VIEW VIDEO We had high school graduation last weekend in our town, outside on the football field. A tradition we began during Covid, when we were social distancing, and it turned out to be more pleasant than cramming hundreds of people in a stifling hot gymnasium, so we’ve continued the practice. Now we sit outdoors late in the day when the sun is softening on a May evening and listen to the speeches, and if the timing is right, the superintendent confers the last degree just as the spring peepers are rosining up their bows.
The speeches are always the same, students are urged to aim for the stars, teachers are thanked and lauded, all the way back to first grade, except for a couple years ago when the valedictorian decided to name the teachers he thought were lazy and should retire. It sent the town into a tizzy, and the speech ended up on the Internet where it enjoyed wide circulation. As you can imagine, people were upset and wrote letters to the editor, most of them beginning with the sentence, “If I had done that when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week.” I found it ironic that on an evening celebrating diligence and ambition, that people were angry when teachers who lacked both were held to account. There were several retirements announced that summer, thereby accomplishing in one speech what the principal had not seen fit to do in all his years there.
Why is it we expect diligence and ambition from our young people, but get upset when it’s expected of us? At what age do we earn the right to coast, to stop improving ourselves, to say, “I have learned enough. I know everything I need to know. I am fully grown.”
I was speaking with a college graduate last week and asked her, “What’s next?” and she told me all her plans, and they were wonderful plans.
Later that day, I was thinking how long it has been since I’ve been asked, “What’s next?”
While I once gave considerable thought to my future, to my goals and aspirations, I no longer do. Why is that? Today I invite us to ask ourselves what we feel so free to ask our graduates. What’s next? What are my plans? What are my goals? If we do have goals, have you noticed how we often let ourselves off the hook?
After Joe, my walking buddy, passed away last fall, I stopped walking every evening. It was too depressing. But time passed, my heart healed a bit, and last week, I told myself I was going to walk again, every day, two miles every evening as I had done for years. So last Sunday, Joan and I went for a three-mile walk while we were at the farm. Mission accomplished. We drove home on Monday, and I told myself, “Well, since I walked three miles the day before, that means I only have to walk one mile today to meet my two-mile per day average. So I only walked one mile.”
Tuesday night rolled around. We walked a mile, then I told Joan, “I need new walking shoes. These old shoes are hurting my heels. I could get plantar fasciitis. You wouldn’t want that, would you? That could cripple me for life. Let’s go to Plainfield on Wednesday and get new walking shoes.”
Except Wednesday came and we got busy and I never did get those shoes and didn’t walk that night either.
On Thursday, I’m reading an article by this guy named Craig Lounsbrough, who has a Master of NuFlexnity degree, the exact same degree I have, but now bills himself as a professional life coach, which means he couldn’t keep his job as a pastor so became a life coach. Stupid article. I don’t even know why I was reading it. But then I read this sentence. “If you wonder why you haven’t climbed the mountain, it’s probably because you’ve spent too much time trying to find the perfect shoes.”
Ouch. That is my life exactly. I’ve been spending too much time looking for perfect shoes. I wanted to learn Spanish. I can’t count the times I’ve wished I could speak Spanish, but I always find a reason not to learn it. My friends Stan and Jim have taken Spanish lessons and are now fluent and travel to Central America and meet wonderful people and have the best time, but I keep looking for those perfect shoes, keep waiting for everything to line up just perfectly, which of course they never will.
What keeps us from what’s next in our lives?
It’s a question for all of us, not just our young people. In fact, I would say as we age, it becomes an even more pressing question. When we are young, we have time to recover from our inexperience and poor choices. There is time to correct our missteps. But as we age, time presses upon us, doesn’t it? Listening, finding, and following our purpose becomes all the more important.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Eli the prophet and the young boy Samuel. Eli is old and nearly blind. His children are corrupt. Sometimes that happens. You can be a wonderful parent and do your best, but your children will be determined to make a mess of their lives. It happens. It happened to Eli.
Samuel’s parents take pity on Eli, who has no one to help him, so they arrange for their son Samuel to live with Eli and help him in his final years. It was a desolate time. The Bible says the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Feels kind of like today, with so many folks claiming to speak for God, though it doesn’t sound like the god I’ve ever experienced. So the word of the Lord was rare. Except God spoke to Samuel. I guess if the adults aren’t paying attention, God might as well speak to a kid. So God spoke to Samuel, but Samuel didn’t know what to make of it, so he woke up Eli and asked him what to do, and Eli said, “Listen. If you think God is speaking to you, just listen and say yes.”
That was the summation of Eli’s experience, the culmination of his wisdom. Listen and say yes.
People say, “I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
But that isn’t true. We know what to do. We’re just looking for perfect shoes, when what we need to do is listen and say yes.
It isn’t that we don’t know what to do. We do.
The prophet Micah said, “God has told you what to do with your life. Carry out justice. Love mercy. Be humble.” Eli said, “Listen and say yes.”
God doesn’t call us to vocations, to this profession or that one. God calls us to lives of justice, mercy, and humility. When we say yes to those things, we have found our true calling, no matter our age.