I remember walking across that stage to shake the principal and superintendent’s hand. My goal for graduation was to have as much regalia as possible. I wanted more than anyone else. I wanted the cords for being in National Honor Society. I wanted the stole that made sure everyone knew I was a class officer. I wanted the stole that said I was the president of the Student Council. And don’t forget the different colored tassel signifying that I was an honor graduate. All those things were so important to me – the honor, the recognition, the praise. Today, all those accolades I collected in high school are just reminders of how prideful I was.
That night, as the class of ’97 stood around offering tearful goodbyes, there was one event that proved to be a defining moment for me. A good friend of mine invited me to church. Truth be told, church was the last thing on my mind. My faith had been a matter of convenience and on that night, it was not very convenient. I had conquered high school. I had succeeded at everything I put my mind to. I had erected a monument to my self-perceived greatness. No, this celebration was all about me. I had given Jesus his time at the Baccalaureate a few days earlier – this was my night. Or so I thought.
The funny thing was that when I left the football field at Gordon Lee High School that night, I felt strangely empty. I had been one to allow my accomplishments to define me. And the truth that began to settle in was that those accomplishments really didn’t matter anymore. They were relics that would be hung in a closet and forgotten. No one in college would care if you were the student body president (or the class clown). It didn’t matter if you were an honor student in high school if you couldn’t cut the mustard in college Algebra. As I drove away that night, I didn’t so much feel like a graduate, but a lost little boy.
Over the summer, that graduation night feeling of disillusionment only increased. And the ramparts of pride that I had built around my heart were being torn down by a siege of uncertainty. It was in the middle of this emotional crisis that God used my friend’s well-timed invitation to church to help me see that this life can mean so much more than our earthly accolades and accomplishments. I walked into the back door of Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church on a hot August morning, and I haven’t been the same since, because I began to understand what it means to be a follower of Christ, not just someone who claimed to be a “Christian.”
When Jesus called his first disciples, he didn’t say much. The truth is that he didn’t need to. He simply gave them an invitation to follow. The amazing thing is that those first disciples did just that. They didn’t second guess Jesus; they didn’t excuse themselves while they finished up the loose ends of their lives. They dropped everything and followed Jesus. I really and truly believe that this is where we make some of our greatest mistakes. I became a Christian at age 12, but you wouldn’t know it by the time I was 18. I made the mistake of trying to be a Christian without actually following Jesus. It obviously doesn’t work. It is akin to trying to get married but never moving into the same dwelling. Jesus’ offer to follow is a lifelong – and life-changing – invitation.
For our students who are beginning the next phase of their journeys, you must understand what it means to be a follower. As followers of Christ, we must not define our success by our accomplishments, but by our faithfulness. When we face this next step, we have to ask the question, are we really following Jesus?
Congratulations to the Class of 2011!