Sunday, April 27, 2008

Valedictory Address

A few people asked me to post my valedictory address from our graduation ceremony at Briercrest College & Seminary. Here it is.

Board of Directors, faculty and staff, colleagues, family, and friends:
Thank you—for inter-twining your lives with ours—for sacrifices made, support given, for grace and for truth.

You know, as I considered what to say with my few minutes today I recalled when I first stepped foot on this campus. I was going to come to seminary and figure it out—after having grown up in the church and been disillusioned with it, gone to college, pastored a church, and been disillusioned with myself—I was gonna figure it out; get it right.

I’d watched many of my generation give up on the church, and certainly understood. With them I’d quoted William Temple: "I believe in the holy, infallible church, of which I regret to say at present I am the only member." We joke, but we mean it.

George Barna has now called this idea a revolution and said we can follow Christ better without the church. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Does the church need to be how I want it before it’s worth anything? Besides, even after this revolution, we’d re-congregate. Surely we can get it together first.

But I’d also listened as some of the generation before mine spoke and acted like they had figured it out. With vision and the strategy, modernworship, and strategic social programming we’d be the hope of the world. We’d show them Jesus once and for all. We’d make them want to be like us. But this doesn’t seem quite right either. Eventually we’d mess something up. Besides, do I really need to take a church from 60 to 600 (or 6000), or make the breakthrough that gets us into the 21st century, or win 100 souls, or be the next Nooma video guy before I’ll register on the scale of success, make this school proud, validate my degree, feel fulfilled?

I feel like if I could promise those things from this grad class it would make today’s ceremony feel important. I want to be important. Is that wrong?

Who knows? Maybe you see mega-church pastors and upcoming record deals in these grads. That’s not bad, it would probably be worth celebrating!
But the truth is that, even if we grads go from here and do everything right, apart from the odd alumni update you’ll likely not hear from any of us again. You heard it here: The entire class of 2008—an abysmal failure.

That’s not the case, is it? So what are we after?

I am reminded of Elijah, who won a miraculous victory for Yahweh against the prophets of Baal and brought the drought in the land to an end—and the next morning had nothing to show for it but a death threat from the Queen. With his face on all the wanted posters for all the wrong reasons he immediately saw his ministry in terms of failure, and he asked God to let him die. And he added the intriguing line that he was no better than his ancestors.

I think we all think we’ll do better than our ancestors. We’ll figure it out. So we spend our lives on it, figure some stuff out for ourselves, clean up some messes—and make a bunch of new ones. As far as it concerns our goals, we claim success. But they evaporate in time. Even if we find ourselves, that may be all we’re left with.

You know, for every irrefutable law of successful leadership that you can glean from the stories of the Bible there is also a corrective to the tempting lure of self-reliance and measurable successes.

The sin that kept Moses from the promised land was that he struck the rock for a water-miracle, just like last time, the only difference being last time God told him to and this time he thought he had it figured out. The sin that really got David was taking a census. What’s wrong with that? One time God had even asked him to take a census! But last time it was a humble act of obedience to God and this time it was about the numbers.

He and Moses both were taking it upon themselves. Getting the strategy and demographics right so they could step in for God, put on his backpack of timeless solutions and get to work; figure it out; go it alone.

So, do we do nothing and just let God do His thing? No! God wants us involved: Have courage, run the race, strive, seek, find, don't hide, engage! But I charge us today to follow Christ and serve His Church in love even if it gets you crucified rather than getting you the book deal; or the mega church; or the masters degree, or the valedictorian award. That is difficult for me to say. I like my degree. I think God is happy with it too. But what good is it if I sell out for it?

I can’t look at God like one more self-help resource or put him in my backpack of solutions to success. He’s not a commodity. He is the living God, moving toward the world in love, and taking part in that story of communion what this life, this adventure, is all about.

I spent much of my time at seminary battling personal depression and vocational disillusionment. It wasn’t this place, but the troubles of life and my perception of failure —some of it accurate, some not. Rallied by the seminary community, I slowly began to tell God about it; to lament. As with Elijah it seemed that God understood my disappointment but disagreed with my assessment of failure.

Indeed He has nurtured me and is sending me back out—buoyed not by a guarantee of "success" but by His faithful presence. And as Chesterton said: "The mystery of God is more satisfying than the solutions of man."

When the resurrected Jesus handed out breakfast on the beach Peter hung on his every word. Given another chance he would get it right; figure it out. But all Jesus kept saying was, "Do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep."

Thank you Briercrest, for not just giving me a backpack of self-help solutions for success—though it would raise your enrollment—but for teaching me to follow Christ and serve His Church in love. Thank you for drawing me from despair into community, into that Triune Communion so wonderfully shared with us in Christ Jesus.


Eric said...

Jon - The address was GREAT. Thanks for posting.

By the way, what did you like about There Will Be Blood? I really like PTA, but this seemed really different from anything else he'd done.

Bill Erlenbach said...

Jon, I'm glad you posted this. After listening to it I was going to ask for a copy.

I appreciated the sense of humble honesty in the address. Seminary life can be confusing at times, a mental and emotional roller coaster. Sometimes you feel like Elijah on the mountain and other times...well its not as pretty. You not only captured that but provided a sense of grounding to move forward with. Thanks.

jon said...

i'm glad bill, thanks for the kudos both of you. it is an ongoing learning and living experience for me so if there are more on board it helps.

There will be blood was interesting to me for its portrayal of the power games and manipulation that was no different for the pastor than it was for the oil-man, and was in fact very intertwined.

I also loved the cinematography and acting. brilliant storytelling.

furthermore, i loved how anderson was able to get me to want the best for plainview but to be frustrated as he did what i think we'd all be prone to do in his situation: have his success only strengthen his weaknesses and lead to self-implosion.

here's a guy with support, family, and community around him, but his ambition (which is a strength) turns to weakness when it won't allow him to share anything with anyone and only sees others as commodities to used for his own pleasure and gain.

we see it easily in plainview, but do we see it also in the pastor?

Tony Tanti said...

Jon, I was moved by your address at the ceremony and I am again moved to read it today. You challenge us all to redefine success while not assuming all outward successes (mega churches...) to be wrong either. Your Moses and David examples are compelling.

Thanks for posting this, I passed it on to some people today who I thought may want to read it.

jon said...

sweet. so glad you were here.