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.
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.”
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.
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…
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!
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!
The Bible is filled with images of family–long lists of “begats” and genealogies, parables about sons and fathers, brothers, weddings, brides and grooms…God is even described as our Father, with Christ as “the son.”
One of my hobbies is genealogy– tracing my family’s roots back through several generations and several different places. While the Bible warns that we should not get caught up in “endless” and vain genealogies that lead to false pride and foolish divisions (1 Tim. 1:4/Titus 3:9), there are many good reasons to pay attention to families, family histories, and family dynamics.
First, the family is God’s design– God instituted marriage, parenthood, and family units. It is God’s will and purpose that we should not live in isolation and self-absorption, but learn to depend on and be responsible to others. Families honor, protect, love, provide, comfort, teach, encourage, build and work together. Even in a broken world, filled with dysfunctional and chaotic family relationships, the purpose and design of “family” is still part of God’s good and perfect plan for living. Broken families and toxic relationships are not a failure of God’s plan– they are the result of Sin’s power to distort and corrupt the Good that only God can create. The great news is that God also has the power to restore and redeem individuals and families; offering “rebirth”, adoption, and an eternal “inheritance” within His family!
Second, families can teach us about the astounding and limitless love of God. There is something about the bonds of familial love that stretch us beyond our regular capacity to hope, to sacrifice, to share, to grieve, to endure, and to forgive. Who has seen a mother or father go hungry so their child can eat; or a sister or daughter donate her kidney or bone marrow to help heal a family member? Or a father carry his son who could not walk, or a wife who visits her aging husband when he no longer knows her face? How can we see such devotion and not be struck by how much greater, wider, deeper, and more eternal the Father’s love is for each of us?
Third, family (particularly the idea of genealogies and long family histories) teaches us the eternal nature of God. We live our lives as part of three or four generations– a span of 70 or 80 years for many of us–and we concentrate our efforts on “making our mark” for less than that entire span. But even the longest of our lives are so short in the span of God’s plan for His people. We have one lifespan to play an important role in the story of centuries. When we fail to understand that role, we can miss our sense of purpose in life. Sometimes, we overestimate our own importance or miss the significance of our own legacy. Even “important” people are forgotten, or have their legacies tarnished or rewritten in the pages of history. And those people who never made the history books are often the inspiration for actions and movements that span generations and change nations. When I study the history of my own family, I find lives that were cut short by war or disease– yet these lives shaped the lives (or were the lives) of my ancestors, and without them, I would not be who or how or where I am today. Maiden aunt, baby brother, empty seat at the table– every life touches others in ways that God alone truly comprehends. “Coincidental” meetings, “unplanned” children, migration patterns, epidemics– all loom large in a single generation, but they all become part of the fabric of each person’s “history.”
Lastly, genealogy reminds us that we are all one enormous family! There is so much talk on the news and online about all our differences– language, culture, skin tone, beliefs, skills, abilities, interests, even diets!– and it is important to note that God loves variety and created us each with unique and precious differences to reflect His infinite character. But sin twists our differences into conflicts; sin spreads lies about God’s character, and thus, about how we (or others) reflect, honor, understand, acknowledge, or obey our amazing creator. Differences may cause division in our broken world, but they do not cancel God’s mercy or limit the reach of His love for us all.
This was brought home to me in a small way this past week, as I was preparing for two important reunions. My high school class celebrated the 35th anniversary of our graduation in 1984. I saw friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, or, in some cases, 35 years! But it struck me that our class is very much like a family– we grew up together; we learned to get along (most of the time), to share, to work together, to understand and appreciate our differences and our unique gifts–we send birthday greetings and share pictures, we laugh together, grieve together, share fond memories and special connections with one another. We pray for one another, argue with one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. There are some who have distanced themselves–whether through physical distance or emotionally– from the rest of us. Some have even ended their earthly journeys. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of our class/our family. We are short and tall, thin and stout, hairy and bald, dark and light complected; we are single, married, divorced, and widowed– some with children still at home; some with no children at all. We are rich and poor, healthy and ill, walking around with scars and wounds and unresolved questions, arrogant assumptions, or chips on our shoulders. And we are optimists and mentors, healers and teachers, helpers and protectors. We are loud and quiet, social and task-oriented, driven and laid-back, dreamers and doers. And in my genealogy research, I have made genetic and marriage connections to about 1/3 of them! We really ARE family, and I can show how we are related! How small would this world seem if we looked at our brothers and sisters across the world, and realize that those connections are so much greater than the differences that divide us?
The second reunion I attended this weekend was “family.” All of us descended (or married to descendants, or adopted by descendants) from my great-grandparents. Not all of us were there– in fact, this was mostly just one “branch” of the family, and a few “twigs”. We estimate that there are nearly 500 people who can claim the same ancestral “roots” from the same two people, and this “branch” contains over 250 of them! Once again, we don’t all look , or act, or think alike– some are tall, some are tattooed, some are old, some are newborns, some argue about college football teams, or politics. But we love each other, encourage each other, and many of us share our prayers and concerns and joys and pains. My great-grandparents (and all their children) left a legacy of love and faith that continues to influence and inspire the fourth, fifth and sixth generation to follow!
When we pray for others, we are always praying for our family! Praying for our neighbors and classmates and co-workers– we are praying for family! Praying for our enemies, for strangers, for those who look and speak differently than us–We are praying for family! May God give us eyes to see and hearts to love our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and even the “long lost family members” and lift them up in prayer to the One who loves us and wants to bring us all into His family!