Over the last number of years it has become a regular practice of different universities in the US to hold a “Last Lecture series.” As far as I can tell, the way it usually works is that the student body is asked to vote for the faculty person they would like to deliver this speech. The only guideline for the speaker is that they have to speak as if it is the last lecture they are ever going to be giving. If they only have this one last chance to pass on the wisdom of what they’ve learned through their life experiences, what will they say to this captive audience of young people?
A couple weeks ago in the Parade magazine there was an article (click here for article) about a professor for whom this was more than just a thoughtful exercise. Randy Pausch is a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and earlier this school year, in September of 2007, he was asked to be the school’s speaker for their Last Lecture Series. A short time after agreeing to do this he learned that he had pancreatic cancer and had only several months to live. He was 46 years old. Instead of cancelling the speech, he decided that this was something he wanted to follow through with. He especially wanted to put the speech together as a way of preserving his values to pass on to his three young children.
Paush spoke for about an hour and used humor and different stories from his life to talk about fulfilling childhood dreams and what he’d learned in the process of growing up, being a husband, father, and teacher. The speech has been viewed over 1.5 million times on YouTube.
He is still living, although beginning to become more sick, and has recently written a book that expands on his last lecture. Here are a couple pieces of advice that he passes on:
1. Look for the best in everybody. “I got this advice from Jon Snoddy, my hero at Disney Imagineering (he’s a big Disney fan). ‘If you wait long enough,’ Jon said, ‘people will surprise and impress you.’ When you’re frustrated with people, when you’re angry, it may be because you haven’t given them enough time. Jon warned that this took great patience, even years. ‘In the end,’ he said, ‘people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.’”
2. Make Time for what Matters. “When Jai and I went on our honeymoon, we wanted to be left alone. Since my boss demanded a way for people to reach me, I recorded this greeting: ‘Hi, this is Randy. I waited until I was 39 to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.’ I then gave the names of Jai’s parents and the city where they lived. ‘If you call directory assistance, you can get their phone number. And then, if you can convince my in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.’ We didn’t get any calls. Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.”
3. Let Kids be Themselves. “Because I’ve been so vocal about my childhood dreams, people have asked me about the dreams I have for my own kids. As a professor, I’ve seen how disruptive it can be for parents to have specific dreams for their children. My job is to help my kids foster a joy for life and develop the tools to fulfill their own wishes. My wishes for them are very exact and, given that I won’t be there, I want to be clear. Kids, don’t try to figure out what I wanted you to become. I want you to become what you want to become. And I want you to feel as if I am there with you, whatever path you choose.”
These were some of the points of wisdom Randy Paush wanted to pass on.
If there is a New Testament equivalent to the Last Lecture series, it would be John chapters 13-17. Scholars often call this section of the gospel Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” with his disciples. Basically, Jesus knows he is going to die soon and he is imparting his final words to those he loves dearly and who love him dearly. He’s like a father reciting the inheritance that he’s passing on to his children — only he has no things to give, just a way of being.
The words of John 14 often get trapped in a certain understanding that sees Jesus as speaking about what will happen after the disciples die, a heavenly setting away from earth and this life. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Older translations like the King James Version translated “dwellings places” as “mansions,” with a popular interpretation being that everyone will be given their own piece of private property in the afterlife.
But John is the gospel of incarnation, the gospel of life abundantly being realized now, in the flesh, in this life. Rather than describing the room assignments and real estate of heaven, Jesus is offering a way of living that is truly living. He’s not spending his Last Lecture talking about what people can expect when they die, but what they can expect when they live. So what is it Jesus is using his last precious hours to teach his disciples?
As an introduction, Jesus begins with a hands on participatory exercise. Sometimes a strategy for speaking is that you open up by doing or saying something that represents in miniature what you would like to communicate the rest of the time. You give an example that summarizes your message and then you spend the rest of the time unpacking its meaning. Jesus begins by washing his disciples’ feet. 13:1 says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extend of his love.” Jesus takes the towel that was only supposed to be used by the house servant, and carries out the servant’s task of washing his disciples’ dirty dusty feet before they eat their meal. He then gives a very simple teaching. “You call me Teacher and Master – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Master and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you….I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (13:13-15,34) Well, this wasn’t really all that new of a commandment. It’s what the law and the prophets taught and it’s pretty much what Jesus had been saying all along. But here he is not only teaching it, but demonstrating it. Do as I say, and as I do. Love one another, serve one another. Everything else is just commentary on this one central commandment. This is what I’m passing along to you.
It’s after this introduction that Jesus is able to say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Because of this core of love that the disciples are being invited to live out of, Jesus imagines them to be under the roof of a spacious house with many rooms. The phrase “my Father’s house” would have been a reference to the temple, which by the time of the writing of this gospel would have been destroyed. Jesus’ recreation of the temple happens within the community of his followers, God’s many roomed house. Where there’s space for all sorts of people to come and live safely under God’s roof. This is not a small bungalow hidden away in some back alley that welcomes only a few. This is a large visible house with many many rooms, where people are allowed to come explore and rest and find shelter and make a home. This is the kind of space that Jesus is carving out for his followers to occupy.
Interesting how Jesus is saying all this. He’s just stated “Love one another.” Then he says “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” “Believe” can also be translated as “Trust” or “Have Faith.” “Have faith in what I’m telling you and the love I’m showing you and you’ll find yourself dwelling in God’s welcome house.”
One of the best statements about faith that I’ve read recently comes from Richard Rohr, a priest who used to minister in Cincinnati and now lives in Albuquerque, NM.
Here’s what he say: “I am wondering if I have ever understood faith-or if I want it now that I am getting the point. The price of faith is much higher than I imagined it to be in my youthful readings about martyrdoms and lives of heroic sacrifice.
“Now I know that faith is not believing-certain-ideas-all-evidence-to-the-contrary. It is not dogged loyalty to childhood conditioning or pledges of allegiance to sacred formulas and official explanations. It is surely not the addictive repetition of rituals or practices that keep God under control. These approaches give the ego comfort, but they give little comfort to truth, and even less to the scary and wonderful coming of the Reign of God.
“I can only describe faith in its effects: people of real faith seem able to hold increasing amounts of chaos in one tranquil and ordered life. Faith seems to make people spacious, non-controlling, and waiting in awareness. The faith that Jesus praises as salvation (and sufficient in lepers, Samaritans, and those outside the temple system) is something very different than religion as such. It is a capacity within people to contain and receive all things, to hold onto nothing, with almost no need to fear or judge rashly. Faith-people find it unnecessary to secure themselves because they are secure at a deeper level; there is room for Another in that spacious place…Faith, driven by love, enables us to give up our need to understand, allows us to let go, and for Someone else to hold us together. It is not a giving up as much as it is an opening up and refusing to close back down for the sake of self-sufficiency and mastery.” (Richard Rohr essay, “Faith”)
What I hear Rohr saying here is that the presence of faith in our life makes us look on the inside very similar to how the community of faith looks on the outside. A house with many rooms. In the Father’s house, the community of faith, there is space for seekers, people who are at peace, people who are grieving, people who are rejoicing. Cynics, idealists, thinkers, doers. Those who know they’re lost and those who are pretty sure they’re starting to find something valuable to live for. There’s space for all these.
And having faith is a way for us to talk about realizing that we also need that kind of space within us. The room for the seeker and the doubter. The space for that part of us that is grieving. The room for the idealist and the room for the thinking part of us and the doing part of us. Space to contain all of our experiences that we’re not quite sure which room they belong in. A room to store the beautiful things in our life and one to keep safely the troubling things. All under one roof. The fragile house of faith that we have been given.
This is what I see Jesus offering in his last lecture. To embrace and receive the same faith that he had found. A spacious place where there’s room for all of life’s contradictions, held together within God’s care.
It doesn’t take very long for Thomas and Phillip to ask for Jesus to expound on his point more. They might have been looking for something more cut and dry and absolute. Something they can really hold on to that gives them a clear roadmap — a three point sermon, a five year plan, a ten commandment list or a twelve step process. Jesus gives them one command – that they love one another, and asks them to live with faith. Thomas and Phillip would like for Jesus to show them the exact way and even to show them God. Philip says, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replies that if they’ve seen him they’ve seen enough. He’s shown them everything they need to know. Love one another, and live with a faith that has many rooms.