What Dreams May Come
with Rev. Alex Lang
May 21, 2023
This Sunday is Baccalaureate Sunday! Come and celebrate those who have graduated from high school and beyond!
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.
10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
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I want to start off this morning by telling you a little secret; one which very few people know about me: I have always wanted to be a graduation speaker. All these years, when we had Baccalaureate Sunday, I was secretly jealous that TC was the one who defaulted to preach at this service.
Admittedly, TC was pretty good at preaching on Baccalaureate Sunday. He would tell you a couple of stories about his dad, derive some important moral from those stories, mostly that you should avoid being like TC’s dad and then provide you with a hearty congratulations on all of your accomplishments. All that time, I was thinking about what I would say and now I have my chance.
Now when I tell you that I’ve always wanted to be a graduation speaker, this was something I’ve wanted to do since I was a sophomore in high school. Unfortunately, the only students who were allowed to speak at our graduation ceremony were the valedictorian and salutatorian, the number 1 and 2 spots in our class. My rank was 19, so I wasn’t anywhere in contention for the top spot.
But I started wondering, what if some of those people couldn’t make it to graduation? Like what if some of them got sick or had an “accident” that prevented them from attending the graduation ceremony. Could I somehow manage to knock off the 17 people ahead of me so that I could be the salutatorian and give a speech at graduation?
Lucky for them, I realized it might be a little bit suspicious if a week before graduation the people in my class were systematically eliminated from attending and the chain stopped with me. Also, to be fair, we only had like 90 people in my graduating class, so the audience would be quite diminished for my big speech with almost a quarter of my class out of commission. Rather than remembering my speech, everyone would remember how 17 people in the class of 1998 were so sick or injured they couldn’t make it to graduation.
Since then, I have attended numerous graduation ceremonies over the years and now I realize that I can hardly remember a word spoken by any of the graduation speakers, even the good ones (and we had Bill Cosby as my college graduation speaker in college, which at the time seemed pretty cool, today, not so much).
So, if I could go back in time and counsel my younger self, I would explain that it’s a lot of effort for not a lot of payoff. The point being, I have no illusions that you will remember much of what I have to say this morning, but I do hope that you will walk away from here understanding that everyone here is proud of your accomplishments and we are excited to see what the future holds for you.
Whether you realize it or not, you are at a unique point in your lives. When someone graduates from high school or college, it is an odd space because you are closing the door on one season of your life and you are opening the door to a completely new season. If you’re graduating from high school, this is really the last summer you can be a kid. Given that most of you are turning 18, according to the government you’re now officially entering into adulthood.
Likewise, if you’re graduating from college, now you’re officially saying goodbye to a life of learning, unless you go to graduate school, which is kind of amazing when you think about it. If you count preschool, by the time you graduate from college, you will have literally been in school for nearly two decades straight and now you’re expected to leave all of that behind so that you can begin your career. Either way, the transition into this new way of being is both exhilarating and scary.
It’s exhilarating because you’re entering into a new phase of your life. You’re going to have the freedom to be whatever you want to be with the opportunity to explore the world and enjoy many incredible experiences. It’s scary because the world is huge, and it can feel daunting to establish what your place in the world will look like.
In both cases, I think there can be this underlying belief that you have to prove yourself. You have to prove to yourself and to others that you can be successful in the world. You have to prove that you are capable; that you can make it on your own and be a fully productive member of society. But the issue I want you to consider this morning is something very fundamental; something that you may not have taken much time to consider in your life: What does it mean to be successful?
I ask you this question because everyone has different definitions of success and to illustrate this for you, I want you to consider the following example. I want you to take a look at this number: 14,000,000. It’s just a number, right? By itself, it doesn’t actually mean anything. But let’s take that number and attach it to a person. All of a sudden, by attaching it to a person, this number can have many different meanings.
Say for instance, if I put a dollar sign in front of that number: $14,000,000. How does that change your perception of this person? Does that dollar amount mean they’ve been successful? Well, according to the way most people think—yes, of course! You’re going to likely treat that person differently because they’re wealthy. But let’s say they inherited that money, they didn’t earn it, do you still think of them as being successful? What if they earned that money by nefarious means, like selling drugs, are they still successful? It all depends on your perception of success.
But let’s take that number in a different direction. What if you have 14 million minutes? 14 million minutes is a lot of time to accomplish a lot of different tasks. That’s roughly 7 hours per day of your life. You could spend that time reading, working out, socializing, earning money. But do you know what all of you will spend 14 million minutes doing? That number is the average amount of time that people in your generation will spend on screens connected to the internet over the course of their lifetimes.
Now that includes doing homework, scrolling social media, communicating with friends and family, watching Netflix, and doing your job. But I pose the question: Does being connected to the internet for 7 hours a day make for a successful life? Well, again, it comes down to your definition of success. I might sit there and say, “Being on the internet for 7 hours a day feels like a waste of time,” but you might say, “Being on the internet for 7 hours a day helps me to accomplish all of my goals.”
Let’s take this number in another direction. Let’s say 14 million words. That’s how many words you speak in an average every year. This includes the words you say in your normal banter with friends, when you’re ordering a drink at Starbucks, when you’re giving a speech like this for a class or professing your love to your significant other. Does saying 14 million words make you a successful person? No, of course not. Not all words carry the same weight, but it’s how you choose to use those 14 million words that really matters.
So if you use those 14 million words to build people up, to make them feel loved, valued and cared for, then that does that make for a successful life? Maybe. But what if by speaking those words of kindness, you don’t end up making very much money, are you still successful? Likewise, what if you use your words to tear people down, to hurt them, to make them feel small and insignificant, does that make for a successful life? What if saying those negative words earns you lots of money? Are you still a successful person?
Alright last one, let’s change the moniker one last time to 14 million people. That’s the number of people the average person living in an urban area will walk by in their lifetime. These are people who you will never meet or know personally, but the question often comes up: What is your responsibility to those 14 million people? If you see someone walking along the street and they fall, is it your responsibility to help them up? And if you don’t, does that disqualify you from being a successful person?
If you see someone get attacked on the street, is it your responsibility to run to their aide and if you don’t, does that disqualify you from being a successful person? If you see someone who is begging, starving from lack of food and shivering from lack of shelter, is it your responsibility to feed, cloth and house them? And if you don’t, does that disqualify you from being a successful person?
One of my favorite examples of this is Alan Turing, an English mathematician who was obsessed with the goal of breaking the Enigma code, a code used by the Germans to encrypt their communications. A shy introvert, he almost drove himself mad trying to break the code, but when he did, it is believed that he cut short the war by two years. By the way, do you know how many lives it is estimated that Alan Turing saved by cracking the Enigma code? 14 million lives.
I use all of these examples because it can be easy for us to have a very narrow definition of what success does and does not mean. Most of the time people think of success in terms of money, status and material possessions, but nothing could be further from the truth. That is just one version of success and, arguably, it’s not even the one that matters most.
Do you know what I think one of the most important versions of success actually is? It’s being able to take the dreams you have in your mind and turning those dreams into a reality. I remember being your age and having dreams of the things I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to find an amazing girlfriend. I wanted to write scripts. I wanted to film movies. I wanted to become a pastor. I wanted to write books.
But at your age, I didn’t quite know how to make that happen. I didn’t quite know how to take all of those dreams in my head and bring them into the real world. It felt like an impossible task. I didn’t quite have the knowledge. I didn’t quite have the skills, but I was willing to work hard. I was willing to learn. I was willing to make mistakes and fail. And you know what, I’ve accomplished all of those things I set out to do…some better than others.
But do you know what I realized? Every time I accomplished one of the dreams on my registry, every time I checked it off my list, that feeling of success only lasted a little while. What I mean is, I was proud that I accomplished the goal, but very quickly thereafter, the question would arise in my mind: What’s next? That’s what’s about to happen with you all.
You’re about to get that diploma in your hand. You’ve been working so hard for so long for this moment and, don’t get me wrong, it’s going to feel good to hold that diploma in your hand and you deserve all the celebrations and the praise from your family and friends. And for a few days, you’re going to be on cloud 9. But eventually, you’ll come back down to earth and you’ll think to yourself: What’s next?
What I’ve come to find is that the more goals I achieve in life, the more I realize my thinking about success was all wrong. I thought success was about accomplishing goals; about getting the diploma in my hand. What I’ve come to discover is that success is actually found in the toil and work of getting to the goal. Success is what you discover about yourself as you’re bringing your dream to life.
In fact, this idea is at the core of our religion. We read a scripture this morning where a man named Jacob has a dream and in this dream God tells him “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth…and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
Jacob’s dream is that this land will one day belong to his descendants and that his descendants will be so numerous that everyone on the earth will be blessed because of him. But if you read on, in order for this dream to become a reality, Jacob has to struggle and suffer and work and grow as a human being in ways he never thought possible.
So the dream might be a lot of land and a huge family, but the pursuit of that dream is what changes him. And indeed, the same is true for you. Whatever dreams you pursue, it’s not the dream itself that will change you. It’s the process you go through in pursuing that dream that really matters. But here’s the rub: sometimes that process can make you a better person and sometimes that process can tear you down and make you bitter.
I’m sure you’ve seen that happen with your peers. Some people really benefited from school and it shaped them into good people. Others were not so fortunate. School made them angry, competitive and mean. Both people achieved the same goal; both people got the diploma in their hand, but the process turned them into completely different people.
This is why you have to be aware that when you’re striving for your dreams, do not let the end justify the means. Don’t lose yourself simply to achieve a goal. This is why I would encourage you to always stay in touch with your faith. Even if you don’t go to church, stay connected to God. We read from the book of Jeremiah a passage where God tells Jeremiah to go observe a potter forming clay pots.
When Jeremiah arrives at the potter’s house, God says, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” The idea being, if you allow yourself to be molded by God, then no matter what dream you are pursuing, you will always be driven by love, kindness and understanding. In my opinion, if you allow the values of God’s love to guide your pursuits, then you will always be a success.
So class of 2023, I thank you for listening to the graduation speech I’ve been waiting to give for 25 years. I’m sure you’ll remember about as much as I remembered from all of my graduation speeches, which isn’t much, but the one thing I’ll think you’ll remember is the number 14 million. You may not remember why that number is floating around in your head, but what I hope you’ll remember is that numbers don’t define success. What defines success is the love in your heart when you’re pursuing your dreams. That’s what matters most. Amen.