Mr. Kyle Keating was this year’s commencement speaker.
Welcome and good morning. It is my great delight to have the opportunity to speak to you about the class of 2016. For me, this speaking about this class is deeply personal. I came to Providence four years ago when these students were freshmen, most a little awkward, some with hair they’d let grow a bit too long, all eager to be accepted by friends, and prove themselves among their peers. From what they tell me, perhaps I too was a little awkward that first year. And though I didn’t have the problem of too long of hair, I too was eager to be accepted, to prove myself an adept teacher. And now, four years later, they sit before you on the cusp of graduation ready to move out into the world.
While this group has come together over the course of many years, some joining sooner and later, it’s worth noting that four of these seniors came to Providence as kindergartners.
In some ways, I think students’ journey at Providence mirrors the biblical narrative. You are dropped off in the Edenic garden of Mrs. Kuntz’ kindergarten class, wide-eyed with wonder at every little part of creation. No, it’s not perfect (just take a peek in on the kindergarten classroom when I have to sub for ten minutes), but there is a goodness and innocence to childhood that reflects the way we were made for the garden, our true home.
As students grow up and enter the upper school, strange things begin to happen. Yes, to their bodies, but even more than that to their hearts and minds. Children become what Dr. Egan likes to call “baby adults” —and it’s a fitting term, because it encapsulates the tension of adolescence, trapped in the already-not yet of adulthood. The innocence of childhood is replaced by the realization that monsters aren’t actually under the bed or in the closet so much as in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. Students realize that not only do they have the capacity to create, discover, and love, but they also have the capacity to wound and be wounded, even with respect to the people we love the most. They come to realize that they (and we) are born with this very human propensity to mess things up.
One of the first stories I told this class was about a moment when I was fourteen or fifteen when I was playing ping pong in the basement with my younger brother. Not being used to losing to someone five years my junior, I spiked my paddle down at the ground in anger. It landed right on the blade and ricocheted in such a way that it spun up into the air like a tomahawk, flying past my frozen brother, making a gash in the wall. I felt the immediate sense of regret, followed by frantic attempts to hide the damage. Could I persuade my brother not to tell? What could I find to cover the hole? A poster? No, it’s too low on the wall, that would look suspicious. Could I patch the drywall myself? No the hole was too big. I was confronted with the reality of my sinful anger and its seemingly unavoidable consequences.
There comes a moment where a student falls short of expectations in some aspect of their life and they realize that they are at fault. The gap between who they are supposed to be and who they actually are seems an unbridgeable chasm. A maw of insufficiency. We all face the reality of that gap: the gap between who God, our families, and others expect us to be and who we actually are. The question is: what do we do with that gap?
I think most of us put on a brave face, suppress any lingering feelings of guilt and shame, and plow forward pretending that the gap doesn’t exist at all. We distract ourselves with duties or hobbies to make the gap easier to ignore. We take on extra responsibilities in order to convince others (and ourselves) that the gap isn’t actually that large. We try to bridge it with our own efforts—putting our whole selves into pleasing the people around us, to meeting their every expectation. Or, we try and make others feel the same inadequacy we do by attacking and judging them, putting them in their place.
Put in other words: we hide. Whether we try and escape, erase, or justify the gap—they are all strategies for hiding, avoiding the hard truth: that in one very true sense we are not enough. That’s what I was trying to do with the hole that I’d put in our basement wall. I wanted to hide it behind a poster, pretend it didn’t happen, make it go away as fast as possible.
And yet hiding is the very thing that will kill us if we let it. It’s what Adam and Eve did in the garden immediately after they rebelled and the Lord came looking for them. They hid because they felt shame.
Author Sammy Rhodes describes shame simply as the subjective experience of objective guilt. It’s that moment where we know and feel that we’ve done something wrong. It’s always easier to live in shame than in vulnerability, to try and hide and cover ourselves instead of going to God (and others) with our brokenness.
The fear of Adam and Eve in the garden was the fear that they had done the one thing that would sever their connection with God. That he would speak a word of judgment against them. And of course he could have and in one sense should have. They were guilty. They didn’t just need self-esteem management— they had rebelled against their righteous and holy King. Perhaps we, like Adam and Eve, expect God, or our parents, or family, or friends to come speak that word of judgment. What would God say?
How could you?
How dare you?
What’s wrong with you?
But what are the first words out of God’s mouth?:
Where are you?
They are not words of condemnation, but invitation. They are grace because they are an invitation back into relationship with God. They are a way of God saying, come home, come back to me. They are the words of the gospel: there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).
Rhodes comments on the story of Genesis 3 that, “The moment they began to tell God what they had done was the same moment God began to cover their shame…. We will never risk vulnerability unless we believe in the kind of grace that says you are loved where you are, not where you are pretending to be…The reason that vulnerability is hard is we don’t believe in this kind of grace. Many of us aren’t open about our struggles because grace hasn’t moved from a concept to a reality.”
He goes on to say that “One of the saddest realities of life is that the things we need to talk about most, we tend to talk about the least.”
But we desperately need to be able to talk about our stories. Brené Brown says that, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
The irony is that even if the poster “worked” to cover the hole in the wall it wouldn’t have been good. It was the Lord’s kindness that it wasn’t in the right spot for a poster because it forced me to confront the hole caused by my anger, and in confronting it, to have it mended. It was only in my writing a letter of confession that it was actually fixed.
I’ve watched with an appropriate mixture of grief and delight as this class has sought to undo the shackles of shame by the power of the gospel. Grief because we live in a broken world and delight because the gospel is true. I’ve watched you be vulnerable with one another about the hard parts in your lives in ways that I wasn’t until I was well into college.
You’ve not only been vulnerable, but you’ve received each other’s vulnerability with empathy and understanding. You have wielded the sword of empathy and slayed many shame-dragons. May there be much rejoicing in these victories. And may the classes to come learn much from your willingness to risk being known by each other.
In theology we have talked about the needed to cultivate empathetic imagination—the ability to enter in and understand other’s stories. This is important in every relationship, but especially as you seek to go out into the world as witnesses for the truth of the gospel. My hope and prayer for you as you head out from here is that you’ll take the empathetic imagination that you’ve cultivated here out to deeply wounded world that needs to be heard even as it needs to be healed.
At this point you might be thinking, you’ve spent a lot of time talking about sin and shame for a commencement address. What about these students accomplishments? Oh, they are many. They have won state championships, written twenty-page theses, translated books of the Bible, led student council, written novels, performed beautiful works of music… Take a look at the tables in the room next door and see just a few.
And what about all the curricular things these students have learned? The great books they’ve read? The equations they’ve unlocked? The stories and poems they’ve read and written? Yes and amen to all of that and more.
Education is nothing if it is not these things. Rigorous study is absolutely necessary—if you don’t think that I believe that, sit in on a history multiple choice test. But education, at least from a Christian perspective is never just these things.
If the goal of classical education is the cultivate good citizens, then the goal of a Christian classical education is the cultivation of good citizens of the kingdom. All of which is another way of saying that education is discipleship. My hope for this group is not that they will remember everything I’ve written on the whiteboard in Homer—I know better than that! Most of the time they can’t remember those things a week later! My hope is that they will become the type of citizens of the kingdom that are instruments of grace in the world. They are accomplished and intelligent—but most of all they are men and women who have begun to risk being known and knowing others in ways that most high-schoolers could never imagine. And that is the type of thing that you won’t see on their tables—and yet it is perhaps the most important. It is in this knowing and being known that they are truly well-equipped to move into the world wherever God calls them.
Frederick Buechner once described the place God calls you as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
What are you the things you most enjoy?
What makes you feel alive?
Where has God uniquely gifted you?
What does our world desperately need?
What people can you help?
Where can you uniquely serve?
Graduates, find that place and dive in deep. Chase the Lord’s call on your life wherever it leads you—and take your story, with all your vulnerability and shame-slaying empathy with you.
We are kings in exile, Chesterton says, longing for our true home. Shame says we can never return, that with a name like ours, we’ll never be accepted. The gospel says that you have a new name in Christ. The gospel calls us to authentic vulnerability because we are forgiven and loved in Christ.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke the Word of the LORD saying,
Thus says the LORD:
“Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths [the old road],
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
Each of you stands at something of a crossroads in your lives as you leave this place. It is not the first crossroad, nor will it be the last. As you face each, listen to the prophet. Give ear to his words. Follow the ancient path, the old road, the path that God himself has called you to: to risk being known and loved by the creator of the cosmos, and to risk knowing and loving him in return. To risk being known and loved by others, and to risk knowing and loving them in return. You will be tempted to run and hide. And maybe you will for a season.
But heed the words of Andrew Peterson who exhorts,
Go back to the ancient paths
Lash your heart to the ancient mast
And hold on, whatever you do
To the hope that’s taken hold of you
And you’ll find your way…
If love is what you’re looking for
The old roads lead to an open door
And you’ll find your way
Graduates—wherever you go from here, whatever place the Lord calls you to, don’t forget that the gospel calls you to come home. The table in the house of the Lord is set, the best wine has been poured, and there is an empty chair with your name on it.