Graduate Commencement Address 2012
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May 13, 2012
“Keeping It All In Perspective”
Old Testament Reading: Psalm 139: 1-18
New Testament Reading: Philippians 3: 4-9
I am deeply honored that you have asked me to speak on this very important day in your lives. Congratulations, graduates, on your wonderful achievements. It has been my honor to serve you as Whitworth’s president during your time here, and I can think of no more exciting opportunity than to address you now, after so much hard work and accomplishment. Now, I’ve sat through plenty of commencements, and some pretty bad speeches. I used to think that commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing graduates should never be released into the world until they had been properly sedated. By far, the best commencement speeches are the shortest. A trusted friend reminded me of that just this week when she encouragingly stated, “No one will be disappointed when you’re finished!” So I will do my best to be brief.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that this weekend’s commencement exercises will be the last for our provost, Dr. Michael Le Roy, to officiate at Whitworth. On July 1, Dr. Le Roy will begin his service as president of Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His colleagues, and you students, have benefited tremendously from Michael’s leadership of Whitworth’s academic programs. We wish him only the best in his new role, and we will miss him. Would you please join me in thanking Dr. Le Roy for his important service to Whitworth?
Tomorrow I will officiate Whitworth’s undergraduate commencement ceremony – a time to celebrate an important achievement for our graduating seniors and the culmination of their significant efforts to reach their educational goals. But for all of you, I dare say, today’s graduate commencement ceremony most certainly honors your uncommon commitment to furthering your knowledge and expertise in ways that have required great sacrifice, not only on your part, but also on the part of your loved ones. For many of you, homework and projects were completed by sacrificing precious evening and weekend time with family and friends. For most of you, your graduate education has come at the expense of doing other things that would have paid you more immediate dividends. But for all of you, this achievement represents your admirable commitments not only to the life of the mind, but to leadership, service, and professional development. Graduate degrees are not easy to earn – only one in 10 Americans has earned a post-baccalaureate degree. You have good reason to be proud of yourselves, as we are proud of you. You inspire us, Whitworth’s staff and faculty, to strive even harder to live out our callings to education and to this place called Whitworth. Your investments of time and energy inspire us to invest even more of ourselves into serving you and the students who will come after you. And your sacrifices remind us of the value of our own sacrifice as we work together to live out Whitworth’s mission to prepare its graduates to “honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity. ” Thank you for those important gifts, and congratulations to each one of you.
The title of my address today and the scripture passages I will use as its backdrop were due to the commencement committee back on Monday, April 2. The weekend before, I had pondered a few themes that I thought might be appropriate, and some ideas were beginning to come together in my mind. But on Sunday, April 1, the day before my assignment was due, I received a phone call from my mother informing me that my 82-year-old father was not expected to live more than another 48 hours. Julie and I made immediate plans to fly to Texas on Monday, hoping we would arrive in time to say goodbye. By God’s grace, we arrived late Monday night (really Tuesday morning – we arrived by my dad’s bedside about 1 a.m. ), and we were able to spend several wonderful hours with my dad before he passed away peacefully on Wednesday morning.
After our arrival in the early hours that Tuesday morning, and after spending a couple of hours with my dad, I decided to spend the rest of the night at the hospital, sending Julie on to the house so she could be with our five-year-old, who was also in tow. Before I found a decent couch in the waiting room where I could catch a little sleep, I made the mistake of checking my e-mail, which I hadn’t done since leaving Spokane the day before. As soon as I turned on my iPad, at about 3 a.m. , the electronic reminder about submitting my commencement address title and biblical references popped up, warning me that I was late with this important assignment. I had to decide quickly, but I already knew I was going to change course. On the plane ride to Texas, I had deliberately scribbled on a little piece of paper several Bible passages that I would read to my dying father if I had the chance – comforting passages that I prayed would give him peace in his last moments. Psalm 139, the passage Aaron Farance read so well this morning, was one of those texts.
In that comforting passage, which I reread there in the waiting room with my dying father only a few feet away, the psalmist reminds us of God’s sovereignty over our lives by pointing first to his creative power and then to his intimate knowledge of his creation. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me,” the psalmist declares. “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. ” The psalmist continues, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. ”
These words are appropriate not only for the dying, who are comforted through the knowledge of God’s ultimate care for them, the most beloved of God’s creations; they are also appropriate for us as we celebrate important milestones in life, like the important achievements we elevate today. Today we celebrate many things; among them are the unique gifts, amazing talents, deep passions and rich experiences each of you brought to your studies here, and the ways in which you used those blessings to inform and contribute to the educational experiences you are now concluding. Those gifts are special things – they call each of you, they call all of us, to discern how God is positioning us in a world of great need, not just for our own personal growth and advancement, but also to contribute to God’s redeeming work. We draw comfort and confidence knowing that God has a plan for us. “Our days are ordained,” the psalmist exclaims. They are set apart, consecrated for high purposes. The paths you followed to a graduate degree were not random – you did not accidentally stumble into a master’s program at Whitworth through some complex interaction of chance and circumstance, or by sheer luck. To the contrary, we celebrate today the investments many people have made in your lives. We acknowledge the material blessings that have made a graduate education accessible to you. We rejoice in the intellectual gifts that have sustained you through a rigorous academic program. We are thankful for the ways in which you have discerned the vocational calling that led you to enroll at Whitworth. These are all gifts from God. Indeed, these days have been ordained for you – and you have been faithful. From the beginning of self-awareness to the moments when we take our final breaths, we can rest assured that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made. ” God has a plan for our lives, and that fact brings us assurance and confidence.
So there I was, sitting in the hospital waiting room, relieved that even though the circumstances that placed me there weren’t ones I’d have wished for, those same circumstances gave me inspiration for the words I would speak to you this morning. And I was relieved to have completed my task, even if I was a bit late. But there in that empty and quiet place, I began to wonder if the lessons from the psalmist were enough. Psalm 139 gives us confidence and assurance, and that’s a good thing. But what about humility? My mind immediately went to Paul’s extremely transparent discourse in his letter to the church at Philippi, the passage that Michael Hockett read for us, a passage of scripture that transports us immediately from confidence, and the unhealthy arrogance that can often accompany it, straight to humility, a virtue I also want to elevate this morning. It seems to me that in the context of service to others, confidence without humility can lead to uninformed, misplaced, or potentially destructive behavior. Conversely, humility without confidence might lead us to actions that are weak or ineffectual, or it could lead to complete inaction.
Humility isn’t a characteristic that is often coupled with higher education and advanced degrees – indeed, humility isn’t a virtue elevated very often at all in modern society. The academy often elevates characteristics, like hyper-criticism, that can seem contradictory to humility, and modern culture is replete with examples of arrogance, excess, and haughtiness. You graduates have every reason to be proud of your accomplishments this morning. But realize that education brings with it the twin responsibilities of power and privilege, and these things can often work against our need to reflect humility in our service to others. The question ultimately becomes, On what will you base your confidence, and will that basis provide for and support a posture of humility, and will it allow you to order your priorities well? How will you use your power and privilege? You will recall that the psalmist encourages us to place our confidence in our Creator. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul similarly encourages us to place our confidence not in worldly accolades or earthly achievements, but in Christ, and Christ alone. We find real humility there.
Paul’s résumé was impressive. If Paul’s world had been higher education, he would have been the most educated among us, having the most advanced degrees and holding the most esteemed endowed faculty chair. But Paul’s world wasn’t education; rather, it was first-century Jewish culture – a culture into which the early church was cast. In that world, Paul had many reasons to boast, and his first-century curriculum vitae provided every opportunity for him to assert confidence and authority. If folks in the early church were comparing résumés, no one had a résumé that could stand up to Paul’s. Paul says, If you want to go “old school,” I was circumcised on the eighth day. You want a superior pedigree? I’m Jewish, and not only that; I was born into the same tribe as King David. You want sound theology? I’m a Pharisee and I know the law backward and forward. You want evidence of commitment and work ethic? Did you see how I persecuted the Christians when I thought that was the right thing to do? Paul put all of his cards on the table and rhetorically challenged anyone who wanted to go toe to toe with him to come forward. But Paul knew that those things – things that the world might emphasize – didn’t matter any longer. “What I once counted as profit,” Paul said, “I now count as loss. ” For you MBA graduates, Paul was saying that in comparison to the identity and confidence he had in Christ, what he would have normally counted as assets may as well be counted now as liabilities. Paul had every reason to boast and brag and to leverage his accomplishments into authority, power and privilege. He had confidence in Christ, and in Christ’s calling on his life, and with that he found humility, a humility that empowered him to use his power and privilege to serve a world that needed to hear the good news.
Confidence and humility are two sides of the same coin. Graduates, you should have confidence that you are well equipped and prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in business, education and ministry. Your Whitworth education and your unique gifts, passions and experiences have positioned you well to accomplish what God is calling you to do. That confidence is ultimately based in your identity as a child of God, a God who knows you, loves you, and has ordained your work of service in this world. Your identity in Christ, and the surpassing greatness of knowing him, allows you to put everything in perspective, benefitting at once from the confidence you have obtained, but living through the humility you now model, casting aside those things that our culture would elevate and instead relying on Christ to guide and direct your path. Those words are, as I discovered in the early morning of April 3, edifying in both life and death. And I hope they are encouraging to you today as you complete this significant chapter in your lives and begin the next.
Graduates of Whitworth University, abide in the full confidence that God has called you here to Whitworth, and that he sends you into a world of great need, to be humble agents of Christ’s love, justice, and mercy. Thank you for your commitments to enter that noble service. We love you, we’re so very proud of you, and we wish you Christ’s blessings as you lead in confidence and serve in humility. Amen.