A familiar segment often appears in the evening news this time of year where excerpts of commencement speeches accompany video footage of graduates in cap and gown walking across many a stage, victoriously raising their arms, beaming from ear to ear, tears of joy flowing down as they hug their proud parents and grandparents. Many of us have been there. We may know that joyful experience firsthand. But no one at all mentions the doubts and fears that often accompany their lack of significant experience as they venture into the world and join the ranks of productive members of society.
Commencement speakers will urge graduates to set aside anxiety and missteps that easily hold them back. Make mistakes, lots of them, but learn from them. Get back up when you fall. Keep trying and give it your best shot. Success requires lots of patience and perseverance. And eventually you will get where you’re headed. But remember to take a break every once in a while. Spend quality time with the people you love. Drink lots of water. Take lots of naps.
One of the major challenges of commencement speeches is that the speaker has to fit everything they want to say into a limited timeframe. They need to focus on a few good ideas, despite that they might have many. And they have to remember their audience’s limited attention span. Speakers who have traveled places, done interesting things, met interesting people, and had a successful career, are always willing to share their wisdom with whoever wants to listen. The life lessons that have made the greatest impact on them are often not unique to them. Rather what is unique is their perspective and conviction and passion. You can tell they’ve been paying attention.
Though attentive and eager, their audience will probably have a lot going on in their lives as well. They have last minute details to attend to, and loose ends to tie up. Worlds are colliding that barely even knew of the other’s existence. Parents and families who know them well, and love them dearly are meeting roommates, classmates, advisors, and professors who they’ve only known a few years. Perhaps they are anxious about what happens immediately following graduation. Or perhaps what’s weighing heavy is the uncertainty of their future and the dire lack of a sensible plan. Maybe they’re preoccupied with a health issue. Maybe it’s a complicated relationship. Maybe they didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Maybe they’re experiencing a crisis of faith. Whatever else might be going on with the commencement speaker or the listening assembly, the effective transmission of wisdom and experience rests on how much all concerned are paying attention.
When the Lord Jesus took leave of his apostles on the mountaintop to return to the Father, he was confident they were ready to handle the mission he was sending them on, including grasping God’s plan to reconcile sinners to himself, helping us to relate to God better, and passing on his teachings. Jesus was convinced his apostles were ready for the next chapter in God’s amazing plan. But he probably knew they would need help.
He instructed them to “not depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for ‘the promise of the Father; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” It’s been 2000 years since Jesus left the community of his disciples to carry on his work. He dedicated three intense years to teaching them important truths, answering their questions, explaining as much detail as they needed, and setting an example for them to imitate. If we look back upon the church’s journey these past 2000 years, the historical evidence says we haven’t always paid close attention.
The values of God’s Kingdom as laid out in the lessons of sacred scripture have not changed, yet we continue to struggle with their meaning in every generation. Dark forces that feed our sinful and selfish ways continue to draw us away from God’s purpose and design, and we fail to listen patiently as the Holy Spirit speaks. He invites us to take risks, and challenges us to explore truth where God wishes to lead us. We need to return to the very words and example of Jesus. He is the fullness of the revelation of God. If we want to know how God thinks and what God would do, we need only listen to what Jesus said and reflect on what Jesus did.
At times the path forward is clear. But selfishness and sin affects us differently. Some of us will misinterpret the signs, while others will miss them entirely. Still the Holy Spirit speaks to us all in varying degrees of clarity. Keeping in mind that we are disciples of Jesus and members of his Body, so we need to listen and speak to one another patiently, lovingly, and compassionately so we arrive at God’s truth together. The climb will be a slow and steep. But if we are truly committed to living out the truth of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed, if our love truly encompasses everyone whom God’s love encompasses because Jesus rejects no one the Father sends him, and if we are truly convinced that the Kingdom of God is already established among us, we have to do a much better job at speaking and behaving like we mean exactly that.
You have heard of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach late Friday. 13 people including the gunman, were killed. Yet another name is added to the growing list of communities that share this horrific distinction. It is especially painful since I have family and friends there. Each time violence erupts in any form, and each time human misery stretches out to claim yet another victim, whether it’s because of mental health issues, gun violence, nuclear proliferation, abortion-on-demand, the death penalty, drug use and abuse, the prevalent disregard for human dignity, the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, rampant greed, dishonesty, theft, resentment, war, the greater problem is neither violence nor misery. Rather, it is our inability to listen and work with the Holy Spirit who calls us to live out the inconvenient Gospel, who demands that our love encompass everyone whom God’s love encompasses, who reminds us that the Kingdom of God is already established among us, because we will first need to convince ourselves. Whether or not we are convinced will very easily become clear.
I am grateful when visitors and new parishioners tell me they feel welcome among us. But it makes me wonder why other churches could afford to be otherwise. If long-time parishioners leave because they feel ignored or bullied, I am saddened that they see no recourse but to walk away. The feast of Pentecost is next Sunday. If we believe Jesus was not wrong to return to the Father, then we must rise to the challenge and welcome the Holy Spirit, while we give convincing witness by our confidence and joy that the Lord is risen indeed.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019
Acts of the Apostles 1: 4-5