Graduation speakers are fond of extolling the great things you will do after graduation. Your great achievements are only a beginning. With the education you received, you can do anything. Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, or Rodeo Drive, breathlessly awaiting you to do that thing that you do, with them.

Because I know you, I know you know not to swallow all graduation rhetoric. You’ve had psychology. There you discovered most of you, is that which has been done to you rather than by you. What you thought was your courageous, independent decision was, in reality, your mama’s manipulation. Thank you psychology.

The slogans of my generation were liberation, do your own thing, autonomy, even as a century of social science said we are caught, jerked around by psychological, sociological, economic forces beyond our control.

In my First-Year-Student Seminar, we presented the case of Dave, in his early 20s, who, after carousing in a bar, despite his friends’ efforts, got in a car and, on his way home, killed a child. The question: “Who was responsible?” Assign percentages of responsibility. Dave? His parents (both of whom were alcoholics)? His friends? The bartender? Society? About a third of the class assigned seventy percent of the responsibility to Dave’s parents. I was chagrined, as a parent, to see us take the rap for Dave.
A third of the class apportioned responsibility between the bartender, or Dave’s friends, for not wrestling him to the ground and getting the car keys. About a third of the class insisted on a new category. Genetics. Studies show a genetic propensity toward alcohol abuse. Dave’s genes did it.

And these were the same people who had declared, just the class before, that they decided to be at Duke!

Oh, we prattle on nostalgically, “I am the captain of my fate, the master of my soul.” But in our enlightened, Twenty-first century moments, we admit that there is a caughtness to us, jerked around by forces over which we have little control. Decisions made for us, rather than by us, account for us. You’re here, thinking about your marvelous undergraduate achievements, while Mom thinks, “I’ve done a good job on that one!”

Now we may quibble over what percentage of us our parents should take responsibility for. Okay, 20 percent of me is master of my fate, captain of my soul. But mostly we are the result of psychology, economics, genetics, or either that which we have been able heroically to seize from external determinism.

Our culture tells us two stories. One story is that you are free, autonomous, who you choose to be. Which, as I have noted, flies in the face of just about everything the social sciences have taught. (Spinoza said, “If a rock could think, and if you threw that rock across a river, that rock would think that it was crossing the river because it wanted to.”)

The other story says that you are fixed, determined at birth, caught. Or, as one of you told me, when I asked the big question, “What are you doing after graduation?”

“My mom is a banker. Dad is a banker. I was doomed. Hello DeutscheBank.”

Against these stories of who you are and where you are going, I want to place a third. It is from Genesis 45, out of Israel’s past. I won’t recount the whole thing, but I will say that Joseph, who grew up in a more dysfunctional family than any of you, is sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. But he lands on his feet at Pharaoh’s place. Joseph is put in charge of all of the Pharaoh’s public works. During a great famine, Joseph’s brothers (who attempted to kill him, then sold him into slavery) show up in Egypt looking for food.

They do not know that the Egyptian official who stands before them, holding their family’s life in his hands, the one before whom they grovel for food, is none other than little brother Joseph, the same kid brother they tried to get rid of earlier. This is where we come in. Little brother Joseph reveals himself to his older siblings. And when they realize that this great official standing before them is none other than little brother Joseph whom they had so terribly wronged, they are filled with fear. It is pay back time, when little brother Joseph will get revenge for all his brothers did to him, the part of the story so dearly beloved by little sisters and brothers everywhere.

But Joseph calms their fears and tells them that, though they deserve it, he is not going to get revenge. Rather he will bless them, give them the food they need. The family will be preserved. Then Joseph says something to his brothers that I want you to note. Looking back on what has happened in the years, all twists and turns, the weird events and strange coincidences, the heartache, the hurt, Joseph says, “You meant this for evil. But God meant this for good. You didn’t send me here. God sent me.”

Surprise! There is another actor in this story. As it turns out, the protagonists are not limited to Joseph, his brothers, what he did, or didn’t do to them. There is a third participant without whom the story cannot be fully told – God. Joseph’s brothers were meaning all of this for evil, to do in their uppity little brother, and Joseph was meaning simply to survive. But God was also busy, making meaning in the story that was not exclusively of Joseph’s or his brothers’ doing.

So Joseph declares, “You meant this for evil, but God meant this for good.”

As modern people we have been conditioned to describe our lives as mostly what we do, or mostly what is done to us by others. I am the sum of my choices. Or, I am the sum of my genetic heritage. But this ancient story dares to assert another actor. Or, more properly, an author. Our lives may not be stories written by us, or even by our parents, or our genes. Maybe there is a meaning beyond the meaning that we make. There is an author, unseen, but nevertheless active – God.

So Joseph said, “You meant this for evil, but God meant this for good.”

It raises a question: What if your life is not just yours? What if it’s not your parent’s?

I have seen this among you. Some of you have taken twists and turns, odd lurches to the left or to the right, that simply cannot be explained by reference to your psychological makeup, or your sociological background. It is as if someone, something, got hold of you, moved you to some new place not of your own devising.

People of faith tend to explain this inexplicable phenomenon by reference to God. Maybe we’re actors in a play, and the playwright is greater than ourselves.

Augustine once said that when you look back over your life, the steps you have taken can first appear like chicken tracks in the mud, little chicken tracks going this way and that in the muddy chicken yard, without direction. But through the eyes of faith, sometimes those seemingly purposeless tracks take on pattern, a direction. We begin to see that they are going somewhere. They suggest the hand of God. And it is then that you realize that the life you’re living, the meaning that you mean, is not all that there is. We are busy, meaning this for evil, or for our selfish ambition, but God is busy meaning this for good.

The great Commencement question must be refrained. It is too simple to ask, “What are you doing after graduation?”
A more complex, faithful question, “What is God doing with you after graduation?” There is an old theological word for it – Providence. That time you are able, like Joseph, to look back on your life, maybe by your twentieth reunion, and see that the times, the bad times as well as the good, had in them a sense of direction. While you were busy making your choices and decisions, God was also busy. Weaving. Creating.

I know somebody who is incredibly smart in physics. “Were your parents good in physics?” I asked.


“It is great that you have such an aptitude for physics,” I said, “and that you have developed it so well.”

“True,” you said, “It’s also a great responsibility. I have been given a gift. A lot is expected of me.”

I thought that you had it just about right. There is a claim on you. We have a word for it – Vocation.

What the world calls mere natural endowments, are gifts. Every gift is also an assignment. Or as the poet Maya Angelou told you, right here, during your first week at Duke, “We have given you everything this society has, the best of it. You are the beneficiaries of the best of our educational system … Now you owe us!”

Keep looking over your shoulder as you go forth. Be open to the possibility of an unseen hand. The life you live may not be exclusively your own.

So congratulations, dear graduates. God has done great things through you, given great gifts, and means to do greater things even yet.

There is a claim on your life. You live not just for yourself. We have a word for it – Vocation.

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