Welcome! Look at you—you’re here. Congratulations! Thank you for the honor of inviting me here.
I have a story I’d like to share. I had a friend named Jan back in North Carolina. We were unlikely friends, born into very different subcultures; we never had much in common, much like you. What we shared though were the thrashing questions we brought from our very different backgrounds and experiences—again, much like you. The questions came to us harshly in those early years, when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at age twenty-nine. We were young enough that we didn’t expect such things. And we thought, “Surely this is not the sort of thing that a good God does.”
Yet those first years changed us. Our questions mounted as Jan faced her grueling treatment, followed quickly by the sudden illness and premature death of her mother, whom she loved dearly. She also faced the responses from her church people, who, like Job’s friends, urged her to find her unconfessed sin so that God could heal her. Her increasing questions reflected my own, as I had only just begun to acknowledge the impact on me and my own family of the early loss of my eldest brother Steve to leukemia when I was just a toddler. We thrashed a good bit, struggling to understand how tragedy could signal anything about the existence of a good God.
Eventually, Jan’s cancer went into remission. Our lives took us different directions. I moved to Oregon. Yet over the years, we stayed connected, and we asked and wrestled and struggled with this God we were trying to trust.
The question you are likely being asked over and over at this momentous occasion is this: What are your plans? What will you DO from here? Of course, the question is typically asked as it relates to career and vocation, and this is an important question. You have a long life ahead of you, and will need to find work that will sustain it. And perhaps as an added bonus, this work can be meaningful and even enjoyable. Most work will be both, some of the time, but not all of the time.
But I want to ask this question a different way: What will you DO from here? What will you do with becoming, as an existing individual human being, locked in time, yet related to Eternity?
Why this story? Why this question? What will you DO? Our friend Kierkegaard talks a lot about striving, about becoming. What does he mean by “striving”? In our vernacular, it means “working harder” or maybe “doing it right” or “working up a sweat.” You have certainly been doing this kind of striving as you have worked to finish this rigorous course of study! But I don’t believe that this is the striving that Kierkegaard intends. Rather, his “striving” has to do with living life in a reflective way, listening to your life, allowing your life to raise your questions, over and over again.
You have also begun this process, and I want to encourage you to continue. It can look like seeking understanding when life presents questions that don’t have easy answers. It is listening, being willing to keep asking these questions that may not have answers at all. It is staying engaged in this process—the process of knowing that we are both temporal, locked into this existence in time with evil around us and within us, and also eternal, meant for something far beyond this, a beauty that we see only glimpses of here and now. Our business—in these moments that press us—is with the Eternal, with God.
I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago, and some of you were there for it. During the junior/senior special-topics class, tutor Brian Julian gave a twenty-minute overview of “Second-wave Feminism.” This was the period that includes what we call “the Women’s Movement” of the 1960s and 1970s. As I shared then, I arrived at Louisiana State University for college in 1974—the same year a woman could open a credit card in her own name without a co-signer and just four years after women were allowed to wear pants on LSU’s campus. As I listened to Brian’s summary of the movement, I became aware of having lived the history he was now summarizing. It felt strange to hear as history, events and times I had experienced first-hand. Because I was deeply impacted by coming of age as a woman during that decade, this history is very personal to me. And it caused me to reflect on something else that Kierkegaard talks about: History is an approximation.
You have spent the past four years studying history—history of events and also of ideas. This is a truly unique and vital education for understanding our lives in their context, coming down to us through a “Great Conversation” that you have now listened in on. But all of that history, all of those stories, those ideas, were lived by individuals. The telling of it was done by those who decided to write it down and by those who decided to read their writings. The people living during those times, the great masses, were ordinary people living ordinary lives, impacted by the events around them, no doubt, but still existing as human beings locked in their times and also tasked with eternity in their hearts.
Becoming “world-historical”—that is, having an impact on the actual direction in which world history unfolds—is accidental. Some may seek it and not attain it; others who don’t seek it do attain it. What will YOU DO? Even without seeking it, what you do with your life could have world-historical consequences, accidentally. Even our “small work” can make a big difference in the world, and it matters. And yet, history is lived by individual human beings, making individual human choices. Like you.
This paradox in which we live in time and eternity comes to us the most clearly, as Kierkegaard emphasizes, in one individual human in particular, at what he would argue is the central moment of world history. The eternal became temporal when Jesus showed up.
Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, who died recently, said that the Christian gospel can be summed up in two important truths: First, you are more of a sinner than you ever imagined; and second, you are more loved than you ever imagined. These are two important truths. Let that sink in. You are loved.
But there is more. This Jesus who came also died and was raised from the dead. He conquered death! Because of this central and death-defying moment in history, we await a world made right. This world needs fixing. The promise of Christianity is that though we ourselves are more broken than we ever expect and the world more evil than we anticipate, it will be put right in the end: it will be made new, and those who want to be citizens there will be given new hearts, hearts that trust and love and know things we can’t know here. The beauty we also see around us points to this new world, this glorified creation. So don’t forget to listen to the beauty and the goodness in your life as well. It is a signpost of what is to come.
The big questions of our lives often arrive at times of transition. You are in a transition now, and I would encourage you to keep asking these big questions as you keep deciding what you will DO from here. This world will offer you answers, often compelling ones, sometimes despairing ones. I hope that you won’t let the evil around you trick you into believing that it is definitive of what is truly real: this is distortion. Beauty, love, kindness, hope: these are definitive, signposts in this world that can point us to the world to come, THIS world, redeemed and put right.
Back to my friend Jan. She remained cancer free for twenty-five years before it returned with a vengeance, this time as peritoneal cancer, cancer of the smooth tissue that lines the abdominal cavity. It was terminal. I visited Jan as we both knew she was dying. But this time, I was struck by our shared calm. Of course, we shared moments of panic and grief, but we weren’t as thrashing as we used to be. It seemed we were trusting in a different way, with twenty-five years of life in between. The questions were still there, no doubt, and we were still asking, but we had come to accept that we don’t always get answers. And we realized that a miracle had emerged. Not the miracle of a cure for her cancer or the removal of our pain, but rather, the miracle that we had kept believing, trying to trust this God who is okay with our questions, though not especially forthcoming with the answers. And along with our shared grief, the beauty of that last North Carolina spring we shared together was also very real.
So, what will you DO from here? (You do need a job.) But the bigger question is what will you DO? What will you DO when you hurt someone you love or are hurt by someone you love? What will you DO when life doesn’t give you what you expect, when difficulty arises? What will you DO when life challenges you to ask questions that have no easy answer? Ask them anyway. Seek the answers. Strive for understanding. You are an existing individual human being. You are bound in time here and now, in these moments, in these choices, and they matter. And you are also engaged with the Eternal. These are the questions that can bring us into contact with God. Even more than Bible study, prayer, or other spiritual disciplines, it is when tragedy strikes or the world is in chaos or when I’ve hurt someone more deeply than I ever thought possible with my own selfishness or blindness—these are the moments I am called on to reflect. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Is there a God? Is He good? What is this life for? These are the questions that require striving, over and over again. And so my word to you is this: Go forth, and keep striving! And may God bless you always.