Congratulations Class of 2020!

University Student Hats Graduation Photo

There is no doubt that all of us are grieving the loss of traditional commencement ceremonies this year.  This is not how you or any of us imagined the culmination of four years of study, reflection, group projects, papers, research, and wondering about identity and life beyond university.  That said, ceremony or no, you have achieved a great deal and deserve the pomp and circumstance that graduation usually entails.  Saying something about what anyone may or may not deserve evokes two directions for my comments.  Let’s travel down each road for a few moments.  Grab your suitcase, and your face mask, and join me.

In one direction we acknowledge that this graduation is going to stand out in history as one of a kind, unique and troubling.  The very hard truth is that there will be times in life when we may feel we have earned something or deserve something, and that reward just is not forthcoming.  This never feels fair, but I can assure you that it will happen again.  We really wanted to be celebrating this day with classmates who struggled alongside of us, and faculty whom we found inspiring, and family and friends who supported us through it all, but except in small modified forms, like this one, that’s not going to happen this time around.  For many, it’s understandably extremely disappointing. 

In many ways, this moment is anxiety-producing.  What does our world’s attempts to bring this pandemic under control mean for future employment? For socializing and moving to the next life adventure?  For dating or embracing people or finding new friends?  The uncertainty of it all can make us fearful.  What does it mean for our lives?  What does it mean on cosmic levels for humanity and the earth?

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All of that is very troubling indeed.  However, if we face in another direction, we can see this moment as also rife with possibility.  We’ve already seen phenomenal examples of creativity, generosity and compassion.  Famous examples immediately come to mind, like Lady Gaga’s One World two-hour event with every imaginable musician and various famous persons infusing the global community with positivity and hope.  Or John Krazinski’s 2020 prom event that he put on because he knew that high school seniors were lamenting the loss of this age-old opportunity to feel like queens and kings for an evening.  And yesterday, Oprah’s graduation ceremony ensured that every high school senior, college graduate, or post-grad accomplishment was acknowledged and celebrated.  Famous people aren’t the only ones who have been blessing the world with creativity.  The concerts from balconies; incredibly generous charitable giving found in many mosques during Ramadan; the unimaginable sacrifices of doctors and nurses who do not waver but do all they can to bring healing and comfort to the sick and dying; the messages and moments shared virtually from all corners of the globe that remind us that we are not alone on this journey, and that we have the creative gifts not only to recover from this virus but come out of our physical isolation stronger, more aware of our interconnectedness, and more appreciative of the small blessings pervasive in our lives.

The Class of 2020 is in a unique position to invite humanity to create a better world.  Those of us who graduated a while ago, and those who have not yet crossed the ceremonial stage, are all poised to move into a new era.  Graduates – I invite you to help us make it an era in which humanity and creation thrive. 

What do we need most for thriving to happen?  Probably a lot of things, but let me offer three: hope, creativity, and a form of compassion that helps us to recognize our unshakable interconnectedness.

Hope – we cannot give in to frustrations and fears that uncertainty foments.  Rather, we must, through gratitude and a recognition of beauty, choose hope.  What is ours to do at this moment? What gifts do we have to offer the individuals and society around us?  How might we contribute positive energy to a world hungry to feel connected?  We can choose realism without pessimism, safety without austerity, optimism without ignorance.  Gratitude for our blessings and recognition of beauty call us to hope that the world can heal and flourish.

Creativity – There are no limits to our potential to create and imagine goodness, justice and diverse community. What gifts are you noticing in yourself that can be developed to make our world stronger, more just, and more beautiful?  It’s good to hone your gifts and skills, but not just for yourself; also for a world hungry for transformation, connectedness, and grace.

Compassion – What kindness can we offer to those around us at any given moment – a family member, a young person whom we are mentoring, a stranger we encounter in public?  How do we foster a mindfulness within us that is conscious of the lonely elder, the anxious teen, or the overwhelmed parent?  How do we leave room for the flaws both within ourselves and in the people nearest to us?  In this choice to humbly recognize our frailties, we open the possibility to notice the strength, audacity and potential of each person around us; and to back away from judgement of both self and other.

Congratulations again on your accomplishments, but more than that, thank you for your willingness to step out into a world of possibility prepared to make a difference with hope, creativity and compassion, and to leave your footprint of beauty wherever you travel.  It is a privilege to have taken part of the journey with you; we wish you many blessings throughout your lives!

About Dr. Christie Billups

Dr. Christie Billups is an assistant professor of Theology, Director of Pastoral Ministry, and Director of Service Learning at Lewis University. She has co-founded and co-directs the new Peace Studies Minor. She has been a practical, pastoral theologian in both academia and ministry in schools, jails, parishes, and hospitals. Some topics may include ministry with LGBT youth, juvenile justice, confronting racism, restorative justice and prison ministry.

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