It’s June, which means that we have just completed another graduation season. As a youth minister, I go to a lot of graduations, but this year there were a couple of graduation ceremonies that were more significant to me.
First was my own graduation from Harding School of Theology. This one was a long time coming. It was an extensive program (a 78-hour degree, which is more coursework than many master’s and doctorate programs combined), and add to that the fact that I completed it while working full time, figuring out how to be a dad, and living hundreds of miles away, and I can say with only minimal chagrin that I started the program way back in 2010. Finishing a program that you have been engaged in for so long is certainly an accomplishment of sorts, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me how it feels to be done. I definitely feel grateful for all that I have learned and for all who made it possible (HST faculty and staff, my wife, my elders at church, etc.). I am also pleased to be done. But my overwhelming emotion is a little more difficult to explain, and that’s what this post is about.
About 10 days after my graduation, I went to another graduation ceremony—Kinsley’s Kindergarten graduation. I have written in different places about how the last 18 months or so have been very difficult for my little girl. Increased seizure activity has been hard to control and has led to several regressions (i.e., she has lost abilities that she once had). Nevertheless, during this past school year, she started Kindergarten in a self-contained class. Kinsley’s academic goals were made with her special needs in mind and were very modest by the standards of “typical” children, but still, due to the regressions, she didn’t hit those goals. In some sense, you could even say that her graduation from Kindergarten was something of a formality. But I can tell you this: I am far prouder of her graduation than my own.
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I have always been a high achiever. I have always gotten good grades and done well in school. I was involved in a bunch of extracurricular activities to beef up my college résumé. I was a good (not great) athlete who worked hard and was, at times, pretty successful.
When I started grad school, I began to work even harder. I had become convinced that doing my best was a spiritual requirement (I still believe this, by the way), but “doing my best” easily became a justification for obsessive perfectionism. In school, I wanted every research paper to be perfect. In ministry, I wanted every teenager to be faithful and every sermon to be excellent. In my personal faith and theology, I wanted to be right on every issue and know the answer to every question. Some of this obsessive perfectionism I come by naturally (it runs in my family), but also, it was a core component of my faith. To be clear, I was never taught works righteousness growing up, or that God’s love for me was tied to my achievements and accomplishments, but somewhere along the way this became a big part of what following Jesus was for me.
When Kinsley came into my life (and more specifically, when she began to miss developmental milestones and we received her diagnosis), everything began to change for me. The reality is that I have a beautiful, wonderful daughter who, from a worldly perspective, will never achieve much of anything. And while I lament the ways in which her horrible disease has placed limitations upon her life, the reality is this: I don’t care about her achievements. I love her because she is my daughter, and I delight in her.
This realization and the implications of it have significantly affected my life. I don’t really care about achievement anymore. I don’t care about intelligence or talent. When parents talk about how clever their children are, or when friends speak of their accomplishments, I smile and try to be affirming, but it simply doesn’t matter much to me. And from that perspective, my own graduation doesn’t matter much to me either.
I still work hard, because I believe it is a spiritual imperative to do so—in all things I work as if I am working for Jesus because, really, I am. But I don’t work hard so God will love me more, or because my value is tied to my achievements. God loves me because I am His child, and that is enough.
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I grew up in the church, have been a Christian for 20 years, a minister for 12, and I have a graduate degree in theology. But it was my daughter who taught me about grace simply by being her perfect, disabled self.
On second thought, that’s quite an achievement.