Recently I was invited to pray the invocation at one of Mississippi State’s December graduations. I knew I really didn’t want to pray the usual sort of thing I have done in the past (“O God, we thank you for all who teach and all who learn… give us renewed commitment, etc.”) But what to say that was fresh? What was worthy of a graduation ceremony at a large university (well, large for Mississippi) where I knew one of my Presbyterian students would be walking across the stage? And, OK, I admit it, this was an opportunity to be heard by more people than ever before in my ministry, so I wanted to shine.

As I thought about what I would say, I finally realized the real-life stories of graduating students I had spoken with were the raw material for the prayer. For them, graduation is a mixture of gladness and grief. Yes, they go on to more education or a career, but leaving face-to-face contact with friends is hard. They’re also expected to be on their own, responsible for car and insurance payments, rent, food, whatever; and that’s pretty scary. Graduation is definitely what Paul Tillich called a “boundary experience.”

Reflecting on Tillich’s idea, I remembered that somewhere or other I had heard of thermoclines. Probably some sci-fi or adventure TV show. I knew a thermocline was some sort of boundary in the ocean. When I looked up the term on the Internet, I found that the thermocline is the “separation zone” where the mixed layer of water above—“much influenced by atmospheric fluxes”—meets the deep, uniformly cold water below.

Perfect! Water: baptismal imagery. Surface meeting depth, transitioning from one to the other. Surely a picture of growth in faith. Graduation, though a “secular” occasion, could be and is a grace-full time used by God to move us from one stage of life to another.

So, here is my prayer. I got a laugh on the last line of the first paragraph, so I guess people were paying attention.

God, what a great and joyous night this is. It’s graduation, marker of success in college, the commencement of a new era in life. Let’s get out of here!

God, what a lousy and sad night this is. It’s graduation, and we’ll never pass this way again; it feels like something is dying inside. Why do we have to leave?

What do we do now? And what are you going to do? We’re on this boundary between now and not yet, and we need help to sort out the feelings, the what if’s and the why not’s, the grief and the giddiness.

Lead us then into the mystery of this time and help us embrace it; teach us the power of this thin place where heaven and earth meet and in the passing of the old something new is being created. Make this night a thermocline of grace and amazement, where surface gives way to depth, and we know what you might do in and among us.

Go with us, God, when we leave this place. Go with us: goad us into tomorrow, guide us when we’re lost, grab us with your strong hand when we’re about to fall off the precipice of wrong choice, and grant us your peace so we may go confidently on this “footsore and sacred journey” (Frederick Buechner) of our lives.

Glory to you in heaven and on earth. Amen.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham