If you’re like me, you’re probably running out of adjectives to describe this year. Strange? Uncomfortable? Awful? Isolating? It seems all of these could be equally applicable at any point. And while I keep saying that I’m ready for 2020 to be over and 2021 to arrive, this past week has reminded me that just because a season is difficult doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate all God has done for us in the midst of it. In fact, I’m starting to think that the tougher the season, the sweeter the celebration.
So in honor of that idea, tonight I’m sharing one of the most challenging and rewarding pieces I’ve ever written: the baccalaureate address that I shared with my seniors this past week. I don’t know if words can adequately express how honored I was to be chosen by my kids to offer them some final “wisdom” before they leave high school and enter the real world. I get choked up just thinking about it! Writing this speech was a bittersweet process–bitter because I will miss them terribly when they go, sweet because I know the God who will sustain them as they leave. I’m sharing it with you in gratitude for a blessed week of celebration in the midst of life’s ongoing craziness. I hope it speaks to you in some way!
Seniors, congratulations! It is such a joy to be here in person with you as we celebrate together. I am truly honored that you asked me to speak this evening, but I can’t help thinking that this is payback for all those essays I made you write, because writing this speech has been one of the toughest homework assignments I’ve ever been given. For one thing, many of you have been in my class three out of the last four years, so I’m pretty sure you’ve heard all my stories, put up with my love of Shakespeare, and pity laughed at all my terrible jokes. But the main reason I struggled with the writing process is that—even though you have spent four years walking in and out of room 510, my heart keeps telling me that it’s too soon—that the last four years have gone by too quickly and there’s still so much to be said before you go.
In the face of all that emotion, I decided the safest course of action would be to fall back on the very reason I became an English teacher in the first place, and that is the power of a good story. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to start by telling you a story. It will be a familiar one, because you were all there. This is a story peopled with your peers and your parents, with your teachers and with the characters we studied together in English class. It is a story that has conflict, and character development, and even a cliffhanger or two. It is your story, and it is a good one. So here we go.
Once upon a time, you were freshmen. From Chris’ welcoming “Hola” on the first day to your first Spring Term in the Upper School, your freshman year was a story of adjustment. You had to learn how to be high schoolers. And you weren’t the only ones who needed to adjust! I remember meeting with the girls in my advisory group at retreat and being so nervous because I couldn’t remember any of their names! Suffice it to say we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well since then. In English class that year we read Fahrenheit 451 and discovered our class motto: “Don’t be a Mildred.” You learned from Miss Havisham that a life built on bitterness is no life at all. Romeo and Juliet taught you that love and folly often go hand in hand. In fact, I think that’s probably a lesson a lot of us learn in high school! That same year we also learned from Austin that you should be very careful in the application of hair dye, and from Zack that a little red food coloring goes a long way in a classroom prank.
The pages of your story turned, and you were sophomores. You sweated it out in your onesies at Smith Gilbert Gardens, and, with inspiration from Nicholas, Elizabeth, and Piper, you started Bible studies for your peers. That year most of you escaped my clutches and spent time in Mrs. Browning’s class, learning what it means to be Christian men and women who face injustice with the same spirit that the Lord does. Those lessons have already proven themselves invaluable. We are, unfortunately, sending you out into a world full of injustice, of pain, and hurt, and we are looking to you as future leaders to show us what it means to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.
Your junior year arrived, and we all hit the dreaded “junior wall” where classes got tougher, college decisions started, and the pace of life intensified. It was a year of highs and lows for everyone. I really thought Pruitt might die that year when he ate an entire bag of candy pumpkins in class, and I’ve never seen anyone happier than Grady buying a life-size metal helmet in Scotland. In American Lit you learned from The Scarlet Letter that hypocrisy is a cancer in our hearts and from Jay Gatsby that sometimes our brightest dreams are unattainable, but we should always fight for them with the same intensity as Mary Andrew on the powderpuff field.
And then, all too soon, you were seniors. I think your senior year could be a novel in and of itself—from your rafting trip to a global pandemic, which of us could have predicted what 2020 would hold? It has been a year of unprecedented experiences. For the first time, I learned what it would be like to teach a kindergarten class (you know who you are), and I saw new sides of you all—like watching Caitlyn and Ifunanya, two of the steadiest people in your grade, battle it out in our jousting tournament. In Brit Lit, you learned from Macbeth that ambition unchecked by honor leads to ruin, and in College English, you learned that comma splices can be deadly. You grew in your talents—I think here of Judy and her beautiful piano playing, or Hampton’s unique talent for hair maintenance. You also grew in your relationships. It has been inspiring to watch you form bonds that no amount of social distancing could sever—even if those bonds are based on destroying Gabe’s basement. You handled the cancellation of your Spring events with grace, and you tackled Zoom classes with only a few hiccups along the way. And now here we are, sitting together at your baccalaureate celebration. It seems like the time has flown by, and if there’s one thing I know from reading, it’s that the pages turn more quickly when the story is a good one. The high school chapters of your story may be drawing to a close, but your individual stories are far from over.
Which brings us back to our theme for the night: the power of a good story.
Mark Twain once said “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” As humans, we are all storytellers by nature, and we rely on the power of stories far more than we realize. From the picture books our parents read to us as children to those tall family tales that reappear every Christmas, storytelling is in our DNA. The closer we look at the stories we love, the more apparent it becomes that we were designed to be storytellers. The stories we find in books and movies and TV whisper eternal truths to us, they hide hints of Heaven. But why?
Well, the fact of the matter is that God knows the power of a “good story well told” because he invented the idea himself, and he is writing your life story day by day. He is a storytelling God. After all, he’s given us his word in the form of a book. And if that’s not reason enough to pay attention in English class, I don’t know what is! Jesus himself taught in stories and parables, and all through scripture we see the story of the people of God unfolding. You are part of that story, a part of this great narrative of grace that He has been weaving together since before time began.
In the Old Testament, God commands his people to remember all He has done, to write it down, to sing it over their children. Every time they gather together to tell their story, it has gotten longer because once again God has seen them through. These chapters of recounting grow and grow until the New Testament, where we read the list of men and women of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. It is no coincidence to me that the author of Hebrews concludes his retelling of the story of God’s people with the reminder in chapter 12 to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. He points us to the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.
So, take a minute, and look around you. Look at the friends sitting near you, look at your family members and teachers. The ones who have prayed for you, and pranked you; the ones who supported you when you didn’t think you could take another step. Look in your minds at the friends and loved ones who may not be here tonight, but who have nevertheless surrounded you on your journey through high school.
Let us be your cloud of witnesses. We have seen what God is doing in you and through you. When you can’t remember, when you can’t see it for yourselves, ask us. And just like the Israelites, we will tell you your story, we will sing it over you and point you to the many times God has led you, carried you, and loved you.
None of us can predict what the next chapters of your stories might hold. We’d like to imagine that it will be sunshine and roses from here to eternity, but that probably won’t be the case. Ask any adult here—you can definitely ask me—and I bet they’ll tell you thattheir life has not turned out exactly as they planned. There have been unexpected joys and unlooked for sorrows. You know this—you have experienced these things in your life already. You have struggled with deep questions about the nature of God. You have wrestled with the loss of a loved one or with the death of a relationship that you thought was permanent. But as any character in any good story finds out, the path between who you were and who you will be is rarely a straight line. There is rising action and conflict after conflict, but as believers we rejoice because through it all there is also immense joy, perfect peace, and a hope that anchors the soul.
As you look ahead into all God has in store for you, I know some of you are looking ahead with great excitement, and others of you may be looking ahead with more than a little fear. You’ve already walked a tough road in 2020, and maybe you’re afraid of what the future will hold. Let me remind you that the same God who sustained the Israelites, the God who brought you to this celebration through a time of great uncertainty will bring you through the trials of life. You can leave this place tonight with the confidence of the Psalmist who knew that the steps of a man are established by the Lord, with the certainty of Paul when he wrote that you will be comforted in all your afflictions and with the conviction of Peter that God is already working to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
With that knowledge in your heart, there’s no place you can’t go. So be strong and courageous: your story is a good one. God, the perfect poet, has chosen every word of your story for a reason. No detail is wasted in His narrative. He will redeem it all. For that reason, I challenge each of you to find ways to leverage every chapter of your story for the glory of God and the good of his people. Use your gifts to show others who God is and how He has changed you. This is your unique story, and the world needs you to tell it. In the words of Frederick Buechner, telling your story means to “affirm that there is a plot to [your] life. It’s not just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere.” And I’m here to tell you, you’re all going places. The amazing thing is that God is working in each and every one of your lives, just as he is working in the hearts and lives of believers all over the world. One day we will all see how these seemingly separate narratives work together to create a stunning tapestry of redemption. So go confidently towards the future. Share your story with conviction and remember that no chapter is permanent, God will make everything beautiful in its time, and He can be trusted to turn even the most painful moments into a good story.
And now, Class of 2020, you baby turtles, thank you for the gift of the last four years. You have been God’s grace to me in more ways than you know, and I love you. It is my prayer that our great God, who made you, would bless you and keep you. May you grow every day closer to Him. No matter what goes right in your life, no matter what goes wrong; no matter the heights your careers may reach or how you may fail; no matter the beautiful calling you may stumble into by accident or the dark valley you may travel, always remember this: your life is a good story well told. And I, for one, can’t wait to gather again one day in the halls of eternity to hear how God carried you through the rest of your stories, because I am sure that they will all be page-turners for the ages.
You can watch the full baccalaureate ceremony here.