It’s Commencement time again. Many of us can’t remember the address at our college graduation. Occasionally, though, there are some zingers. This year the buzz is Joss Whedon’s speech on Sunday, May 26 at Wesleyan University.
The full address may be found here: youtu.be/Wn866ryQ5RY. An accomplished screenwriter (“Toy Story” and “The Avengers”) and creator of the series “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” Whedon astonished graduates and well-wishers by announcing, “What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.”
Whedon recalled that in 1987, at his own Wesleyan University graduation, Bill Cosby took aim at the usual “change the world” speech that has become the staple of such events. “You’re not going to change the world, so don’t try.” The best thing you can do is to live each day with integrity and responsibility, not expecting everyone to exist as props in your own life movie. Stop being narcissistic about your “dream,” getting everyone else to fit into it, Cosby also told Temple University grads in 2012. “You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!”
All of this is sort of jarring talk from Boomers. But, happily, it has struck a nerve. Judging at least by the media attention, Whedon’s daring mention of death to largely healthy, eager, young Americans is like a glass of cold water thrown in the face to wake us from our slumbers.
Much of the talk in Christian circles turns on various projects for changing the world. You can’t just be a disciple. You have to be committed to radical discipleship. You can’t just strive to make good choices, form healthy relationships, and do countless little things that add up to loving service to others. You have to be radically counter-cultural to show that you really mean business with God, which is sometimes tough because there are a lot of non-Christians who say and do those things too. Especially in years past, radical discipleship meant embracing private spiritual disciplines. When that was judged too individualistic and self-oriented, others saw radical discipleship as giving up the lifestyle of American consumerism and helping those less fortunate.
There are plenty of calls in Scripture to prayer and meditation on his Word—in private as well as in public. There are also many exhortations to loving those around us: in marriages and families, in the household of faith, and in our wider callings.
But growth in anything important takes time. Etymologically, “radical” means “going to the root.” The way it’s used today, though, it more likely means “pulling up the roots.” If by “radical” folks mean immediate, visible, and measurable, there are no New Testament calls to this sort of discipleship. The repeated analogy used by the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles is organic. Growth in Christ is often imperceptible—especially to us. When planting a garden with Mom, young children expect a strawberry after a few days. They sit and watch it. After a few days, the children stop asking about it. They pass it each day without any notice. “A watched pot never boils,” to change metaphors.
Only as we get older do we begin to realize that the most fruitful things in life take a long time—and a lot of care—to mature. If we’re impatient, overly enthusiastic, and over-confident, we easily become disillusioned or disinterested. Sure, there are some big events in our lives that provoke major turning points. For the most part, though, it’s the minutes, hours, days, months, and years that tell the tale. It’s not rallies and revivals, but God’s weekly meeting with his people that transforms them by his Word. Sure, there was a major turning point at Pentecost. Cut to the quick, Jews heard that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Abraham story, believed, and were baptized. But they weren’t looking for a spiritual high. They weren’t eager to discover the Next Big Thing—a program for radical discipleship. What happened next? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Everybody wants to experience something radical and to do something radical. The tougher thing is to be justified before God and transformed in the depths of our character through the ordinary means of grace. It’s hard work to grow up in Christ, bearing the fruit of love and good works, in ordinary ways through ordinary means in ordinary moments over time.
Are we prepared for the long haul? That’s something to ask not only in commencement addresses, but each day. And though we might differ in the details, that’s why Joss Whedon’s question to the graduates is so genuinely helpful.
Death puts life in perspective. It reminds of the things that matter most. In the prime of our life, we want to change the world. Too often, we lose big dreams and the zest for life precisely because we’ve figured out that we can’t change it. But freed up from impossible dreams and demands, we can finally love and serve our neighbors—not as abstract objects for our life project or instruments of our self-identity-creation, but as God’s gifts.
Godly wisdom is to be found in realizing that faithfulness is not ultimately about how well we’re doing, but how well our neighbor is doing—and what we can do to help. It’s not about changing the world—or even loving the world—but about changing the way we relate to actual people today and loving specific neighbors with whom we live, work, and whose paths we cross each day. More deeply—radically, even—it’s about accepting God’s condemnation and justification in Christ and being renewed each day by his Word. As we’re shaped by his gospel and guided by his law, we discover that godly wisdom is not finally about the sprint but about finishing the race. Death has a practical way of putting all of this in perspective.