Part 6 in ‘Letters in a Pandemic’ series
A letter for college seniors.
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Frankly, I’m sorry to be writing this. It’s only been 65 days since I wrote you my first letter. At the time, I didn’t think I’d be writing to you again. I had no reason to, really. To some of you, I’m a friend you see at Life Group or weekly worship gatherings in Bowman Hall, but to others, I’m a random girl who knows your campus ministry leader or maybe even am a total stranger. Whichever way we are connected, these strange times have filled my head with all sorts of thoughts for the people who are a part of my life—parents, pastors, single folk, teachers, and artists. And now you: seniors in college.
My last semester of college, I wrote a commencement address in hopes of being selected to speak on behalf of my graduating class. I wasn’t selected, but today I wanted to share some of this address with you: the Class of COVID-19, of Coronavirus, of quarantine. Of course, current events have altered the ending of this address; the plot has taken a turn none of us expected. Nevertheless, for you, Class of 2020.
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To borrow the title of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, I had Great Expectations for my college years. I was just like Pip, the main character in that novel: eager for the story of my life to become something exciting and enviable. But it turns out that my great expectations for what the future would be like were quite wrong.
A little over one thousand days have passed since your freshman move-in day. And now you’re here. Without knowing you, I can know that life at this moment is not as you’d pictured it. But think back to before this pandemic hit…Was life turning out like you’d imagined it would be? Your major, classes, waist size; your relationship status, career path, spiritual life? When I began my senior year at Grove City College, I had great expectations for not only my last semester but life after graduation, too. But then one day around Christmas, I opened my email inbox only to read that the life I’d imagined would not be happening. What was next, I had absolutely no idea.
I reckon you know a thing or two about life-changing emails, huh?
A friend of mine who once walked the sidewalks of Grove City College just as I did figured out that I was having an existential crisis my last semester and emailed me some words from the sequel—AKA life-after-college. He said this: “Dear Grace: As you continue senior year, you might not know what is next, and that’s okay. But the reality is this: you already know the end to your story. You know the eternity that waits for you on the other side of this life. Each beauty you regard in this life is a glimpse of that…So when you start to feel anxious about the future (which is normal and healthy and will happen), remind yourself of that. You do not know all the chapters that lie in between, but you know that the end is just the beginning, and that changes things.”
Class of 2020: I know this story has taken a turn that none of you expected. The ending to the story you imagined in your head and that you anticipated with both exhaustion and appreciation never ended this way. Never. Strangely enough, all of us—from college seniors to senior citizens—share in that feeling. None of us know what lies in the chapters ahead for our individual lives and for the world as a whole. Frankly, I wish I didn’t have to write any ‘Letters in a Pandemic,’ let alone this particular letter to you, college seniors.
Shortly after WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, I began reading a book by Eugene Peterson titled The Jesus Way. It tells the stories of the people of Scripture: Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets, and Jesus himself. In it, Peterson writes about the storyline of David, one he says is “Not a story of what God wants us to be but a story of God working with the raw materials of our lives as he finds us.” As you read that quote, you might be thinking of all the ways your own story has not become what you wanted it to be. You had such great expectations, perfect ideas for how the rest of the semester would go. How could God do this? God working with the raw materials of our lives, can leave us feeling, well—raw.
In moments like these, you may be tempted to move on and rush your story from bad to the good as quickly as possible. You might even tell God that you know what he wants you to be and become: patient and gracious, loving and kind. I’m not telling you not to pursue fruits of the spirit during seasons of difficulty, but I do think David is a good model for us to look towards as a man whose faults lived right alongside his faithfulness. While David is the main character in many memorable stories of the Old Testament, a large part of his story is found in the Psalms. And if you haven’t cracked open the Psalms lately, maybe now is as good of a time as ever. The Psalms show us our hero David in a very raw place; they chronicle a man who yes, confesses his sins and see the grave errors of his ways, but cries out to God in the pain of that, who questions where God is in the midst of the great darkness.
As NT Wright so wisely pointed out this week in an exceptional article for Time magazine, “The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments.” Wright reminds us in that article, our God is one who is grieved by David’s storyline and Israel’s storyline and our storyline, too. Christ cries over death. The Holy Spirit groans within us. But God does not disappear on us as we lament how this narrative plays out. No—he does the hard work of finding us where right we are at and using the raw materials of our lives for our good.
As my friend told me in that email I got my last semester, we do not know what will happen next. What God will do with these raw materials? As we continue to take this all day by day, we can affirm that God is good, that beauty does exist right here and right now, while also lamenting the expectations and hopes that were dashed. The good can also be very painful; one only needs to look to the Cross to affirm that statement. But the Cross is not the end of the story. Our God is a God of resurrection, of redemption, of using the raw materials to bring his Kingdom here.
So no matter what situation you and I and everyone in the world affected by this pandemic find ourselves in these next months, let us all begin with this: begin with an awareness that the best author of all time will continue to write this creation story without misconstrued expectations, without flaw or accident or coincidence: WITH purpose. He is a writer whose creativity is never-ending, the one who wrote the story of time itself. He knows what’s next. And that, my friends, changes things.