I highly doubt I would ever be considered to speak at anyone's commencement ceremony, nor would I necessarily want to; however, after completing our (my wife and I) fourth year of ministry at Kenyon and seeing our first class of four years graduate, I thought I would reflect on the past four years and the upcoming adventures that our graduates will have. In fact, after thinking more on it, this would mark the college graduation of some of my very first ministry students as well. So, I thought I'd offer up my very own commencement speech, if you will, before the time has passed; here's a top 5 list of advice and insights that I've gleaned from the past decade, or so, of my life in ministry for the class of 2014 which holds the record for many of my "first's" in ministry.
1. As life continues beyond graduation, you'll find many things that you weren't expecting and that your time in higher education has probably not prepared you for. The first being that there aren't nearly as many people your own age around as college has led you to believe. Or more rightly stated perhaps, there are many more people, both older and wiser, in the world then your past four years have suggested. One of the biggest complaints I find from recent graduates, or particularly people in their first 2 years post-graduation, is that they are lonely and find it difficult to connect with people their own age. This is partially because college has set you up with an unrealistic life setting: surrounded by people of similar age, thoughts, and agendas. You'll need to quickly shake that mentality from your heads and get connected to a community of people. This may be a group that is tied to your interests, profession, faith, or anything else; but, you have to get connected, especially to those just slightly older than yourself. These people will teach you what the real world is like and what it definitely is not, as well as what to expect in your next phase of life. I've found that after my 5 year stint as a student in higher education, being young and married was not the norm for many of my peers and I needed the insight of those that have gone before me. Be it parents and grandparents (my own or not), married and single friends; you need what a real, multi-generational community brings to your life (just as they need you). Get connected.
2. Which brings me to my next point: it's not about you. Not even in the slightest. Even going to a small, Christian college as I did, where the gospel was communicated regularly, the focus of a college education is primarily on yourself. And, yes, our culture loves to try and reinforce this mentality, but the truth is you are more than yourself. You're the relationships that you build and the things that you do. Keep in touch with those closest to you: parents, mentors, professors, and friends-one and all. But remember to continue getting to know others around you. You can't be in college forever, so don't act like it's all about you.
3. When you're in school, whether primary or beyond, there is an easy way to keep track of your learning and growing. Another year, another grade, another set of report cards, another person measuring your achievements. But after graduation it becomes a little more ambiguous as to what those things are. You're never done learning, so don't count yourself out just yet. Whether it's grad school, a new job, marriage, parenthood, or all of the above, there is always something to be learned. Learn from others, but more importantly decide who it is you want to be and figure out what you need to continue learning to get there. Read, write, bake, dance, cook a 5-course meal; you have one life, so don't waste it when there are no longer assignments being given to you. Challenge yourself and be your own assignment.
4. Stay rooted in the one that made you. This will look different for all of you, be it daily Bible reading or walks in the woods, but I'm not trying to be intangible when I say this: connect to God in ways that are both natural to you, but also in new and unexpected ways. This goes back to my second and third pieces of advice, in that if you aren't reminded that life is not (just) about you and your plan but about God and his plan, you will find yourself saying things like, "don't I deserve to be happy," or "this is who God has made me." You are never a finished product and are always being made new, struggling with sins and dependencies, but through it all we should be asking ourselves, "where do I see God in all of this?" and looking for his hand in the daily, mundane things, as well as the grandiose. I wouldn't be doing what I am if I didn't believe wholeheartedly that finding your identity in Christ and living out of that is the most important thing you can do for yourself and the community you find yourself in. Plug in to Jesus.
5. You are responsible for your own actions and behaviors. As much as the people in your life care and try to direct you with words of advice, you're the only one that can make the differences you want to see. This isn't a YOLO speech, please don't misread me--this is a phrase attributed to Gandhi, I believe: be the change you want to see. Stop complaining and do something to make a difference. If you don't like the path you've put yourself on, it's not too late to make a change. Don't ever lie yourself and think "this is the hand I've been dealt." You have a college education, so you're in the minority of people that are educated and wealthy enough to make a difference, whether it be large or small, just do it. It will mean a better life for others, which in turn makes a better life for you. Don't let life pass you by, aggressively and intentionally play your many roles in this world (notice I didn't say role, singular). "Suck out all the marrow of life," as Henry David Thoreau would say.
Comment below, add your own advice to this year's graduates, and share with a recent graduate you know.
And Click here to watch Denzel Washington give his own short, commencement speech of sorts. Worth the few minutes.