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Commencement Address – Class of 2020
16 June 2020

Hello graduates. Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share with you one last time.

I. An Image
I’m going to start with a story, which is meant to leave you with an image. Here’s the story:
When I was about your age, maybe just a few years older, I took a trip to Morocco with some friends. Our plan was to arrive, rent a car, drive out to the Sahara Desert, and spend the night in a tent. Things did not go according to plan.

The first crisis was when we realized the airport only had manual cars for rent, and none of us knew how to drive anything other than an automatic. Somehow I managed to get the car out of the parking lot, despite some close calls, and pretty soon we were on the main highway in Marrakech. It was rush hour, and the car stalled at the entrance to a round-about. Angry Moroccans were yelling and pumping their fists out the windows. The light changed from green to red and back to green again. Somehow the car started moving again, and we all decided to get off the highway as soon as possible.

Fortunately, we found an oval to the side of the road, and we drove around and around in circles trying to figure out the clutch. There were no buildings in the oval, just grass. Grass and a random guy in a lawn chair watching the whole thing. In the midst of that crazy city, in the midst of the bustle and chaos, one man sat on his lawn chair and watched. Watched and pondered, as we drove around in circles and circle.

That’s the image I want you keep in your head. Draw it on your program if you think you’ll forget it. You can submit your drawings later for a prize.

Here are the three main bits of the image I want to expand on: A crisis, A cycle, and A ponderer.

II. CRISIS: A World on Fire
Fast-forward a little more than a decade, to this past year. It’s hard to remember, but at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, there were bushfires spreading all over Australia. And by spreading, I mean devastating the country. I remember reading an article about it back then that seems prophetic is retrospect. It was called “The World is Always Burning,” written by Stephanie Phillips. Here’s what she said:

“The rest of the world has finally caught on to what people in Australia have been dealing with for months: bushfires are ravaging the country and its wildlife, people are losing their homes (and in over two dozen cases, their lives) and the air is filled with smoke. This is a disaster.

Meanwhile, repeated earthquakes have rocked an already-fragile Puerto Rico, and tensions have skyrocketed between the US and Iran. Add to that all the rest of the pain and strife occurring across the globe, and one might be forgiven for thinking the world is truly falling apart.

But here’s a spoiler alert for the past million seasons of The World: it’s always been this way.

Anyone who can feel impenetrable on this planet is privileged at best, delusional at worst. We are in a world gone wrong, a world that has deviated far from its original plan. There are just some times in which this is more obvious than others.”

The article went on, but I think it’s fair to say this year has been one of those years where it’s been more obvious than others that our world is broken. 

Your class in particular has felt this profoundly – both in spoken ways – which Donna and Peter brought up on Sunday, and unspoken ones – which many of you feel without us realizing. The bushfires of Australia feel like such a small thing to us now, perhaps because we didn’t experience them here, and perhaps because of the other disasters you’ve experience this year.

I wish I could say that after you finish this year, after the pandemic is over, after you’re reunited with classmates who had to leave early – things will return to the way they should be. But I can’t promise you that. There will be more fires in your lifetimes, more crises, more loss, more uncertainty.

But there’s also a voice in the wilderness. 

III. CYCLE: A Voice in the Wilderness
I’ve been reading through some of Old Testament prophets the last few months, and they’ve felt more relevant than I’ve ever noticed. Here’s the beginning of Joel, for instance:

Hear this, you elders;
give ear, all inhabitant of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation.

What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust has left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust has left,
the destroying locust has eaten.

This year has felt a bit like that – what one locust swarm doesn’t destroy, the next one will. And if it’s felt that way for me, I know it’s felt that way for you even more so. 

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not claiming that this is directly a prophecy for today, but we can learn something about how God works from the cycles of the prophets.

Here’s what I see when I read through the prophets:
Brokenness, despair, light, hope, loss.
Tragedy, uncertainty, bitterness, hope.
Foolishness, pain, light, hope.
Light. Dark. Loss. And hope again, always hope.

The cycle not always the same, but there does seem to be a cycle.

And something of the pattern feels desperate. It’s easy to see the pattern repeated over and over again in history and to lose hope because it is a cycle after all. The light you have one day may be gone tomorrow. Hold on tight, we say, because we’re about to take another plunge.

But don’t miss this other message of the prophets – that one day the cycle will end. One day the pattern will be broken. One day, the car will leave the oval and head in one direction. For me, that direction was toward the Sahara Desert, where I’d be lost after sundown the following night. But that’s a story for another time. In God’s story, the direction is ultimately towards restoration – redemption. All things will be made new.

Here’s what happens near the end of Joel, after all the locust attacks:

…rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication;
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the latter rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will restore to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.

Restoration is both part of the cycle and the end of the cycle.  I love that idea, in particular, of God restoring the years that were lost. It’s a great comfort.

Those bushfires in Australia – the forests are already starting to regrow. Saplings are coming out of the scorched earth.

IV. PONDERER: A Mother at the Manger
We’ve seen the crisis – the world on fire. We’ve seen the cycles – Uncertainty, Loss, Restoration. And now we turn to the man in the oval, pondering what he’s seen.

One of the best Biblical examples of this is Mary.

In a short period, Mary finds out she is pregnant out of wedlock, she’s sent away from her hometown to have the baby, she’s forced to give birth among animals instead of family. But she knows all along she’s been called by God for this task, and in the midst of it, she sees a group of shepherds who believe her story, who come to praise God.

And here Luke gives a remarkable detail:

“And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

This is an odd sort of graduation speech because I’m not really calling you to do anything as you leave this place. Instead, my charge for you is simply to ponder. To ponder and remember.

Remember this year – it has shaped who you are and who you will become.

Remember the cycle will ultimately be broken. Cling to the hope that no matter how much the world is burning today or tomorrow, God’s promise of restoration stands.

Remember you have been “called to a living hope,” as Peter writes, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”

And as Mary did, treasure these things as you ponder them.