Friday, June 17, 2011

Commencement Address at Oak Hill Christian School

Oak Hill Christian School
Commencement Ceremony
June 10, 2011
By Virgil Hurt

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, greetings graduates, parents, family, faculty and staff. This is a good and joyous day and I am blessed to be a part of your celebration.

Commencement is a beginning and so I shall begin. But too often we tend to think of the commencement ceremony as an ending and thus in an anticipation to geth the party started, we eagerly await the end of the commencement speaker’s rapidly forgettable speech. Not so fast. I’ve got a thing or two to say first.

You may not remember what I am going to say today. Chances are that in the days, and weeks and months and certainly years ahead, you won’t remember much, if any, of this speech. But that does not unduly distress me. At least, as long as what I say becomes a part of the fabric of who you are. If that happens, and it really must, then it won’t matter if you remember what I say, you will have come to know it with certainty, which is better by far.

What are my qualifications to be here before you today? Well, they are most august, indeed. I have been a much sought after commencement speaker for several years now. Well, at least to those near and dear to me. My first speech, three years ago, was to a class of one, my daughter Rebecca, graduating from our home school. My most recent, second, and last speech was to a graduating class of two, my daughter Elizabeth and her brother, Zachary. And now, I am brought to this place, with your graduating class of 7 and I am hopeful that you are glad to be in such august company.

What do my qualifications have to do with your graduation? Well, only everything. Let me explain. The only reason that I am here today is because your Headmaster, Mr. Thoburn, asked me to come and speak to you. He has heard me speak on a few occasions, perhaps heard a sermon or two, and apparently, maybe even obviously, could not get anybody else to come. So he asked me. Was I qualified for such a privilege? No. Was I the best choice? No. Did he really have no other options? No, with some tremendous effort, he likely could have got somebody to come and talk to you. Knowing that he was making a mistake, did I refuse? Again, and somewhat emphatically now, No!

And why not? Why not just tell Mr. Thoburn that it would likely be a disappointment to the students to invite me? Why not say to him that I’ve been around the Classical Christian education circles for a while now and I know of many much more qualified men for you to choose?

That would have been the smart thing and the safe thing to say but in my case, just not the obedient thing to say. And furthermore, I could have refused without doing much disrespect to Mr. Thoburn and without making room for damage to my own fragile reputation. I could have said no, but to do so would have been a slap in the face of my Lord who had brought me to just such a place and had prepared me for just such a question.

I may not have thought so but apparently God did and who am I to argue with Him? He is even more important and more authoritative than Mr. Thoburn! And this is why I do not want you to remember what I say today, but why you must, in fact, grasp, believe, know and live, what I say today.

Dear Graduates and dear friends, Do what God calls you to do. Do so with all the vigor you can muster. Do so with all the motivation of the call of duty. But do so resting in God’s goodness, wisdom and Providence.

I am not one prone to volunteer. Many years ago, I was a branch manager in several Kinko’s Copy Center stores. A regional manager once told me that the quickest way to the top was “don’t say much, just keep your head down and don’t volunteer.” It struck me as a bit odd at the time but the wisdom of his statement has grown on me.

Many years ago I made a deal with God. No, He didn’t talk to me but I talked to Him and made a personal commitment. The commitment was this. I felt that the Lord was calling me into ministry. Thus, I determined that whenever I was asked to do something related to my duties as a minister that was clearly a good thing to do, that I would not refuse to do so. That’s it, plain and simple. Do whatever is asked of you that is commensurate with your duties. You don’t have to volunteer but when asked, don’t refuse.

I pass it on to you here, as long as you do not tell anyone that is making big plans who might take advantage of me. But I put to you that if you leave your honors and advancement in the Lord’s hands, having taken your responsibilities seriously and having not taken yourself seriously, then the Lord will give you honor, honor greater than you deserve and honor that befits a true child of the Father. And there is more than enough honor to go around.

And since I had made the commitment to do whatever good thing was asked of me, I figured I would take my manager’s advice and not say much, keep my head down and not volunteer. My guess was that taking such a posture would enable me to lay low and be safe. But I am not writing my story. And what is pertinent to you is that you are not writing your story either. God is writing both of our stories and tonight, in the height of our mutual comedy, our paths meet.

You see, not volunteering did not keep me from being asked. And people do ask. And Mr. Thoburn asked. And God bestows honor as He sees fit. And dear graduates, it is most certainly an honor for me to be here tonight.

Am I qualified? No, not really. Did I deserve to be honored so? No, not at all. Earlier, I joked about my high qualifications, as if I was so great. But is it true? No, just a little lie to get the speech rolling along.

And the fact that I can laugh at myself with the joke that God is playing on everyone else is, by God’s standard, one of my greatest qualifications. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not offering a false humility, nor am I claiming to be somebody that I am not. I am a small time pastor in a small time denomination. But even in that, God has raised me far above my station and to God be the glory for it. But you have invited me here, to give me a name, to put another honor on my resume. Who cares if it is all a cosmic joke? God is the author of all such jokes and I tend to find Him consistently hilarious.

And while the honor is a gift, in God’s Providence he has sent me here to say something to you that will change your lives. You may not remember what I have to say but do not refuse to hear His voice. How can I say such things without extreme hubris? Well, because it is simply God’s way of doing things. He prefers to use the base things to oppose the proud. And if we are up to speed on the inside joke, God can use us for His glory even more.

And it is a privilege and an honor and a duty to be here tonight. And this is where I hope you can remember a little of what I am saying and how you can make what I am saying here become an integral part of your life.

As I said earlier, I am not so great. I have come to realize that this is true and it no longer bursts my bubble. But I am afraid that I must try to burst yours. You have already accomplished much. You have made your way through a challenging high school career. You have earned honors and scholarships, have earned some degree of academic respectability.

You have accomplished much and no doubt, in a group like this, from the background like yours, the list of your accomplishments will be long and your honors will be many.

But you have grown up in a world where your own self-esteem and your own sense of self-worth have become part of the air of the culture that we breathe. And this is most certainly a handicap on the road to godliness.

And while all the accomplishment are true and even wonderful, I ask you, “Are you really so great?” No, not really.

But, you say, “What about this great education you just mentioned? What about my great family? My great school? My great church? What about what my parents told me? What about what my teachers said about me?”

Well, the cold hard facts answer is that you really are not that great. It is not greatness that makes you, but rather, grace. You are not great but you are all evidence of great grace.

If you can grasp this truth of God’s grace, embrace it, relish in it, marinate the bones of your soul in its truth, live it and breathe it, then the Lord will raise you up and highly exalt you. But if you cannot grasp this one great truth, though you be high and lifted up in the eyes of men, the Lord’s favor will not shine upon you. And in light of all of the gifts and the honors, and the accomplishments of this day the one needful thing that you, as Christians, must possess, is the favor of the Lord.

Grace is gift. You have been given much and I hope you have all received it well, giving the glory and the credit where they are due. God has been exceedingly kind to you.

What will you do with His kindness? Will you reject it? I hope not. Will you plagiarize and try to put it off as your own? I hope not. Will you reflect His kindness, referring the glory to Him who has blessed you bringing you here to this day? I hope so.

But I am not calling you to a groveling worm theology, “I’m unworthy, I’m unworthy, I’m unworthy.” That will not do, either. Besides, most of the folks who say this don’t believe it anyway. They are just searching for somebody to say, “Oh, yes you are worthy!”

But what if the truth is, that you really are not worthy of all of this honor and trust and reward and glory and yet all of this has come to you anyway? What if you are actually painfully honest and know how much you really do not deserve all the accolades, responsibility and authority that have come your way? What if that were all true and yet you simply receive them all gladly as a faithful response to an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise, all-hilarious God?

I need to make one side comment about that last statement. I called God the all-hilarious God. I mean no disrespect to Him and am not being flippant. God is holy and we should worship and serve Him in reverence. But God most certainly loves a divine joke and has built a great deal of irony into His Word. If we do not understand this we cannot even understand our Bibles. Our very lives are an ironic assault on the powers of darkness. In this reverent sense, God is hilarious.

This is the trick, dear graduates, to understand the bit of sleight of hand from the Almighty as He says to you, “You know that you don’t deserve all this goodness and favor.” “No, I mean it,” He says, “You know it, don’t you? You have come to know that you really do not deserve this. Right?” And having been caught by Him, you might droop your head a little bit and say, “Yes, I know Lord. I admit it. I don’t deserve it at all.” But surprise and here is the sleight of hand! He says, “And so, based upon that knowledge, and based upon My Goodness, I am going to give it to you anyway!”

This is the joy of gift. Graduates you have been given much; fine families, excellent education, Classical Christian Curriculum, honor from on high and all because God is good. You really don’t deserve any of it which makes it all twice as good and double the laughter.

James 1:16-18 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

We need to get this down in our bones as we are blessed. The goodness of God needs to be the foundation of how we understand and receive the honors of men. God is the bestower of gifts, the great ring-giver. He dispenses them at His will. We also know that whatsoever comes to pass is a gift from His hand because all things work together for our good.

In that sense, even sorrow and suffering are gifts, perhaps the greatest gifts of all. All of you gathered here have received or will receive such gifts and one day will come to know that such hard providences are great gifts, indeed. But today we focus on the gifts of joy, of honor, of reward.

Let’s look briefly at things that I mentioned that you have been given. We start with your

Fine Family- What did you have to do with that? Did you choose your parents? You might be proud of them but you had absolutely nothing to do with choosing them or with their choice of you. It was given to you.

Your Excellent Education- I suppose you could argue that you made a go of it and produced all the brain cells that are now bulging from your information filled heads by your own vigorous studies. But the reality is, you could have just as easily received a second rate education or no education as the one that you have been given. It was given to you. It was a gift. Are you thankful?

The Classical Christian Curriculum- How did that happen? Well, it was as much a fluke as anything. You could have been educated in any number of ways. But, by God’s chance, that we call Providence, you were blessed with an education that is full of the Western tradition, the Classics but is thoroughly critiqued and understood with a Biblical World view. Only few Americans these days are educated in this way. You probably do not even comprehend the power in all of this. But the fact is that you did not choose it. It was a gift to you. Are you thankful?

Honor from on High- The truth is that all honor is from on High, from the God of honor. But only those who recognize this fact and give the honor back to God are truly blessed with His favor. This is another one of those seeming Christian paradoxes. We do not shrink away from God’s honor. We recognize that He actually gives it to us. Once He gives it to us, it is ours and recognized by everyone. The Valedictorian will receive just such an honor tonight and no doubt other honors will be bestowed. We do not diminish the true worth of the honor or of the relative merit of the one who receives it. But to be favored of the Lord and not merely honored by men, the receiver of the honor must know that it is his only because God is good and kind. To say this is one thing but to know it to be true is double honor and joy unspeakable.

How can you rejoice in God’s good gifts to you? First of all, you need to know God. And knowing Him you come to know yourself. And this leads us to a deeper understanding of God. It cycles on itself. God knows you, so you know Him, then you come to know yourself and this enables you to know Him ever deeper.

I have often said that to know yourself is to be comfortable in your own skin. That is, you understand who you are and you are okay with it. I am not talking about everyone having to accept you just the way you are, no matter what you do. The Bible has clear standards of behavior and they ought to be enforced in His Church. But what are you like? Who are your parents? What is your fundamental identity?

If you own who you are, then there is little that can said about you or done to you that will harm you. As you go away from here into the world as adults, many of you to various colleges, your values and identity are going to be challenged. What will you do with that challenge? Well, much of what you do with it depends on whether or not you can own up to who you are.

Well then, who are you? Let us answer that question in the most fundamental way. You are a Christian. No amount of sarcasm, including much guilt by association, should harm you. Do you own being a Christian? Do you own your own heritage in the Bible and throughout the course of history? Are you glad to be in the stream of the historic Christian faith and own it without wincing? We do not have to claim we have done all things well but we should be willing to claim our brothers and sisters through the ages as our very own kin. And we should be able to do so without caring what the establishment thinks or says.

Being a Christian, you are a Bible person. The Bible is your only ultimate and infallible authority. Do you believe that? Really? Even when some professor, colleague or coworker is chiding you about the age of the Earth, the genocides of the Old Testament and all those messy miracles of Jesus? Even when your so-called academic integrity is at stake? You mean that you even believe that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish?

Are you going to try to reason all of that out, get on the defensive, make compromises, refuse to answer, or are you simply going to stand on the authority of Scripture? If you know who you are and you remember who you are before the questions come, it will be easy to answer. Many a Christian has jettisoned the faith because he did not want to look silly in his freshman biology class.

But if we understand who we are, we can laugh at ourselves just as much as they do and in the end we will be laughing with God when their laughter has ended.

If you are comfortable in your own skin, and the truth about you is made know you would not be hurt by the revelation and the undeserved honors you have received would simply redound doubly to the glory of God.

And this brings us full circle. If God is the giver of gifts and the One who bestows honor, then we can receive them and confidently embrace whatever He has in store for us.

I said earlier that you should know yourself and be comfortable in your own skin but even that statement has a sardonic twist. I tell you to know yourself knowing that you cannot really do so. It is so like a father or a teacher or a commencement speaker to speak in riddles. Why can’t they just speak plain English? Well, I suppose the answer to that question would be that the simplicity of the world is so amazingly complex.

You cannot really know yourself or know whether you can even do that thing the Lord has called you to do. If you are like me, I am sure you often simply walk forward somewhat blindly, truly simply hoping for the best. You may have a smashing success at your endeavors, or you may fail miserably in the trying.

The point is not to know yourself, whether or not you are able to succeed. The point is to know yourself in relation to this great and terrible God. Do you belong to Him? Has He given you a name? Has He brought you to this point or that honor or such a calling or a seemingly impossible task? If so, then your only way is forward in Him. And in such knowing, you are called to place explicit trust in the only One who really does know you, in the hands of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. At that point, it doesn’t matter what the world says. It doesn’t matter even what you think. The only thing that matters is to be the subject of a great High King. If you know that you are such a loyal subject, then you have come to know who you are.

And one final twist. You cannot even really know if you are such a loyal subject. As soon as you find yourself convinced of this, your loyalty will be immediately challenged and you may wonder if you will be able to stand. And by God’s grace, your only option at that point is to fall at His feet in divine worship and call upon Him to keep you in His grace.

And God is ever full of grace and is quick to dispense it. He will raise you up with the words of the Apostle, 1 Cor 16:13 Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. And your strength will be renewed. And He will lift up the hands that hang down and strengthen your feeble knees. And knowing His grace, you will have come to know that even if you are not as loyal as you thought, He always is.

So, what will you do with all of this? You who are highly honored and highly favored. This is no doubt a good and glorious thing.

Will you own up to the truth that God is the one who bestows gifts at His pleasure? Will you receive all such gifts as from His hand? Will you go out from here, this commencement, this beginning, and engage the world, with whatever it brings your way because God is the one who is sending it to you?

Will you receive the duties that are set before you because they are set there by the hand of Almighty God? And when they are presented to you, along with all the honor, prestige, and earthly reward that come with such gifts, will you laugh with God?

1 comment:

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