Here are the remarks, in substance anyway, I gave at the commencement ceremony for the graduating class of New Covenant Schools for 2011. They have just finished their 20th year under God’s blessing, and many congratulations.
I begin, of course, with the salutations. I want to thank the members of the board, your headmaster John Heaton, your faculty, and the parents of the school, for this kind invitation to address you all this afternoon. And I especially want to thank the senior class for the invitation to speak here, an invitation personally delivered to me with a potent rhetorical effectiveness when I visited your school last year for the first time. You know that an invitation has done its work when the recipient, as I did, responded inwardly and immediately with “Oh, I have to do this.” So here I am. Well delivered, and thank you.
But we cannot get off so easily. A commencement address consists of more than salutations. Much more is expected, both from you and from me. This talk must also address the nature of the occasion, a theme which is captured by words and phrases like threshold, new beginnings, bridges, lives before you, an open future, potential, possibilities, and so on. The topic, considered in itself, and looking at those words, should be a very exciting one. But at the same time, sad to say, commencement addresses are being inflicted on people all over our country at this time of year, and the experience can be pretty dreadful. In fact, as I understand it, dreadful is pretty standard. The average sentence reminds one, as H.L. Mencken once said about the sentences of President Harding, of a string of wet sponges. Why do we insist on sending our young people out into the world to conquer it, with a ceremony that does little more than slather them with platitudes? But as the writer to the Hebrews once said, “though we thus speak” we are “persuaded better things of you” (Heb. 6:9). You did not come here to be regaled with refried truisms, and so I shall try to refrain.
This is a mystery. We know why clichés bore us. We know why new beginnings excite us. But how did we ever contrive to combine those two things into this annual, springtime juggernaut? I suspect that most graduates and their parents decide that it is simply one more thing that must be borne with patience. One more test, one more quiz, one more event to slog through. Endurance is a virtue. We were not put into this world for pleasure alone.
But there is another way to think of it, one that I would urge you to consider—not least because at this commencement ceremony I am the one in charge of dispensing the platitudes. A caged-up thoroughbred might be tempted to lethargy and despair—unless there is a row of those cages lined up across the width of a racetrack. Then the thoroughbreds are all quivering with excitement . . . just like you are right now. You don’t mind this final cage because all you are thinking about is the track in front of you. You might not even notice the cage.
Scripture teaches us that to the pure all things are pure (Tit. 1:15). To the defiled, all things are defiled. The principle can and should be extended. To the dullard all things are dull. One of the central reasons why G.K. Chesterton is such a wonderful thinker and writer is that he had the gift of making us see how extraordinary all ordinary things are. He would cock his head sideways and describe the living room from that vantage, and all of us would learn new things about a place where we had lived for years.
The simpleton thinks that ordinary things are ordinary. The faux-mystic drops some acid—a weird custom you may have heard about in your history classes—in order to find out that extraordinary visions are extraordinary. But only a healthy soul can see how remarkable every unremarkable thing actually is. When you consider how many magnificent things can be done with a potato, you recognize the absolute sovereignty of God, and the depth of His wisdom. When you realize how many epochs and eons are represented by the gravel in your driveway, you want to cry out with the seraphim. As Chesterton once put it, making this same point, “The poets have been singularly silent on the subject of cheese.”
On some subjects, we know these things instinctively. One of the most obvious things that a new father might say about the birth of his first child is that “the whole thing was a miracle.” But a cynic comes alongside that new father and mocks—”and this ‘miracle,’” he says, “has happened how many times? Billions?” But the exultant wisdom of a new father trumps the cynic’s vaunted ability to count. The fact that things happen all the time, over and over again, does not mean they are not magic. What it actually means is that they represent a very strong magic indeed. And in addition to the magic of this unbelievable world careening all around us, we have the additional spell that someone has cast on our eyes—making us blind to all of it. How easy it is to become a dwarf in a stable!
So here is Chesterton again, making old things new.
“The sun rises every morning . . . Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we” (Orthodoxy, p. 60).
Yes, there is a sense in which our Father is younger than we. He is the Ancient of Days, but because He is life itself, because He is the living God, because He is the fountain of life, this means that all the days involved in that glorious title Ancient of Days, are each of them new days. They are new days, and they remain new days. How could He grow old? He is the everlasting one. He is the Ancient of Dawns, and they are all dawns, and every last one of them stays dawn.
Scriptures says that the Lord has made all things new. “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful” (Rev. 21:5). These words are indeed true and faithful, and we need to heed them for we live in a world where young people grow old. But this passage is talking about the New Jerusalem, and the New Jerusalem will never—not in a million years—become the Old Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem of God is filled with the saints of God, and together we sing a new song. But the kind of new song we sing there never takes its place among the oldies. This means that the adjective new represents a particular quality of newness. Moreover it is a quality straight from the heart of the triune God.
Jesus says that the one who believes in Him will have rivers of living water flow out of him (John 7:38). Whatever could that mean? Among other things, it means that each believer is a fountainhead, a source. It means the water is fresh, new. Moreover, it is living water, which means that the fresh water stays fresh, it means the new water stays new. It has to stay new because it is alive. This means that I am not urging you to a life of eccentricity—though some might call it that. I am not saying that you should become hippies who were untimely born. The point is more fundamental than that. Stay friends with the Spirit of God. Do not grieve Him. He is that living water.
So here you are, the class of 2011. Since you have been kind enough to invite me to do so, I would like to give you a charge. Here it is—grow wise; do not grow old. Don’t be a dullard. Don’t become a dullard. Don’t ever confuse the creeping onset of dullardry with an advance in your sanctification. Were such a thing to happen, it would actually be a regress.
Ambrose Bierce defines the dullard thus:
“A member of the reigning dynasty in letters and life. The Dullards came in with Adam, and being both numerous and sturdy have overrun the habitable world. The secret of their power is their insensibility to blows . . . In the turbulent times of the Crusades they withdrew thence and gradually overspread all Europe, occupying most of the high places in politics, art, literature, science and theology . . . According to the most trustworthy statistics the number of adult Dullards in the United States is but little short of thirty millions, including the statisticians” (The Devil’s Dictionary).
The only thing to quarrel with here is the number 30 million, but we must also recall that Bierce was speaking in the 19th century, and before the invention of video.
There is a way of growing wise that keeps the right kind of bright in your eyes. You can lose your hair, that’s all right. In a few decades, some of you may lose your right to the adjective svelte. In the years to come, in games of pick-up basketball, you can lose a few steps. But don’t ever lose the right kind of bright in your eyes.
Wisdom, like the mercies of God Himself, is new every morning. If you grow in wisdom, your outer man will still get weathered, and your bones will still age. We live before the final resurrection. But your inner man will be renewed by the Spirit of God, though your outer man perish (2 Cor. 4:16). As you grow in grace over the years—which is not the same thing as getting spooled up over additional scruples—you will find yourself renewed in a way that keeps the right kind of bright in your eyes. Put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge (Col. 3:10). Be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Eph. 4:23). These things are not said so that you might run them through a moralistic filter, and translate them all into a respectable and dreary way of being spiritually dull. No.
The way before you is full of choices and decisions. And every choice you make will have the effect of either making you duller and more like a tedium drill or brighter and more like the Spirit of God who dwells in you. If you truly belong to Him, He has all along intended for you to be conformed to the image of His Son. My charge is that you grow up into that wisdom which is always a new wisdom. My charge is that you, by the grace of God, refuse to let your soul get old.
T.S. Eliot has Prufrock lament the timidity of his advancing years—”I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” And what does that come to? “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Well, I charge you, by all that is alive—you had better.