Dear seniors; (everyone else feel free to listen);
I miss you.
Now, you might assume that this emotional feeling arises from the fact that I’ve been on sabbatical this spring and simply miss the interaction which comes from being on campus. You would be mistaken. I’m talking about missing you AFTER graduation. April for me is a time of deep mourning not celebration. Over the last four years, I have watched you grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Child development experts say the first 18 months of your life was the most important to your growth. Obviously, these folks have never watched an 18 year old infant (I’m not trying to be offensive. But do you remember what you were like when you first came to IWU?) grow and mature into a 22 year old man or woman. The conversations we have now are nothing like the ones we had during freshmen orientation. And I have watched you grow up; and now, you are leaving. Personally, I think April stinks.
In several of the letters of the Apostle Paul, he closes with some parting words. These words, such as in 1 Thessalonians 5 are short, pithy, and to the point. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thes 5:16-22).
Would you please pamper me and allow me to give some “Paul-like” parting words to you seniors?
Here is my first admonition, “Practice the spiritual disciplines that you have seen modeled before you for the last four years.” If you have gained any respect for your Religion professors, you might ask the question, “How have they gotten to where they are?” The answer is simple; by God’s grace. None of your professors deserve the gift of teaching at the best undergraduate institution in the country, with the most caring faculty, and teaching the best students in the world. It’s all because of His grace. “How does one appropriate God’s grace you ask?” Another simple answer, practice the disciplines which have been passed down from teacher to students; beginning with Jesus to His disciples. “Teach us to pray” they said; and He did (read John 17 or His words in Gethsemane). “What does this parable mean” they asked. And he taught them to read and interpret scripture (read Mark 4:13-20). You have watched and at times been mentored by us for the last four years. I beg you; do not leave this place without pledging that you will practice these spiritual disciplines daily. Jesus did. We do. Shouldn’t you?
Second, “Integrate faithfulness to the local church into your worship of the Lord.” George Barna in his book Revolution is DEAD wrong. No one can remain faithful to Jesus for any length of time apart from the local church. I have watched too many of our graduates (that’s right, CM and YTH ministry students, CE and Worship majors, from every combination of majors and minors) walk across the stage at graduation, receive their diploma, and slowly but surely walk away from the Lord. I’m sure it was not intentional, but it certainly was predictable. If you neglect the spiritual disciplines, if you do without the fellowship of the Body of Christ; I can be prophetic; you will be writing me in 6 months wondering why your faith is faltering, why your passion for Christian service is waning, and why your ability to resist temptation is negligible. Here is another revelation for you, in short order you will miss MWF @ 10am. That’s right, chapel will quickly become a warmhearted memory not an academic compliance. You will miss devos at midnight, principally because you will be in bed by 10pm. You will miss prayer at the beginning of class, and coffee with Christian friends at any hours in McConn. Your guardian angel will be the Church. Remember what Coach D wrote, There is no “I” in Church. Please, hearken my words, the Church is the only place on earth that not only cares about your faith, she wants your faith to grow and flourish. You may say, “The Church is just not for me right now.” Please believe me when I lovingly say, “You are wrong.” The Church does not need you nearly as much as you need the church. If you disagree, you border on spiritual arrogance; watch out lest you fall.
Now, number three, “Call upon spiritual direction for the rest of your life.” Remember how often you would ask one of your professors for advice? How natural it felt to sit in one of our offices and to ask questions of ecclesiology, Christology, theodicy, or even the practical issues of life? Even the most mundane things of life were fair game. Well, the reason it was so natural, was because IT IS. We are meant to establish Paul-and-Timothy relationships for the rest of our lives. Do not think that because you stop paying tuition, we cease to care. Nothing is farther from the truth. But the farther you move from IWU, temporally and experientially, the more you need others in your life that know the current YOU and the vents which are impacting your life. So, where ever you go, find a “spirit-led Paul” who will assist you on your spiritual journey. S/he can help you discern the voice of God and the pattern of the Spirit in your life. Also, begin the process of being a mentor for someone spiritually younger than you.
Finally, as a word of preparation for the harsh world out there, “Remember, failure is an even better teacher than your Religion Professors.” Recently, I’ve reflected upon the hardship of failure and rejection. I did not realize how many times I’ve been told, “No.” Each one has been painful; shattering what I thought was God’s plan. But each “no” was also a wonderful opportunity for God to reveal His goodness in a profound manner. Let me cite a few examples for you:
· I have sitting before me the names of five churches that I candidated with. They all rejected me. One church board member actually relayed the rejection via a phone message given to a baby-sitter while Angie and I were out one night. But then, one district superintendent took favor on me and gave me a chance. It only took one “yes” to reveal the flood-gates of heaven to me.
· I have four file folders from graduate schools that turned me down for PhD studies, all for a variety of reasons. Only one said, “Yes.” One was just enough. It was at the University of Durham that I formally met Ken Schenck, who several years later mentioned my name to Dr. Steve Lennox (then chair of the Religion Division) when IWU was searching for a Bible Professor. Yes, one was just the right number of acceptances.
· I have 11 (yes, count them 11) letters of rejection from my application to teach at undergraduate institutions. I was ready to give up when I received a phone call from Dr. Lennox who asked me to apply for a Bible position here at IWU. It only took one “yes” to remove all the pain of opening each of those rejection letters.
Then again, if I had not come to IWU, I would not have met you. We would not have had these last four years together. What a blessing all those rejections truly were. I would go thru them all again to receive a bounty as rich as this.
I am convinced that God is more at work in the rejections of life than in the acceptances. Please allow Him to shape your spiritual life (and professional one as well) through these seemingly harsh circumstances. Of course, your response to rejection and failure will only be endured and stabilized by the integration of items 1-3 above. Finally, here is the answer you have been waiting for your entire college career, “Yes, these will be on the test”. But after graduation, the only test left is life. Choose the life of faith.
Now, for the last time I tell you, “Go with God.”