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Thirty-four years ago I sat where you sit today, glad to be finished with undergraduate schooling, excited about the future, yet not having the faintest idea where my life was headed.
Today I look back with the profound sense of one who has experienced the grace of a loving and merciful God. He has blessed me with wife and family, a profession I still thoroughly enjoy after 30 years, and far more than my share of dreams come true.
America today bears little resemblance to the America I knew as a young college graduate.
In 1966 our per capita income was half what it is today. We now live in homes averaging twice the size of houses in 1966; we have doubled the cars and TVs owned per family. And yet in 2000 we are engaged collectively in an obsessive drive to make even more money, and marketing forces scream at us to buy more, accumulate more. More stuff we don't need.
In 1966 we were engaged in a life-and-death struggle for military and political supremacy with the Soviet Union. Soviet influence was expanding around the world. Today in 2000 we are unchallenged as the world's only superpower. But the bitter memory of the Vietnam War, fought mostly by those in my generation, is seared into our subconscious, a nightmare that will not go away. It is a lurking shadow, touching every decision involving the use of our military forces abroad. Politically, Marxism has imploded; democracy has triumphed and flourishes everywhere; our capitalistic ways are emulated the world over. But our own political life is impoverished by the superficial. It has degenerated into a world of trivialities, in which image is more important than character, catchy sound-bites and 30-second commercials more important than thoughtfulness, and polls and focus groups more important than conviction.
In 1966 teenage boys looking for things to do could read Popular Mechanics to learn how to build model airplanes and rockets. Today they surf the Internet to learn how to build bombs and buy assault rifles.
In 1966 the Vietnam War was the catalyst for wholesale rejection of the values of the past by many in my generation. It was a time of tremendous moral and social turmoil as we searched for new answers "blowin' in the wind," as Bob Dylan put it in his unforgettable song. In contrast, the spirit of America today is best summarized by the New York Times magazine not too long ago: "Government of, by and for the Comfortable." As long as we have our big bathrooms, SUVs and mutual funds, not much else matters.
We are today better educated, fed, housed and clothed, and more entertained, than ever. We have more information crammed into our brains than ever. We are freer than ever to pursue whatever we want to pursue.
But as a people, we are spiritually starved. Our souls are barren.
I spent six years when I was young living in Latin America, and still travel there on a regular basis. A wise Guatemalan friend once pointed out to me what he saw as the fundamental difference between Latin America and North America. Latin America, he said, was settled by people looking for gold. North America was settled by people looking for God. This simple difference had profound and long-term political and social consequences.
Today it seems that things have been reversed. In Latin America, the good news of God's forgiveness, love and redemption is spreading like wildfire. The poor and the dispossessed, by the millions, are finding comfort and assurance in a faith that fills their souls even though their stomachs are hungry.
In North America we act like Spanish conquistadors in our single-minded search for gold. Our means are much more sophisticated than simply digging it out of the ground. We extract it from IPOs, mergers, acquisitions, stock options and day-trading. Our bellies are full and our financial statements are robust, but our souls are starving.
In this new millennium America, there is strong evidence that the chief end of man is to make money, to build big houses, to drive nice cars, to accumulate wealth, and to live comfortably. How far we've strayed from the notion that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
It is a great twist of historic irony that churches throughout Latin America are now sending missionaries to the United States.
At the outset of the last century, the graduates of this institution were facing a world in which modernist thinking reigned supreme. Science and reason were proclaimed the saviors of humankind. Christianity was in full retreat from culture and society, battered intellectually and scientifically by the one-two punch of Nietzsche and Darwin. Nietzsche reasoned God out of existence: "God is dead," he said. Darwin made God unnecessary by offering a scientific answer to our origins.
Thus arose one of the greatest disappointments of the 20th century: that in a country known to be the most religious, the most "Christian" of all the developed nations, the Christian church had such little influence on our American culture.
Today, postmodernism, for better or worse, has successfully challenged the prevailing modernist and rationalist orthodoxy, and has thrown the marketplace of ideas wide open.
What voice will you graduates of 2000 bring into that marketplace? At the onset of the 22nd century, what will they say about your generation in the first half of this 21st century? Will your voice have been heard at all? Will you have made any difference?
"In this new millennium America, there is strong evidence that the chief end of man is to make money. ... How far we've strayed from the notion that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Here is what I wish and pray for.
For those of you who choose to go into politics and government -- may yours be a voice that proclaims that conscience and conviction still matter. That polls and focus groups, while helpful to gauge where the public might stand on an issue, must not govern when tough decisions need to be made. That God is neither Republican nor Democrat. That no matter how strongly we might feel our calling to come from God, we ought never, never, presume to speak for him in the political arena. And may you always remember the poor.
For those of you who choose to go into education -- may yours be a voice that inspires and instills the love of learning in young and old. May your voices be heard loud and clear that here is an honorable profession that our society cannot afford to undervalue and underpay. One good teacher can overcome a multitude of shortcomings in a young person's life. Years later, may generations of young people remember you, and bless you. And may you always remember the poor.
For those of you who choose to go into the world of business -- as you become leaders in your companies and industries, may yours be a voice that preserves the highest standards of ethics and morality in the marketplace. And may yours be the voice that reminds our society that productivity, unquestioned today as the means to our collective fulfilling of the American dream, does not come without cost in stress, long hours, and fractured families. And may you always remember the poor.
For those of you who choose to go into the world of technology -- as you become the best software developers and systems architects, and as you conquer the worlds of bandwidth and storewidth, may yours be the thoughtful voice that reminds our culture that technological innovation and progress also come at a cost. That as we continually try to create our computers more in our own image, we become more like our computers. May you never cease to challenge those who blithely assume that computers can be just as good as or better than humans. After all, how do you write intuition into a source code? What about wisdom? Character? Humility? How much RAM is needed before a computer knows how to suffer? To forgive a wrong? Or to ask forgiveness? How long should we wait before a computer comes programmed with enough capacity to understand the paradox to live we must die, and in saving our lives, we will lose our lives? Never forget that a newborn child, in crying out its need to feed at its mother's breast, has, in that single reflexive act, done something a computer will never be able to do. And that single act tells of a whole world of living, dying, loving, struggling, succeeding, failing, grieving and rejoicing that computers will never venture into. And may you always remember the poor.
For those of you who may venture into writing -- may yours be the prophetic voice that speaks out for truth and meaning, concepts our culture increasingly disdains. May you speak clearly and convincingly in reminding our culture that language is much more than a utilitarian means of communication. Of all human creations, language is the most astonishing. It is expressive of the distinct soul of a people. And remember this little gem from the playwright Tom Stoppard: "Writers are (not) sacred, but words are. (Words) deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead." And may you always remember the poor.
For those of you who choose to go into the professional clergy -- may yours be a winsome voice that speaks the message of the good news of Jesus Christ to a culture and society that aches for the love and mercy of God but will never admit to it. And within the church, may yours be a voice that chases away the temptation for an ingrown, self-indulgent faith, and exposes the spiritual blindness that has us Christians eagerly looking for the second coming of Christ when we haven't begun to understand the revolutionary implications of his first coming. And that we should not think of changing the world for Christ without first changing our own hearts and transforming our own minds. And may you always remember the poor.
For those of you who choose to stay at home raising children and building family -- may yours be a voice that speaks out against the devaluation of your work, as if it were some second or third class vocation. Remember that your work at home is as high a calling as any other, that there is splendor in the ordinary, and that every meal fixed, every book read to a child, every load of laundry washed and dried, is a badge of honor, and that you work on hallowed ground. And may you always remember the poor.
If you suspect that there is a broken record somewhere in my message, you are not far from the truth.
It is because I wonder sometimes when, if ever, we will really start caring about the poor.
I have watched with great interest as the imagination of your generation has been captivated by two movies in the past year: The Matrix and Fight Club, both of which explore the real and unreal worlds that seem to exist in our lives. When it comes to rich and poor today, we really do have surreal parallel universes existing side by side.
Thus in one world, a man can, in 15 years, accumulate a net worth close to $100 billion. In the other world, three billion people with zero net worth go to bed hungry at night.
In one world, the income of someone at what is by law defined as "poverty level" amounts in one day to what it would take close to two months of hard labor for a person in the other world to earn.
Our culture chooses to ignore the poor, pretend they do not exist. Today, we care more about the rights of animals than we do the poor.
Our evangelical Christian culture is not much better on this issue. We don't even begin to look on the poor with as great concern and passion as we look on the unborn.
Abortion is a tragic distortion of the concept of human freedom. But the overwhelming health and political issue in most of the world today is the billions of people who live in desperate poverty that robs them of their dignity, and their very humanity.
There is an illuminating passage in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians in which he describes how he, Barnabas and Titus sought the approval and blessing of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem for the work they were doing among the gentiles. He writes:
"When James, Peter and John, who seemed to be the pillars of the church, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go unto the gentiles, and they unto the Jews. Only they would that we should remember ..."
Help me fill in the blank here. What did the pillars of the early church want them to remember above all? Was it correct doctrine? Creed? Church polity and governance? Money?
The answer? "Only they would that we should remember the poor." "The same which I also was eager to do," adds Paul.
The only litmus test the leaders of the early church imposed on Paul and his companions in their work was that they should remember the poor.
Why is it that the evangelical Christian community today will eagerly support any candidate who declares clearly in opposition to abortion? Why do we care not a whit, nor do we even ask, whether the candidate has a heart for the poor, either in this country or elsewhere in the world? How is it that our whole way of thinking has boiled down to fashioning a litmus test for our leaders based solely on abortion?
Where do we get the notion that by giving money to organizations that help the poor we have discharged our duty to the poor? We would never consider paying someone else to believe in Jesus Christ for us. How do we get the idea that we can pay someone else to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, when Jesus commanded each of us to do so?
"The only litmus test the leaders of the early church imposed on Paul and his companions in their work was that they should remember the poor."
And thus I ask you, in all that you do, in anything that you do, to remember the poor. Give generously to the poor. But more than that, pray for the poor. Befriend the poor. Work with the poor.
No matter what profession or occupation we may be in, one thing that can break down the walls of parallel universes and bring reality to our lives is working with the poor. One thing that will bring us closer to the heart of God is working with the poor. One thing that will give us fulfillment in our lives is working with the poor.
For eight years now, my wife, Cyd, and I have had the privilege of living in the University District, in close proximity to university students. From my interaction with so many students, I am convinced that God is touching your generation in a mighty way. The popular press may not be kind in its assessment of generations X and Y, but they don't see what I have seen.
I have seen among you an extraordinary depth of spirituality, and a yearning to follow Christ. I have heard you ask questions that my generation did not start asking until much later in life, if at all. All this gives me tremendous hope for you. If your generation were to be listed on the stock exchange through an initial public offering, I would invest every disposable dollar I had in you.
I have no doubt you will make your mark on this new century, for good.
I have no doubt that years from now one or more of you will experience the incredible privilege of being up here at this podium addressing a graduating class. You will then be recognized as a member of a very extraordinary generation: a generation who not only engaged, but transformed our culture; a generation who showed unmistakably that God is alive and well, it's Nietzsche who's dead; a generation who never forgot the poor; indeed, a generation that went on to do mighty deeds for the honor and glory of the King of kings, and Lord of lords.
That will be a glorious day.
Editor's Note: This address has been edited for length. For a copy of the speech in its entirety, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.