to the graduating class of 2018

 

The words below are a transcript of my address to the Grace Christian Academy (Knoxville, Tennessee) class of 2018 last month.

Good afternoon, parents, faculty, staff, guests, and, of course, graduates…thank you for the privilege of sharing a few words with you today. We have some important paperwork to hand to you graduates in a few moments, so if it’s okay, I’m going to dive right in. 

To the Graduating Class of 2018: Well, the day has arrived. It’s probably more than a little surreal to be sitting there. Cap and gown on. About to receive your diplomas. I mean, take a moment. Look around. Check out all the people here. I’ll wait as you soak it in. 

For the past two years, I’ve had a front row seat to your daily interactions with teachers, coaches, counselors, and each other. I’ve witnessed those days you entered the Upper School building in semi-zombie state and when I asked, “How are you today?” you muttered something about how tired you were. Or, maybe, just offered a glance expressing your exhaustion. 

 

I have wonderful memories of the unique way your class established its identity. From the way you acted, danced, and sang. To the way you tackled, defended, and scored. It was in the way you looked out for each other. The way you befriended those new members of the class who joined somewhere along the way. It was in your laughter. It was in your tears. And in the pictures you snapped, the art you created, and the beautiful music that begged to be heard.  

It extended to the academic challenges you encountered. The thoughtful way you approached me and said: I have an idea! It was, at times, loud. At times ornery, but never, I repeat never boring. 

What a group you are! You love one another. A lot.  

Some of you will walk away today from this group you’ve spent countless days and hours with, for, perhaps, the last time. Others, maybe many, have created friendships that will be lifelong. I graduated high school in 1997 and the closest relationships I have outside of my family (you know, the kind of people you regularly text and maintain one ongoing conversation that never really starts or stops)….the people I have those relationships with are those I went to high school with. It’s special.  

You may have seasons where you drift. But I encourage you to hold dear to these relationships. Those who know you at your very best….and your very worst….and love you just the same. 

I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve learned since I graduated high school. Life lessons not learned but for time, experience, and, yes, hardship.

 

To begin – you don’t know what you don’t know. Embrace this, graduates. Earlier this month, I visited my alma mater, Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. As I walked the campus, memories flooded my mind. I was reminded how much I had to learn when I arrived. I was an 18-year-old over 700 miles from home who knew very few people there. When I didn’t know something I thought I was supposed to…..I pretended that I did. I was reluctant to ask questions. Often unwilling to admit what I’d not yet learned.  
 
There is a word for this, graduates: PRIDE. And pride serves no one. Neither the individual who is proud, nor those in the midst of its wake. 

Good learners ask questions. And they listen. Really listen. This is how growth happens. When we listen, it conveys a certain humility. And humility never goes out of style. In my opinion, it’s among the most desirable traits one can possess. 

Wherever your next steps lead, I encourage you to relinquish the pretense of what you think you’re supposed to know. Open your mind. Lean in to that which is uncomfortable. Listen and you will learn. Oh, will you learn. 

My father was a pastor. I lost him much sooner than I would have liked, but his memory lives on and the lessons he taught still impact me in so many ways.

 

One lesson I learned from my father came from a sermon he gave years ago. And that is this: God’s love and human suffering are not incompatible.

 

Graduates, God is not good only when circumstances are good. God is good even when things aren’t going our way. Even when tragedy strikes. Even when we don’t understand. Even when our bank account balance is meager at best. God is ALWAYS good. 

As you complete your teenage years and move into your twenties, you will find moments that you wish could be fixed in time. Mountaintop experiences. When like……becomes love. When you beat the buzzer. When you land your dream job. 

You will also endure trials and heartbreak. This is not an IF proposition, but a WHEN proposition. A certain fact of life. 

Your trials will rarely make sense. You may wrestle with God’s will. These natural, human emotions are understandable. What I have found is that the hard times make us better. I’m not sure if the cliche what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger is true.  

But I do know we serve a sovereign God who goes before us. He has our best interests in mind. Romans 8:28 reminds us that “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” 

Be kind, graduates. For kindness is a virtue. I want to pause for a moment on this point. For there is a difference between nice and kind. Nice is convenient; whereas kindness comes through even when inconvenient.  

Nice is opening the door for someone, leaving an extra dollar more than necessary for the waiter’s tip, greeting a stranger with polite, friendly conversation. Nice is good. 

But kind goes further. Kind is the sacrificial act that seeks no credit. It’s when you don’t have time to help, but you make time anyway. Kind accepts blame, repositions the spotlight, and helps the person beaten in the ditch rather than crossing to the other side of road. Kind makes a difference because kind is a reflection of Jesus. 

The Bible commands that we treat others the way we want to be treated. And here’s the really important part: that means whether they treat us the way we want to be treated or not. Jesus died, nailed to a cross for the very people who spit in His face. He died for you. And for me. If he paid the ultimate price for those who treated Him poorly, what excuse do I have to treat others poorly?

 

And that goes for referees, politicians, and customer service representatives, who, often bear the brunt of our less-than-best selves. 

This requires that we put ourselves in others’ shoes. That we do our best to see things from their perspective. As you inevitably meet new people in the coming months, I encourage you to really get to know them. Offer the benefit of the doubt. Let your life tell a story (even, perhaps especially in the hard times) that leaves them no choice but to ask: What’s different about you?

 

Graduates, you have a specific calling on your life. If not careful, we can allow that calling to become elusive, mysterious even. I have a quote in my office by a gentleman named Howard Thurman that reads, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs – ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

God berths in us passions and desires for a reason. Like hints awaiting discovery. Some of you already have a clear idea of what you want to do in life. Others aren’t so sure. For those still searching, think about what you instinctively care about, and what you’re good at. The intersection of those two pathways can reveal a great deal about God’s calling on your life.  

God has uniquely equipped us to fulfill a purpose that will bring Him glory. I believe every single one of you has the capacity for excellence in some endeavor. There is no greater fulfillment, no higher purpose than honing the gifts God has given you, day-by-day, in pursuit of Him. 

You know that saying, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?” It’s a myth. Work is a gift, friends. I love what I do. But I go home, many days, depleted. Exhausted. Completely spent. You guys are really hard work…. 

If you buy-in to the notion that a job or career is to feel like a vacation or some form of recreation, and then learn it’s not, you may miss out on the very thing God created you to do…….Don’t let that happen. 
 
So, class of 2018, may you know Christ’s love for you in a deep, and meaningful way. May you depart GCA and impact our world for the better by extending Christ’s love to those placed in your way. And may you ultimately experience a life worthy of those aspirational words: well done, good and faithful servant. 

Growing up, one of my son, Parker’s, favorite books has been Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. As I close, allow me to impart its immortal final words…..  

So….
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Congratulations, Class of 2018. The honor has been distinctly mine. 

A Call To Brave Parenting

Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain. But instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it. – Brené Brown

Growing up, I experienced a series of high’s and low’s familiar to childhood. Perhaps you can identify. As a 4th grader, I earned a lead role as a soloist in my school’s annual Christmas play. The following year, I missed out on a similar opportunity and was relegated to a lesser part. The heartbreak was real. Continue reading

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

“I’ve never considered a difference of opinion in politics, religion, or philosophy as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

Thomas Jefferson


My Twitter feed teems with opposing views. He’s rightShe’s wrong! Biases and blind spots elbowing for more real estate at the dinner table.

I admire the certainty.

Communication’s ease and immediacy can encourage impetuous reaction. Technology has always been better at asking can we than should we.

These days, segments of the Right and the Left have grown surprisingly cozy. Nothing unifies like a common enemy, right? In other ways, polarization remains. Some predict our nation is nearing a bleak, abject future. While others believe a Savior has come: America’s rescue, imminent. Somewhere between those beliefs exists a reality that, I believe, is within the control of a sovereign God who has ordained a providential series of events.

If God rolled his eyes, this would be an understandable time to do so. Fanaticism demonstrates a lack of faith in His supremacy.

Have we forgotten who sits on the throne?

While we try and make sense of the ever-changing landscape, God remains poised and in control. Our state of affairs presents no firsts, no quandaries. He is neither confused, perplexed, nor seeking counsel. He understands human habits, sociological patterns. Because we are products of his design. Image bearers, every last one of us.

Life, history….they march forward. Undeterred.


In spite of the hyperbole, God still moves. He has no political agenda. Nothing to prove. Jesus was not a white, middle-class Republican. He was a dark-skinned Jew from the Middle East….with nowhere to lay His head.

God hasn’t called believers to perpetuate dogmatic rhetoric. He needs our help “selling” Him much less than some suggest. Lasting change occurs not through rage or hate. It doesn’t happen through acts of boastful chest-thumping. Change doesn’t arrive by way of rightness either. Permanence, this rarest of transformation comes by way of empathy, kindness, love.

These virtues aren’t earned by playing an angry short game. Posting a firestorm of unending social media vitriol may temporarily fire up followers, but its shelf life is unsustainable. The long game takes time. Contemplation. Yes, patience.

And patience is hard. Hard, but so worth it. Patience requires turning the other cheek, rejecting the temptation to follow the wide, well-trodden path.

As news cycles move at an ever-increasing pace, and fake news grows more ubiquitous, resisting the urge to sprint is necessary. It’s when we listen, ponder, and reflect that we’re at our best.

Slow to speak, and quick to listen: priceless wisdom.

 

 

a few of my favorite things – 2016

As midnight approaches bringing an end and beginning, these are a few of my favorite things from 2016.

Books

Essentialism by Greg McKeon – A tremendous look at the ‘disciplined pursuit of less.’ I recommend to anyone with demands placed on their time.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – A fabulous memoir by the founder of Nike. Fascinating accounts of how close Nike was to failure time and time again alongside terrific business ideas.

Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan – Recommended by an ad agency creative director, full of endless wisdom on effective messaging.  Just terrific!

Porcelain by Moby – Another terrific memoir detailing the author’s personal struggle and rise to fame.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance – The author, a product of broken home and society in Appalachia describes his way out and the cyclical effects that impoverish many in the region.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – A dying surgeon chronicles his battle against a terminal illness. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Befriend by Scott Sauls – A beautiful picture of how and why we should love people groups of all kinds.

A list of all the books I read this year.

Songs

Burn the Witch – Radiohead

Heavy – Birdtalker

Laser Gun – M83

Send Them Off! – Bastille

Somebody Else – The 1975

Something to Believe in – Young the Giant

Albums

Home of the Strange – Young the Giant

I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it – The 1975

Signs of Light – The Head and the Heart

Why Are You OK – Band of Horses

Films

13th – A sobering documentary on race relations and decisions which have led to an American incarceration explosion.

Amanda Knox – Another documentary, this one detailing the back story around the murder investigation into an American abroad.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A franchise that always seems to deliver. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was very good.

Television

American Crime – A short-run series, this show features as accurate a portrayal of prep school life as I’ve seen.  Strong acting, and tough issues tackled without melodrama.

The Americans – Season 4 – For my money, television doesn’t get any better.

The Catch – Replete with hyper-stylized kitsch.  Sort of Ocean’s Eleven meets Scandal. I like it anyway. Fun storytelling and Mireille Enos is always good.

Love – Judd Apatow’s maiden foray into the world of Netflix binge is not for everyone.  This rough around the edges show is crass and, at times, crude.  But to move beyond the surface is to observe a very human story.  A search for meaning found in broken people longing for community and connection.  Outstanding writing.

Stranger Things – This E.T. meets The Goonies hybrid is a throwback to early 80’s nostalgia.

There you have it. Some of my favorites.

What moved you in 2016?

The Wisdom of Crowds

Last month I moved to Tennessee.  Rocky Top land.  Relocation comes with newness and firsts.  First time going to that restaurant.  First time meeting this person.  The first time running at a new park.  

New. New. New.

There are upsides and downsides to moving, of course.  But one of the grandest downsides is that interim period where wifi and television are out of reach.  Now, I could take the high road and construct noble words about the benefit of being unplugged for a time.  But I’m not going to do that.

Because if there’s a worse time to go without wifi and television than during the Summer Olympics…..well, there just isn’t.  

Midway through this year’s Olympics, I finally reconnected.  Yes, I was able to see a few events during my “dark period.”  But, mere bits and pieces when visiting someone’s home or eating out.  

As the competition unfolded, I noticed a certain picture making the rounds on social media.  The still depicted Michael Phelps focused and leading his rival, Chad LeClos, while closing in on a gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly.  Phelps experienced a renaissance of sorts in what he says was his last Olympic go around.

The picture became a rallying cry for the world of sports, competition, and even business.  LeClos (notorious for his bravado – he shadowboxed in front of Phelps prior to the race in an act some saw as cocky and disrespectful) peaked at Phelps while trailing from the next lane over.  And as Phelps went on to win, the photo became a viral meme.  A reminder of American dominance.  The kind of unquestioned, we-know-better-than-you business sense that has become a referendum of sorts these days.  Because you can’t argue with viral, right?  Likes and favorites rule the day.

And so, in this meme, captions abounded:

  •      Winners focus on winning, losers focus on winners
  •      Perfect example of what happens when you don’t worry about your own lane

America loves defeating the villain.  Count me among the group.  LeClos bested Phelps during the 2012 Olympics.  Phelps winning this time around was poetic justice.

But, in the midst of the simplistic conclusions drawn from the picture, much was forgotten.  Like the fact that LeClos is a world class swimmer who has poured countless hours into becoming an elite Olympian.  And the fact that LeClos, a gold medalist already, has reached the pinnacle of his profession and sustained competitive excellence for years.

Reducing his ability to a meme makes people feel warm, and even fuzzy.  Smug with self-satisfaction in knowing Americans just do it better.  But has the salesman, coach, or business owner who commented on LinkedIn shown the same devotion to their craft?

The only reason we know of LeClos’s “failure” is because he was on a large enough stage to be witnessed by BILLIONS.  That’s BILLIONS with a B.  You don’t get in that position without dedicating your life to the pursuit of an incredible goal.

If there is a lesson, one I’ve attempted to learn, it may be this: judging someone based on a single moment can be wildly inaccurate.

First impressions can be overrated.  Not unimportant, just misleading at times.  Le Clos may be a jerk.  I don’t know.  But if he is, he’s a hard working one.  As a gold medalist, he was superior to every swimmer on the planet in his event.


In his Man in the Arena quote, Teddy Roosevelt praises the Doer of Deeds, and those who fail while daring greatly.  He goes on to warn against the naysayers who neither know victory nor defeat.  And so, while discounting others comes easy, it can be helpful to remember that quick judgments are routinely flawed.  

It’s not the critic who counts.  No matter how witty the meme.