By Mike Ireland, associate professor of Bible
You may think when you’ve heard one graduation speech, you’ve heard them all. But, when Dr. Mike Ireland addressed the 248 graduates at summer ceremonies, we found ourselves struck by the message he gave. See if you are, too.
This is an important moment in the lives of many people; certainly for you who are graduating but also for those who’ve come because they love you. One of the best things about this event and this day is that it is shared with those we love.
In a few minutes your name will be called, you will walk across this stage, and every eye in the room will be on you. So please, don’t trip. It will be almost as dramatic as the day you came into the world. The flash of cameras, the hoots, howls and high-fives of family members will all underscore how special you are. And as you receive your diploma, smile for the photographer and enjoy this moment. Remember that somewhere in this room a mom and dad are choking back tears of pride and thinking about how fast time flies. And no matter what this may have cost them, in that moment when you walk across the stage, it will all be worth it. Let me tell you this: It does not matter how long you live, you will never be able to repay them because love and sacrifice are priceless. But you can live a life that says thank you so much for your faith in me.
This is an occasion of celebration and rightfully so. We salute you for your diligence and perseverance in reaching this goal. Some of you may have worked harder, and, no doubt, some of you may have taken longer. But today, none of that makes any difference as you make a necessary passage from one phase of your life to the next.
And whether you are headed to graduate or professional school, to a new job, or in a direction yet to be determined, we send you forth with sincere best wishes and a genuine hope and anticipation for your future.
As a university, it was never our intention to simply prepare you to make a lot of money or get to the top of your field. It was never our goal to help you make a name for yourself or be able to retire early.
But it was our aim to show you that whether you were studying the history of Rome, the three mechanical tasks of the stomach, the managerial skills required in small business, or the artwork of Rembrandt, everything was linked to God. It was our goal that while you developed your skills on the playing field, in the science lab, the band room, or the computer lab, you would also discover that nothing happens apart from God. It was our desire that while you attended devos, participated in clubs, went on campaigns, and responded to the needs of fellow students, you would see that everything of real value is because of God.
If we failed to do that, if we failed to try to do that, then we may have prepared you for a career but not for life.
If all you take from this university is the opportunity to enter a graduate school, get a job, or just make money, then whatever you paid for these years was too much. If all you take from your years at Harding is simply an appreciation for the complexities of a free market system or a better understanding of the intricacies of the human body, then your education isn’t worth very much.
But I believe you got more than that. Even in this place of well-intentioned but flawed people, I believe you could see God at work. And because of that, your education is more than information from the classroom or experiences in a club, more than the discoveries in the lab or the findings on a field trip. You hold much information in your head, but it is what you know in your heart that will shape and determine your life.
Many of you will depart today with wonderful dreams for making a real difference in the world. We commend you for those dreams. But our commendation comes with a warning. Be clear about the kind of difference you intend to make. Some differences simply reshape the world around us, but others reshape lives. Some differences we effect are merely temporary until something new and improved comes along, but others we make will last forever. We hope your time at Harding has enabled you to make the distinction.
But I would say this: If you want to know the difference between these differences, then spend more time with the sick and dying. Perhaps it will be uncomfortable at first, but you will find that no other experience will put you as close to the center of life’s meaning as this one. Sick and dying people don’t usually pretend about what is important. They are not worried about political correctness. They talk of their memories — both the joys and the regrets. Listen carefully, and you will hear what matters most to people. And when you know what matters most to people, then you’ll have a clearer idea of the kind of difference you want to make with your life. They speak of the simplest things as though they were gold, but they speak not at all of those things we often mistakenly value like gold. They speak mostly of family and of God. Their words carry a power, a force like no others. And each time you leave their company, you cannot wait to get home and hug those you love.
My point is this: If you want to make a real difference with your life, you must know what truly matters in life.
Most of you are not going to study distant planets or travel in space, but all of you can love your spouse and show the world what God intended marriage to be. Most of you are not going to transplant organs or discover a cure for some disease, but all of you can be gracious and kind to all people and show the world what it means to be like Jesus. Most of you are never going to win an Olympic medal or score the game winner in a championship, but all of you can honor your word and show the world what it means to have integrity. Most of you are never going to become wealthy or famous, but all of you can live in such a way that those who know you can see that you know Jesus.
Make no mistake: You can make a difference with your life. What kind of difference is up to you.
Work is God-ordained. It was part of God’s original intention for humanity. Work is not inherently good or evil; it is what we make it. Being the flawed people we are, we have a tendency to take what God gives us and abuse it to our own destruction.
Whether you are going into nursing, ministry, business or education — whatever your vocation — we wish you nothing but success. We want and even expect to hear good things about you. It is natural that your chosen profession would be important to you and that you would want to do well. But contrary to cultural opinion, success in work does not mean success in life. As we have sadly observed too often, you can be the president of the country, a sports superstar or a world-class entertainer, but that does not mean you know how to live.
For most of you the challenge will be keeping your work in perspective. That is not easy in a culture that praises productivity and worships the dollar.
So, I appeal to you to resist two temptations. Resist the temptation to believe that this chosen work is who you are, and resist the temptation to believe that you are indispensable to it.
You are not simply what you do. In the future, when we see you and ask how you are, our primary concern is not for the size of your office or company or the size of your house or bank account. Our first concern is not to know how many patients you see, how many clients you have, or how many members attend the church. Forgive us if we have ever given you the impression that those things matter most. We want to know how you are. And that can only be answered in connection with God.
It will be easier to keep your job in perspective if you relinquish all attempts to convince yourself and others that you are indispensable. I know how this works. You become possessed by the belief that it won’t get done, done right or done on time if you don’t do it. This will, of course, add to your own sense of importance. Surprise! Indispensable people get sick and die every day, and the world clicks right along!
Let me share a brief picture of your future. When you die, the office will close for a few hours for everyone to attend your funeral. They may even take the afternoon off. But when the sun comes up the next day, it will be work as usual. Somebody will begin doing what you did.
That is reality. I don’t say that to depress you, and it doesn’t minimize your contribution. It is supposed to help you keep things in perspective. After all, if you don’t, how else will you know the kind of difference you want to make?
Today, you celebrate, and we celebrate with you. After this, you depart to new arenas of life. New adventures are ahead. We are excited for you. We remember what it was like. We have shared with you what we know about our respective disciplines and challenged you to aspire beyond us. We have tried to be a resource for your interests and a support for your pursuits. But more than that — way more than that — we have endeavored to communicate to you that you were made for a purpose that is greater than any single field of endeavor, and that, regardless of what you do to make a living, there is only one way to make a life.
So, we ask that you not forget this: As the years roll by, we look forward to the news of your successes, promotions and achievements. But mostly, we look forward to hearing that you are well, that you are honest and upright, that you are kind and generous ... and that you make such a wonderful difference in the lives and hearts of so many people.
Now that will be something to celebrate.