Letter to My Daughter Upon Her Graduation

So, last week, I looked at commencement speeches, and what they say about us. This week, I want to continue on the graduation theme — but on a much more personal level.

Today, I write a letter to my 18-year-old daughter who will, in 3 days, graduate from high school. Consider this my commencement speech — for one.

Dear Ruthie,

There are few things in life a guy can point to and smile broadly. Work accomplishments: rarely. Bank account or house size: not hardly. Sports team accomplishments: big deal.

But I am proud and grateful that I can point to you. You and your brother and sister are a source of joy and gratitude for your mother and me. It’s truly amazing to have a front-row seat to watch you grow. I love your sense of humor. I marvel at your vibrant self-expression. I’m impressed to see you come alive on stage.

But now, of course, the scene changes, as you move from high school to college and life beyond. You are incredibly gifted, and I look forward to seeing how your gifts will come together for you, and for those around you.

And as you prepare to take this next step, let me offer these humble reminders:

  1. Remember you are loved. Nothing compares to this truth, and nothing can change this truth. You are deeply loved — by God, by me and mom, by so many people who have been a part of helping you reach this point. That love, which begins and ends with God, is the source of your greatest identity. Don’t ever let circumstances, or people, or struggles, or successes keep you from this vital truth: You are loved. Deeply, eternally loved.
  2. Love sets you free. Because of this truth, you are set free to roam around in the great big embrace of God’s love. This Love opens doors to meaning and purpose that this silly world with all its silly concerns, simply cannot. Because you are loved, you have the freedom to explore who you are in this love. One of the things that graduates often get told, is: Do what you love. Let me modify that slightly: Do what you love because you are loved. Life isn’t about simply pursuing whatever you want; it’s about understanding that because you are loved, you are free to explore what that love sets you free to become.
  3. So, don’t settle. Don’t go the easy path, or walk the wide way that most everyone else is. Don’t be afraid to do the hard work of finding God’s path for you. And keep walking it, even when it’s hard to see far ahead, and when the way gets steep. The popular path is popular because everyone’s walking it. And everyone is walking it because it’s easy. But the most important things in life, including walking the way of faith, are a challenge. But it’s in the challenges that you find who you are — and who God is calling you to be.
  4. With that in mind, don’t be afraid of mistakes. You’ll stumble. Maybe even fall hard. As your dad, I really don’t want this for you. But I also understand that the failures and struggles in life are often what teach us the most. So, when you do hit a wall, or fall flat on your face, get up. Learn from it. And keep going.
  5. To do this, you’re going to need faithful friends for the journey. The longer I live, the more I realize I can’t do life on my own. I need friends to walk with me, to walk alongside me — challenging me, encouraging me, and picking me up when I don’t feel like getting up. Don’t ever go through life without at least 2 friends who are faithful, full of faith, and with you whatever you face.
  6. Remember grace. Don’t ever let go of grace — the powerful life-giving presence of God that is as essential as air. When you stumble, grace is there to pick you up. When you feel elated at your successes, grace is there to ground you. When you’re not sure what’s next, or where to turn, grace is the whisper of God that says: I’m here. I know you can’t see very far ahead. That’s ok. Just trust me for the next step. I’m here. Without grace, you’ll just spin your wheels. With grace, life’s successes and failures always come into perspective — for grace gives meaning to all of life.
  7. Finally, remember this: mom and I are always here for you. No matter where life takes you, or where you choose to go, we’re here. Our love won’t ever run out. Our listening ear will always be available. And though our love is imperfect and incomplete, it’s a glimpse of the Love that is perfect and complete.

So, never forget, and always remember: We love you!

Dad & Mom

What Do Commencement Speeches Tell Us About the Current Zeitgeist?

It’s graduation season. Time to put on a funny square hat, sit in a crowded room, and listen to someone speak words that are intended to send you off into the next phase of life.

It’s graduation season, so it must also be time for commencement speeches. Now, for most of us, graduation presentations are, at best, mildly interesting filler til they’re ready to pass out the diplomas, and at worst, boring bromides that are an anticlimactic way to end four years of homework and hard work.

But they are also something more. In a study of a hundred years of commencement speeches, Markella Rutherford has learned that we can tell a lot about the direction of society, and what society values, by what people say at graduations. In a summary of Rutherford’s research, the writer Chi Luu puts it this way:

Over the last hundred years, as our sense of individualism has grown and prospered, the idea of moral choice and the public understanding of morality has also become highly individualistic. While this can certainly be celebrated for freeing many from the more restrictive social rules of the past, it also seems to have left a kind of modern malaise, an age of anxiety in its wake. To put it simply, without an “objective” moral authority or rigid social structure, how can we be certain we’re doing the right thing?

What a great question! With moral choice becoming more individualized, how do we know what to do? And thus, how do newly-minted graduates know what to do now that they are being unleashed on the world?

To drill down on Rutherford’s research, Luu analyzed 10 specific commencement addresses to see what kinds of words and themes they frequently used. One word commonly used is “Yes.” Two speeches urge saying Yes as often as you can, while another recognizes that Yes will get you in trouble, while others recognize that ‘saying yes’ will lead you to look foolish. But go ahead and do it anyway.

Here’s the thing: Yes is a great word. In fact, it’s at the heart of one of my favorite passages. But for a Yes to be healthy, it has to be partnered with No. That is: we don’t only say Yes, throwing that word around as if it were confetti. We are only able to say Yes to what matters most, because we first turn away from what doesn’t. We are only able to really embrace the life we are called to when we also put up boundaries. We never just say Yes; we also have to learn to say No.

And sometimes that No is hard. Sometimes we say it to our feelings, or to what we desire in the moment. Oftentimes we feel alone in saying No; saying Yes would be so much easier. But a person who can’t say No, doesn’t really know how to say Yes. For both words must be a part of any healthy and whole life.

Or, how about the word “love”? Great word; but even more, it’s an essential practice. Now, certainly, some uses of the word Love are benign, or even good. But in the commencement speeches, there are also quotes like this one: “Make your own hope. Make your own love.”

And this one: “Keep loving what you love.”

Huh? How do I make my own love? Is it a feeling or something I conjure up? And what if what I love is destructive, or divisive, or downright petty? Should I keep loving it?

In comparison to current-day commencements, Chi Luu references a commencement speech from 1923 by a man named R.A. Carter, delivered at Paine College:

Some one has well said: “Everywhere and at all times, the men who have had definite convictions upon the great issues, and have courageously chosen righteousness, are the men who have directed the course of nations.” Also, you must have the ability to go the route morally…. You must not think that you can select the Commandments which you will keep and reject those which you do not like. The moral code of mankind, crystallized into the Ten Commandments by Moses, is the result of the reasoned experience of men who lived ages before Moses. Observation and experience convinced thoughtful men long ages ago that it is harmful to the individual, as well as to the community, to lie, to steal, to kill, and to commit adultery…

Now, I wouldn’t say things the way Mr. Carter does, and my style would certainly be different. But his overall approach, and his underlying assumption that there must be a moral foundation to our choices — well, there’s no denying that.

But commencements like Carter’s are apparently going the way of the condor. In her sampling of 10 recent speeches. you want to guess how many times Luu discover the use of the word “musn’t” in those 10? Zero. Because, I mean, really: Who are YOU to tell ME what I must not do?

The word “must,” however, does appear in the 10 speeches, like in Bradley Whitford’s address, where he says, “You must be your own guide.”

Bradley, I must say: I like you on The West Wing. You’re a very good actor. But I’ve also got to say: your advice undercuts your goal. We already have too many people who are serving as their own guides — leading to a lack of love, a disregard for creation, and the very aimlessness and malaise that is the very issue you are trying to address.

We have plenty of people who are currently saying: Dude, I gotta listen to my inner voice. To which I want to say: Dude, it’s your inner voice, and MY inner voice, that often gets us in trouble. Yes, there are times I need to follow my heart. Yes, there are times I need to do what I love. Yes, I must be an authentic person.

But all of those become aimless aphorisms unless, unless, I have a grounding, a foundation, an understanding of who I am. An understanding that isn’t limited to my own inner guide. For that, I’ve got to know the One who created me; I’ve got to listen to the One who knows me better than I know myself; and I’ve got to find myself in the One who will truly help me commence a life worth graduating into.

Lessons Learned from My Mom

Toward the end of 1968, Clara Dye gave birth to her fifth child. He came before Christmas, even though he wasn’t supposed to be born until the first day of 1969. The early arrival messed up Christmas for the other 4 Dye children — but, hey, that’s what babies do.

Now, 48+ years later, my mom would still tell you that I’m her baby — though I am the tallest of her 5 kids. I’m sure when I was a teenager, I rolled my eyes at such comments. Now, I don’t. I’m glad to still be her baby.

With Mother’s Day coming, it seemed a good time to consider lessons this 48-year-old baby has learned from his mom — a woman who turns 84 next month, and then 2 months later celebrates her 63rd wedding anniversary.

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Mom, on her wedding day

Lesson #1: Keep your promises. When mom finished high school in Buffalo, NY, where she grew up, she decided to follow her brother to a small college in Illinois. One of mom’s sisters, meanwhile, went the opposite direction — heading to Eastern Christian College in New Jersey. Mom told her: If it’s a good school, I’ll join you there my sophomore year.

Well, as it turns out, Aunt Dorothy liked the school. She told mom that. But there was one problem. Mom had grown to like the school she was attending in Illinois. She wanted to stay. But she had made a promise, and so she joined her sister at Eastern. It was there she met my dad. They fairly quickly became an item, and on August 1, 1954 joined their lives together in marriage.

Needless to say, I’m glad mom was a woman of her word. I’m grateful she kept her promise. Not only did it give me life, it gave me an example of how to live, and speak.

Lesson #2: Be faithful. Mom didn’t grow up in a family that lived out its faith. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that faith, and God, became real to her. But when mom made a commitment to Christ, she took it seriously. For most of her adult life, mom has served alongside my dad in ministry. This has included untold acts of service that all ministry spouses undertake: teaching, cooking, cleaning, supporting, ministering, and facing the long hours and low pay that was their reality for all of my dad’s working years. But through it all, mom was faithful, serving with dad wherever God took them.

There was one exception, though: music. Mom avoided that, because, even though most minister’s wives of her day played the piano and led choirs, mom didn’t. Even there, even in what she didn’t do, mom is still teaching me this truth: a part of faithfulness is knowing what you can do, and what you can’t.

Lesson #3: Watch what you put in your head. When I was growing up, mom had very clear standards. Secular music was off-limits. Foul language was not tolerated (But mom, all I said was ‘fart’…). And TV was carefully monitored.

For as long as I can remember, mom has enjoyed watching the evening news. As a kid, we would watch the 10:00 news, and on the weekends, or when I got older, we’d leave it on to watch the show after the news. Oftentimes it was Leave it to Beaver. Other times it was MASH. Occasionally, it was Saturday Night Live.

For Leave it to Beaver, we never had to worry about what was said or shown (though mom definitely agreed with June that you had to watch out for that Eddie Haskell). But when we were watching MASH, I knew that there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it through the whole show. Klinger would say something over the line, or Hawkeye would do something that was out-of-bounds, and we’d change the channel. And Saturday Night Live? Well, I’m not sure why mom even let us start that show. I think it was just inertia; if we were watching the NBC local news, SNL automatically came on. But we knew it wouldn’t stay there long.

Mom has always had a strong sense of right and wrong. And she really believed that it matters what you fill your mind with. That’s a lesson that has stuck with me, and one I try to pass on to my kids (though, sadly, they have no appreciation for the humor and life lessons from the Beav).

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Mom & Dad at their 60th anniversary celebration

Lesson #4: Good food brings a family together. Mom has always been a good cook. Whether it was the spaghetti recipe she picked up from our Italian neighbors in New Jersey, or her chicken pantalba that is layers of tasty goodness, or the Rigatoni a la Seventh Street whose taste is only surpassed by its fancy name, mom has always put lots of love and work into her kitchen creations. (And I haven’t even mentioned her killer pies….)

But for mom, food was about more than food. It was a part of what it meant to be family, to share life, to be together. For mom, dinner time was an essential part of family life; it was simply assumed that we would eat supper together. And in the eating, mom didn’t just show us love by lavishing delicious delights on us — she also gave us the opportunity to come together, to do the daily work of being family.

Thanks, mom, for teaching me lessons that matter. I only ask that you continue to be patient with me. Though I am 48, I’m still learning. After all, I am just the baby.