Saturday, May 23, 2009

The beginning of wisdom

Recently I was asked what I’d say if I were the commencement speaker at a public high school. This raises two issues. To begin with, judicial activists have reinterpreted and misinterpreted the Establishment Clause to limit what a Christian student can say in a commencement address. And beyond judicial interference, we need to be tactful about what we say when addressing what is both a captive audience and a mixed audience. To be too heavy-handed would backfire.

On the other hand, high school graduation is a natural time for young folks to start asking themselves the big questions about the meaning of life. So it’s perfectly appropriate for a Christian valedictorian to angle the speech in a religious direction. Anyway, if I were back in high school, I’d say something along the following lines:


Different cultures have different rites of passage. It might be a hazing ritual, or baptism, or a Bar Mitzvah, or a vision quest, or a debutante ball, or a tattoo.

In our own society, high school graduation is a rite of passage. It marks our coming of age, as we leave our childhood behind and embark on adult freedoms and responsibilities. We take a new turn on the journey of life.

Every journey involves going somewhere. And that, in turn, involves two motions in one. You have a destination. Some place you end up. Some place you’re going to.

But, by the same token, you can’t go some place unless you go away. So every trip involves coming and going. It’s not just where you’re going, but what you’re leaving. If you’re going in one direction, you’re not going in another.

Some people are drifters. Like driftwood. Rudderless. They don’t have any grand plans for life. They just go with the flow–wherever the current carries them.

They take life as it comes. Muddle through. Improvise. React to their surroundings. Hormones. Appetites. Social mores.

It’s like watching a beetle cross the floor. The beetle doesn’t stop to ask what it’s doing there. A beetle doesn’t say to itself, “Why am I here?” “Where did I come from?” “What’s the point?” It doesn’t know where it’s going. It just keeps moving.

It moves along the edge of the wall. The wall gives it a sense of direction. As long as it hugs the wall, it can move in a straight line.

But then it hits the corner. It can’t keep going forward, because there’s a wall in front of it. It can’t turn right, because that’s another wall. So it goes left. It goes left because it has to.

It can keep going in a square circle, round and round the room, hugging the edge of the wall, until it dies.

Or the beetle can walk across the room. If it bumps into the leg of a chair, it will move around the leg of the chair. It doesn’t move the chair–the chair moves it.

Some people are like that. They don’t move the furniture of life. Instead, the furniture moves them. Wherever the furniture happens to be, that determines where they go or don’t go.

Other people have their life all planned out. They are very goal-oriented. They know what they want, and they know how to get it.

Some of them are very successful. But some of them find out that success didn’t bring them happiness. They have everything they want, but it’s not enough. They know what they want, but they don’t know what they need.

Other people fail to realize their dreams, not because they didn’t plan, but b ecause their plans fell through. Halfway through their career-track they were diagnosed with a degenerative illness. That halts them in their tracks.

Some of you, sitting here today, in the prime of life, won’t live to be 80 or 90. Some of you will die of cancer. Or maybe a drug overdose. Or maybe a drunk driver will wipe you out. At 25. Or 30.

That’s one of the interesting, sobering, even scary things about life. Life is just so unpr edictable. You can’t predict how you’ll end the race from how you begin the race.

I once read a story about twin-brothers. The kid brother was Jim. His older brother was Harry. Jim was a homebody. A momma’s boy.

Harry was a sportsman. A hunter. An outdoorsy kinda guy. He used to bring wild game home for dinner. Quail. Venison. That sort of thing.

The parents played favorites. Mom favored Jim while Dad favored Harry.

Now, if that’s all you knew about them, you’d predict that Jim led a very uneventful life. Never did anything adventurous.

But that’s not how it turned out. You see, one day Jim played a trick on his brother. Jim cheated his brother. Betrayed his brother. He cheated his brother out of something very precious to his brother.

Harry was so mad at Jim that Jim feared for his life. So Jim had to run away. He was deathly afraid that Harry would kill him.

Jim spent the next 20 years in self-imposed exile. That’s quite a cooling off period!

He wanted to go back home, but he was afraid to go back home. He wasn’t sure if his brother ever forgave him. If his brother was still waiting all these years to get even. Spoiling for a chance to get back at Jim.

Some people are like that. They never feel quite at home in life. They feel orphaned. They’re always searching for something they can’t find. They don’t know what they’re looking for, but they hope they’ll know it when they see it. Some people fail in their quest because they’re looking in the wrong place. Because they’re looking for the wrong thing.

During the Cold War, the Russian army closed the border between East Berlin and West Berlin. Some Germans couldn’t get back home. On August 12, they could travel freely. On August 13, they were trapped. Over the years, some of them were shot dead trying to get back home.

Hikers sometimes get lost. They want to get home, but they lose their bearings in the woods. Without a map and compass they can’t find their way back home. Some of them die of exposure.

Life is a journey. Are you coming or going?

Don’t be a beetle. Or a piece of drift wood. Know where you’re headed. And why.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Live wisely.


  1. Nooooo, I am the beetle!

  2. George Martin would appreciate your career choice.