Remarks as given by Gary Haugen, CEO and founder of International Justice Mission (IJM) at Wake Forest Baccalaureate
May 20, 2019
Thank you, President Hatch, for extending this invitation to address the graduating Class of 2019 at this glorious baccalaureate service in magnificent Wait Chapel.
Clearly, when the Baptists in North Carolina decided to build a chapel – they didn’t mess around.
Indeed, to the graduating students of 2019, congratulations on your very significant achievement. Well done.
It is also, of course, a very humbling and even intimidating experience for me to be invited to speak on such an occasion.
So, wanting to do my very best with this responsibility, I cleverly thought to convene an informal focus group in the lunchroom at International Justice Mission with about a dozen interns and recent graduates, and asked them: what do you most remember from the speaker at your college baccalaureate service?
After due consideration, the answer came back unanimously – they all remembered nothing at all.
Feeling, perhaps, a little badly about this, they then turned to me and asked me what I remembered from my college baccalaureate speaker.
Surprisingly, I could actually remember the occasion. I chiefly remember feeling it started, perhaps, too early in the morning. But otherwise, I could recall a delightful time shared with my friends and family in the lovely – albeit more modest – memorial chapel in Harvard Yard.
But when asked to focus on the words, or even identity, of my baccalaureate speaker, I found my mind enter the most vast and empty warehouse imaginable, where there were simply no memories upon the shelf.
From my baccalaureate speaker, I, too, could remember nothing.
And while troubling at first, after a moment, this realization began to wash over me as the most profound source of relief.
All nervous anxiety about what I might say today was utterly swept away by that sweet and certain assurance that none of you are likely to recall a single word of it.
So then, what does one say when no one is likely to remember what you say?
Well, to me, it seems quite clear that one says whatever they like.
And what I would most like to say to you, the graduating class of 2019, is very straightforward: I want to urge you to enjoy your life.
That’s it. I urge you to relentlessly and uncompromisingly enjoy your life.
I say this because after working with hundreds of students and recent college grads as interns and new staff at International Justice Mission, this is the quality that seems to so distinctive and refreshing about the young people who come to serve with us: they seem to be authentically enjoying their lives.
This is noteworthy to me for two reasons.
First, it seems to run contrary to the prevailing national trend. The heart wrenching data on depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide indicate many young people are finding it very hard, indeed, to simply find deep, life-giving joy for their lives.
Secondly, in a baccalaureate service where we pause over the heritage and invitation of faith, I would observe that religious people in America likewise seem to be having a hard time really enjoying being alive.
Indeed, those professing to follow my own particular faith – the Christian faith – do not seem to be broadly famous in the American culture for enjoying their lives.
In fact, it would seem that it has been a long time since Christians were famous in America for enjoying their lives. A hundred years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said “I might have entered the ministry if so many Christian leaders I knew had not looked and acted so much like funeral directors.”
It could be that the broader society simply misunderstands the lives of the religious people around them.
But frankly, I do not hear large numbers of the devout self-reporting lives of overflowing joy, either.
They do report that they are very busy, that they found a podcast that they like, that they are very concerned about what is happening in the world, that they are very busy, that the new countertops in the kitchen turned out well, and that they are very busy.
But do they regularly report with unselfconscious ease that they are really, deeply enjoying their lives?
Not so much.
This is what makes so many of the young people I encountered at IJM over the years stand out to me. They seem to be earnestly following their faith and enjoying their lives.
And not because everything is working out perfectly in their lives – or because there is not sorrow, or loss, or struggle.
In this respect they remind me of the miracle I have seen in so many of my IJM teammates around the world.
I have about 1,100 IJM colleagues around the world who, year in and year out, try to follow Jesus into a costly struggle for justice in the world.
They are Kenyans, Guatemalans, Indians, Cambodians, and other nationalities from all across the developing world.
They work among the poorest of the poor in their own communities. They rescue tens of thousands of their most vulnerable neighbors from being enslaved, imprisoned, beaten, raped and robbed.
Today, they constitute the largest international anti-slavery organization in the world. Outside experts have documented the miraculous way they have transformed broken justice systems to effectively protect millions of the world’s poor.
But over these twenty plus years, they’ve also been kidnapped, tortured, murdered, assaulted, arrested and abused. Why? Because they are willing to put their own bodies and hearts between the vulnerable poor and those who would intend to hurt and plunder them.
Every day my IJM teammates run headlong into suffering, evil, violence, and unspeakable heartbreak.
And yet, among those who spend time with them, IJMers are quite literally famous for an almost unseemly quality of joy.
They constantly joke and tease. They rejoice and feast. They party and dance. They play and sing (oh can they sing!). They delight in their children. They are in awe before beauty. They are generous with affection. They are unguardedly earnest. And frequently they laugh themselves to tears.
Of course, they are also flawed and human and silly and broken. But this makes God’s great sense of humor all the more irresistible; for the idea that God would use such weak and common people as his instruments for justice and grace in the world strikes them as so cosmically funny that they cannot be grim.
It would seem, therefore, that this kind of deep, infectious joy is actually possible among human beings. It’s possible even for those living and serving in difficult places – and even for those who pursue their life of faith with great devotion.
But, clearly, in an era of so much raw anxiety, aching loneliness, and empty affections – such joy is manifestly not inevitable, and maybe unlikely.
Which is why I urge you to relentlessly and uncompromisingly enjoy your life.
Indeed, contrary to what you may have heard about Him, I think the God who made us actually wants us to enjoy our lives.
My point is very modest. I simply believe that the God of joy who, briefly got your attention with the October Glory of the red maples that freshman morning in spring, who invented a thing called music, who ordained that all food might be fried – all food – and declared “It is good!”; the God who came up with the whole idea of having friends – that God wants you to actually enjoy your life.
But such joy among His children seems not to be the norm.
So, we might ask: what are the forces that destroy this joy?
It’s not a mysterious list – it’s a list that’s been known for thousands of years.
Joy is destroyed by guilt, exhaustion, relational barrenness, fear and a lack of purpose.
And no doubt you will need to fiercely fortify your divine birthright of joy against each of these forces.
But in this particular era, just as you, the class of 2019, are about to make your debut into the world, you enter a national culture where one dementor on the list is decimating the joy of your elders in the land like no other.
And that giant is the blasphemous and oversized orc of fear.
Indeed, in a plot twist that would no doubt disappoint ancient prophets and our nation’s best preachers and teachers of old, it would seem that America’s most fervent religious congregations are not only not broadly famous for joy, it seems that they are becoming famous for fear.
Social commentators see religious people in the culture as afraid – and in their fear, angry, resentful, self-absorbed, tribal, alternatingly retreating or lashing out.
Now, again, maybe the surrounding culture misperceives people of faith – but if religious people are not living out an affirmative advance of generous and confident joy, it will be fear that rushes into the vacuum.
This is why, in my tradition, more than any other command, Jesus exhorted His followers: “Do not be afraid.”
He seemed to know that there is one thing more than any other that comes between the good we have learned and the good we actually do – and that is fear.
But this was to be the miracle of faith – that in a fallen world of brokenness and evil and lies – the power of love would cast out fear.
There are, indeed, grievous problems in the world that grown-ups need to address – but we seem to address them badly when we do so out of fear rather than love.
When I am afraid – I stop thinking straight.
When I’m afraid – I stop being curious.
When I’m afraid – I stop being generous.
In our family life, all of us as parents will have memories of regret when we parented out of fear rather than love. When we were so scared or insecure that we stopped thinking straight – so fearful that we couldn’t afford to be curious and we cut off the conversation – so anxious over the threat of what we could not control that we couldn’t manage the generosity of grace.
Likewise, in our current public life, we risk accumulating grievous regrets of history when we exercise our power as citizens out of fear rather than love.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this more simply and vividly for me than the way we respond to the global crisis of refugees in our day.
With more human beings displaced by war and catastrophe than ever in human history – and in the face of explicit commands from ancient Scripture about God’s posture toward the vulnerable and displaced – fear can whip up the silliest nonsense and bake it into policy.
Policy that leaves our nation not manifesting the ancient virtue of the Good Samaritan, but drives us literally on the same embarrassing path as the religious figures in the parable who did not have compassion, but walked on the other side of the road.
But this is precisely why I am so grateful for what I see in the young people who come to serve at IJM – and from the refreshing courage of thousands of college students I meet across the country. By the grace of God, you seem to sense that the birthright of your Maker is not a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.
In my experience, however, the trickiest thing about this giant of fear is that he is not an adversary who presents himself honestly for battle. My true fears are ugly and shameful to me so I dress them up as something else – something more legitimate and respectable.
In fact, I almost never started IJM twenty years ago – because of fear.
But not because I was afraid of the obvious or noble risks.
I wasn’t really scared of the violence of the work, or sacrificing my career as a young prosecutor at the Department of Justice to become employee number one at a not for profit that didn’t actually exist, or providing for my wife and four kids. These were all the obvious and respectable risks.
When I slowed down enough to be quiet within my own soul – I discovered I was afraid of something else.
I was afraid of trying something that might fail – and looking like a very public failure. It was that picture of looking like a loser that, in my heart of hearts, felt unbearable.
But once I exposed the real fear, at least then I knew what I was up against – and I could ask myself: Is that really the fear that you want to let kill your dream? And I could say no, no I don’t. And the dream won.
But if I had taken up the facade of respectable but fake fears that my false self was offering me – I’m pretty sure the dream would have lost. I’d be quietly applauded for being prudent and responsible, but I would have abandoned the deepest joy of my heart. And tens of thousands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable would be left to silently drown in the violence.
This is why I urge you to boldly, extravagantly enjoy your lives.
If you relentlessly follow the delight of soul and the deep gladness of heart that you tasted in your most treasured and truest days here at Wake Forest, then you will not fall for the empty deceits of fear that rule our world.
True joy – the sensation of delight in great good well-secured – is the cloud by day and the fire by night that God ever places before you as your guide.
Over your four years, at this, your Wake Forest, with friends of deepest affection; you have no doubt tasted moments of a holy delight in authentic joy.
And that is what makes these days a glorious commencement. To mark the beginning of a hard pursuit of that joy and its Maker that will drive you past the thin veneer of false fears, past the distraction of tin trophies, past the empty delights that do not satisfy – to lay hold of that life that is really life.
For that, thankfully, you don’t need to remember the words of a baccalaureate speaker.
You just need to remember the truest yearning of your heart, the yearning for joy from your Maker.
May God bless you.