The National Center for Education Statistics expects nearly three-and-a-half million high school students to graduate over the next few weeks. Commencement will launch these students into the world in a new way. They will start jobs, follow career paths, and earn college degrees.
Graduation initiates a transition into a new phase of life. It sets in motion a complex series of events that can be difficult to understand and navigate. We could use an Isaac Newton, who gave us the laws of motion, to formulate the laws of motion that govern graduation.
Had he done so, the first might have been: “Students in procrastination tend to stay in procrastination unless an external force is applied to them.” Parents and teachers are such an external force.
A second such law might go like this: “For every action towards graduation, there is an equal and opposite distraction from graduation.” In this year of COVID, distractions have been many but, compelled by internal and external forces, more students are expected to graduate than any previous year in U.S. history.
At commencement, speakers advise students on how to go courageously and wisely into adulthood. I would like to offer a different kind of counsel: How to stay courageously and wisely Christian in adulthood. This kind of counsel seems necessary, given current statistics: in their first year out of high school, half of self-identified Christian college students do not attend a single church service.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that students will read this advice in a newspaper. Even their parents don’t read newspapers these days. If any of this finds its way to a graduating senior, I expect it will be through yet another of those external forces in a student’s life: a grandparent.
I once asked a group of young Christians to share with graduates their advice on how to stay Christian after high school. Most were in college. All had completed at least their first year after graduation. One of them urged grads to “take responsibility for your own spiritual life.” The others agreed. It had become clear to them that no one else would.
Someone said: “Don’t allow yourself to adopt other people’s attitudes and standards.” That was good counsel. In a study of peer influence, psychologists displayed three charts, each with three lines of different lengths, to groups of ten teens. The teens were asked to raise their hands when the teacher pointed to the longest line on each chart. The teens in each group, minus one, had been secretly instructed to raise their hands when the teacher pointed to the second longest line. 75 percent of the time, the lone teen, wanting to blend in, joined the others in casting a wrong vote. Blending in can be deadly to the spiritual life.
Another student advised: “You have to become your own mom.” Mom, she explained, wants what’s best for you. She tells you to do things that you know you should do but don’t feel like doing, like studying, going to church, and taking time each day to read the Bible and pray. One could almost say that the definition of being an adult is becoming one’s own mom.
Leaving home need not mean falling away from God. However, for faith to thrive, students will need to establish their own relationship with God. Their parents’ or youth pastor’s will not suffice. Such a relationship is grounded in faith and expressed in a free-hearted admiration, respect, and commitment to God.
People whose spiritual lives suffer when they get out from under their parent’s authority are frequently those who did not establish such a relationship. They thought church was enough. It is not. Only God is enough.
That is because God has made us for himself and, as St. Augustine said, our hearts cannot rest until they rest in him. This is something that graduating seniors – and all the rest of us – need to understand. Family, career, success—they are all good things. But good things are not a replacement for the best thing. They can please but cannot satisfy. Only God can do that.
(First published by Gannet.)