Commencing Well

Commencing Well

1 Samuel 20:35-42

Dr. Jim Denison

Thursday evening we each had a second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the final episode of Friends aired, again. And in case you missed it, it will air again the following Thursday night. And probably each Thursday night for the next decade.

More than 51 million people watched the episode the first time, myself not among them. But I understand Ross and Rachel got back together, again. Apparently someone cares—ads for the show sold for $2 million per 30 seconds.

Now there’s more good news: a DVD of the entire last season will be available soon. For slightly less than $2 million.

Today our church joins thousands of others across the nation in honoring our graduates. Since the Middle Ages, we’ve been graduating students through an exercise called “commencement.” I’ve been given five diplomas, and don’t remember a single commencement speech, including the ones I’ve given myself. I know that the best ones are always the shortest. And that the speaker usually comments on the fact that “commencement” comes from “commence,” meaning “to begin.” Not the ending of high school, or college, or whatever—but the beginning of what comes next.

So, what comes next?

In our series on relationships from the life of David, today I’d like to contrast television’s Friends with David’s best friend. Here’s the point: more than ever before in American cultural history, our graduates (and the rest of us) have two competing visions from which to choose. Two radically different views of the world. Where you get in determines where you come out. Commence wisely.

“Friends” and family

Let’s first look at the world of Friends, one of the highest-rated shows on television for ten years. Here is its message, as fairly and succinctly as I can describe it. Sexual activity is how we express our affection for each other. Marriage is optional, unnecessary to leading fulfilled lives. I read that Ross and Rachel, for instance, fell in love, got married, got divorced, had a baby, then got back together again. A second marriage remains to be seen. And given their issues with their parents, the “friends” taught us that friends are our real family.

A second top-rated comedy left the air the week after Friends. On Frasier we learned that relational decisions should be based on whatever makes you happy. Your own fulfillment is the key to “good mental health.” Frasier’s brother Niles taught us that marriage can get in the way of love. And so even though he was married to Maris, his unseen wife, we were pulling for him to get with Daphne, his father’s therapist. And millions of viewers rejoiced when he finally did.

Of course, Frasier got his start on the earlier television comedy, Cheers. Here we learned to laugh at Norm’s unseen wife, knowing that his real family is at the bar with him. Sam defined success by his previous life as a Red Sox pitcher, and now by his sexual exploits. And life was always good at a bar “where everybody knows your name.”

Going back still farther, John Ritter’s recent death caused many of us to remember his most famous television show, Three’s Company. Ritter’s character pretends to be gay so he can room with two female friends. The three must fool their intolerant buffoon of a landlord who wouldn’t let them live together otherwise. And Jack’s “lifestyle” is of course his own business—the show made that clear.

By contrast, a week ago we were treated to a reunion of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I’m old enough to remember the program—everyone was married, and no one slept with anyone who was not their spouse. How quaint.

Learning about life

So, what would Hollywood have us know as we commence on the next chapter of our lives?

Our friends are our family. So long as we have them, we have all we really need for life.

All moral standards are relative. So long as our actions are not illegal or harmful to others, they are legitimate.

All beliefs are equal in value. Our faith system is no more right than anyone else’s—it’s just our personal preference.

At its root, absolute truth does not exist. This is an absolute fact.

A new religious synthesis is emerging in this culture. Simply stated: God is whatever we see him/her/it to be. There is no uniquely true revelation, whether Scripture or any other source. We all share in the divine, so that enlightenment is possible within our own abilities and experiences. Because we share in the divine, no forgiveness for “sin” is needed (only 2 percent of Americans are afraid they might go to hell).

This new religious synthesis has been emerging for years. James Herrick’s new book, The Making of the New Spirituality, makes this transformation clear.

He quotes eminent psychologist Carl Jung: “We are only at the threshold of a new spiritual epoch.”

And author Wayne Teasdale: “We are at the dawn of a new consciousness, a radically fresh approach to our life as the human family in a fragile world … Perhaps the best name for this new segment of historical experience is the Interspiritual Age.”

And Harvard graduate and former Green Beret Gary Zukav, who speaks of “the evolution of our souls.” Zukav writes that science now suggests a new understanding of God, not as the personal Deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but as “conscious light” and “Divine Intelligence” that animate the universe. His books have sold more than five million copies.

Here’s Dr. Herrick’s evidence for this new religious synthesis:

12 million Americans are considered active participants in alternative spiritual systems, and another 30 million are actively interested.

1,000 to 2,000 new religious movements arose in the United States in the 20th century, almost all standing outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the New Millennium sold more copies than business books by Bill Gates and Stephen Covey. In 1960, some 200,000 Buddhists lived in America; now the number exceeds 10 million.