This year I gave the graduation commencement address at the school where I am the headmaster, Aletheia Christian School. I've decided to share it here in essay form since I spent so much time working on it this week!
Congratulations and blessings to Abi and Cassie!
Aletheia Christian School
Graduation Commencement Address, Friday May 23, 2014
“The Two Greatest Clichés Ever Spoken”
Graduation speeches are usually riddled with clichés. Or truisms. Platitudes, they might be called. These short, pithy, often sing-songy statements which contain little nuggets of truth.
Truth is good but cliches are not. Why? Well, cliches often induce eye-rolls for two reasons: 1. for being overly simplistic and shallow, and 2. for being overused. The complaint of point one is the depth a truth can never be fully conveyed through a phrase that fits onto a bumper sticker, while the complaint of point two is we get sick of such statements through overuse to the point where they actually cease to have meaning, at least a meaning that continues to impact us.
For example, how about “When life give you lemons you...” Or “Every cloud has a...” Or “Don't judge a book by...” All phrases that have meaning, sure, but to be honest when was the last time you or I really thought about those statements at any depth? How many times, exactly can we hear phrases like “The more you know, the more you grow!” or “We are the people we've been waiting for!” before our cheeks contract upward into a cynical smirk? Especially when reality doesn't live up to the ideal of the cliché. A cliché usually misses the mark somehow; it falls short of greatness because it settled for shallowness.
But this is a graduation speech and therefore it must be filled with cliches. But before I get to those cliches I wanted to read some Scripture to you, out loud and at length, various passages from one of the simpler books of the Bible, First John. In this brief letter by the Apostle are written some of the most straightforward and easily graspable truths for those of us who are “in Christ”.
From the first chapter:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4 ESV)
And from the second chapter:
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:7-8 ESV)
That is, this old commandment has been made new because of the work of Christ. And what is that commandment? Well, in chapter 3 he goes on to say:
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another (1 John 3:11 ESV)...By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18 ESV)...Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:24 ESV)
And finally, from chapter 4:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11 ESV)
Here at our school we are in danger of filling our children with clichés. For you see, every day (or nearly everyday) we end morning assembly with a call and response. I ask them “What is the Greatest Commandment?” And they respond by saying “To love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength!” And then I ask “And what is the Second Greatest Command?” To which they respond “To love your neighbor as yourself!” These are deeply important, powerful, truth-filled statements that border on becoming meaningless through monotonous repeated use. If we let them, these most central of Bible verses can become empty clichés. Feel-good religious drivel. But one thing I want to convey to our parents, our students, and our teachers, is that I am committed to making sure these words never become clichéd, but that they take deep root in our hearts and become manifest in our lives. So please, take note of the verses I read in First John. Indeed the whole letter could be considered an extended meditation on the Greatest and Second Greatest Commandments, to love God and love your neighbor, and how those commandments have found their fulfillment in the life and work of Jesus Christ, who came to earth for us and gave up his life for us.
You see, these truths can easily lose their meaning through overuse but there is a reason we repeat them everyday in school, making them part of our routine: for everyday we still must choose to walk with God, making him our Lord and our true joy and everyday we must choose to love our neighbor. If we must live out our faith everyday, then it is worth reminding ourselves everyday what is most essential to our faith. Spitting out the cliché is the easy part but living it out is incredibly difficult.
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (often called AA) or any other 12 step program are bombarded with numerous clichés right as they begin their recovery. Indeed, short clichés play an integral role in helping them find healing, in helping them live a life free of substance abuse. For the AA member just coming out of years of being enslaved to alcohol or other drugs nothing is more despicable than having a bunch of cliches shoved down your throat. Here are a few: “One day at a time.” “It works if you work for it.” “But for the grace of God go I.” “What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.” “First things first.” “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” “We'll love you until you learn to love yourself.” “Faith chases away fear.” “Let Go and let God.” Those were all actual AA quotes, by the way, used regularly by their leaders, sponsors, and members. Do you see every single one of them contains a grain of truth or a half truth, something on the verge of being profound but still vague in what it is actually trying to convey? Do you also see how none of those quotes are necessarily for addicts alone. They are kind of for everybody. I have read that these cliches drive novice AA members crazy, how they get sick of being told “One day at a time” and “Let go and let God,” until one day, months or perhaps years later, someone, still on the path to sobriety, has a bit of an epiphany. They come to realize they really have been taking it one day at a time, that that was the only way they have actually stayed sober. And, losing all faith in their own abilities, they really have ceased control over their own lives and allowed God to be the one who reigns over their desires.
The Christian faith is filled with many clichés, actually, the passages I read from First John centered around two of them. And so I am going to repeat the greatest Christian cliché, to our graduates, Cassie and Abi, to the rest of our students, to our parents and guests, and to myself until we really live it: love God with everything you have and because of that love go and truly love and serve your neighbor.
You see, there are many graduation speech clichés I could repeat here, ones like “Life is not a destination but a...” or “Believe in yourself and you can...” or “Be true to yourself and follow your passions,” and other such feel-goody-gobbldygook. These are meant to encourage you and inspire you to great levels of human achievement, but they really are not that great of a help. Graduates, let me tell you, your life will be filled with many hardships and joys, many unexpected turns, both good and bad. As your headmaster, I'm not so much concerned that you were able to pursue your dreams and “succeed” in life, but instead with the answers to the questions “Who or what do you worship?” and “How have you treated the people who filled your life?”
We all have many dreams, and all us parents and teachers can look back on our lives and think about all the things we thought were going to happen but never did and then all the life events that happened we could never have imagined, again, both good and bad. Myself, I wanted to be many things: a doctor (until I realized you had to cut people open), a professional tennis player (until I realized I wasn't a world class athlete), but also a musician, a writer, a music and worship pastor, a teacher, and a “regular” pastor (all things I am currently still pursuing in one way or another). But let me say this graduates, even though I am a teacher, a writer, a musician, and a pastor, none of those pursuits of mine have turned out how I planned. None.
I talked with Abi and Cassie and they told me some of the vocations they might be interested in pursuing as they get older. Abi told me when she was young she wanted to be a world-class bunny tamer. But as she has gotten older she has interests in being a veterinarian, a writer and illustrator, and even a prosthetic engineer. Cassie told me there was a time when she was obsessed with being in the army or being a private detective or police officer. She does not care so much about that now, but she does have interest in being a psychiatrist or counselor or even a business owner of some kind. Well, Abi and Cassie, I have no idea how any of your pursuits will turn out or even what you will be interested in five or ten years from now. But this is my call to you: through it all, continue to love God and love people. Through every disappointment or devastating loss and even through your greatest successes, the most difficult choices you will make will revolve around these two questions: Will you continue to love God and will you continue to love people? And as a way of life will you see how they are both so intricately inter-connected so as to be inseparable? And so it is for me and so it is for your parents who have brought you to this day in your life, a day of changes.
So I say we embrace the clichés, so long as we embrace the right ones and we say them so much we actually live them out. Graduates, to you I say, yes, pursue your dreams and be true to yourself, but only so long as you do so in Christ, in what he made you and called you to be. And sure, make lemonade when life hands you lemons, but only as the Spirit gives you the strength and grace to do so. I am not exactly sure that you will be able to “do anything, so long as you put your mind to it” in your life, but I do know this, from another passage in First John: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Finally, if I were to give you advice it would be this: Become lifelong students of the Greatest and Second Greatest Commandments, the most glorious clichés ever spoken. As you love God listen to God and allow him to lead you. Allow people to lead you as well, and by that I mean listen to your elders, let them give you counsel and wisdom and opportunities to grow as they serve you by loving you as much as they love themselves. And then, as you have given yourself over to God because he first gave himself to us, give yourself over to others as a daily practice. Serve them in the name of Christ and allow the light of Christ to shine through you in all you do.
And just for fun, here are 10 translations of graduation speech clichés: