June 9, 2016

Graduation Blues

It’s graduation time in the United States; a time of lofty talks and inspirational “you-can-become-anything-you-like” spiels. As a father of a recent graduate and a former professor at a number of Adventist universities, I have sat through my fair share of these speeches. You can catch them on YouTube and get extracts on Facebook. In a sense, they are wonderful barometers of current issues and reflect contemporary Zeitgeist.

So, what do we hear when we listen to the latest round of graduation speeches?

Let’s start with one I have heard again and again lately. Dream big. Now, dreaming big is good, isn’t it? Instead of focusing upon the challenges and problems that we tend to carry with us, “dream big” invites us to look beyond the mountain. In fact, there’s a nonprofit, U.S. Dream Academy, founded by well-known Adventist musician Wintley Phipps, that has been blessing thousands of children over the past decade. Its tagline is “A child with a dream is a child with a future.”

Don’t you like that tagline? I do—and mentoring children of incarcerated parents is transformative, both to the mentored children and the mentoring adult. But that’s not the “dream big” mantra of the current crop of graduation speeches. That dream seems to be focused on me, myself, and I. You can be the next Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, LeBron James or Albert Einstein: you just need to believe.

Here’s another phrase that has assailed my ears again and again. You are incredible; you are special; you can do it! I like that. I like it when somebody tells me that I’m incredible (even though deep down in my heart I know that may not be entirely true). I recognize it’s important to know that we are “special.” It’s part of contemporary parent talk. Our children are all “incredible” and “special.” They are gifted; they are mavericks; they stand out—or, so we hope at least. In most cases these gushing descriptions of our offspring are followed by equally impressive lists of their accomplishments.

Can you see the straight line from “incredible” to “accomplishment”? The subtext is: you are special, because you do something special. That’s a potent seed for affirmation junkies and those struggling to accept God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

What about this one? There are no limits when you follow your passion. This mantra calls for a deep breath and a slow count to 20. You noticed two keywords here, “limits” (or rather, “no limits”) and “passion.” Limits are nonexistent for many Millennials and their younger siblings. In fact, many of us—of whatever age—have bought into this fallacy. If there’s a problem, if there’s a challenge, we just need to throw enough resources and cash at it, and we will fix it. That’s what we see in Hollywood and on Netflix. Limits are off-limits to many in this generation—especially when we are passionate about something. Passion has become a cipher for goodness, pure motives or even truth—and we forget that we can be passionately wrong (or have we forgotten the passionate Pharisees and Sadducees who knew that Jesus could not be the Messiah)?

There is Somebody who tells us to dream big and to recognize that we are wonderfully made.

But there’s a final one: This day is all about you! Graduation speeches remind us that we stand right in the center of the universe. The “we” in this sentence is the royal plural form of “I.” As we sip this forbidden fruit-juice, we become intoxicated with ourselves and forget that we can only truly live in community—community with one another and, above everything else, community with our Creator. 

There is Somebody who tells us to dream big and to recognize that we are wonderfully made. While He’s a realist and knows our darkest secret, His passion for us knows no limits. He tells us that He wants to spend eternity with us. Now that’s good news that every graduate (and those of us sitting in the audience) should hear.