Life Beyond Graduation
By Charles Rush
June 8, 2003
Heb. 12: 1-2
is morning I want to say something especially to our graduating Seniors, at least the ones who are here. The rest of them can read it on line when they wake up. I remember not that long ago having you all in you all in Confirmation. And now when I think on every one of you, how much you have come into your own, how musically talented some of you are, how accomplished you are academically, what interesting people you are becoming.
I wish I could simply offer you proverbial
wisdom this morning that you could fit manageably inside a fortune cookie… The Great American critic Will Rogers had
lots of proverbial advice. He told us, “ Never slap a man who's chewing tobacco.” Or this “The quickest way to
double your money is to fold it and put it back in your pocket.” Or this “ If
you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” There are three kinds of men The very, very few that learn by
reading. The few who learn by
observation. The great lot, the rest of them, who have to pee on the
electric fence. “ Trust me, you will meet all three groups at college shortly.
Unfortunately great wisdom doesn’t come neatly packaged like that.
now, you are living through a great time of life. The work is all over and you
are enjoying your accomplishments. I’m sure that part of you is also tired of
hanging around boring old Summit, having your parents tell you every few days
what you can’t do, having all that reinforced by the Summit police. And you are
yearning to be free, to start out on a new adventure.
texts this morning speak to starting out on new adventures and it is an
fundamental spiritual theme in the scriptures. And starting out is not
something that will happen to you once or twice in your life, but probably
several times. In the Hebrew scriptures, Abraham was probably 70 years old when
God appears to him and says to him, “Get up and go to a land that I will show
you.” How is that for a vague, open-ended business plan? Where is this land
that I will be show? And here is Abraham, probably pretty settled, thinking his
best days are behind him. God opens before him the greatest adventure of his
life, the most challenging adventure of his life.
soon enough, you will be off on your own adventure and you will be truly unsupervised
for really the first time in your life. There is something wonderfully giddy
about that first day at college. Your parents drop you off, they try to cram
all their concerns and worries one more time, maybe they stuff $10 bucks in
your pocket and then they are gone. You and your new roommates, sitting around
boxes, with that first celebratory beer of freedom. Rock and Roll will never
die. You can do whatever you want and there aren’t even any classes to go to
every adventure has anxiety. It wouldn’t be an adventure if it didn’t require
you to get outside your comfort zone. It would only be a vacation. At some
point, probably on your first day at college, you will find yourself in a group
of people and you will think to yourself. “Oh my God, all these people are
smarter than me; they are better looking. Their families are richer and cooler.
They all seem to laugh easier and everyone else seems to know other people. Oh
my God, what have I gotten myself into.
Dean of the College won’t help much either. Back in the Middle Ages when I was
in college, Provost Wilson spoke to us at the first orientation assembly at the
Chapel at Wake Forest. He informed us that 92% of the freshman class had
registered as Pre-Med or Pre-Law, not a very creative group. And then he
assured us that 92% would not practice Law or Medicine. In fact, he said, “take
a look at the person sitting next to you on your left and your right.” We all
turned and smiled. He went on, “The chances are they won’t be sitting there
next semester as half our student body flunks out the first year.” That
possibility had never entered my head. And it was sobering.
now, you think you know how to write. But first semester, you are likely to get
some over earnest, underpaid assistant professor recently graduated from Yale
who will fill your two pages with more red ink than the black you turned in,
leaving only one half of one sentence unscrambled. And you will long for those
nice, encouraging teachers at Summit High School that reminded you each week
how much potential you have.
than that, the really big challenge is the realm of ideas and values. It is
here that we hope you stretch, twist, get out of your comfort zone, examine
what you have been handed, and eventually make your values your own. That is,
ultimately, the whole point.
tried to give you a backboard to bounce your ball off here at Christ Church.
Your family tried to teach you the values that they have lived, what they
believe in. Your community of Summit has given you some values that have seeped
into your life through sports, music, through drama, scouting. Some of them are
profound and need to be held on to at all costs. But some of these values, you
will need to shed if you are to grow. I can’t tell you which are which, though
I have my list. The task ahead is for you to figure this out on your own.
me apologize in advance that the faculty at college will not make this easy for
you. Back in the Middle Ages, when I went to school, we had a block of courses
called “Introduction to Western Civilization” that gave you an overview of
philosophy, art, history, literature and socio/political movements starting
with the Iliad, written in Greece about 1800 b.c. walking you through the Roman
Empire, the rise of the Dark Ages in Europe, the Renaissance, the Reformation,
the Enlightenment, the age of Imperialism, the rise of Industrial society,
closing off with World War 2. It gave you the broad outlines of great ideas in
Western Civilization and how they were formed and introduced you to the
greatest literature. At a minimum, it made you more interesting at Fraternity
parties. But the point of the overview is so you could understand how you
derived the values that have seeped into you from your family, your nation, your
Church. You can see where the idea of the priority of the individual came from,
why political freedom is so important and how fragile it really is, how
economic prosperity comes to pass, where sexism and racism took root and why,
how it is that nations regularly overreach the bounds of their success and
implode on the very things that made them successful in the first place. You
learn about the origins of economic theory, about the value of the rise of
scientific medicine, about the profound importance of the beginning of the
science of psychology on understanding human nature.
will still wrestle with all of those ideas but a couple decades ago, the
faculties of almost all universities decided to stop teaching Western
Civilization in the broad outlines and empowered you to pick and choose what
you want to take in school. It sounds like a great idea, but trust me, you
won’t know what to take. You will just luck into some good finds on courses.
hope for you is that you will take the values that you have been given and that
you will test them, challenge them, turn them over by looking at them
critically. Certainly I hope you take World Religion courses, find out what
Buddhism has to offer, understand Islam, critique your own religious heritage
vis-ŕ-vis other religious traditions and sometimes they will win. Hinduism, you
will discover, has more tolerance for other traditions built into its very
fabric than any other practiced faith today. That is a good challenge for
Freud’s critique of religion. Read Nietzche’s critique of Christinianity and
Western bourgeois culture. I hope you read Machiavelli’s cynical advice on how
to advance power through personal duplicity. Understand and critique.
told me last week that when they were at Vanderbilt, one philosophy professor
said in a lecture that when you go to college you take all your inherited
values and you blow them up like balloons and put them on a back board. And
your job is to throw darts at them and pop them. You have to throw from a
pretty good distance and most of us are not all that skilled at throwing. He
said, you will hit a few and burst them, but not many. That is about right.
point of education is that you make your values your own, not because someone
else told you that was what you should treasure or believe. But that,
understanding all the alternatives, understanding the deficits, you treasure
them as your own because you decided to keep them.
and Sarah started out on a journey, to a land, God said that I will show you.
Open-ended. But one day on the journey Abraham had a vision of God and he
realized that he was in the land that God would show him and he built an altar
and he worshipped. He made a commitment to God. He owned his faith for himself,
not because anyone told him to do it, not having all the answers, but he owned
it for himself. That is the point of growing and maturing, of critique and
discovery. You are setting out on a great adventure, and there will be some
great parties on the way too. And if you are lucky, you will travel to some new
places and meet some interesting fellow-travelers and you will become a better
person for it.
will need it. Because we will have to start out again, and again, and again…
Probably some significant new starts in your life as an adult. The world is a
shifting sand that demands new starts by all of us.
the end of World War 2, just after the Allies liberated the camps at Auschwitz
and Birkenwald, all across Poland and Germany, those images of emaciated,
tortured Jews in numb disbelief were captured on film. Back in those days, most
of the world watched them at the movies, just before the feature presentation
on Saturday because television was a brand new medium. But all across Europe,
all across the States and Canada there was a collective moment of hush as we
watched these films. It was one of those moments in history when people of
every nation asks themselves, how did this come to pass? How could we, with all
our sophistication, our erudition, our history, how could we let this come to
pass? What does it mean? Where do we go from here? This is what everyone was
thinking in their silent observance of the films of the emaciated prisoners
climbing up to receive some bread from the soldiers.
Arendt, probably the greatest political philosopher of the 20th
Century, was watching those films too, as a woman, a Jew, an intellectual who
had fled Germany and come to our country losing her boyfriend in the escape.
She was watching those films and she remembered something she read for her
dissertation from St. Augustine. She quoted him. “Initium ut esset, homoe
creatus est”. That we make a new beginning. For that we were created.
can fairly well guarantee you that you will be forced to start out again, later
in life, and it will probably not be comfortable either. The world is a
shifting sand. Revolutions happen, terrorism happens, death interrupts us,
markets suddenly collapse. And sometimes, like Abraham, God might even call you
from the comfortable things you have known and send you on a new journey to
unnamed places. And how will you build? What will guide you? What will be in
here (your head)? What will be in here (your heart)? What will you pass on once
you are asked to lead? Understand, critique, develop your own code, taking the
best of the rich tradition we all stand on. Make it your own. You will need it.
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