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Message to Graduates: "You Are All Going to Die"

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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.

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  • Alan,
    But one can bear fruit and do all sorts of things as a faithful steward and still cling to the cross. In fact, how can one cling to the cross without bearing fruit?

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  • Curt,
    One will always produce either a lot, or a little fruit, throughout their life as a believer in Christ, of course. But the point is that we don't make our fruit the basis, or reason for God's acceptance of us into eternal life. That's what I meant by "not having anything to commend ourself to God." If we die, with that belief, then we will die well. We will have finished the course.

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  • Alan,
    I fully agree with your point. But there are other icebergs floating in the water besides relying on our works. And one of those icebergs is to treat salvation merely as an afterlife insurance policy so that we live for a life of comfort here.

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  • Guest - Mark Vander Pol

    Curt -

    You have a valid concern, but that is a concern that has always plagued the church and one that the church has always addressed. Paul addressed the concern in Romans 6. One of the Reformed Confessions, The Heidelberg Catechism, speaks directly to this as well in Q&A 64:

    Q. But doesn't this teaching [being saved by faith alone] make people indifferent and wicked?
    A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.

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  • Mark,
    Thank you for your response. But if you are correct about my concern being valid, shouldn't it be voiced with some degree of emphasis using more than just Romans 6. For Romans 6 appears to deal more with sins of commission than omission.

    With regards to the other concern of clinging solely to the cross of Christ. Isn't a good indicator of how well we are doing at that can be seen in how we regard and treat others who are different? That if we act and pray like the pharisee in the parable of the two men praying or if we don't act like the good samaritan, then perhaps, we are not clinging as tightly as we think we are.

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  • Years ago, when I was a new Christian, I went through an experience that I think many new believers fall into; I saw myself as "Mr. Holiness" and had a tendency to radicalize everything, thinking myself wiser than I really was.

    There is indeed a Biblical, reasoned balance to be struck in life. We are to avoid evil, yet not be obsessively radical unto our own demise (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18). We are to make use of our time for the Kingdom (Ephesians 5:16), but also realize that even the simple things in life are all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

    We don't always have to be doing some vast project for the Kingdom in order to worship (cf. Acts 17:24-25). Oftentimes the most God-glorifying experiences in life entail just being a good friend, loving your family, and enjoying the free grace you don't deserve.

    It reminds me of something I believe I heard D.A. Carson say years ago, and it especially applies to those of us with a more theologically academic and/or ministerial mindset: may we seek not so much to master the Word of God, as to be mastered by the Word of God.

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  • Nick,
    You inadvertently hit on the key issue. But at the same time, you missed the point. The point in doing what you wrote is determining who one's neighbor is. Religious leaders who wish to maintain the status quo want us to think of our neighbor in a very literal sense. The parable of the Good Samaritan expands that neighborhood to all those in need who cross your path. And both today's advance communications technology and democracy enlarges our path and expands our reach.

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  • [...] Wise words from Michael Horton: [...]

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  • Curt,

    First of all, those who are on the ship of Christ, will never be sunk by those icebergs you mention. Insurance is for homeowners, not salvation. It also costs money. Salvation in Christ is a free gift, a covenant from God, given by Him and secured with His blood. Now, when a man first comes to Christ he may have wrong motives. He may be more interested in saving his own skin, rather than doing what pleases God etc. Like the Phillipian jailor, who trembled and asked Paul "what must I do to be saved?"

    But God, receives sinners anyway, not because they have all the right motives, but because He promises that all who confess their need for Him will be saved. Later, as they grow in sanctification, they learn about their new relationship in Christ thru the work of the Spirit. And they find that its much much more than an insurance policy. I admit though, that even true believers will fall sometimes into areas of legalism and license, to some degree. But the grace that saves them will always prevent them from going fully into flatline disobedience. As I said, the iceberg will never totally sink them. We are saved by Christ, not by our good deeds, or by believing all the correct teachings and doctrines to the letter.

    According to the WHI, legalism is more prevalent in the church than antinomeanism, because the old legal Adamic nature still abides in us. If you want a good explanation of this subject, go to a reformed website www.upper-register.com. The very first page has a good answer to the question of those who may or might abuse the grace that is given to us.

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  • Alan,
    If Christians cannot be sunk by icebergs then, since I implied that reliance on works is an iceberg, Christians, by the logic of your last comment, should not fear relying on works.

    If you want to be too literal to miss the point, go ahead. All I was saying was that reliance on works is not the only issue of concern here. And James alludes to this when he says, "faith without works is dead." So what I suggest is to either not dismiss the icebergs in the water or to question the analysis made by the WHI. Personally, I prefer the first suggestion due to the narcissistic, American consumer culture in which we live.

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