Finally, Beloved, Whatever.
A commencement address at Houghton College in May 2015.
In recent years, many new colleges and universities have embraced a new tradition: “The Last Lecture,” in which a beloved professor is asked to give the lecture they would give if they had just one final chance to address their students and colleagues.
The Last Lecture was already a popular series at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, but everything changed when a computer science professor named Randy Pausch was asked to speak. When he gave his lecture, Dr. Pausch was about to turn 47 years old, and he and everyone at Carnegie Mellon knew that he was a few months away from dying of stage four pancreatic cancer. You can watch the 75-minute lecture on YouTube—millions of people have—and you’ll see a man who clearly loves his work, loves his colleagues, loves his students, and loves his wife, and most of all loves his children. The real reason he wanted to give and record his last lecture, he said, was so that his elementary-school-age children would understand what was most important to him.
Now, though I am also 47 years old, as far as I know this is not my last lecture. And I want to assure you that this lecture will not last for 75 minutes! But I thought of Randy Pausch’s last lecture as I was preparing for this day. Because I want to let you in on something that every faculty member here knows, and almost no student knows. What gives the the “last lecture” such poignancy is that every professor knows what it’s like to give a last lecture. They do it every spring.
To be Christian is to be part of a “whatever” people—people who believe that by and through and in Jesus Christ the whole cosmos was created, that it is all worthy of attention.
College, after all, compresses a whole life into four years. You were newborn baby college students just four years ago, toddling around the Houghton College quad. Now you are passing on from this place, and what you have been for four—or perhaps more—years, you will be no longer. That time in your life will be gone, you will be gone, and in the poignant words of Psalm 90, your place will remember you no more. (If you try to come back to your dorm room, someone else will be occupying it!)
And the people who have loved you and poured their lives and hearts and minds into teaching you—they know, and have known all along, that in the blink of an eye you would be grown and gone. Whether you knew it or not, they have been trying to tell you something that matters, something that will last. Because they know that the last lecture comes awfully quickly in college.
And, for real, here it is. Your last lecture. I don’t have any reason to think it’s my last lecture, but I know that it’s yours.
So I want to leave you, and launch you, with just three words:
Finally, Beloved, Whatever.
These words come from another teacher and leader who was nearing the end of his life. He was in the prime of his age and probably, for his time and place, in perfectly good health, but he was also a prisoner in the imperial city, aware that at any time the death sentence could be pronounced and end his life. Because he didn’t have the option of speaking to his own students and friends in person, he wrote to them. And here’s what he wrote:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“Finally.” It’s a good word for graduation. It can express relief—the relief you feel and your parents, and perhaps some of your professors, feel! It can also intensify and focus your attention. What will you write when you have just one page left to write?
Well, the very next word Paul writes is adelphoi, the Greek word most literally translated “brothers.” This is a surprising and radical choice—to address this community not just as clients or disciples or even coworkers or friends, but brothers. But to translate it this way into our English could be misleading. Just before this passage he’s felt the need to ask Euodia and Syntyche to get along—two of the “sisters” are squabbling. And incidentally, Paul also calls Euodia and Syntyche his coworkers. So we perfectly accurately translate this family word adelphoi as “brothers and sisters”—but I like even better what some other English translations do, which is just to translate it, “beloved.”
And what does Paul want to say to this beloved community? Well, he’s like, whatever!
I would like to apologize, on behalf of my generation, for what happened to this word whatever in the years just before you came of age. (I’m also, like, just bummed about, like, what’s happened to the English language in general? Including ending every sentence like a question?) I’m afraid we turned this magnificent word whatever into something very different.
The new whatever is indifferent, disengaged, incurious, dismissive. It also stands alone: “Whatever.” But Paul’s is a completely different whatever. It is searching, it is restless and relentless, it is deeply serious, it is full of hope, and it’s connected to what follows: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is commendable.
I hope that having spent these years at Houghton, you will never again believe the easy caricatures of Christianity as a narrow, blinkered religion or of Christians as narrow, blinkered people. To be Christian is to be part of a “whatever” people—people who believe that by and through and in Jesus Christ the whole cosmos was created, that it is all worthy of attention, all worthy of exploration, all worthy of sacrifice and redemption.
To be sure, there are Christian communities whose implicit translation of Philippians 4:8 goes more like this:
whatever is predictable, whatever is safe for the whole family, whatever is sentimental, whatever is free from swear words and nudity, whatever is sung in a major key and resolves neatly at the end, if there is anything easily accessible and if anything that will gain others’ approval, think about these things.
But this is a gross misinterpretation of what Paul means. And you have been equipped at Houghton to go far deeper than that pietistic version would allow. Indeed, this is what a liberal arts education is for: to make you “whatever” people. Not people who just focus on one narrow useful thing, but people prepared to engage the full breadth and depth of the world we are called to love. People who have learned to sustain attention to the things that are worthy of attention.
Now, that mention of attention reminds us that there are other distortions of Paul’s list of whatevers. I’m afraid many of us settle for the social media version of Philippians 4:8:
whatever is titillating, whatever is immediately useful, whatever is so hot right now, whatever confirms my preexisting biases, whatever provokes a sense of righteous anger and justified outrage, if there is anything trending and if there is anything worthy of retweeting, react briefly and superficially to these things.
Do not settle for this! Paul’s words are demanding words. He is asking us to go deeper, down to the very heart of reality, the treasure that Dr. Walters spoke about last night at Baccalaureate—not to paddle around on the surface of the world.
In Paul’s remarkable list we glimpse something that is at the heart of the education you’ve been given here. On the one hand, Paul includes many phrases that any Greco-Roman philosopher would have considered their field of study. The true, the good, the beautiful; justice, honor, and excellence — none of these are the exclusive property of Christians. We Christians join the rich and deep traditions of human cultures in the quest to think about things worth thinking about, and to think in ways worthy of the best of our cultural inheritance. All of that is implied in Paul’s final words to his friends.
But Paul has spent his last and best years, has poured out himself like a drink offering, to show that these words are not just abstractions. They are summed up in the life of a person. And the story of that person transfigures every one of the terms in Paul’s list.
What is true? The cross is true. It tells us the truth about the world—that the world is far more broken and distorted than we ever imagined, that sin and injustice are knotted more tightly into the fabric of our own lives and our societies than we would ever like to believe. And yet the cross also tells us another truth about the world: that we and the world are far more loved than we could ever dream to hope.
What is honorable? Not just the recipients of Greco-Roman honor, the great and the good, or the celebrities of our time—but the shame of the naked Christ on the cross bearing the sin of the world.
What is just? Not just human procedures of equity and judgment, as important as they are—but the divine self-giving that allows justice and mercy to meet and kiss.
What is pure? The one who touched lepers is pure. The one who ate with sinners is pure. The one who hung on a tree is pure.
What is pleasing? The one who cried aloud, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—and yet in that very moment fulfilled the words, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The one of whom Isaiah said, “He had no form or comeliness that we should desire him.” He is pleasing: the one who endured the disfiguring of the cross and the stench of the tomb so that the cosmos could be rescued from its futility.
What is commendable? Not, as commencement speakers are always tempted to say, the fulfillment of the self or the expression of the self—but the sacrifice of the self.
What is excellent and worthy of praise? A life that becomes shaped by his life.
Be “whatever” people. Be this deep. Be this comprehensive—not skimming the surface but diving with Christ to the heart of human pain and loss and setting your hope on the glory that is to come.
Be “beloved” people, embedded in a family that binds you together with something deeper than affinity or even affection.
And be “finally” people. People who don’t have to wait for their last lecture to live lives of significance, who don’t need to wait for a mid-life crisis to take risks, who live even in their youth with a sense of responsibility for generations not yet born. Take the world with that kind of joyful seriousness. That is what your teachers have done; that is what your best mentors have done. You don’t have to wait until you’re old and gray-headed to begin to imitate them. Keep on doing, Paul says, what you’ve heard and seen and received and learned in me. Let this be a running start on the rest of your lives, being this deeply committed to the world.
Finally, beloved, WHATEVER.
And finally, I have one “finally” of my own.
You do know, don’t you, that this is not your last graduation? Even if you never get another degree, this is not the last graduation in which you will participate.
In fact, this graduation is just rehearsal for the real graduation and the real commencement—the real beginning.
At that commencement, everything that was true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent in this world will be rescued from its bondage to decay.
At that commencement we will again gather in robes—so John tells us—but this time we will gather around a throne. Instead of tossing our caps in the air we will throw them before the one who sits on that throne. And then we will sing, “You are worthy to receive wisdom and honor and glory and power and might, for by your will whatever there is was created, and whatever there is has been redeemed.”
On that commencement day the song of “whatever” will become the song of “everything.” Nothing from creation will be forgotten or lost; it all will be restored, and more than restored. Even the pain. For in the front row seats at that commencement will be the martyrs, the witnesses who gave up their lives, in Paul’s century and in ours; and at the center of that commencement will be the Alpha and Omega, the salutatorian and valedictorian of our faith, the Lamb who was slain, by whose wounds we and the whole cosmos will be healed.
So finally, beloved, between now and that day, rehearse for it. Live with that “finally” in mind, with your own final lecture in mind, with the world’s final day in mind. Live “whatever” lives, live “everything” lives, discovering in your joy and loss, in your achievement and your failure, in your life and your death—that all things are yours, that you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen among these your family members in the great Body of Christ. And the God of peace will be with you. Amen.