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A Letter To The Class Of 1987

January 1, 1987 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando |

Today I do not preach a sermon. I do not deliver a message. Instead, I write a letter. I open up my heart and share some thoughts from my heart to yours. To be sure, under normal circumstances, when I stand in this pulpit, I stand here as a preacher. Not today. Not now. No, today, I stand here as a parent, a father, a Dad. You see, my little girl—(yes, that’s how I still think of her, though it may embarrass her a bit for me to say it)—my little girl, Beth, is now grown. Next Saturday evening, she and her classmates will walk across the Convention Center stage, receive their high school diplomas, and move on into a new season of life. So this is a deeply significant time for her and for all of you in the Class of 1987. And because it is significant for you, it is significant for your parents as well. I rather imagine that many parents would love to have the opportunity, which is now mine, to speak a word to you. I don’t know that I can say everything my fellow parents would like to say, and I don’t know that I can say it as well as they might say it. But at least I would like to try. Therefore, in your hearing, I would like to write a letter to the Class of 1987. I think my letter would have three pages…

On the first page, I would ask you, the members of the Class of 1987, to remember that you belong to God.

A few years back, I was invited to preach the baccalaureate sermon at another school. I said to the principal who extended the invitation: “I suppose that in the sermon you want me to address some aspect of our relationship to God.” He said: “Well, the fact is that most of our students believe in God. Their principal difficulty is that they don’t believe in themselves.”

I have never forgotten that, and that is why one Page One of my letter to you I want to remind you of who you are. You are made by God. You are an original creation. You are not some cheap copy easily obtained. You are fashioned by the Almighty and there is no one else like you. In the King James Version of Psalm 8, we find the oft-quoted line which speaks of our individual worth: “Thou hast made us but a little lower than the angels.” But that is an inadequate translation of the original Hebrew. The Revised Standard Version reads: “Thou hast made us little less than God, and hast crowned us with honor and glory.”

Of course we would all agree that we are the most complex of all living things. Our own solar system is the most complex of all the known galaxies. Earth is the most sophisticated of all the planets within our galaxy. The human being is the greatest form of life on earth. One hundred million cells fit together to make a human body, and each one of those one hundred million cells contains one hundred million atoms. Yes, without any doubt, you and I are the most complex things that exist. But the truth runs much deeper than that. The truth is found in Jeremiah where God says of us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” We are conceived of God. We are made by God. We are handcrafted by the Almighty. And He has made us little lower than Himself.

I love the story of the little boy in Sunday School whose teacher asked the class one day: “Where does God live?” Immediately the little boy raised his hand. The teacher called on him and said: “Do you know where God lives?” The little boy replied: “Yes. He lives in the bathroom at my home.” The teacher said: “What do you mean?” The little boy replied: “Every morning at my home, my Dad stands outside the bathroom door and says ‘My God, are you still in there!”‘

Well, I am not sure that God is in the bathroom at that little boy’s house, but I do know where the Kingdom of God is. Jesus Said: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That’s an incredible truth. But do we remember that? Do we live as if that were true?

One day I was visiting the campus of the University of South Carolina and I saw something I have never forgotten. A blind girl was struggling with her seeing-eye dog. The dog was trying to go to the right. The girl was trying to go to the left. I said: “May I be of some assistance?” “No,” she said, “we’re just having a little family argument.” I said: “What on earth are you arguing about?” She replied: “He’s trying to take me to class, and I’m trying to cut!”

I don’t want you, the members of the Class of 1987, to cut out on the unique and altogether original productions you are. Please never forget that you are of infinite value to God. You are one of His masterpieces. He has written His signature upon your life. He has made you little less than Himself. It’s like the bumper sticker says: “God don’t make no junk!”—and God, my friend, made you.

Down at the bottom of Page One, I would write in big block letters these words: “DON’T EVER FORGET THE GOD WHO MADE YOU!”

On the second page of my letter, I would ask the members of the Class of 1987 to remember that you belong to your family.

Remember first that God made you, but remember also that there are parents who gave you bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh and who love you even beyond your capacity to understand. They will stand by you in good times and in bad. They will invest themselves on your behalf and all they ask in return is that you give your best to the business of living. They will remind you that regardless of what happens, their home is always your home, too. There is nothing you could ever do that would lead them to stop loving you. Make no mistake, they won’t coddle you—they’ll challenge you. They won’t pamper you—they’ll prod you. They won’t try to make life easy for you, rather they’ll try to make you strong enough to master life whether it’s hard or easy.

Back in 1927, there was born here in America a young girl who was both black and poor—two awesome hardships in our world. She had a third strike against her as well. She was sickly and she suffered one serious illness after another. After several years of ill health, though she was still young, she told her mother that she wanted to die. Her mother cared too much to let that happen. So she said to the weakened girl: “Down by the creek there is a large stone. I want you to bring that stone up to the kitchen door to use as a step.” The girl replied: “I can’t do that. I am too weak to pick up that stone.” The mother said: “I know you can’t pick it up. But you can push it or shove it or drag it. You can move it somehow or another. And I don’t care how long it takes, but I want you to work on it every day until you get that stone to the kitchen door.” It took her one month and eighteen days to move that stone as far as a healthy girl her age would have been able to move it in twenty minutes or so. But her mother wouldn’t let her quit. Every day she made her work at the task. And what happened? Well, as she worked, she found strength. The challenge began to build up both her body and her spirit. Eventually she became an athlete—tennis was her game. And there came a day when thousands of people stood and applauded as that black girl, Althea Gibson, walked to the royal box of Queen Elizabeth II at Wimbledon and received the crown as the finest woman tennis player in all the world.

I don’t want you, the members of the Class of 1987, to fail to see that there are people around you who care deeply about you. They care so much that they will push you to become everything you are capable of being in life. Sometimes you may get irritated at this prodding. Sometimes you may get aggravated at their concern. Sometimes you may even resent their attempt to build moral strength and discipline into your life. What I want you to realize is that no matter how imperfect they may be, they will love you even if and when no one else in all the world loves you.

Down at the bottom of Page Two I would write in big, block letters these words: “DON’T EVER FORGET THE FAMILY WHO LOVES YOU!”

Then on the third page of my letter, I would ask the members of the Class of 1987 to remember that you belong to the world.

We are living in a time when our newspapers and our television screens are filled with stories of greed and selfishness, hatred and immorality among our business leaders and our political leaders, and even our religious leaders. In this concern for ourselves and what we can get out of life, we are in danger of losing our concern and compassion for the world and the people who are around us. My friends, the record of the human story proves that the secret of joy and fulfillment in life is to be found, not in getting, but in giving—not in selfish conceit, but in selfless compassion. Permit me to hold two word-pictures in front of you to make this point.

One is the picture of the noted American author, Sinclair Lewis. He holds a fairly prominent place in the pantheon of American literature. But he wasn’t much of a man. He was brutal, both in language and in conduct. He focused his life upon himself and his own needs. He gave himself over to wild orgies and parties. He drank heavily. He lost friends because of his self-centered, severe and unloving ways. He wallowed around in the mire of his own self-pity, and he spent the last 30 years of his life as a fumbling , bumbling, stumbling, mumbling drunk. He died at age 66 in a second-class clinic on the outskirts of the city of Rome—alone. The Franciscan nun who recorded the last moments of his life noted that his dying words were a pathetic cry: “At least let the sun come back.” Then he was gone. It was written on his death certificate, under “cause of death”: “Paralysis cardiaca”—a paralyzed heart.

Now over against that I place the picture of a man named Lord Meadors of England. He was born to poor parents in the coal mining region of England. He was abandoned as a child and wound up having to fend for himself, even to educate himself. He pulled himself up out of dreadful circumstances by giving himself to the service of others. His whole life was a ministry of compassion. He became convinced that he could help more people by running for Parliament. He was defeated again and again. Eventually he made it, but there he always seemed to be on the losing side of the vote. But he never gave up. He never stopped trying to help others. Ultimately, his unselfishness earned the profound respect of the people of England. His peers in Parliament elected him to the House of Lords. On the occasion of his investiture, he delivered himself a poem which he said was the essence of his life. I doubt that. I think the essence of his life was compassionate self-offering. He never focused on himself, but always on the people and the world around him. So the poem is worth listening to, not because the poetry is good—it isn’t—but because the man was awfully good.

Did you tackle the trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful;
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?

Now trouble’s a ton or trouble’s an ounce,
Trouble’s just what you make it;
It isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,
But only, how did you take it?

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