|Graduate Commencement Address 2011
May 14, 2011
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. This has been a year of firsts for me as Whitworth's new president. What a wonderful community to be a part of – thanks for your gracious welcome. And I must admit to you that this is my first commencement address. As many speeches as I've given, as many people I've spoken to, this is my first occasion to send graduates off with a speech. Now, I've sat through plenty of commencements, and some pretty bad speeches. Before being asked to speak at this one, 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 have been properly sedated. I've grimaced as commencement speakers told hundreds of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that individuality is the key to success. By far, the best commencement speeches are the shortest, so I will do my best to be brief.
Tomorrow I will officiate at Whitworth's undergraduate commencement ceremony – a time to celebrate an important achievement for our graduating seniors, and the culmination of their significant efforts in reaching 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 something else that would have undoubtedly paid you more immediate dividends. My dad used to say, "If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance!" But for all of you, this achievement represents your admirable commitments not only to the life of the mind, but also 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 all 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 in to serving you and the students who will come after you. And your sacrifices remind us of the value of our own sacrifices as we labor 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.
Congratulations, too, on timing the job market so well. I can just hear the sage conversations that occurred for some of you one or two years ago: "Getting a graduate degree is a great option right now because of the sluggish economy. Heck, by the time I graduate, the economy will have recovered and I'll be beating away the job offers." Well, your market-timing abilities aside, the economy is still struggling to recover from the financial meltdown, and while many of you have either found or retained your desired jobs, I know some of you are still looking expectantly for the next opportunity. We face very uncertain times, do we not? I want to encourage you today on that front, and I'll come back to that point in just a bit.
The title of my address this morning is Be Still. That's an odd title for a commencement address, isn't it? After all, we are here today not only celebrating the energies and activities that went into the successful completion of your graduate programs, but also celebrating what all of us (including those sitting behind you graduates) anticipate will be marvelously energetic, meaningful, successful and (some are praying, particularly those sitting behind you) financially lucrative lives of professional service in business, education, counseling, and ministry – no pressure. Dr. Aaron McMurray, Whitworth's director of alumni relations has already started identifying which of you will be the first to win alumni awards for your achievements – we're all counting on you! We certainly know that you don't accomplish all of that by being still!
Being still was the farthest thing from my mind when I finished my graduate work in 1997. As it will for many of you, the completion of my graduate degree meant moving my family to a new location, starting a new job, beginning my climb (once again) up the professional ladder, being called upon, indeed challenged, to demonstrate my value and worth to the organization and people I was called to serve. After all, a higher degree comes with higher expectations, as it should (one in ten, remember?). Plus, like many of you, I had graduate school debts to pay off. And like many of you, I had people watching closely from the sidelines, mostly advocates but also a few skeptics, waiting to see what would become of the guy sporting the fancy gown and graduate hood. I stand here today, 14 years later, with an even fancier gown and some extra hardware hanging around my neck, and people are still wondering what I can deliver. Achievements, promotions, success, being debt-free, living up to others' hopes, dreams, and expectations ...these things are going to require action! You cannot get to the top by sitting on your bottom. Being still is for slackers.
Interestingly, in both King David's lyrics found in the Psalms and in Jesus' words found in the Gospel of Mark, we see the command to "be still," although, I will concede, in neither case within the context of a commencement address. In the first instance, the command to "be still" is an instruction to us. In the second case, Jesus commands his own creation to "be still," but in doing so, we will see, he draws a connection back to the psalmist's lessons to us.
We live today in what Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith once called "the age of uncertainty." Instability in global economic and financial markets, unprecedented geopolitical unrest and outright revolution, a precipitous decline in society's trust in institutions of all kinds – including businesses, education providers, and the church – and a palpable, almost overwhelming malaise seem to be crowding out for many people all sense of clarity, optimism, and hope for the future.
Unemployment continues to hover at 9 percent, and many economists, including me, think that number understates the weakness plaguing our labor markets and the underlying economy. For generations of Americans, the three assets they could count on most – their homes, their retirements, and their healthcare coverage – now hold less value and induce more anxiety than ever before. "The earth gives way and the mountains quake," the psalmist reminds us. No longer are America's economic problems only our own; we see in dramatic fashion how our economy affects the entire globe, and conversely, the direct impact that the actions of people and organizations halfway around the world have upon us here in Spokane. Perhaps the most troubling thing is that at the root of many of these challenges lie the unethical and morally reprehensible actions of a few who have caused our society to question the trust and confidence it has placed in corporations and other organizations founded to serve our best interests. The word "big" has taken on a new meaning in the common lexicon, not simply as a description of the scale and scope of American business, but as a scarlet letter that assumes the worst intentions for all of us – big oil, big healthcare, big banking, and even big education.
Yes, even a profession as ancient and noble as education is under intense scrutiny these days, and trust and admiration for the education sector seems to be waning. As Americans read regular accounts of our country's students falling farther and farther behind the students of other industrialized countries, as well as those of some developing nations, Americans are right to question what seems to have gone wrong with our educational system. Uncertainty surrounding the funding of public education, the equality of access to high-quality K-12 and higher education, the assessment of students and teachers, and the competing interests of basic versus vocational education is just as troubling as the economic uncertainties I've mentioned. Like those disciples in the boat with Jesus that afternoon, educators are navigating stormy and turbulent waters, indeed.
And perhaps the institution facing the greatest number of challenges is Christ's church. Sexual abuse scandals, fiscal mismanagement, declining mainline Protestant church attendance, continuing disagreements, made all too public, about ordination standards for women and members of the GLBT community, attempts within society to turn the United States into a more decidedly Christian theocracy, potentially marginalizing so many of our citizens from other or no faith traditions, all the while undermining Christ's central teachings on justice, love, mercy and inclusion – these are but a few of the challenges that the church faces at the dawn of the 21st century. "The mountains fall into the heart of the sea, and its waters roar and foam," King David writes.
Are you encouraged yet? Well, I bring good news that we can seek and find great encouragement from the words of the psalmist and Jesus. Although challenges facing the professions you are serving seem overwhelming and intractable, you leaders cannot flinch in the face of adversity, change, and uncertainty. No, indeed. You must embrace these challenges for what they are – opportunities to lead. What is true about all of the professions and disciplines represented here today – teaching, counseling, education administration, business, theology, and ministry – is that they are noble and honorable professions, and they are important mediators for doing Christ's work in a world that needs your leadership.
Educators, you are doing Christ's work when you care for and nourish intellectually the youth of the world. Christ reminds us in Matthew 25 that the service and care we provide for our children, the least of these, is service and care provided to and for Christ himself. "Let the little children come to me," Jesus admonishes us (Matthew 19). Teachers, you are Christ's light to the world as you light the lamp of learning for your students, and as you provide access to transformative education for those who deserve opportunities to develop and use their God-given gifts and abilities.
I grew up in a broken home and lived in poverty with my mother until I was nine years old. I was challenged with emotional, behavioral, and educational setbacks. After I failed the third grade, my mom, previously divorced, married my stepdad, and we moved to Dallas, Texas, for a fresh start. I'll never forget my third grade teacher that year at Moss Haven Elementary School. Nancy Smith didn't see me as a failure, or as someone to seat in the coat closet as my previous teacher had done. She saw me as a child of promise: bright, eager, and maybe a little rambunctious. She spent hours with me, loving on me, encouraging me, and expecting much from me. Not only did I pass the third grade, I made straight A's. And now I'm the president of a university, and Nancy Smith's name, some 32 years later, is being spoken in front of hundreds of graduates and guests at commencement. Educators, you are agents for Christ's love, justice, and mercy. God is concerned with your life's purpose and mission.
In my former role as dean of a business school, one of my favorite things to do was to lift up, in the face of increasing scrutiny and derision, those business leaders who saw their activities as living out true vocation, who saw their organizations not merely as accumulators of profit, but as agents for the common good. Dan Cathy, a good friend of mine and the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, a quick-service restaurant company located in Atlanta, once told me that his favorite movie was Chariots of Fire because of Eric Liddell's line in that movie, "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." Dan Cathy said to me with tears in his eyes, "God made me a good businessperson. And when I make someone a good chicken sandwich and a cold sweet tea, when I employ thousands of people and help them provide for their families, when I train young people to go the second mile when they provide service to others, I feel God's pleasure."
The creation and distribution of wealth is a noble activity – or it should be. Providing services and products that improve the lifestyles, health, and productivity of others is worthy of our best efforts. The stewardship of resources, the opportunities to reinvest in communities, the obligation to provide meaningful employment to all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, and the eagerness to care for nature in the process – these are things about which God is concerned. Business leaders, don't buy in to the false divide between the secular and the sacred. Don't bury your talents, but invest them in the kingdom (Matthew 25). You, too, are agents for Christ's love, justice, and mercy. God is deeply concerned with your life's purpose and mission.
And what is more central to this noble work than studying God and his generous revelation to us through holy scripture and the person of Jesus Christ, sharing the amazing grace and truth of the Gospel and equipping people to respond faithfully to God's call on their lives? Theologians, pastors and lay leaders, Christian educators and ministry directors, you are Christ's hands and feet as you nurture, care for, and empower the church to do God's redeeming work in a broken world. I had the pleasure yesterday morning to attend the Spokane Leadership Prayer Breakfast, where 400 members of the Spokane community gathered to pray for our elected and appointed leaders. The keynote speaker was 1982 Whitworth alum Noel Castellanos, who is CEO of the Christian Community Development Association and founding pastor of Chicago's La Villita Community Church. Noel and his family have lived for 20 years in one of the most difficult neighborhoods in the inner city of Chicago, where they have committed themselves to being God's agents of grace and shalom to their neighbors. Noel and the CCDA model for the church a fresh approach to how to work in and with communities. In a recent interview for the journal Faith and Leadership, Noel said, "We work from the inside out. We work long term. We move into the neighborhood and stay there for the next 20 to 30 years. We do life with our neighbors, and let the gospel permeate everything we do."
Master of arts in theology graduates, as you carefully search for a greater understanding of the mysteries of God, as you give comfort to the bereaved, provide divine sustenance to the spiritually hungry, and preach God's grace and truth in a world where both are in short supply; you labor with the Good Shepherd in caring for his flock. You are agents of Christ's love, justice, and mercy, and God is profoundly concerned with your life's purpose and mission.
So it follows, if God is concerned with your life's purpose, if he has called and equipped you for your education at this university and for the important work and service you will offer as you leave this place -- work and service that will animate Christ's redemptive work in the world -- then all of this isn't really about you and me, is it? It's about what God is doing through you, through each of us. And if it's about what God is doing, then what do we have to fear – even in the face of great adversity, change, and uncertainty? As we cling tightly to the sides of the swaying boat, Jesus rebukes us, saying, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" Romans 8 instructs us that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose," and "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Philippians 1 reminds us that God, "who began a good work in you, will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Paul is reminding us of our purpose and identity in Christ if we proclaim him Lord and Savior, but I believe with all my heart that God's redemptive work in us is mediated through his particular calling on our lives, our calling as husband, or mother, or nurse, or accountant, or teacher, or investment banker, or college professor, or school counselor, or youth ministry coordinator. What is required of you in this calling? "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Good people, you are agents for Christ's love, justice, and mercy. God is intimately concerned with your life's purpose and mission, because he is the author of that purpose and mission.
We indeed live in challenging times. Our professions are under attack. Leaders feel beleaguered. The world is shifting. Change is constant. Uncertainty reigns. "The earth gives way, the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, the waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging," David warns us. Our boats are rocked and unstable, the storms are closing in, and we are prone to be afraid. But God is concerned with our missions. He's invested. He's all in. God loves us and the people we serve. He's called us -- with our varied gifts and talents, passions, and experiences -- to the work we do.
So what is God's word for you this day? When you are overwhelmed with the tasks of the day, when the details just don't seem to be working out, when you are feeling worn down and your hope is fragile, God says, "I am your refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." When you are fearful that your efforts aren't making a difference, or that the winds of resistance are about to knock you down, or that your investments in an advanced degree at Whitworth might not pay off, God says, "Do not fear. I, the Lord God Almighty, am with you." When your foundation is rocked, when your tank is empty, when, in the process of serving others, you realize your needs may be greater than those of the ones who depend on you, God says, "I will be your fortress." When you are too frantic with the urgent matters of the day, fighting fires, solving problems, moving too quickly over so many tasks that you are neither attentive to nor effective at any one of them, God says, "Be still, and know that I am God." When you face failure, when the demands are just too much, when you can't see through the haze of uncertainty, when giving up seems a much better outcome than being swallowed up, when that graduate hood feels more like a noose than a fashion statement -- right there at the brink -- Jesus reminds us that he is God and we are not, and he commands the wind and waves to cease their attack. "Be still!" Have faith.
Graduates, we indeed live in interesting times. But the challenges you are being called to conquer have been ever-present, even during your study here, and yet you have not been deterred from finishing the race. You enter the next chapter of your lives with eyes wide open, well-informed and superbly equipped to meet those challenges with intellectual competence, moral courage, and deep compassion. Abide in the full confidence that God has called you here to Whitworth, and that God sends you into a world of great need, to be agents of Christ's love, justice, and mercy. Thank you for your commitment 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 and serve. Amen.