I had the incredible honor of being the graduation speaker for a rather spectacular group of students at Rosslyn’s commencement ceremony yesterday. The following is a rough transcript of what I shared.
It is such an honor, and a privilege, and a delight to be here today with all of you who have come from near and from far to celebrate these graduates.
However, I’m actually here to talk to them, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to turn my podium.
I’m going to start by reading a paragraph from a blog post I wrote in May of 2015, reflecting back over the spring semester of my first year here in Kenya. These are words that I wrote about you:
Seventy-four days (give or take), 300 periods (give or take), 18,800 minutes … and counting. And I’ve loved some (many?) of those moments. There is much that I wanted from this semester that I do not have. But one thing I do have is my students — courageous, tenacious, creative, and so, so beautiful. I didn’t expect to enjoy them ([to] be blessed by them) quite this much.
Class of 2017, you have blessed my life from the moment I arrived in Kenya. You blessed me with laughter, with creativity, with kindness, with joy — with your willingness to be challenged and to challenge. To think deeply, to listen carefully, to question courageously. Your willingness to bring your whole selves into the classroom — your passions, your interests, your convictions, your uncertainties.
You’ve blessed me with your acceptance of who I am — my love of the Doctor, my obsession with Shakespeare, my delight in all things epic. You’ve borne with my “unique,” Arabic-inspired handwriting, with my insistence on punctuation in poetry, with my tragic inability to spell, with my fumbling attempts to put ideas into words – to communicate in this unwieldy, imprecise language.
Through it all you have trusted me to walk alongside you in this journey that is learning, that is high school, that is life, and that is not something I take for granted.
You made teaching, for the first time in my life, an unmitigated delight. Something I woke up in the morning and wanted to do. And for that I can never thank you enough.
Class of 2017, do you know what a miracle you are? What I see when I look at you? You are athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, actors, scholars, questers, mathematicians, scientists, inventors, leaders, jokesters, activists … you are courageous, you are kind, you are servant-hearted, you are lovers of beauty, pursuers of truth, seekers of the good … you are fingerprints of the divine.
In knowing you, I have come to know a bit more of the beauty and glory of the God who made you — and all I can do is stand amazed.
And this brings me to my first point: As you walk off this stage and into the rest of your lives — into all of the journeys and challenges and joys that await you — know that you are loved. Know that you are delighted in. Know that the One who made you named you “good.”
Everyone sitting behind me, and those who would have longed to be here today, but are not — your family, your friends — they are proud of you. We — your teachers — are proud of you. Proud of what you’ve accomplished, yes, but much more so, proud of the people that you are. The people you choose to be.
Which brings me, rather quickly, to my second point: As you go forth into the world, do not accept its definition of success. Don’t let it define you by what you have accomplished or will accomplish. By what you can fit on a resume. Don’t let it reduce your worth to the things that you do, no matter how worthy those deeds might be.
We all long for purpose; for our lives to be meaningful. Refuse the narrative that says if you don’t change the world, you’ve failed.
One of my very favorite authors, Charles Williams, reminds us that the word “extraordinary” literally means “extra-ordinary.” The meaning that you seek isn’t to be found “out there” in what you do with your lives. It’s right here, in this present moment. Do you know that the ground you stand on is holy ground? Holy, because God is here, and you are here. This, right now, right here, is the place for encounter.
The place to encounter truth, the place to encounter God, the place to encounter the sacred Other who bears God’s image. C.S. Lewis reminds us that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”
Remember that as you go forward from this place, and this community – as you find yourselves among strangers in strange lands – as demands are made upon your time, and you are forced to evaluate and re-evaluate where your true values lie – how you will spend the moments that will become your life. All that withstands the test of time are the eternal souls to your right and to your left. So if you desire greatness, seek to love greatly, and when you do, let no one – least of all yourself – doubt the meaning of your life.
No matter what lies ahead of you in the years to come — no matter how closely it resembles your dreams, or how far it is from your expectations – refuse the narrative that says your life is ordinary, that it is unimportant, that it is mundane, that it is boring. There is no such thing as an insignificant life. If we have done one thing at Rosslyn, I pray that we have given you eyes to see the beauty that is all around you, and to call that beauty forth. To partner with God is his holy work of creation, which is the work of healing and redemption, of restoring wholeness, of calling forth the good.
One of my favorite quotes is by George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, who told his followers to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” And Philippians 4:8 tells us to focus our eyes on the pure and the lovely, the admirable and the praiseworthy.
Choose to live with eyes that are open to the presence of God in your everyday moments. Choose to be awake to the miracle that is existence. Choose to find the sacred within the life that others may call mundane. Choose to worship.
Mary Oliver ends her poem, “The Summer Day,” with the statement:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
May you also know how fall down into the grass, how to kneel down, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, how to know peace, how to be awake – always – to wonder, how to pay attention to the gift that is your life.
And here is my last point: it is gift. You have not earned it, you cannot earn it, you do not need to earn it, stop trying to earn it. Salvation by faith means accepting that God has done for you what you cannot do for yourself. It means allowing yourself to be frail and human, imperfect, broken, yet loved beyond imagining by a God who makes broken things beautiful.
A God who takes the shards of our lives and turns them into masterful mosaics.
When life feels too big, the stakes too high, the task at hand too large, remember that you are not journeying alone.
Remember that your life’s worth does not rest upon your ability to succeed. Your ability to be good enough, strong enough, whole enough.
When you fail – and you will – remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness; that living water flows more abundantly through cracked vessels; and that your calling is to become less, so he can become more.
I want to leave you with a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi – a poem that reminds me of Josh Garrels’ “At the Table” which has been played in chapel and baccalaureate this past week:
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come.
Class of 2017, there will always be a place for you at my table; but more importantly, there will always be a place for you at God’s. You are always invited in. No matter how far you journey, no matter how long you wander, no matter where your sojourn takes you, you are wanted, you are desired, you belong.
May you take this truth with you as you walk across this stage. May you have strength and courage for the journey; may you know God’s comfort and goodness in this time of transition and in the years ahead; may you have hope in abundance.
I love you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for enriching my life. Thank you for showing me a little more of God.