How to Change the World: A Note to Graduates
Two years ago, my wife persuaded me to attend Asbury Theological Seminary’s 2017 commencement for inspiration to finish my degree. I did not make it to last year’s because, well, I was still working on my degree and could not fit it into my schedule. This year, after six years of doctoral studies, I am graduating again!
I may be the only person who did not know this until recently, but the graduation ceremony is called “commencement” because one (ideally) begins to make use of the degree just earned. I apparently missed this point in both my bachelor’s and master’s studies!
To inspire graduates, illustrious speakers enjoin them to change the world or to do something very similar. This is especially true for ministry degrees earned at seminaries and Bible schools. More imposing is the fact that commencement speakers are themselves icons who have changed the world if one considers their long list of accomplishments and distinctions. Why else would they be speaking to graduates?!?
A particularly inspiring aspect of Asbury’s commencement is to draw attention to the “Golden Graduates,” those who had graduated 50 years ago and have returned to participate in the festivities. Again, the seriousness and weight are felt in the implicit message: “These people have changed the world, now go and do likewise!”
I remember soaking up this sort of thing in my youth! Now that I am older and have given my hand at trying to changing the world, I look at things a lot differently now—not as a disgruntled midlife adult (because I’m not), but through the rear-view mirror of life experience in having tried to change the world.
Now, I realize that the call to change the world is a misplaced burden. As followers of Jesus, we are not called to change the uppercase World, we are called to be faithful to him. Of course, by following Jesus we can change the lowercase world (those in our circles of influence).
Whether we are talking business, non-profit work, or ministry, we are accustomed to equating fame with success. Conventional wisdom tells us that there is some obvious correlation between the two. Yet, there is a dangerous conflict of interest if our goal is to establish a name for ourselves, which results in competition for hashem, “the name,” that is, God.
The interesting thing about success is that it is ascribed by others. That is, we cannot claim to be successful, others must do so. This point is critical because a variety of standards may be used to determine success. So, it is appropriate to equate fame with success, if the standard is popular opinion, if the world is who we are setting out to please.
I am certainly not suggesting that commencement addresses should be demotivators, but we do want to send the right message. Otherwise, we are commissioning graduates onto a path that will likely end in burnout or worse.
One may object that faithfulness to God and celebrity status are not necessarily at odds with one another. I gladly concede the point. However, such a combination is both extremely rare, and a more elusive reality than most can achieve.
How to Change the World
Since commencement speeches are principally about vision-casting, be careful of the vision you cast and the cost it will require. There is a partially apocryphal attribution to Antoine de Saint Exupery that reads,
“If you want to build a ship don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
While this quote is commonly used in leadership circles, it is also helpful to unmask the dangers inherent in many commencement speeches because what we long for determines the lengths we will go to accomplish our dreams.
In a similar direction, James K. A. Smith has recently popularized the ancient dictum, “You are what you love.” St. Clare of Assisi put it this way in the 13th century,
“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.”
Asking myself who and what I love has been a daily, important practice of my educational journey, and it will remain a relevant question in my professional journey. As Antoine, St. Clare, and Smith help us to see, our idea of success and who we choose as the ideal successful person or persons with whom to compare ourselves has a profound impact on who and what we will gladly sacrifice on the altar of our pursuits.
No matter which direction we go in life, all of us have to say “yes” to some things and “no” to others. A wise person once told me that one “yes” is a thousand “nos.” Just be aware of what has captured your heart because you may look back on life and discover that you have destroyed or abandoned the people and things most dear to you.