Commencement Exercises

We’re entering graduation season. I’m already seeing notices of friends and family members who are, or who have family members, graduating from colleges and universities. Others are graduating from local high schools in the coming weeks. It’s an exciting time, when we celebrate achievements, encourage future success, and show support.

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We often call the graduation ceremony “commencement exercises.” Commencement means “beginning.” But so often, the celebrations seem to focus on the past. We look back on memories and accomplishments, we bid tearful farewells to friends who will go their separate ways, we console parents whose children will be “leaving the nest.”

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Graduation is supposed to be a time of looking forward. But it can be difficult to celebrate things that have not happened yet. We wish all the graduates well, but we cannot guarantee that the road ahead will be filled with success. In fact, we can almost guarantee that the road ahead will hold obstacles, failures, struggles, and suffering along the way! Sometimes, it may be easier to focus on what we already know and have experienced, than to dwell on the unknown. But—

We are also heading into a season that has traditionally been one of many weddings. My parents, one set of grandparents, my brother and sister and their spouses– all were married in the month of June. At weddings, we don’t focus on the past– we look forward and celebrate all the possibilities of the future. It truly IS a time of “commencement”– a beginning of a new family. We don’t console the parents on “losing” their child; instead we congratulate them on adding a new member to the family. We don’t focus on the past achievements (and certainly not the past relationships!) of the new couple– instead, we eagerly anticipate the new life they will forge together.

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In light of weddings, graduations, and commencements, it may seem odd that I would be thinking about funerals, but I see a connection. Funerals are not celebrations in the same sense as weddings and graduations. They are solemn times of mourning loss and the end of life. We honor the memory of our loved one– we cherish the memories and achievements and relationships that were in the past, but we don’t decorate with balloons and ribbons; we don’t sing and dance and make joyful noises; we don’t speak of the future…

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This is appropriate and natural. But at some point, as Christians, we should think beyond the end of this life and celebrate the “commencement” of eternal life. This short chapter of life has ended, but our loved one has merely “graduated” to a new and better life. Of course we grieve– we will miss the relationship we have shared in this life; our loved-one’s presence; shared jokes and memories of the past, or in the present; the familiar voice and listening ear; words of wisdom just when we need them– but our grieving is tempered with hope and joy. Not only will we meet again, but we will share a new life and a new relationship. The present may seem bleak, but the future looks very bright, indeed!

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Whatever type of “commencement” exercises await us this season, I hope we will take joy and find peace in the knowledge that God is planning exciting new beginnings at every stage of our lives and in the lives of others. Commencement awaits!

90 Percent

Bible teacher and author Chuck Swindoll is credited with saying, “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes.” When I was younger, I liked this quote, but I quibbled with the numbers. Surely, we are in control of our reactions and attitudes. And our circumstances don’t determine our lives completely. But 10%?! What about those whose circumstances are overwhelmingly tragic?

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I thought of my father’s experiences, and it seemed as though what happened to him in four short years should have had a greater impact on his life. During the four short years that my father was in high school (1945-1948), his family experienced at least three tragedies. Dad grew up on a farm. His dad was a dairy farmer, as was his grandfather. Dad grew up expecting that he would, along with his father and brothers, spend the rest of his life as a farmer. But then, everything changed. First, Dad’s oldest brother was drafted into the Army at the very end of World War 2. Though my uncle was not in combat, he was badly wounded in Germany, as his unit was sent in to find unexploded bombs and land mines, and ordered to clear out rubble. Dad had lost one cousin in the war, and several others had come home wounded or changed, but this was post-war, and unexpected. It meant more work for my grandfather and the two younger sons, even as they were still in school. It meant uncertainty, as they waited for word from thousands of miles away over several months.

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Uncle Jack recovered and returned to the farm. But then, on Christmas Eve, there was a house fire. While the family escaped without major injuries, the house was a total loss. Furniture, clothes, pictures, heirlooms, farm records and financial papers– all gone. Dad moved in with his aunt and uncle to continue his education. But two weeks before graduation, his father died suddenly from complications from emergency gall bladder surgery. My father’s world had been turned upside-down in just a few short years and at a critical juncture in his life.

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However, as I’ve matured and thought about it over the years, those events, among other tragedies and triumphs in Dad’s life, really DID only amount to a small percentage of his life. Even numerically/chronologically, those four years were less than ten percent of Dad’s time on earth. Dad couldn’t control the events of those years. He couldn’t have predicted them, and he couldn’t erase them or go back and undo them. But he chose how to respond and react to those events. He learned from them.

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Circumstances in our lives, whether tragic or terrific, present us with choices. Will we turn to God, or away from Him? Will we become better, or bitter? Will we seek to assign blame, or seek solutions? My dad and his brothers were not able to continue the dairy farm their father had built up. Without the records and registration papers for the various cows, without their father’s experience and acumen, without money to upgrade their facilities and equipment, they had to sell most of what their father had built up. Uncle Jack kept the farm land, but he took a second job. Dad was drafted and sent to Korea for his own post-war odyssey, and came home to work at the local feed mill, and later in a factory job. He passed away several years ago, partly as a result of complications from his own gall bladder surgeries.

My dad’s life was impacted and shaped in part by tragic circumstances. But Pastor Swindoll is right– at least 90 percent of my dad’s LIFE was shaped by his attitude and character. My father was a man of faith and integrity. He cherished his family and his role as a father– partly because of the loss of his own dad; but also because of the lasting legacy his father had passed on. He spoke often of his wonderful memories growing up on the farm. But he also made wonderful memories– picnics and vacations, family reunions, family devotions, watching baseball on television, sharing laughter and tears, and making sure we knew we were loved and protected. He ministered to people in the community, mowing lawns for widows, or visiting shut-ins. He taught us to love music, baseball, and animals. He taught us the value of prayer, reading the Bible, and living a life of faith.

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As I get older, and look back on the circumstances of my past, I am encouraged and challenged to think that they represent only a small fraction of my life. I can’t control many of my circumstances– health setbacks, financial struggles, accidents and tragedies. But I can control my attitude and my response. My dad could have been bitter, angry, ungrateful, resentful, and self-pitying– regardless of his circumstances! But he chose to put his faith, his heart, and his attitude in the hands of a loving God. And I choose to do the same– after all, He controls 100% of my future!

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