But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
-1 Timothy 6:11-12 (NIV)
Like a lot of people this time of year, I attended a graduation this week. My son starts high school in the fall, and this week his middle school, the place where he’s spent nine of his 14 years, had its commencement ceremony.
In some ways, an eighth grade graduation is a little like a three-year wedding anniversary: I mean, good job, but you still have a ways to go. In other ways, this one felt pretty significant. For one thing, Josh has been with about ⅔ of these kids since kindergarten. They’re kind of like sisters and brothers to each other. In his speech, Josh told his classmates that they probably know him better than he knows himself, and he’s probably right.
For another, they’ll be scattering to different high schools in the fall. Josh will go on to the next phase of his education with only two of the 28 kids he leaves eighth grade with. That’s a little different than in a lot of places, where kids pretty much progress from one school to another together.
So graduation, for a lot of these kids, was an occasion for saying goodbye to people who have meant a lot to them, classmates and teachers and administrators and parents who have shaped them into the people they have become. (It was also a time for parents to say goodbye to each other. Laura and I are a little worried that we might not fit in with the other parents in high school...)
But, though it was a time for goodbyes, the kids didn’t seem to dwell too much on that. They were more focused on the future.
That’s as it should be, I think. The commencement speaker, an alumnus of my son’s school and now a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, told the kids they could go on archaeological digs, or do research, or be political leaders - and then pointed out that everything he listed was currently being done by members of his own graduating class. He talked about some of the things they’d need to remember and do to make the same kind of impact on society, but assured them that they had what they needed to take the next step successfully.
He’s right, of course. They, and kids all over the world like them right now, are the future.
As a whole, I’m optimistic about the future. That’s because I believe that Jesus is the Lord of it, and that whatever else may change, the love and grace and power of God remains. I am, however, a little concerned about some aspects of it, and one of my concerns has to do with young men and women and their relationship to the church. Statistics can prove anything, of course, but one of the things the numbers show is that churches are losing their young adults. That’s always been the case, to some degree or another, but the difference now is that the data we can see suggests that they’re not coming back after they have their own kids, as previous generations of young adults have.
I wonder if perhaps that’s because we spend too much time talking to parents about making sure their kids are involved in church education programs and youth group activities and such.
So I want to take a cue from the commencement speaker at Josh’s graduation, and talk to young men and women in their teens and early twenties, young men and women who maybe aren’t sure if they have a place in the church, who maybe are marking time until they’re old enough or independent enough that they don’t have to go anymore.
What I want to say to you is that your relationship with God isn’t supposed to be mediated by your parents or church leaders. While parents and church leaders are interested observers, and have a calling to help you grow in your faith, a lot of it is up to you.
You have to make the choice to put your trust in Jesus or not, to make a choice about who you think he is, whether or not he rose from the dead, and the offer of eternal life he makes. It’s your choice whether or not to follow him, pattern your life after him, and live and lock-step with the Spirit he gives you.
You will find time, ways, and means to pursue what you most want. You have to choose for yourself to flee from some things, and pursue others. You have to make the choice as to whether or not you want to be a person who treats others fairly and justly, who seeks God and to live by his values and priorities, who approaches life and death with faith in him and his love and power.
The culture we live in applies the label “love” too easily and too indiscriminately. You’ll have to choose whether or not to buy into the easy, feel-good love of the culture around us, or whether to show God’s love to the people in your life - and not just to the ones who make you feel good. It will be your responsibility to treat people gently, as the valuable creations of God they are, and to do so over and over again, endurance being the chief difference between God’s love and the world’s knock-off of it.
You will find that being a man or woman of God requires sacrifice, and you’ll have to choose whether or not to make those sacrifice. You’ll find that you can’t do it on a part-time basis, any more than a soldier can fight a war part-time. You’ll have to choose whether or not you want to fight the battles that faith requires and so take possession of the life you chose when you confessed your faith in Jesus.
It’s time. You’re old enough, responsible enough, to make these decisions for yourself.
Sometimes the church disappoints us. Sometimes we struggle to feel like we belong. You’re not alone in those feelings - anyone who has ever spent any amount of time at all with the church knows them.
But it’s not about all that. You can’t use the human failings of the church as an excuse to dodge your own responsibility to the church’s Lord. He has given you everything you need to step forward with faith, courage, hope, and joy, and take your place in the church’s future alongside those who have taken their places in its past and present.
Think of today as your graduation. Let the rest of your life commence.