A Message to Graduates

Beautiful flowers from the class officers
I have been a Pastor to Students (The title has changed numerous times; the role remains.) in Powhatan, Virginia for roughly 12 years.  I daresay I've been ministering to teenagers in this community longer than many.

Over the last dozen years, I've gotten lots of cool opportunities to minister to teenagers in this area.   But one had always eluded me--speaking at a baccalaureate service.  My husband had done the honors.  Other great pastors in the area had as well.  Once, I'd offered the closing prayer.  

This week, that changed.  I had the distinct honor to share with the PHS Class of 2016 at their baccalaureate service.  It was a wonderful experience working with great students, parents, and school leaders.  I'm so grateful for the opportunity!!!

A few people missed it and have asked to see what I said, so here it is, ALL of it:

June 1999 I sat in this space for my Baccalaureate service.  Before I was a pastor at PCC, before I moved back to Powhatan to raise my family, before I had any degrees, before I was a wife or mom, before you all were potty trained…I was like you.  I quite literally sat where you now sit.

If my experience was anything like yours, then I imagine there’s a mixture of feelings here tonight.  A sense of freedom…and a fear of failure.  A sense of accomplishment…and a sense of apprehension.  The anticipation of a new beginning and the grief of an ending.  New communities, new friends await you, and yet, this community, and these friends are all many of you have known—for better or worse, for better AND worse.

As you seek graduation from Powhatan High School, as you seek to grasp hold of your future and go wherever it takes you, you find yourselves here…in a place of worship.  Perhaps it’s because in addition to diplomas, you also seek God’s blessing on your futures, God’s grace for this life milestone, God’s direction for where you are to go and what you are to do next.  If that is true, and I suspect it is, then you seek wisely.

The most often-quoted Scripture for graduations is Jeremiah 29:11: “…For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It’s a great verse; it’s quote worthy.  It’s also incomplete.  Selecting just one verse like that and plucking it out of context is always dangerous.

I don’t have to tell you that.  You’ve grown up in Powhatan; I’ve grown up in Powhatan.  We know how this works.  You say something to a person; it’s something benign, uninteresting, and unimportant.  But by the time it goes through our Powhatan rumor mill, your words are malicious, slanderous, and contemptuous.  Over the last 13 years, this scenario has probably played out countless times among the people in this room.  In fact, one of the things you’re looking forward to about graduation is the end of all that.  I have bad news for you; that issue doesn’t go away with graduation.

Why does this happen so often?  Context.

It’s even a danger in approaching the Bible.  One verse, out of context, can be misleading.  Jeremiah 29:11 is a great verse.  The Lord promises he has plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Promises.  Plans.  Prosperity.  Hope.  Future.

We all want all of that, right?!  You’re at a season of life that is all about plans, hope, and the future.  You’re definitely hoping promises and prosperity await you.

But none of that just falls into your lap.  In this verse, God is not promising you a wonderfully prosperous future full of nothing but hope.

At least, that’s only part of what he’s saying.  The following verses are critical for putting this into context.  Here’s how it all reads together:  11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

God says He has plans for you, great plans of hope and a future.  Those great plans of a great future come to fruition by your calling on him, going to him, and praying to him; THEN He will listen to you.  If you seek Him with all your heart, THEN you will find Him.

God has plans for you, and you have responsibility for you.  Expecting to receive the plan without owning any of the responsibility sets you up for disappointment.  It would be like expecting to get here without writing any papers, passing any tests, or attending any classes.  It’s like, well…can you go on a road trip with friends?  Of course you can; if you have gas money, a reliable vehicle, and friends.  Can you move out on your own?  Of course you can; if you sign a lease, put down a security deposit, and pay rent on time.  You can have great plans and a great future if you put in the work.

Often we get frustrated, feeling like God’s not hearing us, not listening to us.  We feel like he’s alluding us, hiding from us.  Actually, at the life stage where you are right now, many people question whether or not God is still there, whether He’s ever been there, because it feels like He’s absent.  It feels like your prayers have fallen on deaf ears, so you stop praying them. It feels like God isn’t showing up in your life, like he’s disappeared, so you disappear from communities of faith.  It happens far too often.

And, in part, it happens because our expectations are false.  We expect God to give us hope and a future, but we don’t expect ourselves to seek with all our hearts, to call on God, to go to God, to pray to Him.  It’s not God who lets us down; it’s our own expectations.  

So, let’s re-examine this powerfully beautiful piece of Scripture and rediscover what it actually says, actually promises, actually says we can expect.

11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

God does, indeed, have plans for you, plans to prosper you, to give you hope and a future.   God is not out to harm you.  How do you grasp hold of that plan?  You call on God.  You go to Him.   You pray to Him.  You seek him with all your heart.  Then He’ll hear you; then He’ll be found by you.

So, how do you call on him, go to him, and pray to him?  You just do.  There’s no magical formula; you don’t have to speak in active voice; it’s okay if you end a sentence in a preposition or split an infinitive; it’s okay to ramble on and on with run-on sentences.  When you’re talking to God, calling out to Him for help, none of that stuff matters.  All that matters is that you do it.

When you’re feeling alone on a new campus or at a new job, then call on Him.  When you get all the syllabi from your courses the first week, and you feel utterly overwhelmed, call on Him.  When you have to make an adult decision, and you’d like nothing more than not to be an adult at the moment, call on Him.  When you’re not sure what to do next, call on Him.

When it feels like you don’t have a voice, like you’re not heard, like no one is listening to you, when you don’t even know what to say, call on God.  Talk with Him; pour out the fears, the worries, the uncertainties.  Pour out every ounce of your heart, because He will listen to you when you do.

No matter how elusive God seems, you can find him if you seek Him with all your heart.

You already know how to seek something; you’re here.  You’re days away from graduating high school.  You know how to set your sights on a goal, how to work toward it over years—when you feel like it and when you don’t, when it’s going well and when it’s not.  You have been seeking this for 13 years.  You know how.

The difficulty comes, not in knowing how to seek, but in narrowing your focus.  You will seek lots of things in the next few years, none of them inherently bad.  You will seek a Bachelor’s degree; some of you will seek Master’s degrees; a few of you will even seek Ph.D.’s.  You will seek answers to life’s questions, for your own benefit, and for the sake of humanity.  You will seek someone’s hand in marriage.  You will seek a position in which you can utilize your skills and education.  You will seek lots of wonderful things; in some regard, this life is one of seeking.

But God says we will seek him and find him when we seek him with all our heart.  The challenge is not in the seeking itself, but in seeking God with our whole heart.  So many other things compete for our heart’s attention and affection.  The temptation will be to give God just a slice of it.  In some cases, hearts become divided up between work and school and loved ones, and there’s nothing at all left for God.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with work, school, and loved ones.  We work and study, so that we can eat and drink, have clothes and shelter.  We were created to live in community with others.  Those things are essential and need our attention.  In the Bible, Jesus hears genuine concerns from people about just such basic needs, and he responds, “…your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (Matthew 6:32-33)

God knows what you need.  He has plans for meeting all of your needs.  They will be given to you.  Your concern is seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  Seek to be part of God’s community whether it’s a church like this or a small group on your campus.  Seek right living, or a life that is a pleasing to God.

Yes, seek a degree, but seek the Divine first. 
Seek a career, but seek a community first.
Seek one to marry, but seek the One who made you first. 
Seek a job, but seek justice first.  

PHS Class of 2016, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  You will seek God and find God when you seek Him with all your heart.  And then, then…may you discover and fully realize the plans God has for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.


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