Michael E. Arrington
May 8, 2009
Thank you for that kind introduction. President Carter, Vice President Cheatham, distinguished trustees, faculty, staff, parents, friends, families, and most importantly, graduating students, I bring greetings and congratulations on behalf of your fifty-one sister institutions in the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities.1
I also want to gratefully acknowledge the spouses, parents, children, family, and friends of these special graduates, for your unconditional love and support of your student has been absolutely essential in his or her success. Thank you also for the confidence and trust you placed in Campbellsville. It is always the goal of our Baptist schools to treat your family as part of our family. And I also know that many of you are glad the meter has finally stopped running, if only temporarily.
And now I want to focus my remarks on these dear students, who are the most important people here, not just tonight – you are the reason this college exists.
So, as I was considering what significant topic or theme I might share with you graduates on this special evening that you would surely carry with you in your hearts for the rest of your lives, I decided to ask my daughter, a 1997 Ouachita graduate who has also earned graduate degrees at Vanderbilt and Harvard, what she remembered from the speaker at her Ouachita commencement. Her reply? “Did we have a speaker?” After reminding her that then Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Ouachita alum, a friend and role model she has known since her childhood, a leading Republican Presidential candidate in 2008, and a popular talk show host, had presented his typically inspiring, humorous, and informative speech, she said, “Oh, yeah, but I don’t remember a thing he said.” Funny thing is, neither do I! Well, if my own daughter can’t remember anything that Mike Huckabee said at her graduation, and if I don’t recall it either, then I have to ask myself, or perhaps ask Dr. Carter, “What am I doing here?”
Whatever the reason, I am deeply honored to be part of this ceremony, the well-known, sometimes popular, American tradition of commencement speeches. I know my role . . . I am the fifteen-minute delay before we get to the real reason you are here. I have participated in over 100 commencement ceremonies, and I have heard many very fine speeches. But somewhere in the back of my mind at every ceremony was the realization that the audience and the graduates were politely listening in hopes the speaker would be brief, informative, and mildly entertaining. Most of you are probably hoping for brief, so as King Henry VIII of England said to each of his six wives, “Don’t worry, I won’t keep you long.” I know…bad joke!
My message to you graduates is fairly simple and is based on John 10:10 where Christ states that he has come that we may have life, and have it more abundantly. What does it mean to live the abundant life? Are you living an abundant life? Did living the abundant life factor in to your decision to go to college, to attend Campbellsville, to pursue graduate studies? If you google “abundant life,” which I did, you will read this within the first entry out of some 60,000 hits.2
Many preachers quote John 10:10 as support for the idea that Christianity leads to physical prosperity and ‘every good thing’. The verse has been used as a description of the Christian life, the normative pattern of life that Christians can expect because of God’s blessings. Other scriptures, including the salutation of III John 2, “I wish above all things that you prosper and be in good health,” are also to teach that Christians are promised health and wealth if they have enough faith.
Is it true? Are we really promised wealth and health as Christians? Most Christians, maybe most of you in this room, understand that is not the meaning of the “abundant life” Christ promised in the 10th chapter of John. In that passage Christ describes himself as the good shepherd who knows his sheep, and we are his sheep, and it is our secured salvation through Christ that gives us the fullness of joy and makes our lives meaningful and superabundant, far beyond any pleasure that riches or good health might provide.
Nevertheless, you probably are aware that the degrees you already hold, and the ones you will receive tonight, do hold promise of financial reward, a hope that I feel certain makes you and many of your family members rejoice. You may already know these statistics, but the Census Bureau recently reported that a recipient of a high school diploma can expect lifetime earnings of $1.2 million. For a bachelor’s degree the figure is $2.1 million. A master’s degree is worth $2.5 million in lifetime earnings, and for a Ph.D. in history one can expect to earn twelve dollars and 97 cents! Twenty-eight percent of the United States population over age twenty-five hold a bachelor’s degree, and slightly under ten percent hold a master’s degree. In Kentucky, the most recent figure is 8.2 percent with master’s degrees, so you have obviously accomplished something that only a small minority of Americans have done. Suffice it to say that college degrees are good financial investments. So congratulations on achieving academic milestones that often open employment opportunities not available to everyone. If your decision to pursue higher degrees was based on economics, you’ve made a wise choice. If we asked for a show of hands across America, how many do you think would say they went to college primarily so they could eventually have a better job and improved lifestyle? Surveys show that a large majority of American college students would respond affirmatively.
Unfortunately, too many people, including students, parents, educators and public officials tend to focus on college primarily in terms of its relationship to employment and a higher lifetime income. While these are important factors for pursuing a college education, I don’t think they are the best reasons for going to college.
College should be more than just a place that processes you into a higher wage bracket. It should help add meaning and quality to your life. Let me give you one example of a student who is representative of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other students I have encountered over the last thirty-six years. A young male in my American history course came up to me after class a few years back and told me he was bored. I assumed he meant that our class that day was particularly uninspiring to him, which does happen more often than I’d like to admit, but he confessed that he meant he was bored with life. I thanked him for sharing that information and we spent over an hour talking about his life. I finally asked him if there was anything in his life that he enjoyed, something that gave him a sense of joy and fulfillment . . . he replied, “Well, I enjoy my Sony PlayStation.” Hearing that, I blurted out to him that perhaps he was bored because he had allowed himself to become boring. To any professional counselors in the audience, I realize that my technique at that point was perhaps inappropriate, but it did catch his attention, and we continued meeting throughout the semester trying to help him find God’s purpose for his life. I’m happy to report he is now in graduate school hoping to become a college professor.
I actually borrowed my “you may be boring” line from Kingman Brewster, former President of Yale University. Several years ago President Brewster responded to a question about the value and purpose of a college education this way:
“The most fundamental value of education is that it makes life more interesting . . . It makes it less likely that you will be bored with life . . . It also makes it less likely that you will be a crashing bore to those whose company you keep.”
This institution has also provided you with more than just a quality education and an escape from boredom. Campbellsville has been graduating servant leaders since its founding, graduates who live more meaningful and abundant lives as they literally transform the world through service to others. As your careers progress, you will realize that the education you received here will serve you well. That is what our outstanding Baptist universities do, and it is my prayer and belief that each of you will in some way, large or small, make a permanent positive difference in our world.
St. Augustine, the great early Christian philosopher during the latter years of the Roman Empire, remarked late in his life that all his intellectual achievements were meaningless until he became a Christian. It was then that he realized that the ultimate purpose of all his great learning was found in service to God and others.
That is a remarkable statement, and it reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon strip in which Charlie Brown asked Lucy, “If God put us here to serve others, what are the others here for?” Perhaps, Charlie Brown, the answer may be that the others often include us, especially if we are ravaged by a Hurricane Katrina, a death or serious illness in our families, by economic distress, or by some other unforeseen circumstance so powerful that we need help. If you want to live the life of a servant leader, if God has called you to either lay or clerical ministry (and as Christians, are we not all called to some form of ministry?) then you must not be concerned with your own status, prestige, power, wealth, or perhaps even your own well being, but with the call to serve. Many people with great intellectual or physical talent are consumed with self proclamation (think of football players who score a touchdown and then call attention to their individual achievement in a showboat manner, with little understanding that the touchdown would never have been possible without the other ten players). Self-proclamation makes a mockery out of true servant leadership and will ultimately lead to failure. If you harbor any thoughts that your graduate degree is just another building block on your resume, you may want to think further on what it truly means to be a servant leader and a follower of Christ. Unfortunately, far too many who achieve success do so out of a desire for personal gain. You cannot read a paper or listen to the news without learning of another political or financial leader who has committed what Robert Townsend, in his book Up the Organization, called the executive’s original sin of putting one’s self ahead of the organization or pushing one’s career over the good of the group . . . in other words, failing to have a servant’s heart. I fear the Bernard Madoffs are more prevalent than we would like to admit. The scandals within corporate and political America are convincing proof that self-promoting agendas are all too common in our society. And that, dear graduates, is why the world so desperately needs the kind of intelligent, moral servant leaders who call Campbellsville University their alma mater.
It is at places like Campbellsville that students such as you learn that excellence without arrogance is not an elective, and that service is the key to becoming a genuinely successful person who lives the Abundant Life Christ wants us to have.
Lest you think all of corporate America is infected with greed, hear these words spoken in 2007 by a prominent American businessman regarding the dying children in Africa:
“We had assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.
If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves,
‘This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving’. So we began our work… We asked, ‘How could the world let these children die?’
The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.”3
Bill and Melinda Gates found real happiness not in accumulating great wealth, but in using their resources to relieve suffering. I suspect nobody in this room has the financial resources of Bill Gates, but we do have the same number of hours in the day, and many of you will use your hours, and your days, and your years in Christian service to all of God’s creation.
You are graduating in an amazing time. You have technology that my generation never had. You have instant awareness of global inequities, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you also have an informed Christian conscience that will torment you if you abandon suffering people whose lives you could change with very little effort. Knowing what we know, as Christians, how can we ignore the suffering?
Thank you for your willingness to take the gifts God has given you, to develop them through education, and to use them for the cause of Christian service. As you go, I hope you will never settle for mediocrity, because God surely expects more out of those to whom He has given great talent. Elton Trueblood’s statement still rings true . . . he said, “Holy sloppy is still sloppy.” I have often heard students who obviously didn’t prepare well for an exam express a hope and prayer that God will somehow give them the answers on the test. I usually tell them what a dear elderly lady once told me, “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t throw it into their nests.” We do have to leave the comfort of our nests in order to fulfill our ultimate purpose in life. It is hard to leave the nest, and finding one’s call in life often involves hard work. The faculty, your family, and others are proud of you for choosing to be conscientious, because “just getting by” has not been good enough for most of you. I pray that you will continue striving for excellence.
And I hope you will come back here to Campbellsville in ten, twenty, thirty, or more years and reflection what you have done with your talent, time, and energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities, on how well you treated needy people a world away or just down the street who have one very important thing in common with you . . . they are God’s children, brothers and sisters whose desperate plights we can no longer ignore and truthfully call ourselves followers of Christ.
And finally, the words you have been waiting on, “let me close” with a story from the past that has much to teach citizens of the 21st Century. In 1675, Sir Christopher Wren laid the first stone on what was to be his architectural masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. For thirty-five years Wren labored on the massive project, and in 1710 he presented it to his sovereign, Queen Anne. England’s grand monarch viewed the structure with care, inside and out, and then pronounced it “artificial, amusing, and awful.” Sir Christopher Wren was absolutely delighted.
For in 1710 the word artificial meant artful . . . amusing meant amazing . . . and awful meant full of awe. Trends, fads, even meanings of words may change, but things that are excellent are permanent. St. Paul’s remains a monument to excellence, to the stirrings of the soul to reach up to God. Your degree from Campbellsville will also remain as a testament to your commitment to quality, to your passion for truth, and to your desire to make a difference in this world. It is my prayer that your life will be artful, amazing, and awesome, in other words an abundant life spent serving the God and Creator of our universe. As we celebrated the resurrection of Christ recently, may we always remember that our call as Christians is to tell this Good News and to let the world see the love of Christ in action through our lives. May God bless you abundantly and may God bless Campbellsville University. Thank you and Congratulations!! We are all very proud of you.
1 This address was given to graduate students in Ransdell Chapel. Dr. Arrington’s introductory remarks also included numerous words of praise for Campbellsville University, President Michael Carter, Vice President Frank Cheatham, and the Faculty.
3 William H. Gates III, “Commencement Address at Harvard University,” June 7, 2007, Harvard Magazine (www.harvardmagazine.com/commencement/harvard-commencement-address).