(Last evening I had the privilege of giving the graduation address at Trinity Lutheran Middle School. It is the school affiliated with the church I served for over 10 years as a layperson and as a pastor. I also taught Christian Education in the school, and had coached several of the young people in this graduating class in soccer.)
Thank you Pastor John. And good evening graduates, parents, faculty, and friends. It is an honor to be your speaker this evening. It is great to be back at Trinity, this is the community of faith where I found my faith and where I experienced a call to ministry. But more about that later.
On this evening we celebrate your success, I’m going to begin by talking about failure. As you may know, I was on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Jeopardy while serving here at Trinity.
What you may not know is that I auditioned and was rejected by Jeopardy and Millionaire a total of 7 times before I got on. The first time was for Jeopardy way back in the 80’s, when I flew to Los Angeles with my friend Jackson convinced that he was going to get on Wheel of Fortune and I was going to get on Jeopardy. . . .
It was a long flight back from California.
And speaking of Jeopardy and failure, what was my very first response when I finally got on the show? I had been beaten on the buzzer on the first clue so I was determined to be ready for the second one. The way it works is that you have to wait for Alex Trebek to finish reading the clue, and then there are these lights that come on around the game board that you can’t see at home that mean the buzzers are activated. So I waited, and as soon as those lights came on I started furiously mashing the button. And sure enough, the lights on top of my podium lit up. I had rung in first.
“Dave,” Alex said, waiting for my response. I freaked out a little. Alex Trebek had said my name!!
But it seemed like he was waiting for something. What was it? Oh yeah, I was supposed to give the right response to the clue.
And here’s what I said: [silence with exaggerated deer-in-headlights expression].
You see, I had been so focused on beating the other players on the buzzer that I forgot I had to have a response. All I could do is stand there and watch the lights that count down the five seconds you have to answer dwindle away.
I always laughed at people who rang in and then stood there, [exaggerated deer-in-headlights expression II]. Now I was one of them.
Not a great start.
But now there I was, negative $400. It was like a slap in the face; I didn’t give up or dwell on the failure, I went on to win that game and 3 more and made it to the Tournament of Champions.
I’m not just telling you this stuff to reminisce about being on Game Shows. Graduates, this is what I want you to get – failure is part of a life that is LIVED instead of observed. Failure happens when you actually do things rather than just watching other people do stuff. Failure is part of success. If you take on new challenges sometimes things are going to go wonderfully. But sometimes, you’re going to fall on your face. (Hopefully not in front of 9 million people!) You’re going to be rejected sometimes. But each failure is an opportunity for growth – a chance learn and to do it better the next time. Or to do something different. Don’t be afraid to fail!!
Most of you have been here at Trinity a long time. This is a very safe place, where you know your classmates AND the teachers and the staff. And they know you. When you go off to high school there are going to be many opportunities to take new courses, to try new activities, to make new friends. Go for it! Don’t be afraid of failure.
To achieve my dream of being on a game show, I had to take risks – like the chance of being rejected – to achieve my dream. And I had to keep trying even after I failed at the auditions and in the game when I finally got there.
My favorite part of our conversation last month when I got to meet with you was when many of you shared your dreams for the future – where you saw yourself in a few years. You have some wonderful dreams – dreams about occupations, education, about acquiring money and possessions, even about being on Broadway. Keep dreaming! As you leave Middle School and go into High School, it’s time to get serious about your dreams.
Here at Trinity, you have been able to lay down an excellent academic and spiritual foundation for success.
Now it’s up to you to build on that foundation. As you go into high school, your parents and your teachers will have less and less control over what you do. Sorry parents, but that’s the truth. The only way around it is to follow Mark Twain’s advice: When a boy turns 13 (I suppose it would work for a girl, too), seal him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug up the hole.
Since most of your parents won’t be sealing you up in barrels, it’s going to be mostly up to you to make good choices.
And that’s not easy. It’s not easy to do the right thing and make good choices in a world that pushes and pulls you in so many directions away from God’s ideal.
When I was a Juvenile Probation Officer, young people who’d gotten into trouble with the law used to tell me, “I’m not going to try to get into any more trouble.” Here’s the truth – you don’t have to try to get INTO trouble. Trouble happens without any effort. It is staying out of trouble – doing the right thing, the Godly thing – that takes effort.
Here’s something else young people said to me after they got into trouble – “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” They had snuck out of home at night, or been in a car with someone they weren’t supposed to, they had lied to their parents about where they were or who they were with. And I’ll say to you all what I said to them: “There is never a right time to be in the wrong place.”
Big trouble starts with small compromises. I’m not just talking about big trouble that gets you arrested, but any trouble that interferes with your dreams.
And interferes with God’s dreams for you.
Did you know God has dreams for you? God has good stuff planned for you. We heard that in our reading from Ephesians.
I picked the Ephesians reading because it has my absolute favorite verse in the Bible – Ephesians 2:10. Here’s the New Living Translation of that verse: “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
We are God’s masterpiece. I brought some pictures of masterpieces this evening – I want to see if you can tell me what they are.
[Hold up painting #1]
Do you know what this is? (Mona Lisa) Who painted it? (Leonardo da Vinci)
[Hold up painting #2]
Do you know what this is? (The Scream) That’s how some of you are going to look next year when you get your first high school term paper assignment. Who painted it? (Edvard Munch)
I have one more masterpiece to show you. [Take mirror out of the backpack and hold it up. Pan the audience with it.]
Every time you look in the mirror, you are looking at a masterpiece!
You are God’s masterpiece! You are God’s work of art. Psalm 139 says that God knit you together in your mother’s womb – just like da Vinci and Munch created these paintings.
Here’s another painting that you might not be as familiar with. [Hold up painting #3]
It’s a painting from the 1500’s called “Savior of the World.” It sold for $70 in 1958. I wish I could have bought it for $70 in 1958, even though that was four years before I was born. Because in 2005, it was auctioned for almost 200 . . . million dollars. Same painting. Why the difference? Because in 1958 they thought some random 16th century student painted it.. Since then it’s been discovered that da Vinci painted it.
It’s the artist that gave the painting value. It’s valuable because it’s da Vinci’s masterpiece.
How much more valuable are you – God’s masterpiece!
Don’t ever think you are not worthwhile, or special, or important. The creator of the universe – the same infinite genius who created everything as big as the red-hypergiant stars that are 2000 times bigger than our sun, and everything as small as the subatomic particles like quarks and bosons – lovingly knit you together. You ARE valuable.
And never think that you’re not here for a reason – You are God’s masterpiece. He has created you anew in Christ Jesus, so that you can do the good things he planned for you. There is good stuff God planned for you to do.
You have dreams, and God has dreams for you. And God just might surprise you.
It was my dream to be on a game show. Thanks to God giving me a sticky brain and the opportunities, I got onto two of them and won over $200,000.
But I had no clue that it was God’s dream for me to be a pastor. Seventeen years or so ago, if you had told me I was going to be a pastor I would have laughed at you.
I would have seen two immediate problems. First, I was – and am – a mega-introvert. I’m naturally quite shy. And pastors have to be around people all the time and have to speak in front of people. Well, it’s only by the grace of God that I can do stuff like this. The other problem was bigger, though . . . I didn’t believe in God.
But God took care of that – I told you when I met with you about how God brought Karen into my life when I was an atheist, who is now my wife. And how Karen said that in order to date her I’d have to go to church with her. I thought it was worth a wasted hour a week, so I came right here to Trinity Lutheran Church. And God’s Word read and sung – and preached by Pastor John and Pastor Paul and Pastor Chuck – worked on me along with the Holy Spirit and after a few months I realized “I believe this stuff.”
And then I joined the church, and started to feel God’s call to ministry. I was really struggling with it. One day Pastor John asked me to meet with him – I had no idea what for (and even if he was my pastor and not my headmaster I was still kind of nervous when I heard he wanted to meet with me . . . I thought, “Oh my, what did I do!?”) He offered me a part-time job as director of Christian Education. And that led to seminary which led to being a pastor and here I am. I am, as the title of my blog says, the Unexpected Pastor.
What unexpected dreams does God have for you? It will be exciting to discover the surprising things God has planned for you! He has “good things” for you to do – keep God close and He will reveal His will to you. I told you at the beginning of my talk tonight that we learn from failures; I hope you will learn from my biggest failure of all – when I walked away from my faith when I was in college. That walk away started in high school – I starting thinking I was too smart for God and stopped going to church, stopped reading the Bible, stopped praying (except on test days when I hadn’t studied). I missed out on 15 years of walking with God – who knows what “good things” God had planned for me that I will never know.
God created you. God loves you. God has good things for you to do.
At one time I worked at a wilderness camp for juvenile delinquents – kids who had broken the law. They came to that camp in the mountains of North Carolina for at least a year. When a young person was ready to go home, he would stand up in front of the other campers – about 60 – and the camp staff and everyone would share their memories of that person. The last to go would always be the Assistant Director of the Camp. He was an intimidatingly large man who had played linebacker in college. But he had a heart just as big. His last words to the young person who was leaving were always the same. He would jab his finger in their direction and say, “Son, go and make home a better place because you are there.”
As you leave this place where you have been nurtured and prayed for and taught and loved, GO and make your home, your high school, your community, your world a better place because you are there.
You are God’s masterpiece. But God didn’t create you to hang on the wall of some museum. God created you to change the world!