Reflections on Graduation

Below is the transcript of a talk I gave to the congregation on 5/13/2018.

Hi everyone, I’m Julian Park, and I recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Computer Science. I arrived in Berkeley three years ago, and I have called First Pres my church home since then. For the past year, I lived at the 2:42 House: a First-Pres-owned home next door on Haste St., and an intentional-living community of college students examining vocation as the intersection between our work and our faith. It’s a house dedicated to quite literally engage in the words of Acts 2:42: devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

I learned a lot of things while living at the house, from welcoming people into our community on Wednesday nights, to cooking fried rice in a rush for 13 people. Today I would like to share three oxymorons I have discovered while pursuing Christ as a college student.

Selfish Benevolence

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year wrestling with a desire to make a deal with God about my future: Let me do this great, altruistic thing with my life so that I’m known to be this great, benevolent person. But expressing love and generosity without expecting anything in return has been challenging. I would often do nice things for people because I was expecting an external result in response.

This past spring break, a group of university students from our FoCUS group went to Mexico to learn about issues around gender and immigration. One night, we home-stayed with some local families in small groups: They were so generous, providing us with a dinner of rice, beans, and chilli chicken. I got to play my favorite childhood game with the boys, and woke up to another feast for breakfast. And after receiving all that, all I could give back was a rusty “muchas gracias”. Yet, at the same time, I was truly welcomed into the community like family.

Afterward, we met the women of Las Patronas, who generously provide food everyday for hundreds of fellow brothers and sisters riding on top of freight trains, fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Day and night, their work showed me what vocation could be, with the level of their unwavering commitment to the mission of actively loving your neighbours as yourself.

Throughout this trip, we did not build houses. Nor did we feed the poor, or teach them solutions to their problems. Instead, we were provided a house. We were fed. We learned of their solutions in response to their needs. We were invited to belong, and it was incredibly humbling. I witnessed what it meant to focus not on what I can do for myself, but what I can do for others because I have been loved.

Complex Simplicity

As Christians, our vocational calling is simple, really. It is to pursue the primary calling: by Christ, to Christ, and for Christ, as followers of Christ. That, I learned this year, is our purpose.

In the book, “The Preaching Life”, while struggling to discern her vocation, Barbara Brown Taylor hears from God one night, encouraging her to do “anything that pleases her” and to “belong to God.” Thanks to this surprising simplification of so much vocation complexity, she decides that becoming a priest is what pleases her to spend her life pursuing. And not only did this offer her freedom, but God’s response to Taylor’s prayer offers immense freedom into how I perceive work and vocation.

Particularly in the university setting, society often convolutes the process of choosing a career path: the salary, the industry’s growth, the company’s mission, and so on. But God’s response to Taylor’s prayer in this chapter allows us to simply pursue what pleases us and spreads God’s Good News. God invites us into simplicity.

To me, however, the pursuit of this simplicity has been complicated. I often ask myself if what I’m doing right now is actually helping spread God’s Good News. And if what I’m doing pleases me, I worry that I could be doing something else to please others, or at least be productive and finish that problem set due tomorrow. Especially in a hyper-competitive environment like Berkeley, surrounded by an incessant striving of societal worth under a “do-more-be-more” mentality, it’s hard to pursue simplicity. Pursuing Christ exclusively, not falling into worldly temptations, has been a continual challenge for me.

Hidden Reality

Another vocation reading our community studied together that really stuck with me during the past year was J. R. R. Tolkien’s short story: “Leaf by Niggle.” It’s a story about a perfectionist who paints beautifully intricate leaves, but who eventually fails to finish the great Tree he dreamt to realise on his canvas. However, upon reaching his heavenly afterlife, he finds there the grand Tree that he has dreamt of all along.

I believe that there exists a much broader, grander, truer Reality inconceivable with our limited senses. It’s like knowing that there exists a full 3D scene while looking at its limited 2D photograph. I know the truer world is out there, even if my earthly life cannot fully perceive it.

With the help of this reading and our conversations and reflections, I have learned that my life is not about me finishing my life’s work for my own life’s sake. Rather, the point of my life and my life’s work is to contribute my leaf to the greater Tree of God’s reality.

I may never complete the mission in my lifetime, but I have faith that it will be shown complete in the fullness of time. I’ve learned not to condition my dedication to the calling on whether my effort will be completed in my lifetime, let alone externally acknowledged. I’ve realized that I must commit myself to this work because the mission that I champion is more important than my contributions to the journey.

Thank you.