Petra Commencement Address

Note:  Last week I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at Petra Academy’s senior graduation.  I wrote my address around a Carson McCullers story, parts of which I read aloud.  I’ve included the full text of my speech below, along with recordings of the excerpts.

Much of what I know about the world I have learned from books, and so it should be no surprise at all that I open my final address to you by reading from a book.

The story I wish to share with you tonight is a tiny, little known story from Carson McCullers–a short short-story that barely reaches nine pages, titled “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud.” The story is set in a small, greasy cafe, before sunrise. The usual crowd is gathered: mill workers preparing for the morning shift, a couple of soldiers coming off-duty, and a small paper boy drinking a cup of coffee before finishing his route. Leo, the bitter and stingy owner of the café, stands behind the counter frying pink strips of bacon and pouring refills on coffee (which are never free).

As the paper boy finishes his coffee and prepares to leave, one of the customers speaks to him. A grizzled old man, a transient, lifts his face out of his beer and calls the boy over to him. When the boy comes near, the old man puts his hands on the boy’s shoulders, lifts his small chin, and studies his young face. Then, slowly, he says, “I love you.”

The men at the counter erupt in laughter, and the boy is embarrassed. But the old man invites the boy to sit with him, because he has something important to say. As the boy drinks a second cup of coffee, the old man tells how his wife, whom he loved desperately and completely, ran away with another man. For five years this old man searched for his wife with no luck. But in the fifth year of his search, he learned something remarkable about love.

[Recording of first excerpt]

There are two ideas I want to draw from this story for you. The first is this: the old man understands that love is the only proper response to a world that is all gift. Paul says to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?”, and I say the same to you: What do you have that you did not receive? Of all the things in your life, which did you make ex nihilo? Of the goodness that floods your every waking moment, how much of it came solely from your own cleverness?

The answer is obvious: all the world is a gift, and the giftedness of the world points to the love of the Giver. The only proper response to such lavish love is, first, thankfulness, and then reciprocation. We first of all feel gratitude and then we return our love to the Giver.

This is the discovery the old man makes in the fifth year. He has wandered the country thinking only of what he had lost, but in the fifth year of his search, he suddenly realized how much he hadn’t lost, how much he had been given: a tree, a rock, a cloud, a fish, a flower, a rainshower. A little paper boy. This discovery leads to gratitude, which in turn kindles his love for small things. The more things he loves, the brighter and hotter his love grows until he is able to love everything and anybody. Such is the way of love: the more things we love, the more love we have to give.

This is an essential truth for you four graduates. In a few months you will leave the warm, protective communities of your family and school and will enter a culture that will not encourage you to pursue the old man’s science of love. Instead, you will be pressured to chase after success and recognition like a breathless lover. You will be encouraged to spurn the old man and his crazy ideas and to become more like pale-faced Leo, the scoffing bacon fryer, who sacrifices charity for profit. But do not listen. Humans can only be truly happy when we live like creatures who belong to our Creator, when we live for him and his purposes. So the first lesson we draw from this story is this: the world is a gift, so say thank you for everything. Live like you don’t deserve any of it, because you don’t. And let your gratitude fuel your love and obedience.

The second idea I want to draw from this story deals with the character of the old man. How would we respond to such a man in just such a diner? He is grimy, unshaven, clearly a transient. He smells of sweat and unwashed clothes. He drinks beer as his breakfast. Would we be able to look at such a wreck of humanity and love him?

It’s easy to look at a tree, a rock, a cloud, a small child and be grateful. It is easy to be thankful for the beauty in the world, but could we be thankful for this old man? Could we look at him and see the imago Dei under the dirt and stench?

Let’s see how the story ends:

[Recording of second excerpt]

The author of this story uses the old man as a theotokos, a God-bearer. His role in the story is to interrupt the mindless routine of the morning with the good news that the world is indeed all a gift and that we get to love it. This message unsettles the other customers, stirs up the ire of Leo, and leaves the boy shaken. But who actually hears the old man’s vital message? The other customers leave before the old man finishes speaking, Leo turns back to his grill tight-lipped and spiteful, and the boy doesn’t know what to make of the man: drunk? druggy? insane?

McCullers ends her story in a way that makes us readers responsible for the correct response. Will you love and be thankful? Will you love the small, the frail, the common? Will you love the scorned and rejected, the wretched and unwashed? Or will you simply ignore the brokenness in the world and pursue what will not satisfy?

Hear me now. Contrary to a thousand other graduation speeches being delivered right now, you may not live your life however you wish. You may not write your own script. Like the old man, you also are called to be theotokoi, to be God-bearers, to image Christ to a fallen world. You are called to spread the good news of a love that makes all things new, that binds the wounded, that clothes the naked, exalts the downcast, and gives the rejected a place to belong. These are the people you are called to; these are your people. These are the ones Christ came to save, and you cannot love Christ unless you also love His people.

You belong to them, and they to you. You belong to Christ, so live like it. He has given himself to you as a gift, so you would know how to give yourself away to his people.

I’ve taught you many, many things from lots and lots of books, but all of my lessons come down to this single truth: your life is linked with Christ’s life. The Maker of the cosmos humbled himself so that he could be broken and poured out for you. He suffered so that the Father could offer him to you as pure gift. And he calls you to do the same. Your purpose in life is not to live for yourselves, but to be broken bread and poured-out wine for a wretched world. Contra Descartes, you are to declare, “I am given, therefore I am.”

Love the people you have been given. Be the gift you have been called to be.

“The old man stood in the open doorway. ‘Remember,’ he said. Framed there in the gray damp light of the early morning he looked shrunken and seedy and frail. But his smile was bright. ‘Remember I love you,’ he said with a last nod.”

Petra Class of 2012, I am not quite so old, but remember: I love you.

Now, to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.