I gave this speech at an 8th grade graduation of students at the Independent Learning Academy in Orange County.
First of all, I want to thank the Independent Learning Academy leadership, parents, and students for the privilege and honor of offering a few words at such an important occasion as this.
Prior to becoming a teacher, I was a youth pastor. In my work as a youth pastor I had a practice of taking my senior boys to hike the Trans-Catalina trail (about 25 miles) over a weekend. The first time I did this was a disaster. Being new to the task, I didn’t prepare the group well. We didn’t bring enough food. Everyone was ill prepared for morning cold. I underestimated the rigor of the trail and very much overestimated the strength of our group. What was supposed to be a slightly challenging camping experience began to feel like an episode of survivor man.
Now, though extremely difficult, the trip is remembered fondly by all who went because, in spite of my efforts, we made it to the end; we finished the hike. What was the secret? Well, first, it was the pure grace of God. Second, there was the very nice Ranger named Rick who brought hamburger meat to our remote campsite after we bribed him with money and our eternal allegiance. But beside that, there were two crucial things that helped our overwhelmed group complete the journey: throughout our hike we made a point to look back to see how far we’ve come and look forward to remind ourselves of where we’ll be.
My friends, you are on a hike of sorts. At this point you’ve traveled through 8 years of schooling and you have about 8 more years if you go to college. You have a nice summer to rest yourself in, but the hike will continue on come Fall. But at this milestone day, I would like to serve you by being your own Ranger Rick for a moment. I haven’t been with you for the past 8 years and I will not walk with you for the next 8, but I’m glad to drop in today, congratulate you, and give you a bit of wisdom for the rest of your journey. This speech is my metaphorical hamburger meat and you don’t even have to pay me your eternal allegiance.
But, to help you continue on your educational journey, I would like to offer you the two practices that helped us finish our hike. Let’s take some time to (1) look back at where you’ve been and (2) to look forward together to where you’re going.
As you look back, I want to encourage you to think about all you’ve had to do to get here. Education is not easy. The job of a student is not for the faint of heart. With all the friends and family and excitement that now surround us, it could be easy to forget that truth. To help you cherish the celebration today, let me remind you of all the hard work you’ve done.
In order to sit in these chairs and enjoy this ceremony:
- You’ve had to solve countless math problems and show all your work in the process.
- For social sciences, you’ve had to memorize many dates, generals, countries, presidents, battles, wars, and key events.
- You’ve created science projects, completed science experiments and, congrats to you, you didn’t blow anything or anyone up (at least nothing big enough for me to have heard about).
- You’ve written numerous rough drafts, middle drafts, almost done drafts, and this-still-needs-lots-of-work-but-its-due-tomorrow drafts.
- For countless hours you studied by yourself or with friends or with parents at your side.
- You’ve read many books (many of which didn’t even have the courtesy of having pictures).
Since your work has been stretched over the period of a few years, you may sit here not even thinking about all the work you’ve done. But, let me remind you, you have done a lot and, since you are here today, you did it well.
And as you did all this hard work, may I ask a question? Was there not good weaved all throughout it? Though school is a labor, it is also a gift; not just a responsibility, but a privilege. It may have been the support of a classmate, the praise of a teacher, the pride of your parents, or just the feeling of having done something well or have learned something worthwhile. School is pregnant with good things to be thankful for. In God’s grace the medicine of school is given with lots of sugar. School has been hard, but I trust you also see its been good. At times it’s a burden to bear, but overall it’s a blessing to enjoy.
So, before I say anything else, I want to offer my congratulations to the graduating class among us here today. With the wisdom of your teachers, the love of your parents, and the camaraderie of your classmates, look at how far you’ve come.
Now that we’ve looked back to see how far you’ve come, let’s look ahead.
After this summer, you will be official high school students. As you think about that uncharted territory, let me offer you two preparatory words: it will be hard and it will be good.
First, it will be hard. There will be more and longer papers to write, more and harder math equations to solve, more history lessons to wrestle with, more tests to study for, and many more picture-less books to read. But, please, don’t be afraid because you’re ready for it. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here today. Today is a day where your teachers and parents are not only celebrating you, but they’re also telling you something: you are ready.
But, my friends, it will be hard, but it also will be good. You’ll have new subjects to explore, old friends to enjoy, new friends to make, accomplishments to take pride in, and a whole host of experiences to treasure in your memory forever. Even more, after high school many of you will enjoy college, meaningful careers, and the many pleasures of adult life. There’s a lot of good lying ahead of you.
But, as a Christian, I want to give you one serious challenge: don’t make your schooling all about college, careers, applause, or future comfort. I pray you seek more than that. Those are all good things, but they are not the greatest thing. College, careers, money, applause, and comfort are amazing gifts, but they are not God.
In our final moments together, let me exhort you to do the hard work of your future schooling not for grades, applause, college, and careers, but to do it for the serious business of knowing the One who gives it and finding unstealable joy in Him.
Education is About Joy
The famous philosopher Plato is known for saying, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.” I agree and I would like to add this simple observation: when someone loves what is beautiful their heart experiences joy. Therefore, I encourage you to see the point of your future schooling not end only in grades, colleges, or careers, but to see the ultimate point of all your hard work is unshakeable joy from learning to love beautiful things.
But how does education bring about joy? Let me offer three short ways.
To Experience Joy From Wonder
Education done rightly does not cause us think we have all the answers. In fact, it proves to us we don’t and never will. Genuine education does not produce boredom, but wonder. Christian education should not produce Pharisees who stand in pride before all their glorious knowledge. Instead, Christian education should produce men and women who sit with childlike humility before all God’s glorious wisdom. The former leads to boredom and stagnation, the latter to wonder and life.
To Experience Joy From Loving Others
One of the blessings of education is that it equips you to love others well. Now, no matter one’s education, they ‘re able to love others. Loving others is primarily a choice of the heart before it’s a skill of the mind. But, that said, when your mind is matured from good schooling, you’re able to love others with so many more tools. Imagine two carpenters who both want to build a home for someone they love, but one has more tools, materials, and skill that he brings to the job. They both share the same heart of love, but the better-equipped carpenter will be able to build a home that better reflects the love he has in heart. Both are able to love, but one has more tools to express it. In the same way, if you labor in your studies to be matured in mind and knowledge and wisdom, you will be all the more equipped to love your family, friends, and neighbors in truth and grace. Done rightly, your education will make you a lover with all sorts of tools to bless those God puts in your life. And loving others well will bring you joy.
To Experience Joy From Loving God
Now, though this is our last point, it is not last in importance. It’s the primary reason for education. Without this point, there is no lasting reason to care about education. What the sun is to our solar system, this point is to education. Everything in education must revolve around this one purpose: education exists so we’d love God and know His joy.
Now, you may be asking, “How does math help me love God?” or “In what ways does science help me love God?” The answer is simple and can be found in one verse of the Bible; in fact, the first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” How does this answer our question? The logic goes like this: since God is the creator of all creation, then as we study creation we are actually learning more about its Creator.
What this means is…
- Math points the undeniable logic and coherency of Christ.
- Science points to the creativity, diversity, and ingenuity of Christ.
- Social Science & History points to faithfulness of Christ to His people and the wisdom of His Word.
- Art points us to the unexplainable beauty and depth of Christ.
- Literature exposes the deep yearning of humanity for what is true, good, and beautiful and sends people to seek out what can only be found in Christ.
One famous theologian said it this way, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Therefore, every single class in this school is dedicated to showing you how the truth, beauty, and goodness of God’s creation points to the infinitely great truth, beauty, and goodness of its Creator. Our classes all point beyond our specific subjects to point to the One from Whom they came and for Whom they exist. Your education exists to not only show you the fruit of creation, but to lead you back to the Root of its Creator.
Hopefully now it’s clearer to see. The student who pursues education to live in wonder of God and to better love God and His people is the student who will know joy. And the type of joy they know can’t be stolen or lost or broken. It is a joy that only strengthens and grows as their love for God and others grows.
In All You Do, Seek Greater Things
Every week I drive to Biola University to teach my class and every time I drive back home I have the mystical experience of smelling the In & Out Burger right off Avery Parkway. It’s a worshipful experience and sometimes dangerous as it almost lulls me into trance-like state that greatly impairs my driving. Any self-respecting Californian knows exactly what I’m talking about.
But imagine you walked to an In & Out Burger and you saw me at the door, seeming to wait eagerly. Then, as someone comes outside the restaurant, I take in an enormous sniff and enjoy it deeply. Then, the door shuts and I wait for it to open again. None of you would fault me for enjoying the smell and you’d agree there are few things more fragrant. But, you’d think I’m crazy for this one simple truth: the burger is better than the smell. The smell is only good because of its source. If I enjoy the smell, then I should go inside and get a burger to complete my joy. And this brings me to the point I hope you never forget: don’t be the person at the door who smells, be the person who enters and feasts. Don’t be the student who seeks only grades, colleges, and careers. Be the student who follows those gifts to find joy the One who gives them. This is my charge to you: student, enjoy God’s gifts, worship God alone. Don’t choose the smell over the source,. Don’t choose the gifts over the Giver.
So, dear students, hear me clearly: today is a day of joy and celebration. Drink it deeply. But with this celebration, I want to give you this joyful charge. As you continue forward in your education, do it so you can grow to experience God’s eternal joy.
- When next year begins, listen hard in your classes so wonder and curiosity of God’s world would expand you like a balloon.
- Lean into your homework and studies so you’ll gain more tools to love those around you and serve them with truth.
- And, above all, be a serious student at school so you will increasingly become a serious worshiper of Jesus Christ in all of life.
As the Apostle Paul said, “Whatever you do, in word or deed (or inside class or outside class), do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Do it all in His Name so in it all you’d experience His joy.