Stepping Stones Blog

Commencement Speech for Christ Prep

Commencement Speech – May 16, 2014

Photo credit: Kimberly Hill, Shawnee, KS

Good evening.

I am deeply honored to be here with you tonight as we celebrate this momentous milestone in these students’ lives.

I first would like to take the opportunity to thank a few people. Ron Lawlor and Laurie Hutchison — I thank you for your godly leadership – not only for the students who have passed through this school, but for the staff and faculty as well. You are both such an inspiration and role model to all of us. You are dedicated followers of Christ who selflessly give to others. I shall greatly miss your daily influence in my life.

I also wish to thank my colleagues – my fellow teachers these past nine years – for your unwaivering pursuit of excellence in the classroom. You have not only trained up these students in the paths they should follow – but you have also shown me what it means to be a dedicated teacher.

I need to also thank you – the parents of these fine graduates, for trusting us to help educate your children. There is an African proverb that says, it takes a village to raise a child. This is similar to what is found in Ecclesiastes 4:12 which tells us that a cord of three strands shall not be easily broken. Both of these hold true to the mission statement of Christ Prep, which is to partner with parents and the church to prepare college-ready witnesses for Christ.

I have had many of these graduates in class, some in more classes than I am sure they wish to count. In many respects I feel as though these students are my children as well – and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with you for this short period in their lives.

And finally graduates…. I must thank you from the bottom of my heart. I thank you for teaching me more than I could have ever hoped to teach you. I thank you for showing me the love of Christ when I was unworthy. And I thank you for inviting me to speak here tonight.

*****

When Angie Rogg Cocanower asked me to speak, I immediately began to pray for direction – for a specific message to impart.   But I only kept hearing, “speak what you know.”

I suppose what I know is grammar and literature. I thought of bringing out a white board and classifying a pattern 3 sentence for old time’s sake, but I decided we could do without that trip down memory lane. So that leaves literature, and I suppose it really wouldn’t be a Mrs. Totoro speech without a focus on books.

I recently heard a quote that went something like this: non-fiction gives us facts; fiction gives us truth.

At first blush, this seems to fly in the face of logic, does it not? Fiction by its very definition is pretend – imaginary – not true. And certainly the Bible is our source for absolute truth. But I think perhaps we can interpret this to mean stories give us truth — and the Lord often uses stories in the Bible to teach us His principles. It is the message of stories – the themes of literature – that contain hidden nuggets of truth if we are willing to look. Jeremiah 15:19 says, … if you extract the precious from the worthless you will become my spokesman.

In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury writes, A book is a loaded gun in the house next door… who knows who might be the target of a well-read man? Bradbury was writing of a futuristic society where books were banned because they cause the reader to think – and thinking, it was argued, causes unhappiness. Instead, this society favored large screen interactive televisions and the constant use of inner-ear “seashells” to dull out the sounds of the world. Does this sound eerily familiar?!

Let us not allow modern technology to replace old-fashioned books; let us not allow media to eradicate literature. Let us instead learn to adopt all methods of story – movies, video games, art, theater, ebooks, and yes even old-fashioned paper books…. let’s allow them to entertain as well as educate us. Critical thinking does not cause discontent, it instead prepares us for life.

CS Lewis once compared a literary to an unliterary man. Mind you, I did not say illiterate – one who cannot read or write – but rather UN literate. Here is a portion of Lewis had to say:

  • Unliterary Man: sees no point in reading anything more than once
  • Literary man: looks forward to re-reading an old favorite – like a long, lost friend
  • Unliterary man: will turn to reading as a last resort – nothing else to do
  • Literary man: always looking for leisure time and silence in which to read
  • Unliterary man: rarely affected by a literary work
  • Literary man: reads to improve himself – develop potentialities – become more complete

So this evening I would like to make one final attempt to show you the value of literature – the precious that can be extracted from the works we read in class. For you see, the books we studied were not just to torment you with five paragraph literary essays or torture you with dialectic journal entries – but to actually impart wisdom that you can take into the world as you begin a new chapter in your own life.

So let’s play a little game to help keep you on your toes…. I have selected quotes from the novels read in my classes over the years; see if you can identify the book before I reveal the source. Ready? Let’s begin with an easy one.

I am sure as you sit back this evening, reviewing your high school career, you could sum it up something like this: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness.

All students of British literature know that is the first line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens — arguably one of the greatest first lines of literature. But I hope that for you the memories are filled more with best times and wisdom rather than worst times and foolishness.

But as you move forward in life you will discover that this rings true at every stage. Ecclesiastes 7:14 states, “Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God.” You will indeed experience more “best times” – and worst times – and everything in between. But through it all, give glory to God and rejoice in His love at all times.

This idea of the circle of life is repeated throughout literature. We discovered this theme for the first time in seventh grade:

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live long year, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from the balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent too, with blank white dawns, and glaring noons and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

Natalie Babbit tackled the subject of life and death in Tuck Everlasting, and ultimately discovered the truth found in Ecclesiastes 3:1-4:

  • There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
  • A time to be born, and a time to die….
  • A time to plant and a time to uproot….
  • A time to kill and a time to heal….
  • A time to tear down and a time to build…
  • A time to weep and a time to laugh…
  • A time to mourn and a time to dance.

Tonight dear graduates you are at the top of that ferris wheel. You have endured the climb through high school English, Math, Science and history and you have come out on top. Delight in this moment. Drink in the joy of this achievement.   Relish the view. You deserve it.

But some day you will experience the downward turn. For some of you, this may happen within a few weeks. We have an unprecedented number of seniors who will join our armed forces before the end of the summer. I commend you for your selfless act of service to our country and I promise to pray for you daily as you defend the rights and freedom that I enjoy in the safety of Johnson County, Kansas. For others, you will begin your new chapter of life in September as you travel to various destinations near or far from home to begin life as a freshman in college. And for still others, you may not have a firm direction yet – and that is ok. For God will lead you where He knows you too will be of service.

In all of these new experiences, however, you will begin at the bottom of the pile.  The view may or may not be spectacular. The climb may or may not be arduous. But the circle of life will continue – and when you are down low remember that it will not last forever. Christ tells us… In this world you will have trouble but take heart – I have overcome the world.

*******

Literature not only prepares us for the ups-and-downs of life, literature also gives us wise counsel. Most of you may recognize this next novel from its famous first line, It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”Pride and Prejudice is really not so much a book about falling in love, as it is a book about relationships of all kinds. The title alone warns us of two human pitfalls that jeopardize meaningful, Christ-centered relations. Pride goeth before the fall and Judge not lest ye be judged could easily be the captions.

But sometimes I wonder if Jane Austen’s original title, First Impressions, might be equally appropriate. We all form impressions, perceptions of those we first meet, but we should never allow those impressions to manifest into unwaivering judgments. Judging is reserved for God alone… for God’s omniscience allows Him to know and understand all surrounding circumstances.

As Jane Austen showed us…. Elizabeth’s wounded spirit blinded her to the truth about Darcy. He was not as much prideful as he was reserved; he was not as much haughty as he was uncertain.

People change. We change. Learn to look for the best rather than the worst in your fellow man.

A similar theme was repeated in another classic we read freshman year:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Atticus Finch, the sage father to Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, was the lone voice of justice and tolerance in this fictional story where prejudice ran rampant. Put yourself in another’s shoes and experience their life before you pass judgment.

The Bible warns us not to point out the speck of dust in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own. This would be especially true as you venture out of the homogenous world of Christ Prep and into the diversity of the real world. While we are called to be not OF this world – we must live IN this world. Showing the love of Christ includes taking the time to listen and understand another point of view. Empathy and compassion for our fellow man must never be ignored; however, that does not mean we should condone sinful behavior. You must stand firm in your Christian beliefs; you must never waiver from the truth.

Atticus would say it this way:

They’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Be true to your faith; be true to your convictions. Be accepting of others and share the love of Christ with all.

*****

In essence, literature gives us insight into human nature. It reinforces the cyclical make up of the world, it delves into the complexity of human relationships, and it teaches us something about ourselves.

As a famous wizard once said of an unadventurous hobbit, “There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”

While we all know we are beloved children of God, there are times when at least I have struggled with understanding His purpose for my life. Perhaps there are some here who can relate. I too often compare myself to those who have a clear direction and wonder how God will use me to further His kingdom.

Or… there have been times, like tonight, when I feel God is asking me to go on an adventure for which I do not feel at all equipped. I reason that there are others who are far more qualified for the task than I am. But as Bilbo discovered, God knows our abilities and our limitations far better than we know ourselves. Psalm 139:16 says that Your eyes saw my unformed body;
 all the days ordained for me were written in your book
 before one of them came to be. And Matthew tells us that He even knows the number of hairs on our head.

You must not rely on how others view you – for Thorin and company often questioned whether Bilbo was the right man for the job — and truthfully you cannot always rely on how you view yourself – for Bilbo often wished for the comfort of home rather than the call to adventure. BUT … Gandalf knew the Tookish-ness that resided with Bilbo and in the end, our hero discovered that “he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it” as long as you put your faith in a powerful God who enables you to do all things through Christ Jesus.

*****

Literature can help us discover what lies within … and to develop that hidden talent to its fullest potential.

It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might as well not have been there at all, the gardener will be there a lifetime.

It is in the touching — the passion and compassion that you feel and convey to others that will make a difference in this world.   Unfortunately in the world of Fahrenheit 451, the idea of using unique talents and gifts to connect with others in a meaningful way was discouraged. Robotic activities created a world of equality, and also a world without individual purpose.

Colossians 3:23 commands, Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” God has equipped each and every one of you with a unique combination of talents and desires. That is His gift to you. Your gift to Him is to cultivate and develop those skills to their fullest extent. It is through this meticulous honing process that you will touch others. Do not settle for mediocrity, for you will be like the lawn-cutter who is simply going through the motions, collecting a paycheck and living without purpose. Instead, shoot for excellence in all you pursue and witness a fruitful harvest over your lifetime.

*****

Of course… I could not address the subject of literature without referencing Shakespeare at least once. So here it is: The course of true love never did run smooth

This of course was said by Lysander to his fair Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And he was right.

But if I could be so bold as to modify Shakespeare, I would say this quote could easily be changed to the course of life never does run smooth

There will certainly be times when life is smooth – when everything appears to go your way. When you are at the top of that ferris wheel experiencing the best of times.

But there will also be times when life is rocky and unstable.   When the lowest point seems to be insurmountable. In those times remember suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character produces hope.

And you have the greatest hope of all in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For he promises that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. (absolutely) Nothing will be impossible for you.

 *****

So I leave you tonight with the words of perhaps one of the greatest literary minds of the 20th century, Dr. Seuss:

  •  You’re off to great places!
  • Today is your day.
  • Your mountain is waiting
  • So… get on your way.
  • Be sure when you step,
  • Step with care and great tact.
  • And remember that life’s a great balancing act.
  • And will you Succeed???
  • Yes – yes you will indeed.
  • (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
  • Kids – YOU GONNA MOVE MOUNTAINS.

Thank you.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. This address was meaningful to you on so many levels. What a lovely way to end your tenure!

  2. Shereem Herndon-Brown

    Inspiring and educational. Biblically astute and engaging. Thank you for sharing.

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