Brothers and Sisters,
Last Saturday, two days ago, was graduation day for the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), Class of 2020. It was graduation day, but not the sort that any of these now freshly-minted second lieutenants in the United States Air Force and the United States Space Force (or various foreign militaries) expected. It wasn’t what they expected when they began their four-year odyssey in the summer of 2016. It wasn’t the graduation they anticipated while, for three years, they attended ceremonies for the classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Normally, the USAFA graduation takes place in the Academy’s Falcon Stadium (a picturesque spot) on what is often a warm, if not hot, day in late May or early June. Thousands attend, including, usually, the President, or Vice President, or Secretary of Defense (one of whom serves as the keynote speaker). The firstie-class (USAFA terminology for “seniors”) marches onto the field to loud acclaim, and then sits shoulder-to-shoulder throughout a ceremony marking the end of their USAFA journey. The name of each graduating lieutenant is called, at which time they have an opportunity to salute, and then shake the hand of, their graduation speaker – meaning the President, Vice President, or Secretary of Defense. The highlight point of the entire event comes when the Commandant of Cadets says, “Class of (and he or she gives the year) you are dismissed.” At that precise instant a formation of the U.S. Air Force’s demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, comes roaring overhead and each member of the graduating class throws their parade cap into the air. Few moments can match the sense of exhilaration, accomplishment, and relief. Indeed, it’s an experience unlike any other.
All of that is what normally happens…when a global pandemic isn’t rocking our world. For the Class of 2020, graduation day was anything but normal. Their graduation took place on a cold and blustery April morning, some six weeks earlier than planned. The ceremony wasn’t held in Falcon Stadium, but rather on the Terrazzo (the center of USAFA’s cadet area). There was no crowd of thousands, though tens of thousands watched virtually. The class sat on chairs arranged at least six feet apart on all sides. Near as I can tell, their names were not individually called. On the plus side (and to his credit), the Vice President still served as the keynote speaker. I listened to a portion of his speech, profoundly grateful for his presence at the event, and heard a quote from C.S. Lewis and multiple references (direct or indirect) to Scripture. General Raymond, first Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force, administered the oath of office to sixty some cadets who became the first ever commissioned directly from USAFA into this new branch of our armed forces. Afterward, General Goldfein, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, administered an essentially identical oath to those lieutenants joining the ranks of the Air Force. It all ended with the same heart-tugging hat toss and Thunderbird fly over. In short, for the USAFA Class of 2020, historic in so many ways, graduation was a bittersweet sort of affair.
Following the hat toss, as the new lieutenants enjoyed themselves (while half-heartedly social distancing and donning their obviously standard-issue masks), a local news station interviewed one of them. I found this young man’s response both heartening and remarkable. When the interviewer inquired as to his thoughts on the disappointment of curtailed graduation proceedings, this new lieutenant said, essentially (in effect): “It wasn’t what we expected, but this is the only graduation ceremony I will know from USAFA, and it was incredible.” To be sure, this quote is simply a rough paraphrase of his actual words, but it’s precisely the sentiment I took away from the brief interaction between the reporter and this now former cadet. In short, he chose to accept and enjoy what he was given rather than bemoan what he did not have. “Beautiful” is the word that comes to mind as I reflect on that sort of response.
I’ll end with a connection to Scripture, prompted again by this lieutenant’s reaction to the day of his graduation. His response was excited and hopeful, even in the middle of what could have been disappointing and discouraging. How about me as a follower of Jesus Christ? What is my response in the midst of circumstances that could be disappointing and discouraging, particularly when long-anticipated joys seem stolen away in a moment? I’m exhorted by words of the Apostle Paul:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:1-5 (ESV)
Hope, brothers and sisters, does not disappoint – it does not put us to shame. And in Jesus Christ, we have every reason for a sure and confident hope in all things, every day, at every moment. Praise God!
Congratulations to the United States Air Force Academy, Class of 2020 (see pictures here). Well done!