our scripts, including great joys and great sorrows. . . good things and difficult things.
Our scripts were filled with nothing but great plans! We believed God would bless us with nothing but good things and even an easy life. We had great scripts for our jobs, our spouses, our kids, our families, our band accounts, our bodies. . . everything!
I don’t think that we realized that we were going to leave that place and time and launch into our lives as horribly broken people, destined to live and work with horribly broken people, in a horribly broken world. Bob Dylan’s lyrics rang true but we weren’t really listening: “Everything is broken!” All of us left college carrying our broken selves with us. . . and those broken selves would follow us into our choices and our circumstances.
None of our scripts contained the types of nuanced brokenness that every single one of our scripts has included in a variety of mixes and measures. I know this because I’ve walked through life with so many of my college friends. . . and social media has facilitated wonderful re-connections with even more. These scripts include disease, depression, family discord and dysfunction, addictions, arrests, divorce, disappointments, trauma of all kinds, death. . . and so much more.
So today, I want to challenge you to think about this reality that I can 100% guarantee each and every one of you will face. You see, we all learned that our scripts were not His scripts. . . and you will see the same thing.
Proverbs 16:9 tells us this: “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
There’s a Yiddish Proverb that states the same thing with these words: “Man plans. God laughs.”
Theologian Will Willimon sums up what wise theologians have been telling us for all time with these words: “Life is full of necessary losses, closed doors, dashed hopes, and collapsed towers.”
And now you’re looking at me and thinking, “GEEZ. . . WHAT A DOWNER THIS GUY IS!”
The reality is that this is the reality you will all soon face, so my desire is to be totally realistic. You see, as I stand here today and look back over the last 38 years of my own life and the script God has allowed to unfold in my life, I realize three things:
- My life is not following the script I wrote.
- It’s a script, if I had been able to see it, I would have avoided.
- I wouldn’t trade the script – its joys and its sorrows – for anything!
Why? Because the truth is that difficulty is where God meets us, grips us, grows us, and takes us deep into the most beautiful and life-giving script possible! Difficulty is where God pulls us into His presence to conform us to His will. . . and to give us a future and a hope.
Difficulty and suffering is redeemed by God for His glory and our good! And in a world where narcissism is advancing in our lives (and we are being told that you are the most narcissistic generation America has ever seen. . . but it’s not just you. . . it’s all of us regardless of age), one of the best things that can happen to you is that God will use difficulty and suffering to bring you to the end of yourself, to force you to a point where you can do nothing but drop your arms to your sides, and you cry out to God. . . “I’ve got nothing!”. . . and then He pulls you into His loving arms. That is right where God wants us.
The Psalmist writes these words in Psalm 119:71 – “My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees.”
When life gets too easy, we forget God and depend on ourselves.
All of this became real to me once more three weeks ago when I shared a long and wonderful dinner with some college friends. We hadn’t see each other for 38 years. As I sat with this couple and we recited the scripts we’d been given by God since we’d seen each other last we both laughed and cried. I was struck again as I listened to their story of how unimaginable pain and brokenness had visited their lives. At times, they told their story through tears. I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. But the tears were not only tears of sorrow and brokenness. Very quickly smiles appeared as we rejoiced over the work of God and His grace that sorrow and brokenness had done in our lives.
In my own life, an unexpected and horrible reality became the stage for God to rewrite my script. An unexpected “player” stepped into the story at just the right time and shared these words from Jeremiah 29:11. . . “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
God speaks those same words to you. . . and you must never forget them. . . for there are days coming when you will need to plant yourselves on them.
The great news about God’s script is that what looks like the dismal end of our “well-thought-out” scripts and plans is in reality the beginning of God’s grand and glorious plan for our lives!
So what now? I want to leave you with this story and a lesson from it. . .
When my son Josh was five years old, I was preparing for an extended ten-day trip away from home. Sadly anticipating my departure, he started to get antsy the day before I left. As I sat in my recliner reading the morning paper, he ran in a circle from the living room, through the dining room, kitchen, and hallway, and then back to the living room again. Each time he passed, my paper would blow in the breeze. On one of his passes, I looked up long enough to see him stop, get down on his hands and knees, and look frantically under the couch. Not finding what he was looking for, he got up and continued running. My curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him what he was doing. “I’m looking for something, Dad. . . something I want to give you before you go away on your trip!” I went back to reading my paper while his frantic search took him upstairs. I heard drawers and closets opening and closing. “What are you looking for, Josh? Maybe I can help you,” I yelled. “The round pointer, Dad. You know, that punkas. I’ll find it.” I had no clue what he was talking about. A few minutes passed, and his search brought him back downstairs. Then he yelled with excitement; he had found the object of his hunt.
Seconds later he climbed up on my lap. “Dad, I want you to take this with you when you go on your trip.” In his hand was a tiny plastic compass. “Why do you want me to have this, Josh?” “Because, Dad, you are going away for ten days. I want you to keep my punkas in your pocket so that you know where you are from, where you belong, and how to get back home.”
Tears filled my eyes. I wasn’t scheduled to leave until the next day, and already I felt like I had been gone too long. I kept that “punkas” in my pocket the entire time I was gone. . . and I have it in my pocket this morning.
In a world where there are many “experts” sharing conflicting opinions on the purpose of life and how to live our lives, it’s good to know that there is a “punkas” we can trust, handed to us by the One who created life. That “punkas” is the Word, both the incarnate Word Jesus Christ, and the written Word, the Bible. Together, Jesus Christ and God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible reveals what we need to know about everything we encounter on the journey.
What you have learned here at Simpson University is to love, serve, and follow the “punkas.” Can I challenge you to immerse yourself and your life in the “punkas” each every day when you leave here? And as you study God’s Word, never stop praying these three simple prayers. . .
- Show me you.
- Show me me.
- Show me your plan for me.
Simpson University Class of 2016. . . You have your whole life ahead of you and it will not turn out to be what you think it is going to be. There will be unforeseen great joys. There will be unforeseen great sorrows. Pursue faithfulness to Jesus Christ – who holds you close – and you will find yourself living the best script that today, April 16, 2016, you can’t even begin to imagine!
And, if two weeks from now you get the heave-ho. . . well. . . it will all work out.