Class of 2015 Commencement Keynote Address

Providence Classical Christian Academy

Mr. Kyle Keating – Upper School Bible and Theology Teacher / Athletic Director

I am privileged to have been asked to address the graduating class of 2015 on this most special of occasions. While I have known this class for several years, coaching several of them on the girls’ varsity basketball team, this is the first year that I had the opportunity to teach them. Theology IV, my first and only class with this colorful bunch, is meant to be a sort of practical laboratory where students are encouraged to take their worldview out for a test run as they consider real-world issues. One of the books we read this year was N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl—a book that each of the seniors found influenced their thinking in various ways. In the book, Wilson describes the work of training up children in a manner that I believe very much reflects our goals here at Providence. Wilson says,

The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.

So seniors, as you prepare to graduate in a few short moments, I want to encourage and exhort you, drawing inspiration from these words.

“The world is rated R,” Wilson says. And can there really be any doubting this? Turn on the news for ten minutes and you can see the way that human sinfulness has permeated our society. Our own country is racing to toward becoming post-Christian, rapidly disposing of some of the fundamental ethical assumptions that have undergirded western society for thousands of years. Seniors, as you go out into the world you will confront a generation of your peers that generally disagrees with you about the basic questions of existence.

The questions come: What does it mean to be human? The world answers: “Humans are just random collections of atoms that have survived the great game of evolution.” What is wrong with the world? “Nothing that we can’t fix on our own.” What is the good life? “Following our own desires wherever they lead us,” the world replies. Where do we find purpose? “Within ourselves,” the common refrain. What is truth? “Whatever you want to believe.” 

But it’s not just the world out there that is rated R, it is the world even in this room, even in our own hearts. We cannot imagine the shadows of our own hearts away either, we have to own them, to recognize that even as the world is not the way it is supposed to be—neither are we.

“Do not hide from the world,” Wilson says.  Some may think that we send our children to a classical Christian school as an attempt to hide them from the world. Of course there is a sort of “Christian bubble” that develops at a school like ours, and that is not entirely a bad thing. There is an ignorance of evil that cultivates the habits of virtue, especially in the most young and vulnerable minds. But I hope that your time at Providence has not merely insulated you from the world outside.

“Do not hide from the world, but do not pretend there is no danger,” Wilson says. The world is  dangerous, full of places to get lost in the darkness. In the face of a rated-R world, you have several options.

First, you can adopt a “siege mentality”, close up shop, raise the drawbridge, and avoid anyone who possesses a worldview different from your own. Like muskoxen who form a circle to protect their young, you can only listen to people who agree with you, isolating yourselves as you chase the elusive myth of safety. But such an approach fails to account for your responsibility to share the truth, goodness, and beauty that you have seen and learned here with the world around you. You are to follow Israel’s call to be “a light to the nations”, and as Jesus describes in John’s gospel, “a city on a hill”—that the world might see you and know that you are his disciples.

Alternatively, you could rally the troops and do a full-on charge out the castle gates at the “enemy” of the world. But such warfare has many victims and few tangible benefits. It is hard to reconcile this approach with Jesus’s command that we love our enemies.

Finally, you could invite the world into your castle, “engaging” with culture so well that like a chameleon, there is no longer any way to differentiate you and your worldview from anyone else’s. You could become so good at engaging the rated-R world that you become at home in it, allowing it to shape you, instead of you shaping it.

But we do not want to hide you from the world, nor do we want to pretend that it is not dangerous. Instead my hope is that your training here at Providence has left you with clearer eyes, able to discern the true from the false in a world full of false promises and illusions. Your worldview is your pair of prescription lenses. And as you’ve read in Bertrand, “The task of every worldview is to see the world as it is, to correct your vision. The test of a good worldview will be whether it brings reality into sharp focus or leaves things blurry.” You have not been sheltered from outside ideas: you have read the ancients such as the pagan Plato, modern critics of Christianity like Peter Singer, even a bit of Nietzsche. You have engaged the great thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike that you might learn to discern Truth from error, Goodness from evil, and Beauty from ugliness.

IMGP3596 - CopyGraduates, I hope that you leave Providence with what Wilson describes as “bellies full of laughter.” In your final reflections on your time at Providence, each of you expressed that some of the greatest gifts you’ve received here have been the relationships within your class, and among other peers and faculty members. The word that kept coming up in those reflections was “family.” I think this is what Wilson means by having “bellies full of laughter”—having the deep joy that comes from being in a community where you are loved by your peers, faculty, and family. It is the laughter of friendships forged through the fire of high school drama. It is the laughter that comes from sharing the joy of finishing second or third in state—but it is also the laughter that comes from having shared in all the losing seasons that it took to get there.

But laughter—something that this class is particularly good at— also speaks to the experience of grace. As Marylin Robinson puts it in another book you’ve read this year, “Grace has a grand laughter in it.” Elsewhere she notes, “Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” Or take it from Saint Paul, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

I love how Frederick Buechner describes the gospel as comedy:

The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy.

There are things you might regret about your years here: choices made, relationships that drifted apart, time spent doing one thing over another. But there is a beauty in knowing that simple truth that you’ve recited every day of theology class this year:  “You are not Christ.”

You can laugh because the failures and shortcomings of your time here are blanketed by God’s grace—and you can leave with bellies full of laughter knowing that you don’t have to be your own or anyone else’s savior—because Jesus is the Christ.

So what will you do as you leave this place? Better yet, who will you be?

Be dangerous. Be polluters of the shadows of this world. Be engineers, be artists, be writers, be presidents, be nurses. Go to Michigan, or Tennessee, or Georgia, or stay here in Missouri. Wherever you go, whatever God calls you to do, be salt and light to a dark and decaying world.

Be faithful. “Stand at the crossroads and look,” the prophet Jeremiah cries, “and ask for the ancient path, where the good way is, and find rest for your souls.” Stick to those old roads. There will be plenty of glittering signs to distract you from the ancient path—and trust me, faithfulness is not fashionable. The old road is not trendy—it might even cost you something to walk it. Hear again the words of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

I remember very little from my own high school graduation—and most of these words won’t last in your memories beyond today. However, at my own Baccalaureate address, my high school calculus teacher told a parable using the famous children’s story of the Three Little Pigs that has stuck with me all these years.

He described the first pig who built his house out of straw and explained that this was living a life of folly—choosing worldly pleasure and making short-sighted decisions. When the storms of life blew against the straw, it barely put up a fight.

The second pig who built his house out of sticks was the graduate who worked hard, was disciplined, made wise choices, and achieved much success in the world. Yet, when the storms of life blew against it, though it resisted for a time, it ultimately collapsed all the same. You could feel the confusion in the room full of public schoolers who had been told that this was the goal that they had been striving for their whole high school careers. Counselors, teachers, parents—everyone had been pushing us to get good grades, so we could go to good colleges, and get good jobs, and be “successful”. In that moment sitting in my Baccalaureate service, I realized that in my own subconscious I had adopted those goals as the answer to the question: “what is the purpose of my life?”, even though probably would not have said so, or even admitted it to myself. And here was our math teacher telling us that none of that would last. What could possibly be the house made of brick?

I wonder what each of you thinks the brick house might be? What will ultimately stand up to the storms that life will throw your way—probably sooner rather than later? What purpose could your life have that will endure beyond temporal power, achievement, and success?

I’ll pass on to you what my teacher originally passed on to me: The brick house, the life that will actually stand up to the gales that buffet with relentless force, is not the life of achievement or of success. “What good is it to gain the whole world but to lose your soul?” The brick house is a life of love. That was Jesus’ answer when Pharisees questioned him: Love for God. Love for others. The two greatest commandments. The house of sticks is the house of a hoarder, of a Eustace-like dragon that seeks to grab as much treasure as possible and then clings to it in desperation. The house of brick is the house of sacrifice, of dying to yourself for the sake of the kingdom of God. That is, after all, God’s definition of glory. Or again as Wilson puts it in his book Death by Living, “Glory is sacrifice, glory is exhaustion, glory is having nothing left to give.” Spend yourselves. Don’t withhold your myriad gifts from the world. Give generously.

The world is rated R—but you are ready for it. Take your sharpened eyes and overstuffed bellies and go out into it—spending yourselves for the sake of others and for the glory of God. Be dangerous polluters of the shadows. Be faithful pilgrims who stick to the old roads. Be courageous men and women who count the cost of discipleship and still choose to follow Jesus. Spend yourselves until you find that you’ve nothing left, for then you will have everything you need.