As I look forward to Matt Bell’s graduation from Perkins School of Theology this weekend and Mallory's high school graduation next week, I am reminded of my own graduation ceremonies, and have begun to wonder about the efficacy of those commencement speakers, some of whom manage to stir up a great bit of controversy.
Just this week, Senator John Cornyn was dis-invited from speaking at the Texas Southern University graduation because of the fear of protests. That was a likely possibility given the reaction that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos received when she addressed the graduates of Bethune-Cookman University. A large number of students booed and turned their backs as she spoke.
My own commencement ceremony at SMU was memorable for a controversial, but apolitical reason, too. Perkins grads have to attend two different commencements. The first one is the proper SMU ceremony, which takes place in Moody Coliseum at 9 am in the morning. The second one recognizes only seminary grads, and takes place in the sanctuary at Highland Park United Methodist Church at 2 pm.
The event at Moody Coliseum was an utter disaster. The celebrated graduation speaker, whose name I have forgotten, spoke so long that the restless grads finally broke into spontaneous applause to force him off the stage! Unfortunately, I don’t remember a thing he said, except that I wished he was finished saying it.
My high school commencement speaker was Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Gene Stallings, which I remember being sort of exciting at the time. Again, I don’t remember a thing he said; it does not strike me as being particularly motivating or inspiring. Incidentally, Coach Stallings was about to embark on his own “graduation” of sorts. The year after he spoke to my Allen High School class of 1985, he took over his first and only head coaching job with the St. Louis Cardinals. In four seasons, he never managed a winning season. So much for inspiring pep talks!
I have never been asked to be a commencement speaker myself, but I have preached one baccalaureate sermon. In my first year as the pastor of Valley View United Methodist Church, I was invited by the pastor of the local Baptist Church to preach, since a good number of the graduating seniors were members of my church.
I actually do remember that sermon quite well. I used the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, and told the students that they would likely encounter a great deal of “wrestling” with God in college, but to keep hanging on, like Jacob did.
I also have a vivid memory of the Baptist preacher showing some discomfort. He must not have been happy with the end of the sermon, because he came up afterward and added an extended — and impromptu — altar call! I guess he wanted to make sure the Methodist kids were all saved before they went off to college and wrestled with God …
I’ve sat through enough commencements now to realize that they’re a lot like weddings — nobody cares about what is said during the ceremony; the only thing that matters is the status of the participants at the end of the ceremony.
But of course, I have my own graduating high school senior this year. And so I have been pondering what I might say if I were asked to address her group of peers, or any other group about to “commence” a new phase of life.
It might go something like this:
“May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
grace to risk something big for something good;
grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth
and too small for anything but love.
So may God take your mind and think through it;
may God take your voice and sing through it;
and may God take your heart and set it on fire!”