Happy Birthday, Sadie!

You’re a really nifty niece.
Whether looking like a princess
Or a little gnomish beast.

Gremlin Princesss

I got to give the graduation speech at school. It was loads of fun! Here is a copy of it for those with the time. 🙂

CCA Commencement Address
Jesse Hake
May 21, 2009
Embrace the Gospel’s Foolishness

Almost four years ago, Ben, Zoe and Stephen, were 10th graders moving backward in time to join my 9th grade history and literature classes. Although my Dad is an English professor, I had never formally studied or taught literature.
I walked into room B10 with nothing but Beowulf in my hand and hope-hunger in my belly. You three sat amid my 9th graders like cowbirds in a crowded nest. Your young word-hoards gaped, and the bottomless pink of your gullets drove me to the far side of the meadow, foraging in the looming dusk. But feeding you exposed my palate to new delights. As you strained upward for every morsel, I too tasted and was nourished by the restoration of Hrothgar’s gift-throne, by the sins and heartbreaks offered up in the studied words of a young African bishop, and by the bitter duty that forced Macduff to abandon his wife and children.
It took a hearty young fledging to squeeze in and earn himself a rank among such a vigorous brood. But, it is just over two years after his arrival, and no kidnapping scheme, Best and Brightest contest, or Dostoevsky discussion moves forward without Chris giving and striving at the heart of it all. This past year, I was not feeding nestlings but flying alongside strong young wings.
Together, the five of us felt a wordless kiss burn on wise and stony lips, watched a student of Shakespeare twisting slowly in the concrete beacon of a forgotten world, and followed another African priest, this one older and less learned, as he traversed the valley of the shadow of death. The closeness of your relationships as classmates, your honesty and your intellectual zeal made teaching you a delightful task.
Looking back, the memoires pile up with joys and regrets. I obscured beautiful details with the clutter of my agenda. And, far too often, I made it my job to do it all rather than let you enjoy the work of learning. I failed you in my deliberateness and my delinquency.
Considering these things and the fact that you’ve each logged close to 1000 hours in front my flapping lips, I should resist cramming in everything that I missed. But I’ve decided, one last time, to cram boldly. (So I apologize in advance to any parents in the audience who are not as inured to my rantings as you children. Now you’ll know what they put up with. Besides, they told me I could make up for the lack of choral singing with long-winded speaking.) I’ve picked a simple truth that you know well, but it’s worth reiterating as I say goodbye because it challenges and encourages God’s people at every turn.
As you move into exciting new seasons of learning and service, clutch the foolishness of Christ’s gospel to your breasts. Let is kill and nourish you. We desire many things, but Christ offers something else, something that we do not want or consider useful. Knowing all our frailties, our Lord commands us to seek after the only thing that we truly need: Himself.
Paul speaks explicitly of the gospels’ weakness and foolishness in several places. First Corinthians opens with it, and the ideas build and resonate into the fourth chapter. Paul starts by saying that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The foolishness and the power flow from the same set of attributes, and perishing must come before power. We cannot make the mistake of thinking that we belong only to the second category and not the first.
The gospel’s foolishness, which underlies all God’s actions and instructions throughout the Old and New Testaments, has two aspects to it:
1. The love that our Lord demands is offensively exclusive.
2. Second, by means of our frailty, our Lord’s kingdom is advanced and He is glorified.
Solomon grounds wisdom not on vast learning or long experience but on humility and trembling awe before our God.
In selecting men and women for His service, God shows an overwhelming preference for the weak, the foolish, the suffering and the oppressed.
Christ clearly proclaims these same principles when He blesses the meek, when He teaches us to be childlike, when He teaches the reversal of the first and the last, and when He teaches that we must give up everything to follow Him and gain His kingdom.
While Christ’s incarnation and His entire earthly and heavenly ministry are the greatest affirmation and guarantee of humanity’s value as God’s glory bearers, Christ also repudiates all of the world’s priorities through every detail of his lowly birth, his itinerant life, his cursed death, and his inexplicable ascension.
In the opening of his wisdom letter, Christ’s brother, James, exhorts us to count all our trials as pure joy. In chapter three, James describes two kinds of wisdom, one of which looks decidedly foolish by the other’s standards.
In his letters, John repeatedly emphasizes our humble status as women and children and his Revelation portrays us as both kings and stricken martyrs, reflecting our Lord who is a lion and a slain lamb.
The gospels’ defenselessness underlies all of scripture from the promise of salvation through the seed of the woman to the ascension of our Lord when He left his unborn church in the hands of eleven scruffy Galileans whose numbers had just been depleted by the suicide of a traitor.
While the primary purpose of the gospel’s foolishness is to bring glory to our God and Savior, it also graciously accomplishes three things for us, His people:
1. It subdues and finally slays our idolatrous hearts.
2. Second, by striping us of all other loves and any pretense of self-worth, it enables us to seek first Christ’s kingdom and His righteousness, even enabling us to imitate Him daily in His life, death and resurrection.
3. Finally, this realization of our neediness and reorientation of our loves, allows us to rest and rejoice under the easy yoke of our Shepherd-King.
Our abilities as idol makers are terrifying. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul says that if he preached the gospel with words of human wisdom, he would empty Christ’s cross of its power. We are capable of making the incarnate Word of God into a mute and powerless slogan!
After the Red Sea, while Moses ministered on their behalf atop Mount Sinai, the Israelites busied themselves by making a golden calf. While Christ ministers bodily for us in the heavenly courts, we are busy making idols of Him on this earth. To make Christ more palatable, we dress Him up in fancy accessories and parade Him through the streets.
When we use Christ to promote our latest crusade, He hangs on a cross that we have emptied of all its power. Should our eyebrows arch over what Israel did with their golden calf and brazen snake?
God’s rivals pull hard at our hearts. We lust after our own salvation by means of the glorious causes that impress everyone around us. These rivals sit as close to our heart and home as they can maneuver. Hiding in her tent, Rachel literally sat on the idols that she had stolen.
This is certainly the case with my own idols. I have regularly offered up profane sacrifices to the thrill of pleasing the four of you and the joy of filling my own itching mind.
The opposite of idol making is to delight in Christ as he drags us like vanquished prisoners before a jeering and spitting world. In 1 Corinthians 4:9, that’s exactly how Paul describes what it’s like to exercise t
he highest office in Christ’s church.
T.S. Eliot understood idolatry and the need to die, and he gave voice to these truths in his poem “Journey of the Magi.” To find and worship the infant Christ, these kings left their “summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, and the silken girls bringing sherbet.” By the end of their arduous journey, the narrator realizes that the infant Christ abolishes their values and throws down their idols as powerfully in His birth as in His death:
…I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Mortifying our flesh by recognizing the foolishness of our old priorities enables us to seek first Christ’s kingdom and His righteousness.
Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [Matthew 6:31-33]
Christ teaches that, if we seek Him before all else, He will hand over to us everything that the pagans chase after! Everything that we ever hoped to gain from Baal and Moloch is ours when we turn to Christ.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it with characteristic pithiness: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” [Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 10, on “Hope”]
Like most of Christ’s teachings, this cuts in more than one direction at a time. In the aftermath, Christ’s word leaves us to reassess all of our priorities.
What is Christ’s kingdom if it lies outside of “all these things” that the world chases after? To seek something we must know its location or boundaries, but how do you locate or put boundaries around something that is not defined in terms of normal human priorities.
Also, if “all these things” are potentially good gifts from God, then we must be allowed to desire them. But, if we may desire them, then what does it mean not to seek after them?
Paul gets at the total dependence that Christ demands in 1 Corinthians 15:19 (NKJV). “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” Any placebo effects that come with being a Christian aren’t worth it. The benefits that Christ provides come only as a result of our participation in His real and literal heavenly reign. We must depend entirely upon Christ and not on any of the benefits that accompany faithfulness in this life.
To defend the importance or value of offering something more relevant than an ascended Christ, we like to trot out and abuse extra-biblical phrases such as “in but not of the world” or “so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good.”
But Christ did not seek to be relevant. Standing before Rome, with His followers waiting breathlessly for the consummation, He said simply, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Like our Savior, we are in this world to die that we might lead others out into another world—a world where we live rather than die. Christ and His servants, have nothing to offer this world but our lives.
Instead of making something relevant and revolutionary out of Christ’s gospel, we must joyfully accept our status as weak and broken vessels of a foreign grace.
After Christ’s ascension, His people inhabit two worlds at the same time. From the perspective of one world, we are pitiable and pathetic while in the other we worship and achieve as priests and kings. One day our Lord will reveal Himself and forever strip all illusions away, but for now the contrast between what is and what seems to be is staggering.
At this point, it may look like I have drawn a stark line between heaven and earth. Drawing lines is an exciting occupation. I hope that you will always suspect anyone who bifurcates strongly between heaven and earth and then identifies heaven with a purely internal, abstract or spiritual realm. God’s word draws no such lines. Scripture consistently describes both heaven and earth as places occupied by physical and spiritual realities. Even before Christ’s incarnation and ascension, Enoch and Elijah walked bodily with God.
Christ’s kingdom is also both a subjective and an objective reality. He reigns within each of us and also over every individual and social unit (family, tribe, nation, school, or corporation) within the history of this world.
Finally, his boundaries are certainly not abstract. Although Christ draws his line with a precision and discernment that no earthy king can replicate, his lines are excruciatingly specific and tangible to all those that He marks. Reigning over all, Christ cuts across all humanly contrived categories and lays down clear boundaries through the center of human hearts and human societies—discriminating perfectly between hopes, loves, motives and allegiances. His wisdom cuts through each believer dividing our newborn self from our old rebellious self so that we fight with a self in each kingdom until His return. His surveyor’s chain stretches over our every desire, idea, word and action. At the judgment, he will reveal every measurement and either consume and redeemed or consume and condemned each detail of our private and corporate lives.
The world loves itself, relies upon itself and is allied with Satan in opposition to God and His demands. You cannot serve God by striving to be of any worldly good.
This does not mean, however, that service to God will not be of any worldly good. Regardless of the circumstances or consequences, faithfulness to God reveals itself as faithfulness to earthly masters. Joseph served Pharaoh not because he wanted to save Egypt but for the same reason that he once served Potiphar. Loyal service to one worldly master landed Joseph in prison and loyal service to the other made him a savior of the world. But in both cases Joseph was just doing what any faithful servant of God is expected to do. And, far more important than Joseph’s salvation of the world was his preservation of God’s chosen family. Despite the dramatic blessing that Egypt enjoyed under Joseph, Joseph’s strategy only further enslaved Egypt’s people under their Pharaoh, and even this dramatic surrendering of their rights could not produce long-term stability or security for Egypt’s people. The salvation that Joseph brought to the family of Israel, however, lasts to this day. In fact, our own eternal salvation depends upon it.
For God’s servants, faithfulness and joy are constants, but worldly successes are variables that lie in God’s hands. God makes use of worldly successes as well as worldly failures, and each experience brings its own form of suffering to Christ’s joyful followers.
My fervent hope, therefore, is NOT that the four of you become ground breaking authors, distinguished scholars, honorable senators or brilliant medical researchers. I hope, instead, that you spend yourselves joyfully in the narrow dark folds of time where the light of history rarely shines but the radiance of the Holy Spirit makes clear each new task in the slow and hidden preparation of Christ’s glorious bride. Even under the light of history, God works, but history’s light is deceptive. Humanity always fails to recognize real progress and is distracted by a thousand counterfeits.
There is nothing wrong with becoming distinguished, acclaimed, or renowned, but the most valuable members of such elite circles know better than any that true service, even at the highest levels of human society, still comes through weakness, through sacrifice, through painful and unrecognized giving. These are truths that even the world recognizes to a large degree. Ultimately, however, you must rest your hopes on an even more profound foo
lishness. The world recognizes that sacrifice is required for progress to be made. You, however, must recognize that, apart from Christ, progress cannot be made—not in any form that the world would recognize or acknowledge.
The positive results of pursuing Christ’s kingdom are often only discernable by faith and, even then, the outlines are not always clear.
Because our priorities undermine the world’s sense of security and the results of our labors are often invisible to them, expect the world and your old nature to scheme against you as Sanballat, Geshem and Tobiah did against Nehemiah. When your suffering brethren cheer you, rejoice and persevere. However, when the applause multiplies, beware and search your heart. You are likely to find yourself sleeping in a lion’s den or herded into the land of Goshen.
Just before Macbeth’s henchmen enter to crush her nestlings, Lady Macduff cries: “Whither should I fly? I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world, where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas, do I put up that womanly defense, to say I have done no harm….” [Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 2]
Although it may sound pessimistic, Christ’s message is not. It is just the only optimistic option.
Discounting his screech of delight and screech of demand, my son Tobin has a two word vocabulary: “uh-oh” and “ball.” “Uh-oh” covers all of the unusual situations when something other than a ball is worthy of comment. Since learning the word “ball,” however, he has discovered that it takes care of almost every communication need. In addition to announcing his delight over the ability of balls to bounce and roll with a wild and willful mind of their own, shouting “ball” in a desperate voice conveys that he’d rather be playing ball than getting a diaper change or finishing his oatmeal. (As a literature teacher, I’m also convinced that he enjoys the percussive qualities of the “b” consonant in expressing the dynamos of his delights and his demands. But I digress.) Just as Tobin’s love for balls means that he needs only this one word to express all His desires, so we, as believers, need not be ashamed of our one word message. As any child knows, a man cannot serve two words.
This exclusive truth strikes the world as useless, ugly and hateful, but, only when you embrace it, will it burn you up. Only then will Christ’s bride be prepared, Christ’s reign be extended, and you be made ready for an eternity of service and worship in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
These stakes are high and the ideas sound grandiose, but Christ’s plan is actually simple and refreshing. Coming to terms with the gospel’s foolishness allows us to lay our burdens down and rest entirely in Christ. Christ gives us a wide field to plow, but, before we can lean into the task, He has already lifted our burden and born our yoke.
It is wonderful to admit that we are ignorant and weak and only need cast ourselves in the arms of our loving shepherd.
It is only this attitude of lamblike dependence and that can make us effective, enduring and strong.
It is a great joy to address the four of you because I know that, in each of your cases, my pleading does not fall on deaf ears. You understand and love these truths. I have heard you express them eloquently and exemplify them time and again in your own lives.
The songs that we sang together at your senior chapel and the slide show that Chris assembled demonstrate a love for God and for each other that leaves idolatry out in the cold. As a homeschooler who will always looked down my nose at the whole “high school experience,” I never imagined that I would see evidence of Christian love displayed so beautifully in such a setting.
In another example, I remember a conversation where the four of you discussed how you might imagine schooling your own children. Two out of four would seriously consider starting a classical school from scratch. Given that your families have an intimate acquaintance with the trials that attend such a task, I conclude that you learned from them to love sacrifice.
Finally, by God’s grace, I pray that your academic preparations at CCA have helped to teach the foolishness of the gospel. If your classes and assignments tore down man-centered priorities, forcing you to wrestle with the demanding nature of Christ’s kingdom boundaries; if, while being earnest about the practical, political and cultural outworking of our faith, we avoided the mistake of directly equating any earthly alliance with Christ’s kingdom, then we helped prepare you to change the world without creating just another idol.
After all my sesquipedalian warnings are hushed, I fully expect each of you to change the world. I look forward to hearing about some of your triumphs before my death and all of them later on. In fact, it’s been fun to watch each of you get started already, even in a scholastic setting.
Zoe threw herself convincingly and passionately into her role as Hilary Rodham Clinton and poured herself into many mothers, real and fictional, with selfless abandon.
Ben defended the full Davidic authorship of Psalm 51 for an entire semester against a steady hail of critiques and challenges, and he came out delighted only by the gospel that the psalm communicates.
Chris, in addition to running a campaign that was every bit as smooth and efficient as Mitt Romney’s, also spent a full year, in the face of my obvious preoccupation with otherworldly concerns, building his case for the value of scientifically informed environmental policy.
And, Stephen, I would love to know how many other Malvolios have owned a personal copy of the Puritan prayers in Valley of Vision. For a smart reformed boy, you sure can play one ugly and idiotic Puritan.
But in all seriousness, I pity the wardens at the Gates of Hell as our God continues to swell His ranks with the likes of Zoe “Take a Tissue” Perrin, Ben “Preach it Brother” Brown, Chris “the Green Machine” Davis and Steven “Malvolio” Rayner.

Comments are closed.