I sat between Rachel Foreman and Gus Hansen. Sewanee Academy, Class of 1978, alphabetical order. Rachel admired the Stretch Monster I received for Christmas that year, so she asked her parents for one as a graduation gift. They came through, and he sat on her lap as we listened to our commencement speaker.
That’s about all I remember about my high school graduation. And unlike most of my classmates, I wasn’t even hungover.
Attending an Episcopalian school meant a champagne reception awaited us immediately after the service. Amid popping corks and Sterno hors d’oeuvre steam, we wondered ― what achievements, what joys and wonders awaited in the years ahead?
It was easy to believe one of the great themes of the commencement address: You are special.
Am I Special?
It’s a good place to start a speech, and the Apostle Paul knew it. When he addressed the Athenians in Acts 17, he applauded them for their religiosity and for having the good sense and good taste to build an altar to an unknown god.
But there’s another kind of speech. NPR calls it “an insidious other kind of speech.” The message of this one is, “You’re not special.” David McCullough, addressing Wellesley High School in 2012, did the math.
“Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”
As NPR puts it, “As hard as you’ve worked, you also lucked into plenty, including your parents and your country.’”
Paul wanted the Athenians to know something similar.
“You got lucky. You lucked into this great culture, this wonderful city, and just about everything else you enjoy in life. You even lucked into building that altar and dedicating it, to an unknown god.”
“You Are Not Special.”
It probably took me far too long to recognize the role luck played in my education, as well as my life itself. I don’t remember jumping through many hoops to get accepted to the University of Montevallo. It’s an Alabama public school, and I’m an Alabamian, so I guess that was all they needed. My whole education there cost about the same as one year at Sewanee.
As we gathered on the lush, rolling lawn of Montevallo’s president’s house, appropriately named Flowerhill, I thought about all the people whose taxes made this college graduation moment possible. People who never saw the inside of a college classroom, who spent their days waxing floors, changing oil, paving roads, and generally keeping the world turning.
I remembered the words of Jay Cady, a Montevallo grad student and alumnus of Battle Ground Academy, Washington and Lee University as well as Yale School of Drama.
“Brad, no matter how hard we’ve worked for what we have, there’s somebody out there who’s worked harder and wound up with less.”
Or in Paul’s words, we shouldn’t idolize the works of our hands. Sure, we might put a lot of sweat and skill into our accomplishments, but let us never assume we’ve reached our goals on our own.
Paul promises together we will face the challenge of throwing off our false gods of gold, silver and stone — and achievement. Together, we will confess our sins and ignorance and turn from them. Together, we will grasp the future of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Together, we will discover that Jesus alone makes us special and causes us to stand out. The rest is circumstance.
Something Is Required of Me
There is one more thing I remember about my graduation from Sewanee. I remember how I felt. Maybe it was most acute when I graduated from college, but I know I felt the same way when I graduated from seminary. I felt like I owed something to somebody.
Princeton grads must have felt something like it when writer Michael Lewis said, “(W)ith luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”
Thirty-three years out of seminary, 38 years out of Montevallo, and 42 out of Sewanee, I still feel like a debt is owed, but to whom? I’m still not sure. I’m pretty comfortable these days with the idea that, if I do anything of any value, I’ll probably never know it. Like Paul, in success and failure, I live and move and have my being in the Risen Christ, and serving His Gospel and His people keeps my world turning.
In introducing their commencement speech database, NPR wasn’t trying to get at the soul of the Gospel. But they lucked into it when they asked:
“(Are you) (t)orn by this fight for the soul of the commencement speech? Never fear. Oddly enough, these two kinds of speeches — as different as they seem — complement each other. Taken together, they say, ‘Congratulations. You are special. Just remember … so is everyone else.’ ”
But with Jesus pointing the way to the now-known God, we are born again to stand out. Thankfully, it’s not by the work of our own hands. It’s not because we make ourselves special with hard work and determination.
It’s all because of Jesus.