I don’t know how many graduation ceremonies I’ve attended. In only two cases can I recall who the Commencement speakers were. When I graduated from Michigan State University the speaker was Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. As I recall, he used the occasion to give what seemed to have been a major foreign policy address. When I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Seminary our Commencement speaker was Gerald R. Ford. Though he was no longer President, a bevy of reporters attended and, because I was just ahead of Mike Ford in the graduation line, I got on national TV, though I suspect few people were watching me: they were watching Jerry Ford stand to shake Mike’s hand. I don’t recall anything Ford said that day.
Pastors don’t often get asked to speak at Commencements. But in a few of the places I have served they still had Baccalaureate services and local pastors frequently got asked to speak at those. When I was in South Dakota it came the turn of the pastor of the Presbyterian Church to speak at Baccalaureate, so I got to address a rather large crowd of parents and students. I do recall most of what I said that night, mostly because I had it all writen down. And I recall that many people who were there came up to me later to thank me for being so honest.
How many graduation services will there be next month? Thousands of high school Commencements, certainly thousands of college Commencements as well. Millions of students will graduate high school and hundreds of thousands more from college. Most of them will be given some version of the traditional Commencement address, echoed by valedictorians, principals and other notables from the President of the United States on down: “This-is-your-world,-you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be-and-make-the-world-what-you-want-to-make-it.” That is the nonsense challenged the two times I was asked to speak at a Baccalaureate service.
Why do I call it nonsense? First of all, I challenge the premise. Fifty years ago there was a little old lady named Gert Bahanna who traveled the country giving her testimony. She once remarked, “If any of you are giving your children the idea that this is their world, you are doing them the greatest possible disservice. This is not your children’s world. This is not a white world or a black world or a brown world—this is God’s world and he made it, and I bet you someday He’s gonna get it back.” In the end God, not us, will makes this world what it should be.
Further, most of us have very little effect on the world around us. Oh, it’s true that one or two people in a graduating class may go on to make a name for themselves. I don’t agree with Thoreau, who famously said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” But most of us will live in relative anonymity. We’ll have jobs, raise families, serve in our churches, coach little league or get involved in local government or all of the other things ordinary people do. But few of us get to be extraordinary. The vast multitude of those who graduate next month will never get even a short article in Wikipedia.
So iin the light of those facts I asked the graduates three questions; how will you distinguish truth from lies, who will you follow and who will you serve, and where will you find significance in life? For most of next month’s graduates the primary determinant of truth will be no more than what they want to hear. They will believe that whatever satisfies them, whatever promises the most to them is true. After all, if man is the measure of all things, then certainly each man must be the measure of his own truth, right?
As to the second question, most of next month’s graduates will conclude that they are serving themselves. Enlightened self interest is the chief moral guide in modern society. Rich Mullins once wrote, “They said, ‘Boy, you just follow your nse,’ but the direction changed each time I went and turned my head.” Most of us don’t realize that Bob Dylan, back in 1980, had the right of it when he sang, “You’ve gotta serve somebody. It might be the devil or in might be the Lord, but you’ve gotta serve somebody.” The fact is that everything we do will be done in service either to good or evil, to the Lord or to the devil, and there is no escaping that reality. Even in a free country you will serve. The only question is who and what.
Then there is the matter of significance. When I was in college InterVarsity Press put out a tiny booklet titled, “The Western Book of the Dead.” Its author has the intelligentsia saying to those who don’t like their pointless, nihilistic philosophies, “You must not give yourselves airs. You are nothing. You are a conscious bit of protoplasm condemned to death on this planet.” I have heard Will Provine, a noted atheist, remark that he finds significance in a life well lived and his friends’ positive memories of him. But in a few hundred years nobody will even remember that the man lived. So where will we find significance?
The answer should be apparent: we will find it only in God. He does not see a faceless mass of millions of graduates. Rather He sees and know each of us and, even if what we do in life doesn’t seem that important to the rest of the world, it is all important to Him. To Jesus you are a real person whom He loves, and you will never be a nameless, faceless cipher in His eyes.
That being said, the challenge is still out there: be God’s person where He puts you and make a difference, all you can. If you don’t want to disappear into that crowd of faceless grads, if you really want to make a difference in the world, then hold fast to Jesus Christ. Take your faith into everything you do, your job, your family life, your community activities—everything. Even it the world doesn’t recognize or appreciate what you do, God will, and He will reward it, if not in this life then in the life to come. When I was in high school our church hosted an evangelist for a week of meetings. He used to quote an old poem: “Only one life, ‘twil soon be passed; only what’s done for Christ will last.” That’s as true now as it was then.