Graduation Speeches

In a recent sermon my pastor said something that stuck. Roughly this: “This week thousands of speakers at graduation ceremonies are urging graduates to excellence. None of them–unless at a religious institution–is saying ‘Be holy, because God is holy.'”

I suppose that made me jump because self-actualization has crept into me. What advice do we urge on young people? Work hard at school; dream; have fun; make good friends; excel if you can; be polite; set goals; make plans. The Spirit is a support mechanism for our self-actualization.

The mindset and advice of Scripture is obviously different, summed up in that slightly scary prescription: Be holy, because God is holy.

What does that phrase mean?

The word “holy” can be translated as “dedicated.” Holy people are set apart for special work. Like “dedicated” phone lines they serve a singular purpose. I think you could translate 1 Peter’s prescription this way: Be dedicated to whatever God is dedicated to.

Put that way, it sounds more practical. Some graduation speakers do, in fact, urge graduates to dedicate their lives to serving their fellow creatures, to protecting creation, to serving justice. They probably don’t mention God in that context, but the end is the same.

Mentioning God is valuable, however, because it puts a limit on our tendency to faddism, to rationalization, to power trips. If we get to define virtue, virtue often ends up looking strikingly like us. God’s dedication is often a challenge to our thinking. And at the very least, the presence of God reminds us that we are not God–an important understanding, as AA reminds us.

I, for one, like to imagine the graduation speech that Jesus would give.


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