13 May 2009

Baccalaureate Address for Colo-Nesco High School

I should start by offering a word of thanks to Pastor Fran Beyea for inviting me to speak tonight. It is an honor to be invited here; almost as much an honor as it was to change my daughter’s poopy diaper this morning. If you’ll bear with me for the next few minutes, I’ll tell you why.

Over the course of the next few weeks you’ll hear plenty of speeches asking you to dream big, to push your envelopes, to imagine bold futures for yourselves. I don’t mean to quibble with you at a time of such great excitement. The speakers who invite you to imagine possibilities? They’re absolutely right. You should look for challenges that inspire you. You should seek out experiences that will expand your mind and broaden your perspective on life and living. Go to college. Study in a foreign country. Join your parents and keep the farm in the family. Open a business. Love with abundance, even when it hurts. All of these dreams and more are good things, the kind of dreams that make us who we are. And yet…

You know that times aren’t good for a lot of folks. Some of you have watched your parents struggle to pay bills or keep their marriage together. My wife is a Family and Youth Minister in Ames; just yesterday she spent a long time talking with a family who’s high school daughter has been cutting. People are losing jobs, losing houses to floods and foreclosure, losing faith. Life can be bitterly, cruelly hard sometimes, and sometimes it makes you question whether or not anyone cares, whether you matter, whether the world would be different if you weren’t around.

This is where, for me, the poopy diaper comes into the story. I’m a Lutheran pastor, and one of my favorite sermons by Martin Luther has to do with marriage and faith. In it, Luther says this:
“Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting…in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but fools.”
My wife and I have two daughters: Ainsley, our two year-old, and Alanna, who was born last summer. About once a week, I have one of those moments when I think, “Holy crap, we’re parents!” I get those moments most often when I’m changing poopy diapers. I don’t know why – that’s just when it happens. In the midst of the most basic, disgusting task a parent has to do, revelation happens and I’m knocked off my feet by the holiness of the moment - this smelly, disgusting, sometimes surprising moment. In this holy moment, we matter to one another.

What Luther noticed was this: everyday, ordinary life is far more important than we realize, and everyday, ordinary work is far more holy than we know. Anyone here a fan of the show “Dirty Jobs?” My favorite episode takes place in a sewage substation underneath the city of San Francisco. The host, Mike Rowe, has to help one of the sanitation workers clean out a plugged sewage line. There’s a room in that substation that’s foul beyond belief: and if the sanitation worker doesn’t clean it out, who will? And if that work isn’t holy, what work ever could be?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was part of the resistance movement against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. On 21 June 1944 he wrote the following in a letter to a good friend:
"I discovered…and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner…, a righteous person or an unrighteous one, a sick person or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God …”
Bonhoeffer knew as well as anyone what it meant to “throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” In 1933, when Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and he began making laws to persecute people of the Jewish faith, Bonhoeffer was one of the first to speak out publicly. When most of the German churches aligned themselves with the Nazi Party, Bonhoeffer was part of a small group of people who started their own seminary to train pastors. In 1944, Bonhoeffer was arrested for conspiring against Hitler and planning an assassination attempt, and in 1945 he was executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Yet this incredible man, described by many people as one of the 20th Century’s few martyrs, was an astonishingly ordinary guy. He smoked too many cigarettes. He liked to play music. He also played a lot of sports. He enjoyed travel. And he was engaged to a woman he loved very much. Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes, not only because he was a brilliant thinker and a man of great courage, but because he saw the holiness in all aspects of human life.

You’re going to be surprised at how ordinary life turns out to be, how many of your days will not be filled with fantastic journeys and incredible accomplishments. Some of your dreams may come true. Many of them will not. That doesn’t mean you should stop dreaming – it means that you should include your ordinary life when you dream about what the future holds for you.

There’s a story told about a cathedral in Chartres, France. During its construction, a visitor from Rome stopped to see the amazing new cathedral being built in this small French town. As the workers were leaving at the end of the day, the visitor would ask them what they were doing in the cathedral. “I make glass windows,” said one. “I am a woodworker – I make those beams you see over there.” “I carve the stones for the altar.” Finally the visitor from Rome met an older woman with a group of young people, cleaning up and sweeping and organizing tools left lying on the floor. The visitor asked her, “What do you do?” She looked around, then looked at the visitor. “I am building a cathedral for the glory of God.”

They all had it right: but the woman who saw the holy in her work had it more right than the others. Life in itself, with all its intricacies and banalities, with all its pleasure and suffering, is a great gift from God and meant to be lived fully and lived well. So in this season of celebration, when you rightly commemorate one of the major rites of passage in American life, don’t forget the depth of your experiences here. Don’t overlook the small gifts each day has brought you. And as you prepare for your future, dream not only of days marked by high achievement, but also of days marked by great contentment in surpassing ordinariness. Throw yourselves unreservedly into all of life, and you will find a life of rich abundance awaiting you.
Pay your bills.
Drink coffee with friends.
Pay your taxes.
Clean the bathroom.
Call your mother.
Shop for groceries.
Pick up after your dog.
Clean the litter box.
Brush your teeth.
Take out the trash, and most of all,
change those poopy diapers – and look within it all for the holiness of the ordinary. God bless you all, and thank you for inviting me to share this special moment with you. Good night.


  1. Thanks for showing once again that yes, everything DOES come down to poo. =)

    Seriously though, GREAT address/sermon.

  2. [[Big Grin]] We're about to try potty training...

    Love your speech--if only graduation speeches took in this scope. And maybe some sermons too.