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The Certainty of Time in Uncertain Times: A 2020 Commencement Speech

[Editor’s note: What follows is the text of Andrew’s commencement speech, which he gave last week to celebrate his daughter, Skye, on her graduation day. We offer it here for all of 2020’s graduates, and all humans living in this calamitous year of 2020.]

It’s an honor to be with you all today, in these uncertain times. In these uncertain times I’m very proud of my daughter and all the work it took to get to this point. I’m also very proud of my wife, who successfully homeschooled all three of our kids and is now, in these uncertain times, home free, in these uncertain times.

Okay, I’m going to make a confession: if I have to hear the phrase “in these uncertain times” again, my brain might explode. I get it. Truly, the world feels unfamiliar and unsettled right now. It’s not just that the COVID-19 stuff utterly disrupted life as we knew it, but that many thousands of people have suffered and died. Add to that the murders of George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the waves of grief and rage we’re all experiencing, and add to that all the troubling news from around the world, and I’d agree that yes, these are uncertain times. My heart aches. 

Six months ago things (for me, at least) were kind of chugging along, and no one had ever heard of COVID-19. But in a flash, everything changed. Now our history has a new dividing line: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus, kind of like 9/11. I used to have a pretty good idea what was coming, but now I haven’t a clue, from one day to the next. I watch the news with a desperate hope that they’ll tell us this pandemic is going to be over in a week, that systemic racism is finally banished from our hearts and our nation, that the world, at last, is at peace. I long for it. Everything feels so crazy that I just want to make some soup and get a blankie and let John Krasinski to tell me some good news.

But to say that these times are uncertain implies that the time before was certain. Graduates, these times aren’t any less certain than a year ago or 100 or 1,000 years ago. The times have always been uncertain. We have no idea what’s coming in five minutes or five years.

It is precisely when all hope seems lost that hope is most important. Andrew Peterson

We have some friends in Iowa named Bill and Jo Anne Schuster. I met them many years ago on a tour, because the pastor at the church put us up at their house. He told me they had a great story. I got to the house and liked them immediately. Bill was a tall, lanky guy with a white mustache, a bald head, and an easy laugh; his wife Joanne was thin and quick and boisterous for her age. They’re the kind of people who see you, who ask you good questions and genuinely want to know the answers. I liked them immediately. “So what’s your story?” I asked at dinner. They told us that their marriage wasn’t the first for either of them—that they had each lost a spouse. Bill lost his first wife to a car accident and Joanne lost her first husband to cancer. Here’s the crazy thing. Bill and his wife were best friends with Jo Anne and her husband. The couples vacationed together, went to church together, and their kids all grew up together. When the spouses died around the same time, Bill and Jo Anne leaned on each other for support, and after a few years, they fell in love and got married. That meant their two sets of kids suddenly became step-siblings, and they all loved it. Crazy, right? The next day I saw a painting on the wall and at the bottom was the inscription, “To the Schusters.” I asked Jo Anne who gave them the painting, and she grinned and said, “My husband and I gave it to Bill and his wife twenty years ago. I never realized at the time that I’d be a Schuster someday!” I laughed uncomfortably; she laughed from the belly. Both Bill and Jo Anne were quick to talk about how each of their lives had fallen apart, and how they never would have imagined that things would turn out like they did, nor that they’d be so happy again after all the grief. Now we’ve been friends for fifteen years or so, and I’ve never had a conversation with them when they didn’t remind me and Jamie that life is far from certain. They learned the hard way that it can all change in an instant. In ten years you will almost certainly be in a place that you can’t imagine right now. Bill and Jo Anne remind me to hold loosely to my notion of the future, because you just never, ever know what’s around the bend.

In these uncertain times it’s a tough time to be a graduate in these uncertain times. I’m truly sorry that college (or whatever you’re doing) in the fall likely isn’t going to be what you thought it would be. So many of us are waiting for someone else to make decisions so we can make our own. That’s the bad news. The good news is, it’ll make a great story someday. You’ll be able to tell your kids about how crazy the world felt in 2020, and how sick you were of hearing the phrase, “In these uncertain times.”

So I want to offer up two things to remember in these uncertain times.

1. Time is a painting. Hold on to your seats, because I’m going to get philosophically theological on you. Have you thought much about Time? I mean Time with a capital T. What is Time? Have you thought about how weird it is that things happen? That anything happens at all? Have you ever considered how weird it is that in the vast universe, from the Milky Way, to black holes, to the rings of Saturn, that there is such a thing as IHOP? Isn’t it weird that IHOP is an actual place? Pancakes exist, in time and space. But God, for whom a day is a thousand years and a thousand years a day, exists beyond time and space, eternally present to himself and to everything he made. He wanted children, so he made the world. He wanted us to know his love, so he painted a picture of how great his love is and called it TIME and hung it on a wall called SPACE. We can only know something by experiencing it. I could tell you all day long about pancakes, about what they’re made of and how they taste, but until you sit down and move through time and space by pouring the syrup on the steaming pile of goodness, then gobbling up the glory of it all, then sitting back from the table with a sticky chin, and finally nodding off to sleep in the IHOP booth, you don’t really know pancakes. We’re not computers. We can’t download pancakes; we have to eat them. So when God decided to have children (that means us), and wanted to demonstrate his love, he did so by inventing TIME and SPACE, a vast painting that he, who sees the beginnings and the ends of things, can see all of. To him the past, the present, and the future are of a piece. To him, the painting is already complete. But you and I are in it, a part of it, moving across it without being able to see where we’re going or what the point of it all really is. The Biblical prophets are like docents in an art museum, helping us, by the Holy Spirit, to understand the painting a little better by either telling us what’s coming or enlightening us about what is or has been. The great mystery of the Incarnation is that God stepped into TIME and SPACE and became man. Now that you’re thoroughly confused, I’ll get to the point. We can’t see all of the painting. But scripture tells us that it is glorious. At the resurrection, when we’re able to stand back and see what God was always doing, we’ll fall to our knees in worship. COVID-19, war, racism, tragedy—all of it—is somehow a shadow on the canvas that will make the light more lovely. I don’t mean to be trite. Sometimes I hate that it works that way. But we have all seen, when looking back, the way suffering shapes us and makes room for joy. These times may be uncertain, but TIME itself is not. It is a finished masterpiece, and in Christ we’ll live to see it the way he does. Time is a painting.

2. Speaking of masterpieces, I’m a big Lord of the Rings nerd. I heard a scholar talking about one of the major themes of the story, which is the triumph of hope over despair. Despair, he said, isn’t just a sin, theologically speaking, it’s also a mistake. It’s a mistake because despair assumes that you know the end of your story. As I said, as creatures of Time, we can’t see the future. No matter how bad things seem, we don’t know for certain that the good guys won’t win—and in fact a good author makes it look like they won’t until the very end. That means that there’s always, always, always reason to hope.

Eucatastrophe is a marvelous concept. It means “good catastrophe.” If a catastrophe is what happens when everything’s great and then it tears apart (think COVID, or the death of George Floyd), then eucatastrophe is when everything’s terrible and suddenly, out of nowhere, light and beauty heals what was broken. Tolkien called it “the sudden, unexpected, joyous turn:” “In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” We get a glimpse of the painting from God’s perspective. (Think about the end of Avengers: Infinity War, when everybody who you thought was dead shows up to fight Thanos. That’s eucatastrophe.) Tolkien argued that God is telling a eucatastrophe story with all of creation. That’s the finished painting. He said that Jesus’s birth was the eucatastrophe of creation’s story, and the resurrection is the eucatastrophe of Jesus’s story. The author is Good, and has written a glorious ending to our story. That’s why we can’t allow ourselves to despair. It is precisely when all hope seems lost that hope is most important. Denethor threw himself from the tower at Minas Tirith. All he saw was orcs and evil. “Choose how you will die,” he said, more or less. “All hope is lost.” He couldn’t imagine a good ending, and to be honest, when we’re reading the book, neither can we. But it’s coming. The Shire will be scoured clean. The author of the story knows more than we do. There’s always, always, always reason to hope.

So, to summarize:

  1. These times are no less certain, from our limited perspective, than any other time.

  2. Time is a painting. All of creation is a masterpiece that God, who is greater than time and space, has already painted. We are creatures of time and space, so we can’t see the whole thing yet. But in Christ, we will. Read Revelation 21 for a glimpse of the glory.

  3. Because we can’t see the end of the story, or the whole painting, we always have reason to hope for a sudden, unexpected, joyous turn—a brushstroke of light, a flourish of redemption. We can trust the author, the artist, the King of Creation.

Pull the weeds of injustice and evil. Plant so much beauty that it chokes out the poison. Andrew Peterson

So if that’s true, what do we do? There’s a big temptation to just hunker down and wait it out, to let things get back to normal so we can get on with our lives. First of all, I think this pandemic is a wonderful excuse to not just get back to normal, but to make some good changes. There are some things about my life (and the life of the world) before all this happened that I hope never come back around—like constant busyness, or taking for granted the joy of gathering with the saints at church on a Sunday, or America’s long indifference to our oppressed brothers and sisters. My prayer is that things would be better than normal on the other side. The other problem with hunkering down and waiting it out is that we have no idea how long we’re waiting. The Old Testament book of Jeremiah tells of the Israelites’ exile in Babylon. Imagine their lives before: vineyards, schools, synagogues, friends, cities and towns where they lived and loved. Then one day the Babylonians took over and shipped them all off. It sounds horrifying. They believed God would deliver them, but how long would it take for them to return to Jerusalem? Here’s what God told them through Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. —Jeremiah 29:4-7

Uncertainty is no reason to stop adding to the beauty of the world. We don’t know what’s coming. Write songs anyway. Make pies. Plant gardens. Why? First of all, you might be in Babylon for longer than you think. Second of all, gardens are beautiful. And beauty is one of the best ways to fight the darkness. I love Skye’s song “Sandcastles,” because it’s a reminder to get busy, to “color the world in your own little way,” because the love that lives in beauty lasts forever. It is unshakeable. So step out into the post-Coronavirus world and plant whatever garden God has called you to plant. Pull the weeds of injustice and evil. Plant so much beauty that it chokes out the poison. My friend Doug McKelvey wrote Every Moment Holy, a wonderful book of liturgies. In his liturgy for the planting of flowers he wrote:

In a world shadowed by cruelty, violence, and loss, is there good reason for the planting of flowers?Ah, yes! For these bursts of color and beautiful blooms are bright dabs of grace, witnesses to a promise, reminders of a spreading beauty more eternal, and therefore stronger, than any evil, than any grief, than any injustice or violence.What is the source of their beauty? From whence does it spring?The forms of these flowers are the intentional designs of a Creator who has not abandoned his broken and rebellious creation, but has instead wholly given himself to the work of redeeming it. He has scattered the evidences of creation’s former glories across the entire scape of heaven and earth, and these evidences are also foretastes of the coming redemption of all things, that those who live in this hard time between glories might see and remember, might see and take heart, might see and take delight in the extravagant beauty of bud and bloom, knowing that these living witnesses are rumors and reminders of a joy that will soon swallow all sorrow.In the planting of these flowers, do we join the Creator in his work of heralding this impending joy?Yes. In this and in all labors of beauty and harmony, praise and conciliation, we become God’s co-workers and faithful citizens of his kingdom, by acts both small and great, bearing witness to the perfect beauty that was, to the ragged splendor that yet is, and to the hope of the greater glory that is to come, which is the immeasurable glory of God revealed to us, in the redeemed natures of all things.What then is the eternal weight of these flowers?Though our eyes yet strain to see it so, these tiny seeds, bulbs, or velvet buds we have planted are more substantial than all the collected evils of this groaning world. Their color and beauty speak a truer word than all greed and cruelty and suffering and harm.What is the truer word spoken by these flowers?They are like a banner planted on a hilltop, proclaiming God’s right ownership of these lands long unjustly claimed by tyrants and usurpers. They are a warrant and a witness, each blossom shouting from the earth that death is a lie, that beauty and immortality are what we were made for. They are heralds of a restoration that will forever mend all sorrow and comfort all grief. They declare a kingdom of peace, of righteousness, of joy, of love, and of the great joining of justice and mercy into a splendored perfection in the person of a king whose wonders eternally upwell, beautiful beyond the grasp of human imagination. —Doug McKelvey, “A Liturgy for the Planting of Flowers”

Graduates, the only certainty in these uncertain times is the resurrected Christ, our great High King, who works all things together for the good of those who love him. May your lives, like these flowers, bear witness to the great work of God to be unveiled, in a sudden joyous turn, when Time itself reveals what it hides from us now.

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.


Featured image is anonymous street art captured by Toni Reed via photograph.

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