Last week, three young people from our youth group graduated from Bullock Creek High School. The ceremony was a wonderful time of celebration; around 140 teenagers, their families, and friends looked back on the past and forward to the future. A few select students commented on the wide-open nature of the graduates’ adult lives. A video presentation depicted the graduates’ early years and favorite high school memories. The Bullock Creek Superintendent, Mr. Charles Schwedler, commented in his remarks that this was his twentieth Bullock Creek graduation ceremony. I reflected on these things while I watched each graduate cross the stage, receive his or her diploma, and greet Mr. Schwedler with a handshake (or a hug).
My own high school graduation was nearly half my life ago, but I still remember it very clearly. Almost three hundred students formed my senior class, and the graduates’ names were called rather quickly, with just a few seconds between names. I noticed a striking difference at the Bullock Creek ceremony, thanks to the smaller class size: each graduate was allowed to walk all the way across the stage before the next graduate’s name was called. This prompted me to think about this ceremony as a rite of passage.
Life has a number of rites of passage such as graduating from high school. We participate in these events as many have before us, and once we go through them, there is no turning back. A high school graduate cannot “un-graduate” from high school. A Boy Scout cannot undo his “crossing over” and become a Cub Scout again. A baseball player cannot have another chance at his first professional ball game. A young person only gets one “first paycheck” from her first job. Two “single” people will never truly be single again after they are married, even if the marriage ends in divorce or widowhood.
At each of these moments, we acknowledge that something meaningful is taking place. A hurdle is being crossed; a transition is happening. Things will never be the same. Life will change and will have new meaning as the future becomes the present. It is crucial that there be some kind of group celebration at moments like these: a graduation ceremony, a “crossing over” ceremony, a cheering crowd of baseball fans, and so forth.
Our spiritual lives should include celebratory rites of passage, as well. We tend to make Christian faith a personal, private experience; we accept Jesus into our own hearts, we pray silently, we hide our tithes and offerings in envelopes. But certain moments in our spiritual development deserve public attention.
The most obvious example is baptism. We practice “believer’s baptism,” in which adults and youth (but not infants) are baptized by being immersed completely underwater. This is an act of obedience to Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20) and an outward symbol of the inward transformation that takes place when a person receives God’s forgiveness and commits to follow the Lord. Baptism is incredibly public; most sanctuaries include a baptismal pool in the worship space. And this is how it should be. When a person is baptized, the rest of the congregation celebrates this rite of passage. Those who have been baptized in the past have an opportunity to remember their own baptisms, just as the Bullock Creek ceremony helped me to remember my own high school graduation.
Are there other spiritual rites of passage? Other Christian traditions will celebrate a person’s first Communion. A marriage ceremony, done properly, is a spiritual rite of passage as well. Dedicating a newborn child is a spiritual rite of passage for the child’s parents. Other examples include the first time someone prays in public, gives a personal testimony, or even preaches in church.
I believe Christians do not always celebrate these rites of passage with enough vigor and excitement. When a person is baptized, this is a huge deal! A life has been transformed, and we should praise God! When a couple is married, it’s not just a warm, sentimental moment; it is the spiritual uniting of two souls that God has called to become one. We should celebrate and stand in awe of God’s work! When someone takes the courageous step of leading in worship for the first time, we should rally around that person and affirm the spiritual growth that God is accomplishing in him or her.
I also believe that our rites of passage, spiritual and otherwise, are rather slanted toward our younger years. You could potentially experience all of the above events by age 25 (or even earlier). What, then, do you do for the next fifty or sixty years of your life? Are there no more hurdles to cross, no more transitions to experience? Once you “graduate” into fully adult life, what is there left to achieve?
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and direction to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance – for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Proverbs 1:1-7 NIV)
Let the wise add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. A high school graduation ceremony is called “commencement” because something is starting, not because something is ending. Rites of passage propel us into the future, and it is crucial for us to celebrate these moments to encourage others and ourselves to move forward in our spiritual development in the Lord.
Celebrate our graduates! And take the next step in your own life!