An Anti-Commencement Speech

Rick Ostrander
Cornerstone University Provost
April 2010

In the Christian college world, April means that commencement season is just around the corner. And with graduation ceremonies comes the commencement speech, of which I have heard dozens. People rarely seem to pay close attention to commencement speeches, and I suspect that’s because the speeches follow a typical script – graduates are reminded of the value of their college degree and are encouraged to use their education to develop their full potential, make the world a better place, become leaders in society, and so on.

Obviously there’s some truth to that, but sometimes I think these speeches can be a bit misleading. They can lead you to expect a bit too much out of yourself and out of life. So this morning I’d like to give my corrective to all of those lofty, inspiring commencement talks. Consider this my anti-commencement speech. Specifically, I’d like to share four humble words of advice:

#1: Don’t make too much of your life. One of the most common commencement themes is that your college education has prepared you to make the most out of your life. Here in America, there’s a lot of pressure to squeeze all of the juice out of life; to maximize one’s time and talents. After all, that’s a big reason why you’re in college – or at least it’s a big reason that your parents want you in college. “Be all you can be” was a slogan for the Army in the Nineties, and it pretty well describes the basic rationale for college in America. We Christians have bought into this philosophy; we tend to picture life as a big container of hours waiting to be filled in; and the significance of our lives is measured by, 1) the amount, and 2) the significance of the activities that we can squeeze into those hours that are available to us. After all, the Psalmist told us to “measure our days.”

I’m one of the worst culprits in this American obsession with making the most of every minute. That’s why you’ll often see me walking across campus with my head down and my thumb scrolling through emails on my blackberry. Or if I can squeeze in twenty miles on my bike before dinner rather than fifteen, I consider it a major victory.

So I think it’s helpful for us Americans to keep in mind this frustrating reminder: If God had wanted us to make the most out of every minute, he would not have designed our bodies to lie unconscious on a bed for one third of our lives. If you live a normal life span, that comes out to about 200,000 hours of sleep over the course of your life. It’s a continuing frustration to me to think of all the stuff that I could get done if I didn’t have to sleep every night.

To keep things in perspective, therefore, I’ve adopted a rather humble life verse. It comes from Paul, but it’s not up there in the Pauline Top Ten with “make your bodies living sacrifices,” or “run the race with perseverance.” It’s I Thessalonians 4:11: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life; minding your own business and working with your hands.” I’m not that particular about the “working with your hands” part, since our society today is much more information driven than Paul’s was. But I think Paul was definitely onto something when he instructed the early Christians to work hard and support themselves.

If you think back to the book of Genesis, you’ll realize that Paul wasn’t necessarily being original in his advice. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden and told to do a simple thing: “tend the garden.” If it hadn’t been for their disobedience and the Fall, they would probably still be fulfilling that noble calling. There are a lot of things that Christian colleges try to do, but if Cornerstone at least equips you to discover your own particular way of tending the garden of God’s creation, then we’ve accomplished a lot. So my first word of advice would be to not worry so much about making the most of your life; just find the corner of creation that God has equipped you to cultivate, mind your own business, and get to work. That may not be as glamorous as winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but it’s a noble calling nonetheless.

#2: Stay weak in your faith. Now before you get alarmed, let me explain what I mean: Some speakers may advise you to use your Christian education to withstand the intellectual challenges that will come your way. I graduated from Bible college in 1987, after which I thought I had life figured out. After all, the purpose of a Christian college is to equip students with a biblical and theological foundation for life. As I understood it at the time, my purpose for being in college was to assemble a solid, rational, durable Christian worldview that would enable me to withstand the trials of life unfazed.

Then I went from Bible college to the University of Michigan, where I discovered that a lot of smart people saw things differently than I did, and some of them had good reasons for doing so. I had to wrestle with the fact that I didn’t have all the answers to life’s questions. I didn’t abandon my Christian faith, but I did come to realize that I needed some more flexibility in my beliefs and that I could learn some things from my non-Christian professors and colleagues. Moreover, I learned that in a strange way, my doubts could actually bring me closer to God and increase my dependence on him.

I lived in western Arkansas for twelve years, right on the eastern edge of what they call Tornado Alley. We never had a tornado in our town while I lived there, but we did have plenty of heavy storms. I was always fascinated with what kind of trees withstood the storms and which ones did not. And I learned that there are basically two factors that affect the trees’ survival in storms – the depth of the roots and the flexibility of the branches. Simply put, trees with shallow roots and stiff trunks are more likely to blow over; trees with deep roots and flexible trunks are not.

The same applies in the Christian life. I like what a former student of mine said when he gave the student address at a college commencement: “I came into college believing a lot of things. After four years here, I believe fewer things, but I believe them more deeply and firmly.” We need to keep a sense of flexibility and humility in our Christian worldview. If you gain lots of information in college but don’t gain a sense of teachability, then you haven’t really been educated. So I would encourage you to remain open to the possibility that God always has more to teach us in Scripture, in circumstances, and through other people. There’s a delicate and crucial balance between firmness of conviction and intellectual humility. I hope that you’ll graduate from Cornerstone with both. In other words, grow your roots deep but keep your flexibility.

My third word of advice relates closely to the second: #3: Don’t preach the gospel. Christian colleges seek to equip you to spread the gospel; so let me issue a caution on this piece of advice: Be willing to stay quiet and listen. Learn to discern when your presence is more important than your words.

Let me give an example: Every summer for the past five years, I’ve taken students to Europe for a month to study church history and art history and enjoy the beauty of European culture. But of course European history is not all Mozart and Rembrandt: There are some dark aspects, and our largely middle-class, sheltered American students need a good dose of reality. So part of our trip includes a visit to Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. This is where 30,000 people died under the Nazis.

In conjunction with our visit to Dachau, we have the students read Night, the first-hand account of a Nazi death camp by the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. At the end of the day, back by the crematorium in the back corner of the camp, we gather in a circle and read excerpts from Wiesel’s book. One of the most important parts of the book is the introduction written by a French Christian named Francis Mauriac, who met Wiesel a few years after the war. After recounting Wiesel’s loss of faith during the Holocaust, Mauriac writes:

“And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner? Did I speak of that other Jew, the Crucified Christ, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the suffering of the Cross was the key to the mystery of his own suffering?...This is what I should have told this Jewish man. But I could only embrace him, weeping.”

My point is this: Sometimes in a fallen, complicated world, we are called not to preach the gospel but simply to share in the confusion and brokenness of life. It’s not that we don’t know the truth; rather, in addition to knowing the truth, we also know where, when, and how to best communicate that truth; and when it’s best to not speak the truth at all.
My final word of advice also relates to the previous one: #4: Don’t change the world. Using your education to change the world is probably most common advice given at commencements. So you’ll have to be on your guard against this one.

There’s a recent film called The Soloist that illustrates my point well. It’s a true story about a reporter for the Los Angeles Times named Steve Lopez who comes across an incredibly talented street musician playing the violin on a street corner. As it turns out, this musician, Nathaniel Ayers, is actually a former child prodigy cello player at Julliard School of Music. He developed schizophrenia, and his mental illness eventually led to him living on the streets of LA with all of his possessions piled into a shopping cart.

Lopez befriends Nathaniel, gives him a cello, and writes a series of articles on him for the L.A. Times that captivates the city’s attention. As the film progresses, you come to realize that story is mainly about Lopez, not about the musician. That’s because Lopez becomes obsessed with fixing Nathaniel – namely, getting him off the streets and into a homeless shelter, having him perform in public, and get medication for his schizophrenia. The problem is, Nathaniel doesn’t want to be helped; he just wants to play his cello on a street corner. When Lopez tries to schedule a public performance, Nathaniel freezes up and runs from the stage. When Lopez tries to get Nathaniel to sign papers authorizing that he take medication, Lopez is threatened with his life.

Eventually, painfully, the reporter learns an important lesson: you can’t always fix people who want to stay broken; you can only be their friend. The film has a wonderful closing scene where the reporter brings Nathaniel’s sister to visit him – not to try to make him better but just to see him again, sit beside him, and enjoy his music. Nathaniel is still crazy, and he’s playing his cello for fellow homeless people in an L.A. ghetto – not on the stage of Los Angeles symphony hall. But the music is beautiful nonetheless.

The Soloist isn’t necessarily a Christian film, but it has some important lessons for those of us who are committed to redeeming a fallen world: Sometimes we have to accept our inability to fix things and let them be broken. And in these situations, sometimes our presence is more important than our words or actions.

Now hopefully you won’t take my anti-commencement speech too far. I’m deeply committed to Cornerstone’s mission of equipping Christian graduates to influence their world for Christ. We are called as Christians to work as the body of Christ in redeeming a fallen world. Moreover, I want our students to be strong in their faith and to know why Christianity is the most intellectually credible explanation of the universe.

I’m simply advocating what the writer of Ecclesiastes stated when he said that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven – for example, a time to search and a time to give up; a time to tear and a time to mend; a time to be silent and a time to speak.

There are certainly times when it’s important to take a stand for truth and not accept the status quo. For example, the Dachau concentration camp that I take my students to is situated not out in the woods but right in the suburbs of Munich, Germany’s second largest city. But the residents of Munich did not want to be bothered with the awkward questions about all of those trainloads of passengers being dropped off behind the walls of the camp, so they did nothing. The Holocaust would have never happened if the millions of Christians in Germany had demonstrated the courage to speak out against the Nazis and resist the status quo.

So how is one to know when to speak the truth boldly and when to be silent; or when to change the world and when to leave it alone? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself, because it depends on the context. That’s why ultimately the most valuable thing you can get from college is not a good job, a godly spouse, or even a firm theological foundation. The most important thing you can acquire is wisdom, that is, the ability to act appropriately given the particular situation. Here at Cornerstone we spend a lot of time preparing you for a successful career, giving you a solid liberal arts education, and developing your ability to relate to others. But as important as those things are, I hope that in the course of your time here, you acquire the wisdom to know what aspect of your education to utilize at what particular time. In other words, that you say and do the right thing at the right time.

I used to play and coach basketball, which is a much superior sport to football. For most players on a football field, the game is heavily scripted. Once a play is called, you simply follow the directions. If you are offensive lineman, you block the person across from you. If you are a receiver, you run your pass route, even though ninety percent of the time the ball won’t be coming your way.

Basketball is different. When you have the ball, there are three options available to you: you can either dribble, shoot, or pass. Which one should you do? It depends on the situation. As a coach, I can draw up brilliant plays; but can’t tell my players ahead of time what to do. I have to trust them to adapt the play to the particular response of the defense. The best basketball players are the ones who can think quickly, adapt to a rapidly changing situation, and make good decisions. It’s called court sense, or basketball I.Q. Steve Nash, for example, is not tall, fast, or strong. But he’s one of the best ever to play the game because he has incredible court sense. You can teach a player the mechanics of a free throw or a chest pass fairly easily. But teaching court sense is much more difficult. It’s hard to quantify, and you can’t put it on a skills test. Moreover, it only comes through countless hours of playing the game.

Christian education is similar: In fact, wisdom is really just court sense applied to life in general. Life tends to be unpredictable and fluid; and it doesn’t come with a book full of plays to run. You may have heard the Bible referred to as life’s instruction manual. If only things were so simple! The Bible is a narrative of humanity’s fallenness and God’s creative, persistent, and ultimately successful attempt to redeem us and make a new creation. As such, it’s full of important and life-changing information. But there’s no Bible verse to tell you what to say when your best friend tells you she’s getting a divorce. That’s what wisdom is for.

At Cornerstone, we can teach you Fundamentals of Chemistry, or World Civilization (or at least we can try). But what we really hope you learn is wisdom – even though it’s much more difficult to put on an exam. Like court sense, it comes through countless hours spent on a Christian college campus - in the classroom, in a professor’s office, on the athletic field, in a dormitory small group, or on a mission team.

So when you leave Cornerstone, whether it’s in two weeks or three years, I hope that you will be firm in your faith, willing to speak truth to a fallen world, and ready to make a difference in the world. But I also hope that you have the wisdom to not be too confident in your beliefs, know when to be silent, and be willing to accept a broken world.