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Whitworth College 2006 Undergraduate Commencement Address
May 14, 2006
The Fools Against the Giants
In 1946, my parents moved from upstate New York to a little town on the outskirts of Chicago. They didn't have much money, but they were able to afford a house that had been converted from a barn. You architects might have found the conversion pretty clever; but I didn't love it when I became old enough to go to school.
"Hey Billy, where do you live?"
"Center and Walnut,"
"Near that barn?"
"No, in that barn… you loser."
But it was in that home that I was encouraged to pursue an education. I never graduated from anywhere on my own. Nobody does. No matter where you were born, and no matter how much of Whitworth you paid for yourself, people who loved you helped make this possible. I know you join me in thanking them.
Speaking of the cost of Whitworth, how did you like my New Testament text? Now that you've invested all this time and money in a college education, the apostle Paul tells you to become a fool. That sounds foolish. But our world needs a few good fools. And not just any old fool will do. We need wise fools.
I've seen several kinds of wise fools. There is the wise fool like Socrates. He claimed his wisdom was worthless. This is wise, because wisdom finds its worth in how it is used. But it's also foolish because if it is true, it is false. If wisdom is worthless, that's worth knowing. A second kind of fool is like the little Hans Christian Anderson kid who yelled out, "Hey, the emperor doesn't have any clothes on!" Was he wise or was he foolish? He was both. He was wise to the people watching the parade. But he was a fool if he wanted to stay out of trouble, especially with his mother and the king. Some wise fools are wise in their perceptiveness and foolish in their honesty. Those wise fools are valuable, except when they're talking to me, which is why you've never seen me parading around campus in my underwear. A third kind of wise fool would be the Don Quixote type. We need fools like the man of La Mancha. They remind us that our barns can be seen as castles and that peasant girls can be seen as beautiful princesses and that sometimes reality really does bite. We need dreamers. Remember this: You will never build anything that exceeds the specifications of what you can dream. The Apostle Paul sums it up: The wise fool's wisdom comes from challenging the wisdom of the world.
Today's Old Testament story records the mighty deeds of David. The Bible says that David was a man after God's own heart. The Bible does not, however, claim that David's mama didn't raise no fools. It's one thing for Don Quixote to trash-talk a windmill by calling it a giant; it's quite another for David to trash-talk a giant by calling him a windbag. That's foolish.
But David was also wise. He knew what he could do, and he knew what he couldn't do. He didn't go up against Goliath untested. His battle record was at least 2 and 0, since he'd already killed a lion and a bear. He didn't just impulsively decide to take on the Philistine giant as his first fight. Being a fool isn't being an idiot. Those of you who went on the Core 250 tour saw that Michelangelo definitely pictured David as a lion killer. His statue at the Academia looks more like Terminator than shepherd boy. Clearly, the point of the David and Goliath story is that God can use a shepherd boy to slay a giant, but in God's calculations, preparing and developing yourself is a major part of the formula. Michelangelo understood that, and so do you. Your commitment to preparation is symbolized by your very presence here today.
David also understood that he would do better against Goliath by using his own slingshot rather than by using someone else's high-priced sword. The king's armor didn't fit. It wasn't him. If you're taking on a giant, you'd better play to your own strengths. You'd better use your own armor. There are a lot of lies being told at American commencement ceremonies this weekend. And it's the speakers who are doing the lying. All around the country, graduates are hearing, "You can do anything you want to do if you really put your mind to it." No, you can't. In fact, there are a lot of things you can't do. That's why Paul talks about different gifts in the body of Christ. We're more gifted at some things than at others. Build on your gifts. Don't envy someone else's armor. Polish your own. Use what God gave you. American Idol is fun. Pirate Idol is more fun. But idolizing other people, even great people, can lull you into coveting someone else's gift while neglecting your own. We've been talking about vocation during your entire time at Whitworth. In a few minutes you will hear the choir sing "There is no such beauty as where you belong." We want you to find the place where you belong, the place that Frederick Buechner talks about, the place where your gifts and your deep gladness meet the world's deep needs. I don't love standing up here saying, "Congratulations, you've run the course, you've finished the race, you've borrowed enough money to buy Wyoming, and now, just remember, no matter what anyone tells you, you're not going to be very good at a lot of things." My point is that you can't rely on the wisdom of the world to discover what you have been put in the world to do. You've all heard the disturbing words of Henry David Thoreau: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation…." But the second half of the sentence is even more disturbing: "…and go to the grave with the song still in them." God forbid that happens to you. But I don't think it will, because I know you have heard the music of your song. We could see your gladness when you heard it. Some of you heard it in Central America, some of you heard it creating a business plan, some of you heard it standing in front of third-graders, some of you heard it in the laboratory. But you heard your song. Now sing it. Even if culture calls you foolish, let it ring.
Finally, David knew that even his undefeated record and his uncanny marksmanship were not enough; he knew that there are some giants only God can defeat. And those are the giants our world desperately needs you to fight. Graduates, we need you to be foolish enough to attack the giant of 1.1 billion people who live in desperate poverty; we need you to be foolish enough to take on the giant of 15,000 people who die every day of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; we need you to be foolish enough to take on the giant of several billion people who have never heard how much God loves them. But we need you to be wise enough to accept your utter inadequacy, to know that the battle is the Lord's. About 18 months ago I got a funny e-mail from your former schoolmate Jena Lee. I'm sure you recall it was she who launched Jars of Clay's effort to overcome the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. "Dear Bill," she wrote, "I'm fresh out of college, I have limited experience, I'm 22 years old, and I'm trying to defeat the deadliest disease in the world. Yikes." But she is trained, she is gifted and she does know the battle is the Lord's. She has found the place where her song is also her slingshot.
I hope while you've been with us here at Whitworth we've taught you when to be foolish and when to be wise. I hope we've taught you to distrust our culture. The wisdom of this world either numbs us or blinds us to the fact that we do have enough food, we do have enough medicine, we do have enough money and we do have a big enough God to remove the world from physical and spiritual poverty. The "wisdom" of this world perverts our understanding of justice and equality. In Bono's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast (a speech you should all read) he makes this point. "Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment. In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. That's a tsunami every month. And it's a completely avoidable catastrophe." And what Bono says about material injustice, we could echo about spiritual inequities. While people desperately need the love of Christ, we write in our blogs, "I'm upset with God today," or "I didn't feel anything in worship last Sunday." Give me a break. We won't get the gospel of Christ to a dying world by sitting on our fannies, blogging about how we feel.
A week ago today we were at our daughter's graduation from Pepperdine University, in Malibu, California. After her two older siblings graduated from Whitworth, this little traitor set off on her own. Malibu, California – America's epicenter of fame and wealth, one of the few places you can get a job as a counselor talking to pets with issues. In the first month of Bailley's freshman year I got a call from her as she walked out of Ralph's supermarket. "Dad, I was just in the same aisle as Mel Gibson," she said. We laughed and thought it was pretty cool. In the last month of Bailley's senior year I got another call from her. She was leaving the little coffee shop next door to Ralph's. But this was a different call. "Dad, I just saw Robert. He's so great; he's such a good person. When I hugged him he said it was the best part of his day." Who's Robert? Her boyfriend? No. Robert Redford? No. Robert is one of many homeless and impoverished people Bailley saw every Thursday night while helping out at a supper and Bible study for the homeless. Actually, Bailley asked Bonnie and me to come a couple days early to graduation so we could meet these people she has grown to love, people Christ has already loved. So 16 days ago we met Robert, as well as Bailley's other friends at the Bible study. We thanked them for taking care of our daughter. And in spite of their brokenness, they knew that they had. They taught her the foolishness of thinking she could actually help them. They taught her the foolishness of using valuable study time just to be with them. They taught her the foolishness of becoming a young woman who is more excited about seeing a homeless friend than a movie star. They taught her just the kind of foolishness God is looking for. They taught her the wisdom of God.
Your class has many stories like this. I should have told one about you and not one about my own kid. One time I had lunch with my dad and three of his friends who were bragging about their children. As we walked away I asked Dad why he didn't say anything about his kids. And I quote, "They don't want to hear about my kids any more than I want to hear about their kids, and that's not much." But I tell this story of our daughter because before I'm a college president, I'm a dad. And I know what your families are feeling right now. I felt it two weeks ago. Frankly, I feel it right now for you. Your families have seen you become men and women who are foolish enough to think you can make a difference in this world. And they love that. They have placed their bets on you, and they are all in.
In closing, let me leave you with five smooth stones for your slingshots, just in case you do decide you're fool enough to take on the giants. Stone one is knowledge: Use what this great faculty has taught you. Be smart in fighting the giants of this world. Brute force won't be enough. Stone two is humility: Not only do you know more than you did when you came to Whitworth, but you also have a better understanding of what you don't know. Be humble. Listen to others. Give credit freely. Do one thing, not everything. Stone three is laughter: Fighting giants can get you down. If you don't laugh, you won't last. Your giant is probably bigger than Goliath and will take more than one shot. Laughter will give you stamina. Stone four (and you already know what the last two stones will be) is truth: Giants hate truth. They would like you to live with the lie of helplessness. They want you to be intimidated by their size. They want you to think they can't be defeated. Stone five is grace: You'll find when you're fighting giants that you can become intolerant of people who don't fight as hard as you do, or aren't as smart as you are, or aren't fighting your giants, or don't do things just precisely the way you do. Give them a break. Different doesn't mean worse. Set higher standards for yourself than you do for others, but give yourself some grace too.
I am so honored that you asked me to speak at your commencement. Jackson said that 50 Cent was already booked, so he wanted someone who charges only 50 cents. Actually, you could have found someone better in every single area except for one. There can't be a commencement speaker anywhere in America who stands in front of graduates with as much pride and affection as I do. So thanks again for your invitation. Thanks for coming to Whitworth. Good luck against the giants. May God be in your slingshots. May God be in your song. Congratulations, Whitworth Class of 2006.