Sunday, June 1, 2008

My First Commencement Address

Well, I did my first Commencement Address recently. Don't be too impressed ... all three graduates at the homeschool academy appreciated it. Seriously, it was a great honor. I thought I'd share the text with others, so here it is.

“Follow Your Joy”
The Brook Academy – May 16, 2008
Steve West

I’m delighted to be here, especially since one of you is one of my parishoners. Congratulations, graduates. Congratulations to your families. I especially want to congratulate all you “moms” out there who are getting the best Mother’s Day gift ever! This is an important day. It’s a day when take one foot and step into a mystery. It’s called the rest of your life.

Do you ever pay attention to the words we use for things? They can be strange. Why do we drive on a parkway, and park on a driveway? Why is it called “rush” hour when your car barely moves? Why do we call that place the airplane drops you off a “terminal” (that’s not good!)? I want you to pay attention to the word that is used for tonight’s ceremony. We don’t call it “end” or “culmination” or “goal.” We call this “commencement” and that word means “beginning,” the start of something. You are starting something new.

I’m envious because you have so much ahead of you. The decisions you make now will send you on a trajectory that will affect everything, maybe even change world. So I’m not going to preach to you tonight. I’m just going to talk, to give you some advice.

There’s a lot you don’t know, because most of what you need to know in life, you can’t really learn in school. Only life can teach it to you, and it takes years to learn it. I certainly can’t cover it in the next few minutes. The best I can do is crack the door and shine a little light through. But since I’m in charge of postponing your diploma about 15 more minutes, I’m going to try to make it worth the wait.

There’s something I wish someone had told me when I was where you are, and it’s something I can sum up in one sentence: It’s not about doing, it’s about BEING. We live in a culture of functionalism. I had to unlearn this pervasive idea that “you are what you do.” It’s an idea that is exhaled by our culture and we take it in like oxygen. We hold these truths to be self-evident: You get what you pay for. Success is everything. Work is what you do for money, and that’s what counts. You are what you do. Listen to some adults sometime who are meeting each other. It doesn’t take long for them to ask the question, “so … what do you do?”

In life, it’s as important to “unlearn” as to learn. I had to unlearn three things that helped me to unlearn that one big thing.

“Unlearning Number One” is that it’s not enough to ask what you are good at. Asking what you are good at can lead you down the wrong road, because you are looking for other people to tell you what you are good at. You are basing life on what you get applause for, and in turn what you are supposed to be doing. You are basing your identity on affirmation, approval, and comparison.

I’ve always struggled with “Unlearning Number One” because I’m good at music. I love music, but I’m called to be pastor. I can vividly remember calling my Dad on the phone, and he’s a pastor! When I told him I wanted to be a pastor, he said “Awww …” What do you mean, “aw?” I said. “We need good musicians.” He gave me gift, actually, because from then on I realized I was not doing what called to do to please anybody. What we get the most attention for, what we seem to be good at is not necessarily the gift God has given you for the transformation of world. It’s about who God wants you to BE, not what wants you to do.

“Unlearning Number Two” is that it’s not enough to ask what will make you successful.
Our culture values achievement, accomplishment, climbing the ladder, and getting recognition. But the Bible is clear that success is not the point. Finding your gift and sharing it joyfully, and trusting God for the rest? That’s the point. You can drive yourself crazy, and still never be successful enough. Success is highly overrated, and it has a price.

Nobody ever dies and on their deathbed says, “you know, I wish I had spent more hours at work.” Go ahead and decide right now. Life is about who God wants you to BE, not what God wants you to do.

“Unlearning Number Three” is that it’s not enough to ask what will keep you from failing.
Sometimes failure, hurt, and pain is the way that you grow, the way you BECOME. There is a gift in every failure. It’s like I often say at church, “God never wastes a hurt.”

Do you know who Steve Jobs is? He created Apple Computers. He created I-Pods. I saw his story in a commencement address he gave not too long ago. Did you know he got fired from Apple? I don’t mean recently … he got fired a long time ago. He and a friend started Apple in his parents’ garage at the age of 20. He worked hard, and after 10 years Apple had grown to a $2 billion company, with 4,000 employees. They had just released their finest creation, the Macintosh, about when he turned 30. Then he got fired.

How do you get fired from company you started? It was “corporate stuff”, and there’s lots of corporate stuff out there. Sometimes I wonder, if Fed Ex merged with UPS, would we call it Fed UP? Anyway, as Apple grew, Steve Jobs had hired someone to run the company with him, then they had a falling out. The Board of Directors sided with the other guy. So at the age of 30, Steve Jobs was out. And he was “out” very publicly. This had been the focus of his whole life, and it was devastating.

Slowly it began to dawn on him, though, that he still loved what he did. So he decided not to quit. He decided to start over. He didn’t see it then, but getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to him. He was a beginner again, and it freed him for one of the most creative periods of his life. He started two companies, and one of them is called Pixar. Pixar then created “Toy Story,” the first computer animated film. Now Pixar is the most successful studio in world. The second company he started was later bought out, by … guess who … Apple, and their technology became the core of Apple’s current renaissance. Now there he is, Steve Jobs, selling us I-Phones. None of it would have happened if he hadn’t failed. Don’t be afraid to fail!

It’s not enough to ask what you are good at, or what would make you successful, or what would keep you from failing. That’s because life is not about doing at all, it’s about BEING who you are. Time is limited, so don’t waste it living somebody else’s life, or someone else’s dream.

God has a calling for you. We use the word “calling” in the church a lot, but perhaps there is a better word, YEARNING. God has a yearning for you. It’s not something God wants you to do. God is not looking for employees, or task managers to get his jobs done … God is looking for relationship. God is yearning for you to be the person God wants you to BE.

So how do you know you are taking a step toward “being” in world of doing? The only way I know is to “follow your joy”. Life is not about what you are good at, or what makes you successful, or what keeps you from failing. What gives you joy even when you’re not happy? What makes you feel like the YOU God made you to be? If you follow your joy, then you have found that next step.

I used to think I was young. I’m not sure what day it was, but somewhere along the line I became old. When I was a kid, it was before chickens had fingers, and before buffalos had wings. I had to actually go to a library to get a book, I had to actually go to the store to shop, I actually had to have money in my bank account to buy something. I remember when we got our first microwave. My brothers and I played “Pong” and “Missile Command” and woah, when I was in High School video games actually came out in color! I was already a pastor before I tried this new thing called “email”. I was pastor of the 3rd Methodist church in all of Alabama to have web page. One day, a guy in my church said to me “we need to do a web page,” and I said, “that’s great, it sounds good … but what’s a web page?”

The world changes. It shifts under your feet. What you will actually DO in the world will change. The important question is who are you going to BE?

Desmond Tutu spoke at the commencement address for my university the year I finished seminary. Now it is almost 20 years later, and I can’t remember a thing he said (because of that, I’m going to give you a copy of this commencement address when I finish!). I don’t remember a thing he said, but I remember who he IS. I remember what he stands for. His witness led to the end of apartheid, the extreme racism of South Africa.

I want to leave you tonight with something from Nelson Mandela, another person who fought alongside Tutu for and end to apartheid. He became president of a new South Africa after years of being in jail and racism and persecution. In his inaugural speech, Nelson Mandela said,“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking, so that other people won’t feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear; our presence automatically liberates others.”

Don’t worry about being successful. Be YOU. You are the only one that can do it. Be the best YOU you can be. And that will change the world. Congratulations.