It is the season of graduations. Preschool kids are preparing for kindergarten. Middle Schoolers are moving up to High School. High School graduates are planing for college, vocational school, or getting a job in the workforce. College seniors will soon receive a diploma and told to go invest it in our capitalistic world.
Honored guest will tell our graduates to “reach for the stars,” “soar high,” and “never give up.” Some of the speakers will attempt to be quirky. Others will strive to be awe-inspiring. And then others will fumble with their words in an effort to say something that has not already been said or found on a commencement speech downloaded to YouTube.
In 1743 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, published the General Rules. It was a guide for the practice of daily discipleship for Christians who called themselves Methodist. There are three rules in all: Do no harm; Do good; and stay in love with God. The rules seem like a good guideline for graduating seniors. Do no harm is a great principle to apply to those about to enter the world of college dorms. Do good seems to be excellent advice for the college graduate entering the workforce. Out of the three, stay in love with God, could be the most challenging to a college student who claims faith in Jesus.
It is hard to stay in love with God in a world filled with so many different things competing for our love. In the safety of home, youth group, and Christian camps it is easy to affirm our love for God. But move away from the comforts of home and the security of friends who believe the way we believe makes keeping our relationship with God a challenge. For some students, college will be a time when condom dispensers and keg parties will insist more love than your faith. But do not be seduced. Used condoms and empty kegs are a cheap substitute for love.
Don’t let knowledge become a substitute for wisdom. Don’t make an idol out of knowledge. Soak up the knowledge but do not let it drown out the wisdom. Leave room in your studies for the awe-inspiring and mysterious. When studying the enormity of the universe in Astronomy leave space in your life to be astonished. When examining the complexity of Biology leave room to be baffled. When studying History remember it always repeats itself. When reading through the great works of literature allow your imagination opportunity to roam. When exploring Art give space for your heart to expand. To be a Christian in college means staying in love with God while growing in knowledge of God’s world.
No one may be asking you to bow down to golden statues. But that does not mean that idolatry does not exist. Every time we put something or someone in the place of God we have created an idol. If you are in a relationship and find yourself becoming someone who you do not recognize, it may be that you have mad an idol of the relationship. If you find yourself in a situation where you are putting aside your values, you may have made an idol of the experience. Golden statues will eventually come crumbling down and those who bow at their feet are the ones who get hurt. Stay in love with God.
The book of Daniel is written as encouragement for Hebrews facing persecution. The first six chapters provide heroic role models of Jews who thrive because they remain faithful to Jewish law while living in a foreign land. Chapters seven through twelve hold out promise for future deliverance in the new kingdom of God for those who remain faithful in the face of persecution. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are three of the heroic young men who refused to back down under pressure of a foreign culture. They were taken as exiles from their homeland into Babylon. They were strong, competent, and intelligent young men. When king Nebuchadnezzar ordered everyone in the Babylonian kingdom to bow down and worship at a golden statue, these three young men refused. They rejected the king’s orders. They stood their ground and planted their feet on the belief that only God should be worshipped. The king was furious. He made plans to throw them in an overheated furnace if they continued to disobey the orders. They did not back down. The king asked, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands? (3:15). They answered, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (3:19).
Nebuchadnezzar was so infuriated that he ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than normal. Then he had the boys thrown into the furnace. As the king watched expectantly for the boys to burn in the fire, he was astonished at what he saw. He asked his servants, “Did we not throw three men into the fire?” “Why do I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god” (3:25). He ordered the men out of the fire and they came walking out like they had simply been in enjoying themselves in a sauna.
For some of you going off to college or entering the workforce, it will seem like you are walking into a fiery furnace. The pressure will be tremendous. The heat is real. The stress that the slightest wrong decision will get you burned. The tension always exists to bow to the golden statues than face the fires of ridicule.
It is why one of our non-negotiable values must always be to stay in love with God. When Peter was flogged and told by the religious leaders to no longer speak the message of the gospel, he responds, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). Jesus warns, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt. 10:28). As followers of Jesus, we have not been given a spirit of fear “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Some years ago Fred Craddock moved to Atlanta where he began his work as a professor at Candler School of Theology. One Saturday afternoon he had his first experience with the hype of a Georgia Bulldog football game. It had been a great season for the Bulldogs; they had won all of their games. After the game, Craddock and his wife were invited to a victory party at someone’s house. It was a nice home in Northwest Atlanta with a large circular driveway out front and everybody had bumper stickers on their cars which read, “How ’bout them dawgs!” While the host and hostess were fixing the drinks and the hors d’oeuvres, Craddock and his wife stood in the living room talking with some of the other guests about Hershel Walker and the way he ran, and the quarterback and Coach Dooley and everybody’s favorite play. There was a woman about forty or forty-five just dripping in jewels, and right there in the middle of the living room she stood up on a chair and said, “I want everybody’s attention. I’m tired of all of this talk about Hershel Walker and the quarterback and the defensive line. They had absolutely nothing to do with today’s victory. Jesus gave us the victory! Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask for I will give you,’ so I said, ‘Jesus, we need this one bad.’ So let’s praise the Lord for this victory today and stop talking about the players and the coach.” And then she sat down.
On recalling the occasion, Professor Craddock said, “Have you ever been some place and wished you weren’t there?” He said, “I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there leaning against the wall and looking down at my shoes and wondering whether any of the players on the other team had prayed and what was wrong with their prayers. Some of the men went to the kitchen, so Craddock followed them. “Do you think she’s drunk?” said one of them.” “Don’t ask me,” Craddock said, “we just moved here to Atlanta. Do people act like that here all the time?” Just then the hostess came into the kitchen to fill a tray of food and said, “If that woman doesn’t shut her mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.” And Craddock, with more than a little sarcasm in his voice said, “What’s the matter, aren’t you a Christian too?” “Of course, I’m a Christian,” said the hostess, “I just don’t believe in flapping my mouth.”
College is a gift. In a world of deep injustice, violence, poverty, and death it is remarkable that space and time can be given so that some people can study and reflect. The world does not need anyone else “flapping” their mouths at the struggles of the world. We have enough socially starved media junkies giving us sound bites. We need real answers. We need genuine reflection. We need thoughtful consideration. This is why Christians go to college.
Some of you are thinking, “I’m going to go to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than my parents had. I am going to go to college so I can make a lot of money.” But you are a follower of Jesus. You are not going to college to make more money. At least you are not going as a Jesus follower. You are going because the world needs people who are not afraid to tell the truth. The world of economics need economist who are moral. We need scientists who know the difference between fact and truth. We need doctors who look at patients as humans to be cared for and not problems to be solved. We need lawyers who think critically about the role of justice and mercy in society. We need business women who believe in more than the bottom line. We need pastors who care more about the kingdom of God than they do their own kingdom. As you go off to college, I want you to see it as a great opportunity. It is a calling. You are being called to reflect, consider, and study the world as someone made in the image of the Creator.
After he had betrayed his best friend, Peter could be found fishing on the Sea of Galilee. It was on those shores after his resurrection that Jesus found Peter. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter had denied Jesus three times and three times he is asking, “Do you love me?” Jesus did not ask, “Can you prove it?” Simply, “Do you love me?” When the three Hebrew boys found themselves staring down the fiery furnace for denying to bow down to the golden statue, they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter” (3:16).
As you walk onto the campus of a college or into a board room or halls of a classroom, the world will be trying to put you in defense mold. Your faith will be questioned. Your hope will be doubted. Don’t give up. Stay connected to the faith. Keep in community with the Church. Surround yourself by other Jesus followers. And stay in love with God. It is not a matter of trying harder. It is simply remembering the love that you are already in possession of by knowing that God loves you.