Blessing graduates

Graduate recognition Sunday at church always makes me a bit teary. I held it together this year, but only by a thread, even though I was the one voicing the prayer of blessing in morning worship today.

No, I didn’t have a child graduating. My emotion came from the significance of this day in the community of faith. From my pastoral perspective, this annual event ranks only a few steps behind Christmas and Easter.

Here’s why: Particularly in traditional Protestant churches like ours, we observe a number of rites of passage that culminate in the transition from high school to a new adult life mostly beyond the geography and view of the church. We have a way of blessing parents and infants through baby dedications. We have a way of blessing children when they make their own decisions of faith and are baptized. We have a way of blessing youth as they go on mission trips and to camps. All these acts are preparatory.

But when a 17- or 18-year-old graduates from high school and heads off to the independence of college life, the tables turn in a way that never can be undone. All we have invested in these children, all the nurture they’ve received from Sunday School teachers, youth workers, family and friends is about to be put to the test. We need a way of blessing these almost-adults as they prepare to fly out of the congregation’s nest.

One of the benefits of staying in a single congregation a long time is watching the same kids push through each of these steps. Most of the youth we blessed in worship today I’ve known since they were preschoolers. I saw them dedicated to the Lord by their families. I heard their confessions of faith in the waters of baptism. I’ve worked alongside them on mission trips and worshiped with them at camp.

On this day, as they prepare to turn one of the most significant corners of life’s journey, I want them to know that their church believes in them. And I want the church to be reminded that we’ve accomplished something important as a village of faith.

So here’s my prayer for our high school seniors this year. Maybe it will be your prayer as well: “Lord, hear now our words of blessing over these whom we love, just as you have loved them from the womb of creation. Bless their parents, their brothers and sisters, their grandparents and friends. Bless each graduate at this precipice of destiny. Fill each with unusual wisdom and grace to face the world with confidence and compassion because you, the Lord of All, live within them. May your Holy Spirit empower each one, as they prepare to step away from this sacred community of faith, to live for you and your kingdom and to never, never, never forget that they have met you here and that this is one place that will always be a safe harbor regardless of what life brings.”

That last bit is where I get emotional, because one of the burdens of staying in one congregation a long time is knowing that not every kid who heads off to college makes great choices. Some will major in partying more than academics. Some will make disastrous life choices. Some never will darken the door of a church again.

The role of the church, though, is to offer a safe and steady harbor or, as the old Motel 6 ads used to say, “leave the light on for you.” If we’ve done our job as a community of faith, our students graduate from high school with eternal truths embedded in their spirits and hearts that always know the way home. That’s worth getting a little teary about.

This blog was published previously as an ABPnews commentary.

Mark Wingfield

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Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the book, “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong.”

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