I had the pleasure of speaking last week at Biola University’s Baccalaureate service. Graduating seniors and their friends and families gathered for a worship service, and I offered them them the following words for reflection:
As we gather tonight, I hope to help you reflect on what it might mean for you to remember this season of your life, all the days and nights leading up to your commencement, faithfully, before God and others.
It’s a tricky thing—memory—this potentially truth-holding faculty that might help us make sense of the unending series of moments we endure day in and day out.
I was thinking about it this last weekend on a bike ride with my friend. We’ve been riding together for years now. My memories from our first long ride together are few: tarmac, oppressive heat, and counting every pedal rotation to one hundred over and over until we finished thirty miles. I’ve improved as a cyclist over time, and now I can even tackle some hills (though I’m about as slow and steady as they come). On really hard climbs, I’ll be pedaling at something like six miles an hour for what seems like days—I’ll stare at the ground beneath me for as long as I can in hopes that when I look up again I’ll be able to notice that I’ve made progress. Which only works half the time.
Still, now that I’m such a hardcore slow-and-steady, I do in fact make it to the tops of hills, which means I can enjoy the reward of the downhill that waits on the other side. As a beginner, climbing rides were one hundred percent torture, and all I could remember even while I coasted downhill was that I nearly died getting up the last hill and I’d probably keel over trying to climb the next one. But this last weekend, I was aware of a fairly new experience: as soon as I’d start flying downhill, I’d mostly forget the agony of the precipitating climb. And when I proceeded to next uphill, I mostly remembered that the upcoming downhill would be exhilarating enough to make the climb worth it.
I’m sure if you had a video capture of the ride, where every detail remained in equal proportion to the others, you might think I experienced more pain than pleasure on the ride. But in the true narrative, in the meaningful account of my experience, it is right for some parts to shed light on others. I can actually hold the whole thing in mind perhaps even differently than I experienced it chronologically, and I had an altogether fantastic experience riding Santiago Canyon last week.
As you come to the end of this season of your life, how will you remember it? How will you re-collect so many small moments of your life and understand them in relation to each other? What parts will you forget or revise (maybe rightly) as you make sense of the whole?
I want to suggest to you three parts that might contribute to your faithful remembering:
(1) Be grateful for God’s goodness
(2) Even though you’re dust
(3) Because that is not the end of the story.
My first word for you concerns gratitude. As Psalm 103, which guides my thoughts tonight, puts it, “Forget not his benefits” (Psalm 103:2, ESV).
We are the sorts of creatures for whom gratitude makes a world of difference.
Milton’s Paradise Lost tries to make this super clear by contrasting pictures of a miserable Satan and a paradisally happy Adam and Eve.
Milton’s Satan, who’s sneaking around the cosmos hoping to thwart God’s rule and reign in the new world, lands outside Eden and makes a speech to the newly created sun: “to tell” it, he says “how I hate thy beams, that bring to my remembrance from what state I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere.” Satan sees the sun, and it serves as a reminder to him that He dwelled in Heaven but he hated it there—because he knew that to dwell in Heaven required of him “the debt immense of endless gratitude” which he found “so burdensome.”
Adam and Eve, on the other hand, wake up in bounteous Eden, shining with the image of their glorious maker, and can’t stop talking about God’s benefits: they wake up in an ample world and they know that the Power who made them for that world and for each other “must be infinitely good and of his good as liberal and free as infinite” since he “raised us from the dust and placed us here in all this happiness, who at his hand have nothing merited nor can perform aught whereof he has need.”
Here’s the big contrast: Milton’s Satan hates feeling grateful, and it makes his life hell. Adam and Eve feel as though the whole world is some wild gift they didn’t deserve and they’re full of praise.
Gratitude, in part, comes from the recognition that all is gift, and the world could have been otherwise, and you yourself could have never been around to enjoy it. GK Chesterton says that the whole world, since God created it from nothing, stands as the Great-Might-Not-Have-Been. All that is, you and yours included, has its existence by the sheer bounty of God. Whoever invented Latin was on to something, making ‘bonus’ the word for good.
But this, of course, is cosmic gratitude, easy to lose sight of in the day to day. Marilynne Robinson helps me to see a little more clearly what ordinary gratitude looks like. In her novel Gilead, the main character takes in a small moment, one in which he realizes that years of his bitterness have been allayed and he is able to bless his wayward godson. Though he suspects that the blessing will not resolve all of the young man’s troubles, he is grateful for the movements of divine grace that made the moment of prayer and connection possible. And he reflects, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
So for you, as you remember these years, be grateful: know that through probably very ordinary means, God Himself has been being Himself with you, which is to say, He has been sustaining you, preserving you, blessing you, forgiving you, restoring you, directing you, and healing you.
On the other hand, I’m sure it is not the only thing to say about this season of your life, that it was marked by benefits if you would only see them.
No, in large ways, I’m sure you had all sorts of causes to become more world-weary over the last four or five years of your life. You know better than I what disappointments particularly marked your experiences: but surely you found cause to groan both with the earth and the Holy Spirit for the redemption of this world. Where did you experience deep frustration that things are not yet made all good? Was it finances? Family? Friendships? Biola itself? Was it betrayal? Mental health? Cancer? Divorce? Abuse? War and rumors of war? What losses did you suffer in this season that you still can’t imagine recovering from?
I’m sure that some if not all of you have memories that are hard if not impossible to baptize with gratitude.
Here is the second thing I want you to hear: Let the compassion of the Lord be your comfort in grief, “For he knows [your] frame” (Psalm 103:13-14).
One of my many favorite scenes in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia comes from The Horse and His Boy. A young boy named Shasta has been proceeding on a series of misadventures, and in this scene he is trudging along, certain he will not be able to accomplish his important errand. He’s walking in the pitch dark, tears streaming down his cheeks because he is feeling quite a lot of sorrow as he reflects on his experiences. He starts to feel that there is a creature, a Thing in the dark, walking near him in the shadows, and he realizes that this thing has been walking alongside him, almost imperceptibly, for quite a while. And, full of terror, but unable to tolerate the presence any longer without addressing it, Shasta manages to speak:
“Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper.
“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
“Are you – are you a giant?” asked Shasta.
“You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice. “But I am not like the creatures you call giants.”
“I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not – not something dead, are you? Oh please – please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.”
Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”
Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the Tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since had had anything to eat.
“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.
“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.
“There was only one lion.” said the Voice.
“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two lions the first night, and -”
“There was only one, but he was swift of foot.”
“How do you know?”
“I was the lion.”
And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you as you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
What a profound picture of the providence of God. Aslan knows Shasta’s story better than Shasta does himself. Aslan can revise Shasta’s account of his bad luck and explain it as a story of protection and provision. Shasta’s best attempts at self-knowledge pale in comparison to the story Aslan can tell.
And so with us: He knows our frame. And so with you: He knows your frailty. He knows your wounds. He knows the ways that you have felt that your life was in the pit. He holds in mind the ways your frame is limited and mortal, and you’re uncertain about your future, and you aren’t finishing college with everything you wanted from it, and you aren’t faring forward with everything in place. He knows this, and He knows more.
Though you, like I, have probably not yet heard the voice of God speaking from the darkness his secret ways, it will be faithful for you to remember with grief and longing those parts of your experience that remain unanswered with the deep hope that in some ways they already have been and will be.
For me, though, it’s not just unanswered grief that gets in the way of my remembering well. Often, the way that I really want to tell my own story is as some grand self-vindicating narrative in which I am somehow always the most sympathetic character, wherein I’m either the admirable woman who rose above all of my obstacles and adversities or the innocent victim of any trouble that overwhelmed me.
Here’s something I’m prone to forget that God remembers: “He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). I am but dust. And I don’t just mean I’m fragile and vulnerable. When God made Adam from the dust of the earth, he breathed his own breath into his being, making him alive. When God remembers that I am dust, he remembers my utter dependence on Him not only for my biological life but also for the life of my soul.
Once I was dead in my trespasses and sins, as Paul says in Ephesians: I am dust. Once you were aliens and strangers, having no hope and without God in the world: you are dust. Even now, if we say we have no sin, we make him a liar and the truth is not in us: we are dust.
Here’s a part of the story that you, like me, might be prone to forget: your own iniquity.
In these years of your life at Biola, how often were you prayerless? Did you call your brother a fool? Did you indulge your lusts? How often did you think of your own needs before the needs of others? Were you slothful in pursuing the good? Did you lie? Did you nurse bitterness? Did you give in to faithlessness, to hopelessness, to lovelessness?
How much does the story you’re trying to tell yourself about your life over these past four years need the revision of repentance? God remembers that you are dust. He knows you have no life apart from him.
And here, then, is a word of hope for a repentant you, from the same Psalm that instructs us not to forget his benefits and reminds us that God remembers our frame, our dustiness:
He forgives all your iniquity;
He heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:3).
He redeems you from the pit;
He crowns you with steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 103:4).
And not just today, but forever, because
The steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103: 17).
Which leads me to the last thing I want you to hear from me tonight. Here, too, I want to commend to you a kind of remembering.
Remember the future! Remember Christ in you—the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
The Apostle Paul picks up the narrative thread of our dusty existence as he teaches the early church about the resurrection of the body: In First Corinthians, he’s explaining that the hope of the church is that we will, like Christ, who is the firstborn from among the dead, also be raised incorruptible: though we are descended from Adam, the man of dust, God has made us alive together in Christ:
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. [I Corinthians 15:47-49]
Or, as John puts it: Beloved, we are God’s children now, but we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him. [I John 3:2]
Remember how in any story you read or tell, it’s in light of the end of the story that most of the details become meaningful? Did that girl walk by you without acknowledging your existence to snub you or did it end up that she was just really clever at flirting, and knew that you would notice and it would rankle you? After your car accident, did the insurance end up reimbursing you way more than your car was probably worth so you could buy a new one, or did you have to ride the bus to work for the next few years? Were the bus rides seemingly interminable parts of your already too busy days, or did you end up loving your neighbor more because you learned how to be mindful of the needs of others?
These are mundane examples. Here’s what’s not:
Your glorious resurrected self eternally living in perfect fellowship with God and all the other saints—which is, God willing, the end of your story, of which this season at Biola will be such a small portion—this is the end of the story that God has promised for children.
Here’s the last thing I want you to remember: your future glory. But not just yours alone. Think also, and perhaps more so, of the future glory of your neighbor.
C.S. Lewis, writes, in his essay, The Weight of Glory,
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, and to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
Lewis continues by saying that next to the Lord’s Supper, “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ– the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself is truly hidden.”
It’s the sort of hidden presence that helped G.M. Hopkins to imagine that the just man (or, for my purposes, those justified in Christ) “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the father through the features of men’s faces.”
May God help you, tonight and in the days ahead remember faithfully those realities that too often hide in our forgetfulness: his benefits, your dustiness, and the glory that is to come.
Father in Heaven,
For these I pray:
increase their gratitude for your goodness,
their comfort in their grief,
their repentance for their sin,
and the hope of glory,
which is theirs in Christ,
in whose name I pray,