The Greatest Commencement Address Ever Given

As the school year comes to an end, another annual round of commencement addresses is being given.  Sadly, most of them are forgettable.  Ironically, I do not even remember my own high school or college commencement addresses.  Having raised five children, I have sat through my share.  Of all the graduation speeches that I have heard I remember only one.  It was a message given at the college graduation of my eldest daughter.  The speaker was the late John Osteen, founder of Houston’s Lakewood Church and father of Joel Osteen.  Rev Osteen exhorted the graduates to make it their goal to always depend upon and be filled with the Holy Spirit.  That message for some reason stuck with me.

The purpose of a graduation speech hopefully is that it will strike a chord of truth deep within the soul that will continue to resonate at critical junctures throughout a person’s life. 

When Winston Churchill, speaking at the Harrow graduation in 1941, said “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never …” he struck a chord that reverberated way beyond the ear shot of those in attendance.  It galvanized a nation caught in the grip of the Second World War and throughout the decades since has continued to inspire embattled souls whenever it is read or recalled.

This year, a high school English teacher named David McCollough Jr gave one of those rare memorable commencement addresses.  When he told the graduates at Wellesley High School (Massachusetts) the following it went viral.  “None of you are special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.”  In an age when children have grown up being “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped . . . feted and fawned over” it needed to be said.  The ultimate point that he was making is that exulting in being special is a self-indulgent deceit.  “The great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.”  That is a message which may discomfit the soul but can motivate those who hear it to noble action.

Graduation ceremonies as a rite of passage are fraught with both emotion and expectation.  There is the celebration of accomplishment with all the accompanying memories, bitter and sweet, sacrificial and gratuitous that will be left behind.  And there is the anticipation of the future burgeoning with hopes and dreams yet waiting, albeit with trepidation, to be fulfilled.

That is how the disciples must have felt as Jesus was speaking to them at their commencement, right before His ascension into heaven.  It was the summum bonum of all graduation speeches.  Given in an unparalleled setting atop the Mount of Olives with Jerusalem in full view across the Kidron Valley His words would go viral in a way that would reverberate with increasing cadence century by century down to the present time.  What the disciples heard would mark out a purposeful course of service and inspire them to run it for the rest of their lives.  These powerful commencement words of Jesus would have the same effect upon everyone who read them thereafter.

Here, in summary, are the key points drawn from the greatest commencement address ever given.  It was faithfully transcribed by Luke the physician, from the eyewitness accounts of the graduates themselves. (Acts 1:4-9)

1.  Congratulations, but wait!  Don’t even think about venturing out without being filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  “Do not leave Jerusalem,” Jesus said, “but wait for the gift my Father promised…” (Acts 1:4)  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (Acts 1:8)  Jesus was simply reinforcing what He had taught His disciples earlier “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)  Where God guides, He provides and those whom He appoints, He anoints.  Graduates dare not go forth without wholly depending upon Him – John Osteen’s point exactly!

2.  Live in the moment and leave the future to God.  Jesus told the disciples “It’s not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.” (vs. 7)  You do not need to figure everything out ahead of time.  Leave the timing and results to Him.  Don’t let what you don’t know keep you from doing what you know.  Venture out in obedience of faith, trusting Him.

3.  Be a witness.  What you’ve been given is too precious and too powerful to be kept to yourself.  Be alert to what I am doing in your life and faithfully share what you see and hear with others.  “You shall be my witnesses…”  (Acts 1:8)

4. Think big but start small.  You were created to be a world changer, so set your heart accordingly.  But keep in mind that the journey to big always starts at home with the small. You must start in Jerusalem before moving into “all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) 

What is the most memorable thing you remember from a commencement address you’ve heard?

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