The selected text is from the 2021 Great Lakes Adventist Academy Commencement address offered by Sietie Heslop on May 30, 2021. Elements of the oral presentation in the text have been purposely preserved.—Editors.
Elder Micheff, school board, sponsors, faculty, staff, administration, friends, family, and “my kids” of the graduating class of 2021, what an honor it is to be with you this morning, to share this moment with you as you celebrate an epic milestone in your lives. When I retired at the end of last school year, leaving your class was the hardest part. Thank you for still including me.
I realize I am the only thing standing between you and your high school diploma. Perhaps I could hold your diplomas for ransom. I wonder what you might be willing to pay me to keep this commencement address from going long. Since you are graduating from a private school, I am guessing you don’t have a lot of extra money lying around. Your parents and families have made a fantastic choice—a choice that comes with great sacrifice. They invested in you, sending you to Great Lakes Adventist Academy (GLAA) when there were much easier and less expensive options. They valued your training so much—they knew how important it was for you to become grounded in biblical principles—that they paid the price so you could be here today. Thank you, families and parents, for your example, your sacrifice, your investment. In honor of what your families have sacrificed so that you could complete this stage of your journey, I simply cannot hold your diplomas for ransom. That would just be wrong, and you would remember me for all the wrong reasons. How about this:I was asked to speak for 18-20 minutes. How about I speak for 15-17 minutes, and you then owe me three minutes? Deal? Now, what would I ask you to do with those extra three minutes of adulthood? I will come back to my gracious addition of three minutes to your life. You’re welcome—well, don’t say “thank you” just yet. My offer is conditional.
Most of you have been given several of my Step-by-Step papers, especially during big weekends. Two pages of Step-by-Step covered one short weekend of activities. Today is my final Step-by-Step for you, but because we are talking about decades of life ahead, I have time to name only a few steps that are important. I thought about just printing the Step-by-Step and handing it out to you but remembered that most of you never read them anyway! I’m naming my steps in a bit of a strange way—see if you figure it out! Here goes.
You can drink volcanic lava, but only once. Now I admit I didn’t learn this one from experience. It was a meme on Facebook. The point is that some actions are irreversible. Bad decisions make fantastic stories, but they make for painful lives. A man once said, “I used to think drinking was bad for me, so I gave up thinking.” This is not a “don’t drink or you’ll go to hell” speech. It’s a “don’t give up thinking” speech. You are about to embark on a new journey in which you will be making more decisions with greater consequences than ever before. Proverbs 2:6 tells us that wisdom and knowledge come from the mouth of God—from His word. You can learn by experience, or you can learn by listening to God’s counsel. Experience is a good teacher, but the tuition rates are higher than any of us can afford. “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I think I will make some more,” said no one ever! On the other hand, God’s counsel is tuition-free, and the wisest man ever—who ironically has lots of entertaining stories (just read Ecclesiastes)—says in Proverbs 3:14, 15 that God’s counsel is better than silver, gold, jewels—and anything else you could ever desire. Choose wisely. Choose your friends. Choose to always forgive, as that is one of the most significant gifts you can give someone. Choose your habits. Choose to save for the future—not just money but save health, time, energy; memorize Scripture for future needs, keep food in your pantry in case unexpected guests come to visit. Life is all about choices!
Fashion fades, and styles change. The preferences of the culture around you will morph wildly every five years or so. What is old becomes new again. Yet there is really nothing new under the sun. One of the reasons Paul warns us against becoming conformed to this world is because he understood that some things are temporary and fade away, and that other things are lasting and valuable. He encouraged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, because he knew that if we allow God’s Word to do its work in us, we will have minds set on what really matters. Stuff fades away—all of it—but people are eternal. Invest in people, not things. Remember, for example, the great investment your families made in you. Pay that forward—in fact, pay that in all directions. When you have an opportunity to invest in people, do it.
A famous anthropologist was asked by a student what he considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected the anthropologist to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones. Instead, the anthropologist said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (that’s a thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal, alone, survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken human femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. We are at our best when we serve others. Loving people never goes out of style. They are always worthwhile because they matter to the One who created them, and they should matter to you. You matter to somebody or you wouldn’t be here. What are you going to do with that debt of love? Don’t ignore it. Value what matters. Value what is lasting.
Do life like He designed it—many small moments with small tasks, all with great meaning, purpose, and significance.
Money doesn’t make you wealthy. You already have riches in Christ—every spiritual blessing in heaven lies in Christ, according to Paul in Ephesians 1:3. Money, on the other hand, is hard to get and even harder to use wisely. Beware of the temptation to base your decisions on money. Second Corinthians 9:8 says that “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”[*] Anything God allows us to have, He allows us to have so we can do good with it—so that we can honor Him. Money is not the destination; it’s just a car we drive to get to the destination. Be good stewards of the car, but never lose sight of the destination. If given a choice to spend money on things or experiences, choose experiences. They stay with you forever. Experiences are a good return for your money. Be a wise steward of His money and you will fulfill your responsibilities.
Highlights are overrated. We live in a culture that celebrates highlights. That’s not all bad—today’s celebration is a highlight. That’s a great thing; but if we are too focused on big moments, we forget the beauty of the small moments that life has given us in-between. The bulk of this life’s beauty happens between the highlights. Take the opportunity to slow down and take in God’s masterpieces around you.
First Corinthians 10:31 t
ells us that whatever we are doing we should be doing all to the glory of God. That means that the little things in our lives matter to God. Even the most menial parts of life are significant and full of meaning if we are doing them with and for Him. For your outlook on life, look through God’s lens. Everything matters to Him. There is no distinction between your spiritual life and everything else. Your life is the spiritual life. Do life like He designed it—many small moments with small tasks all with great meaning, purpose, and significance. Follow the path God has for you. It’s the perfect hiking trail.
Someone once said, “By all means, marry. If you get a good spouse, you’ll be happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher!” While that saying doesn’t ring true, Solomon said in Proverbs 21:9 that “it is better to live in the corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” Men and women, this goes both ways—if you don’t find someone who is more in love with God than with you, then do not marry. God provides singleness, and that is also a good thing. If God isn’t the center of one’s life, then they can never love you properly nor respond properly to your love. Choosing a spouse is perhaps the second biggest decision you will ever make in your life. Choose wisely. Rely on God’s counsel to help you navigate that choice.
I hope and pray you all fail well! You aren’t perfect. You simply won’t succeed at everything. You can try to limit what you do so that you minimize the risk of failure. There is some wisdom in that. But you will fail. Failing does not mean staying there. Opportunities where we fail are part of the quizzes and tests of life. Use those failures to help you make different choices. Remember life is all about choices. When Peter saw Jesus’ walking on the water, beckoning to him, Peter as a fisherman knew his safety depended on staying in the boat. He stepped outside his comfort zone, took a risk, and put his foot on the surface of the water. In that one single action, he set aside everything that experience had taught him. He trusted in Someone greater than his experience. The real miracle was that Peter walked on the water. Yes, he sank. Even then, there is a lesson for us. We take a risk. We do what we believe God is calling us to do. If we fail, Jesus is still there. He won’t abandon us. His own hand will pull us to safety.
You are going to fail. Use what knocked you down to push you as you work toward your desires, dreams, goals, and ambitions. Thank God for His grace even when you do fail. His grace is sufficient for us, and we can praise God for that.
You don’t graduate until you’re dead, and even then, not necessarily. Now, that is not a threat, and I am not returning to the “holding your diplomas for ransom” theme. As one who has graduated 36 times since finishing high school, I can tell you that any graduation is merely a single milestone in a lifetime of learning. Those milestones are worth celebrating. They give us occasion to reflect on how God has grown us, on the love and sacrifice others have bestowed on us, and on how much farther we really must go. Learning and growing is a lifelong pursuit, and that is how God designed it. So, “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Let His word be at home in you. Be hungry for what He has to offer you. On days when you feel like you just don’t have what it takes, He will add strength to your labor of love by filling your tank. You are rich in Christ, and you have a lifetime ahead of you to learn of Him, to love Him, to love the people He has made, and to use everything He has given you for the benefit of others.
There is one final detail—(and it is really my most important piece of advice for your lives)—there is that matter of those three minutes that you owe me. Your sponsors and I have a gift for you. It is a “created for you” devotional book to use from today until your five-year reunion here at GLAA. All I ask is that with those three small minutes each day, spend time in His word. When you wake and thank God for the day, read Scripture and feel joy, you are turning on the light within you. You will then shine through pleasant words, encouragements, and service. Let His word dwell richly within you. Those three minutes will lead to many more joyous moments with Him in Scripture, in prayer, and in all of life. He has brought you this far in His love and grace. Spend time with Him. He will love you. He will guide you. There is nothing—nothing—more valuable in this thing we call life.
So, GRADS 2021, I congratulate you on your achievement, and I urge you to walk from this moment in a manner worthy of your calling. En onthou: Dit gaan alles oor keuse (as they say in my native language, Afrikaans). What does that mean? It’s all about choices. Make good ones!
Sietie Heslop recently retired from teaching mathematics for nearly four decades at Great Lakes Adventist Academy in Cedar Lake, Michigan, and now resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
* All Scripture quotations have been taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.