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.

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).

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.

What are the odds?

I write 3 days before the Kentucky Derby (and 2 days before the Oaks, for all you Louisville-area readers). Earlier this week, my middle child was at Churchill Downs, where she got to spend some quality time with a Derby horse. Of course, that horse IMG_6574(along with every other one that will run for the roses) gets odds assigned by people whose job it is to guess how fast a particular horse can gallop 1.25 miles.

That’s a job I would not want, nor would I be any good at doing. But it got me thinking: what areas of life do I know about where I could assign odds? So, in the tradition of the Derby, here are odds on things I DO have a clue about. (Note: odds are for entertainment purposes only).

Odds that…

  • I will take a nap tomorrow, on my day off? 2 to 1
  • I will eat too many Qdoba chips now that my son works there? 1 to 2
  • I will make Qdoba my go-to place for Tex-Mex, now that my son works there? 75 to 1 (500 to 1 on Moe’s Monday)
  • When my wife turns 50 next April I will do something more sinister than write a blog about her? 1 to 3
  • I will jump out of a plane again? 300 to 1 (because, really, isn’t once enough?)
  • I will use the word shalom in my next sermon series on Genesis? 1 to 2
  • Campfire Conversations will be one of my coolest-ever summertime church ideas? 4 to 1
  • I will finish my doctorate? 2.5 to 1
  • I will finish my doctorate next year? 12 to 1
  • The horse my daughter is posing with will actually win the Derby? 50 to 1 (The horse’s name, by the way, is Fast and Accurate. Sounds like the oddsmakers disagree.)
  • I will begin working on my Spanish again, even if just the Duolingo app? 4 to 1
  • I will get our kitchen wall fixed this year? 6 to 1 (really needs to be 1 to 1)
  • A cat will make me cry? 10 to 1 (Not because I don’t like cats, though I’m certainly not their biggest fans. The simple fact is that I’m allergic to cats. It’s not good. Trust me.)
  • I will cry at my daughter’s graduation next month? 15 to 1 (Not because I’m not one of her fans. Really. The simple fact is that I’m just not allergic to her.)

Ok. Enough on placing odds on the less-than-essential stuff. Let’s talk about things that really matter. What are the odds that, five years from now…

  • Sunday morning will still be the most segregated hour of the week? 20 to 1 (wish I could put these odds much lower than that)
  • Divorce will be less common in the Church, as we get serious about marriage, faithfulness, and commitment? 4 to 1 (Isn’t it time we got real about love and grace in our homes?)
  • The American Church will be known for love more than for anger or partisan politics? 3 to 1 (Isn’t it time we got real about love and grace in our world?)
  • Christians will need grace in every aspect of their lives? 1 to 1 (I mean, what else would you bet your life on?)

Why It’s Good to Cry

Can I be honest? I’ve never understood how some people can always have a sunny disposition. I’m not sure what to make of folks who always seem to be upbeat.

Now, to be sure, I could learn from such folks. And I hope I do. But I think it’s also true what the 4th century Christian leader, Gregory of Nyssa, said: “It is impossible for one to live without tears who considers things exactly as they are.”

Life isn’t easy. Challenges come our way, and, truthfully, I don’t always feel like smiling.

I think what I’m referring to is the ache that I believe is in every human heart. It’s a longing for more; it’s the ability to see what is, and what should be — and to recognize the two are so often so far apart.

Maybe this has something to do with getting older — because it’s not just my wife who’s piling on the years. And maybe, the older we get, the more we recognize how this life, this world, this this is not all it should be. It’s not all God wants it to be.

At this point, as I’m typing these words, I clicked over to my music app, which I had paused. When I looked at the next song, it’s by one of my favorite groups. The song’s title? Jesus wept. Lyrics include these lines:

Another bad guy wins
More good friends die
They mounted up like eagles
Now they’re dropping like flies
I cry “Let me out”
You’re saying “No, not yet”
Before he danced Jesus wept

Sure, it’s the shortest verse in the English New Testament. And yes, it’s a classic for kids to memorize who are looking for a simple verse to get points at VBS or camp. But what a powerful punch are contained in these two simple words: Jesus wept.

Jesus wept. My Jesus wept. The God-become-human Jesus wept. The One who knows how things ought to be — and came to make them that way — wept at all the ways they aren’t.

It may sound strange, but I take great comfort in the weeping of Jesus. For it shows me that I’m in good company when I weep at all the ways the world isn’t what it’s supposed to be; at all the ways the Church isn’t what it’s supposed to be; at all the ways those I love aren’t what they are meant to be; and at all the ways I am not what I am called to be. All my grief at these realities find their meaning in the reality that Jesus knows what I’m experiencing. For he ached for the very same things.

Now, to be clear, nothing I’m saying minimizes the reality of joy and peace. In fact, if anything, I think what I’m saying amplifies the need for the fruit of the Spirit. For, knowing what we know about this world and all its brokenness, we ache for more. And because of the presence of the Spirit, we get a taste of God’s grace in the midst of all this mess. The presence of joy isn’t the absence of ache and longing; it’s the hope and promise that our longing points to a Reality that is deeper than our hurt. Likewise, peace isn’t the lack of all longing; it’s the clinging to the promise that our longing is pointing somewhere.

And that somewhere is the kingdom that Jesus is building. It IS a kingdom of peace in the midst of war, suffering, divorce, depression, wayward children, and uncertain tomorrows. It IS a kingdom of love in a world of hate, apathy, racial tension, class warfare, and political bickering. It IS a kingdom of faithfulness in a world of faithlessness — faithlessness that I see on my TV set, and in my own heart.

So, that’s why I think it’s okay — even necessary — to put aside the smile sometimes, and even weep. For we long for what is not, but what Jesus came to bring — and what will one day Fully be. Til that day, I’m going to let the longing and ache I feel be a reminder, and a prompting, and a challenge to pray for, ache for, work for, listen for, and love toward the Kingdom of Hope.

It’s coming. I know it is. Because Jesus wept for it.