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Advice to Graduates: You May End Up Building Their Coffin

It’s that time of year again, when most people who graduate from anything in the U.S. get their diplomas in large, pompous ceremonies.  Since it is as doubtful that I will ever experience another graduation ceremony of my own let alone speak at one, this is a poor substitute.  Hopefully it will enlighten you about what you should be doing after the sheepskin.

My experience in academia, as student and teacher, has been an interesting one, from seeing one program’s fading glory, playing the cards I’m dealt to meeting couples where one did all the talking and the other the thinking.  For the illustration I want to use now, I’m turning to the Middle East, and specifically a story one of my Iranian friends told me.  Middle Eastern storytellers are the best, and the Iranians are the best among them.  The “Arabian Nights” are in reality Persian in origin.

The story comes from the old Persian Empire, when one of the kings under the “king of kings” came to visit a town.  He saw a very beautiful woman; he wanted her for himself.  (Even a Roman like Ammianus Marcellinus noted the beauty of Persian women.)  Problem was, she was married to a carpenter.  He could have killed him and taken her, but he would look like a heel, and even in an autocracy there are limits.  So he devised a plan.

He called the carpenter in an ordered him to build an exquisite dining room set (or “suit” as we say here in TN) complete with tables, chairs and the cabinetry to go with it.  But he stipulated that it had to be done in thirty days.  In those days there were no power tools or easy places to get lumber; the king knew that the carpenter could not complete the task in the appointed time.  The penalty for missing the deadline was death for the carpenter.

So the carpenter, without choice, went to work.  He worked day and night on the project; he about killed himself just trying to finish the job and save his life.  But, as the king anticipated, the job was too big for thirty days.  As the deadline approached he knew he was finished.

On the thirtieth day he looked around his shop, his uncompleted task before him.  He heard a knock on the door; it was the king’s vizier. He answered the door, figuring he was about to be arrested and executed.  The king’s vizier, however, had another order.  The king had died, the vizier said, and he had come to direct the carpenter to build his coffin.

Many of you are going out to do tasks that are, in reality, humanly impossible.  You have been told from your youngest that you can do anything you want and be successful at it, if you believe in yourself (which you have been told to do over and over.)  Unlike the carpenter, you do not know that you are under compulsion, and unlike the carpenter you do not know that the constraints you have been put under–obvious and not so obvious–will make real success impossible.  You do not understand that, except for a few of you, those at the top will drain so much out of society that the rest of you, like Sisyphus, will watch the stone life roll downhill as soon as you push it up.

Worst of all, most of you are unprepared to benefit from the death of the king.  Your skills, by and large, are only good for the bubble you’ve been raised in.  When that bubble bursts, you will be unable to even build its coffin, let alone come out ahead.  A lot of the unrest going on these days is due to people trying to keep the bubble inflated, but that is not possible indefinitely.

The Christians among you who still know the Scriptures will see the similarities between this story and that of David and Bathsheba.  David, wanting Bathsheba for himself, put her husband Uriah in the front line, where he was certain to be killed.  When that came to pass, David thought it was over.  It wasn’t; the prophet Nathan called him out on it, and David’s response was as follows:

Wash me thoroughly from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin. I admit that I am rebellious. My sin is always in front of me. I have sinned against you, especially you. I have done what you consider evil. So you hand down justice when you speak, and you are blameless when you judge.  (Psalms 51:2-4 GW)

David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14.)  Was it because he was morally perfect?  Hardly.  The secret was that, when faced with his own sin, he was sorry and repented.  Our leaders today are just too full of themselves to do such a thing.  You will meet such people all through life; just don’t be one of them.

This isn’t a very cheery message, but these aren’t very cheery times either.  When I started back on my academic adventure, the following verse guided my actions:

Then he told them, “Go, eat rich foods, drink sweet drinks, and send portions to those who cannot provide for themselves. Today is a holy day for the Lord. Don’t be sad because the joy you have in the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 GW)

May your joy be in his strength also; real joy can be found in no other place.


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