Gulf Shores High School Baccalaureate Service
Graduation is the modern equivalent of a rite of passage. Whether you are staying at home and working or going to a community college, and all the more so if you are leaving home for college or military service, graduation from high school is like stepping over a line into new territory. You may or may not feel fully adult, but the world will treat you differently from now on.
When my son came home from college for the first time, we had an awkward moment. After a nice supper back together, he said he was going out to hang out with some friends, so I asked who he would be with, and when he would be back. Then after an brief pause it occurred to me that this old habit of mine was a bit pathetic now. For the past few months he was away at school and I never knew who he was with or when he got back to the dorm. He left behind that old world of daddy and mommy needing to know and approve everything, and it was gone. So, I said, “Never mind, just be safe, and try not to wake up your mother when you get in.”
You are going to be leaving behind a lot, very soon. Many of you are going out of town. You will leave behind your parents, your community, your friends, the teachers and coaches and pastors who know you by name. Even those not leaving town will have left the cocoon of high school. The fact that lots of others have left town will make the town you stay in different. The old one is left behind.
But you have done this a lot, already. You have already left the tooth fairy behind, probably by third grade. You left behind Santa Clause long ago. And you have left behind the silly notion that you can get through life without having your heart broken. You have grown up. That is good.
Speaking of God
At graduation Tuesday you are going to hear speeches that will typically encourage you to “go out with courage” to “follow your dreams” and “be all you can be.” That is fine, but they will not talk about God, so this is our one chance. I need to take it.
A year from now, according to all the trends, some of you who believe in God now, will be calling yourselves atheists. You will have concluded that God needs to be left behind just like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause. This is my one shot to talk about that.
Please don’t do that. At least don’t do that yet. Why not? Because it is just not humanly possible in one short school year to have processed everything you need to process to get to that conclusion.
The gods to Leave Behind
Here is what I mean. I do think it is true that there are many versions of god that need to be left behind. As children we thought of God like a big parent in the sky, making rules, watching us all the time, and ready, like dad and mom were, to punish us for breaking them. That is a childish view of God that really needs to stay in the box with the dolls and little league glove.
I think it is important to leave behind the God who carries the pom poms and wears the jersey of my team, as if God were a white, middle class American from Gulf Shores, whose job was to help his favorites, who are, of course, us. The concept of tribal deities was supposed to go away when Moses brought monotheism down Mt. Sinai, along with the ten commandments and the concept that God made everyone in God’s image. As fun as it is to think of God as cheering for our team, it just fails the adequacy test. If there is a god, he cannot be that small-minded and parochial
I also think it is crucial to leave behind the wrathful, vengeful god who is dangling the human race out over the lake of hellfire, where most of them will end up suffering torture forever. That kind of sadistic God may work for the homophobic angry people who disrupt the funerals of fallen soldiers, but if he exists, he is a moral monster, unworthy of anybody’s worship or praise. That God needs to be left back at the not-yet-succesfull potty-training stage.
Also important to leave behind is the idea that religion and God are the same thing, so that disliking one is the same as disbelieving in the other. You may need to evolve away from organized religious institutions that no longer help your growing quest – and that is fine. But God is not housed in any church, or temple, or institution, not in Gulf Shores, or Rome, or Mecca, or anywhere on earth.
In fact the truth is that any serious book on theology, from Moses to Maimonides and from Augustine to Calvin and Luther, and including Confucius, Buddha and the Upanishads speak of the essential unknowability of God, in the first chapter.
The Quest is Yours
So, this is the point where I relieve the tension by laying out, in simple terms, how to adequately conceive of God, so you will not cling to childish or destructive beliefs, on the one hand, and be saved from atheism, on the other, right?
Sorry, but I cannot do that for you, and neither can anyone else. My plea today, is just to stay with the quest. Keep asking questions. The more you learn, the better your questions will become. Keep them coming. But give yourself time.
It take time even to consider the options; in fact time just to learn what the options are. For example, it would be silly to be an atheist who gave up on traditional theism without at least hearing about panentheism, anatheism, or about process theologies that embrace an entirely different view of ontology – and I know you have not had the chance to learn what those terms mean yet, but that is my point. Let the quest be long enough to at least give it a good shot. Don’t abandon the game after the first quarter.
The God of Jesus
But I will leave you with what I hope is at least some positive help. I am a Christian. That means that for me, even if I have trouble conceiving of God’s essence, at least I can look at Jesus. All Christians, from Baptists to Catholics and including Methodists and Presbyterians and everyone else, all agree on one theological point: that Jesus shows us God.
So, God must be at least as nice as Jesus. God must be at least as interested in humans as Jesus was. God must be at least as open to foreigners as Jesus was to Roman soldiers and Samaritan women. God must be at least as compassionate as Jesus when he saw hungry people and fed them, when he encountered sick people and healed them, when he took the time to teach his confused disciples his way of forgiving enemies and turning the other cheek, and his non-violent commitment to justice.
If Jesus shows us God, then God must be for us, not against us. God must be there for us, even in our doubt, even in our failure, and even in times when life breaks our hearts.
But the quest to know this God is difficult. Maybe the most profound words in the whole bible are Jesus’ words from the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” If God is a difficult issue for you, or if in this next year God becomes a difficult issue for you, and sometimes even seems impossible, my friends, you are in good company.
The second best line in the bible might well be the one the man with the sick child said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
“I believe; help my unbelief!” – wow. What a statement! What a prayer!
So, class of 2015, congratulations for getting to this moment, this rite of passage. May the God we see in Jesus bless you as you leave behind childish things, and step over the line into adulthood. And may God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” give you the grace to keep growing in spirit and in truth.