January 22, 2021

Graduation Day

This is a fun time of year when we get to celebrate with those graduating from high school or college. I will be traveling to Ohio next week to take part in my niece’s high school graduation. You may be attending graduations or open houses in the next few weeks yourself. It really is a great time to celebrate with your friends and loved ones and the loved ones of your friends.

I taught school—both at the high school and college levels—for fifteen years. I went to all of those graduation ceremonies, plus those of my own children, my nieces and nephews, listening to an endless litany of names being misread, speakers trying to say witty things, and school orchestras bravely playing Pomp and Circumstance. Still, it was a time to congratulate those who were done learning.

Done learning. That is the mindset of those who have come through the Western educational system. We sit in classrooms for twelve years, then four (or five, or six) more to get our college degrees. We sit and listen to teachers share information with us, take notes, study those notes the night before an exam, then regurgitate the information back on tests or in a bluebook essay. If we get a passing grade, we are done with that subject and move on. Then we repeat the process in our next class. On graduation day, we are declaring to all who are there for us that we are done with those subjects. We’re done with our learnin’—it’s time to move on to the next thing.

Unfortunately, this mindset has carried over into our Christian life. We go to church on Sunday, Bible and notebook in hand. We listen to a teacher (also called a preacher) share information with us—whether it be exegetical or topical. We dutifully take notes, especially writing down how we can apply what we have learned. We want to be sure to get the lingo right so we can repeat what we have heard. And, thus, we think we have graduated and are ready to move on to the next thing.

That is our mindset. It was not the mindset of those at the time of Jesus.


Being a disciple was a longterm commitment. You would live with your rabbi, or teacher, 365 days a year. You went where he went, watched him work, worked while he watched you, and then, if you were allowed to solo, came back to be critiqued on just how you did. You walked so closely to your teacher that the dust of his sandals would cover you. You would, in other words, follow your teacher.

“Follow me.”—Jesus

If you read the gospels, you will never see Jesus leading a graduation ceremony. It’s not that his disciples didn’t “get it” (though for the most part they didn’t get it).  It’s that in this life, we will never arrive. We will never complete our learning. We won’t graduate until we die—and maybe not even then.

One of the doctrines of the Catholic faith I have always struggled with is that of purgatory. I’m not going to attempt to explain purgatory here, for I would surely make hash of it. (Perhaps Martha of Ireland can help us with this teaching someday.) But I did read an explanation of it recently that helped me understand how purgatory can fit into the life of a follower of Jesus. Father Thomas Green in his classic work When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginningswrites about it thusly:

I had always been puzzled by the doctrine of purgatory, particularly by all the talk about fire and smoke and pain. It seemed like a peculiarly vengeful way for an all-good God to act…But when I began to realize that purgatory is not vengeance but purification and transformation, the whole doctrine seemed not only acceptable but necessary. Sooner or later we have to be made divine if we are going to love as we are loved, if not in this life, then certainly after death. Since most people choose to avoid the call to purifying transformation during this life, it seemed only logical that this call would have to be faced later, since not sooner. The only alternative would be to remain untransformed forever, and that is hell.

For much of the 38 years I have been a Christian I didn’t want to be transformed, at least not the way God wants to change me. I wanted to be in charge of my life, be a good person, be a good Christian. Transformation God’s way is a lot more painful than sin management done on my terms. Just when I think I have graduated from Humility 101, the Lord shines his light on new areas of pride in my life and says I need to repeat the course again. And again. And …

I have always heard fellow believers say, “I want to learn my lesson this time so I don’t have to go through this same trial again.” Well, perhaps I am a slow learner. I keep going through the same tests and trials over and over and over again. Or perhaps it’s that the Lord never intends for us to move on, but keep going around the same mountain again and again. Who am I, an ugly lump of clay, to argue with the Master Potter? If he thinks it necessary to spin me on his wheel through eternity, that is his choice. He is the artist who will craft me as he desires. If I submit myself to his transformation now, perhaps that means less time being purified before the wedding of the Lamb.

So I need to move beyond the Western educational model. I need to think as the Twelve did as they walked with Jesus, even when it is hard. “To whom else would we turn?” said Peter. “You have the words of eternal life.” To whom else indeed.

For a long time I did very well as a student of God, listening to sermons, reading books, reading Scripture, putting it into practice, then checking off that box and moving on to the next thing to learn. I resisted all of God’s attempts to draw me to himself. I wanted to understand him. I wanted to take notes, then pass the test. But as Joe Spann said to me over breakfast one day, “The life of the Christian is much less like getting all of the answers correct on a test, and much more like having a wild fling with the teacher.” To know Jesus as my lover rather than my teacher—that is now my heart’s desire. And there is no graduating from a love affair.



  1. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    The discipleship/purgatory thing aside, I’m fixing to graduate with my Master of Christian Ministry next month. It took me 7 years to finish a 36-hour degree! At any rate, one of the things I really appreciated about the capstone class at the end of the degree was an assignment in which we had to discuss what we would be doing to continue our studies. Especially as the degree is training for ministry, the idea that we would stop studying is unthinkable.

  2. “And there is no graduating from a love affair.”

    Well said, Jeff.

  3. Oh yeah, ask me the easy questions, why don’t you? 🙂

    This is God laughing at me, you know. For years and years I’ve dodged joining in any form of association, from the Girl Guides to the Children of Mary to Carmelite Tertiaries.

    Then I pitch up here and all of a sudden I’m The Idiot Guide* to Roman Catholicism for all you nice people.

    Hear that sound of laughter? That’s the Trinity looking at me and reacting appropriately.

    (*That is, a guide who is an idiot, not a guide for idiots)

  4. Funny I should read this the very morning I’m giving a final exam to one of my classes. Ah, the sounds of papers rustling, pens scratching . . . students’ brains going up in smoke! 😀

    The older I get, the more I realize Christianity is a process of becoming something, not an exam to be passed. That’s why we keep having the same lessons over & over in life: we’re being shaped individually by Hand, not stamped out of a press. The idea of being taught that way — one on one with the Master for the rest of my life — sounds much more appealing to me than a pass / fail exam.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Ah, the sounds of papers rustling, pens scratching . . . students’ brains going up in smoke!

      And if you have any essay questions, some probability of hilarious answers.

      Both here and elsewhere, I’ve heard teachers post about some of the bad side effects of the current fad of Standardized Testing, No Child Left Behind, et al. The side effect of Acing the Test Scores by Teaching To The Test and Only To The Test. I remember an essay by physicist Richard Feynman (a real character, by the way) regarding how Brazilian universities “Taught only to pass The Test”, and the result of Brazil graduating masters and doctorates in those disciplines yet never making the splash in the physics world that many doctorates should imply. Because all they had been taught was to Pass the Standardized Test and Get That Sheepskin.

      • In Virginia they’re called the Standards of Learning, affectionately known as the SOLs. (I swear I’m not making it up!) In theory, they’re supposed to work like a constant upward spiral, with students learning the same skills each year, just taken to a higher level. In practice, it’s exactly like you said: the teacher becomes the slave of the test. Every public school has to have a certain percentage of students pass the SOLs in order to keep its accreditation.

        Luckily I teach at a small Christian school; the only standardized testing we do is the Stanford Achievement Test and we certainly don’t waste time teaching to it. At most, a teacher might spend a couple of days right before the test going over samples of the types of questions students will encounter; that’s it. We’re too busy teaching subjects and thinking skills and writing skills. And yeah — I get some doozies on those essay questions, but the bigger problem is a shallow answer. I can’t get it into their heads (some of them) that detail matters. But then you come across the one paper that makes the whole year worthwhile . . .

        • Now that I think about it, that’s exactly what mainline evangelicalism is — a standardized test!

  5. Cunnudda says

    What about those of who are flunking, and marched across the stage to get an empty folder with no diploma? Hope Rob Bell is right…..

  6. Beulah Land says

    I hate to think I’d have to wait even longer to meet my Savior.
    I think this earth-walk is intended to become so in love with the Savior through the ‘power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings’. Then my eternity in heaven will be a delight.
    It’s been a very hard walk for me, especially the past few years. And they’ve been made harder, yet easier by God teaching me of His faithfulness and love. I’ve been petrified to lean into Him for fear he’d jerk away. Yet I’ve submitted to His work of Love, sometimes kicking and screaming, yet gripping his hand. And I’m learning I can trust Him. I relinquish control, self- protection and I really feel that ‘peace that passes understanding’. It feels like the ‘fellowship of His sufferings’, these hard times. But is that how I’m learning He is trustworthy, faithful and in love with me? Whatever it’s called, it’s working. Tears stream down my face as I anticipate the Wedding. And this time I’m the bride!
    It reminds me of a few lyrics from a Ricky Skaggs, Salt of the Earth song, called ‘Homesick for Heaven’:

    Homesick for Heaven
    I’m Homesick but. I haven’t any home
    Must be that I’m homesick for Jesus
    ‘Cause I’m homesick wherever I rome

    Something struck me while jogging by the volleyball competition at the gym as the crowd cheered wildly with each point. I felt I was being cheered on by that ‘cloud of witnesses’, saints in heaven cheering for me as I fall, get up again and keep persevering through my challenges. That felt great.

    And I don’t think of a lump of clay as ugly. I think me and God 🙂 both look at it with anticipation and hope, because of Jesus!!

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