A week ago, I heard an extremely unusual commencement address. Although I’ve only graduated twice, I’m fairly familiar with the genre of commencement speeches: usually a motivational talk that congratulates students on surviving four years of high school or college while spurring them on to pursue their dreams. Even in a Christian context, a typical graduation speech might focus on discovering God’s grand plan for your life and serving him with your utmost potential.
My graduation ceremony featured Dr. Sinclair Ferguson as guest speaker. As soon as I saw the title of Dr. Ferguson’s address, I realized this speech was going to be different. It was entitled, “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?” Yes, the text Dr. Ferguson had chosen to unfold for us in the last minutes of our college career was from one of the most abject laments of the Bible, Psalm 137.
Although a warm and engaging speaker, Dr. Ferguson was not interested in the personal hopes and dreams of us college graduates. His main question was this: “Has your education prepared you to sing the Lord’s song, the song of your Lord Jesus Christ, in the land in which you are being called to serve him?” Pointing us to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as four “college graduates” who sang the Lord’s song in a strange land, Dr. Ferguson enjoined the graduating class of 2017 to follow their examples.
These young men were able to remain strong in the face of opposition because they knew God’s sovereignty, they knew God’s truth, and they knew God’s presence. Their faith in God allowed them to sing. Their faith was tested in the fires of persecution and affliction—and not merely metaphorical fires.
Dr. Ferguson also pointed us to the example of David, the author of the beloved 23rd Psalm. David was not a cherubic shepherd boy when he wrote this psalm. He could speak about the valley of the shadow of death because he had been through it himself, numerous times.
Two thoughts pressed themselves upon me as I heard Dr. Ferguson’s words. First, the Psalms were written in real life. The author of Psalm 137 was not trying to tune into his “bluesy” side any more than the author of Psalm 23 was inspired by a Thomas Kinkade painting. No, the contents of the Psalter were written by real people suffering through real trials, and determined to seek the face of God nonetheless. As such, the psalms are for us. We ought not to shy away from the full spectrum of emotions and situations in the Psalter. Days that call for Psalm 137 will come, and when they do, we must have the courage to take this psalm and others upon our lips.
The second thought is that Dr. Ferguson’s message resonates especially at a place like Geneva College, where the psalms are regularly sung. Geneva has taught me to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, not just by training me to be a truthful communicator in a world of deceit, but actually by teaching me to sing the Lord’s songs. To cite just one example, Psalm 117 is sung at the end of every chapel service at Geneva. When it was announced as the closing song at Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the graduates stood unbidden, recognizing the gravity and joy of the occasion. By teaching the psalms, Geneva has given to me and others a spiritual vocabulary that we can turn to when we encounter those trials and temptations. For that I am exceedingly grateful.
A memorable commencement address to conclude a memorable college career. I go forth rejoicing, with Dr. Ferguson’s charge still resounding in my soul: “Go and sing the Lord’s song in what is becoming an increasingly strange land, and trust his power and trust his truth and trust his presence, and he will be with you to the end of your life, and then by his grace for all eternity.”
(The entire commencement ceremony, including Dr. Ferguson’s remarks, can be viewed here.)