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In Theory: What advice would you give during commencement?

Public and private schools of higher learning commonly hold commencement exercises this month, inviting speakers from all walks of life to address the new grads.

In some cases, those speakers are religious leaders. In fact, students at the University of Dallas are reportedly lobbying the school to ask Pope Francis to speak at its 2015 commencement ceremony.

Q: If you were invited to address graduates poised to take on the world today, what words of advice would you most like to offer?

I would encourage them to launch into life and career with a mindset of being of the greatest possible service to people around them. Having a heart of service toward others makes the greatest impact on the world and produces the greatest level of personal fulfillment regardless of our post-graduate career, calling or circumstances. Serving makes us useful to others, thus making us valuable to them. Serving keeps us humble, helping us avoid the pitfalls of pride and arrogance. Serving lifts others up, producing goodwill with others and from others. Serving is following the example of Jesus Christ our Lord, Who is venerated to this day. Of Himself Jesus said: "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Because of Jesus' humble and sacrificial service "Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name" (Philippians 2:9). This principle applies to every one of us, too, graduate or not: "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted." (Luke14:11).

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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Probably not what Pope Francis would offer. It's not that I think he can't form rational thought and have something worthwhile to contribute, but as a Protestant, you know that my perspective is all about "salvation by grace alone in Christ alone," and that rubs Rome the wrong way. Nonetheless, if given the opportunity to speak at commencement, and I sort of get to in my own church just days before the event, I would emphasize "graduation" above all. We graduate from infancy to toddlerhood, to elementary and then secondary sensibilities; then it's all about adulthood. And these transitions (i.e., graduations) mark our advance. Kids reach high school and ultimately don flat hats with tassels and they think they're something, but it really doesn't stop there, does it? No, they graduate to college, university, career and finally retirement. It goes lightning fast. It goes, I mean, lightning fast! So if we graduate at all, we must graduate with an attitude that pleases God. Life is fast, but God is faster — and forever. Spirit is unending, but flesh is gone in a millisecond. What you do makes you who you are, and who you are makes you fit for heaven or not. I don't mean to say that you have to be perfect for God, only that you have to be for God so that He can make you perfect. No matter your persuasion, life is about fulfilling the perfect will of God and not just perfecting consumption till death. Please don't squander your days when God has for you so much more in mind. Do you want to thrive well forever, or merely survive well temporarily? It's big picture. Live, die, and evaporate, or, thrive, pass, and elevate? That's the real commencement! Choose smart, smart graduates that you are…

Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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Several years ago ABC News anchorman Max Robinson, shortly before he died, spoke to some journalism graduates and emphasized their keeping their integrity. I think I would counsel the same, because, as Max said, really your integrity is all you have. Obviously, one does not need to be religious to have integrity — but if someone does consider one's self a believer, one had certainly better have integrity! Otherwise faith is in vain, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul.

And to paraphrase Jesus, what does a man have if he gains the whole world and yet loses his own soul? And to quote Shakespeare, "This above all: to thine ownself be true, and then thou canst not be false to any man." So, graduates — hang on to your integrity, because, in the last analysis, that's all you really have.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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The words of advice I would most like to offer would be the sort I heard when graduating from college — challenging yet encouraging and optimistic. We were sent out into a world with plenty of troubles, but it was also a world filled with a wealth of positives.

Unfortunately those words aren't relevant today. The class of 2014 is going out into a tepid and unequal economy, with lower pay in real dollars than their parents probably earned at the same age, and a hostile workplace overall.

Their physical and institutional infrastructures are crumbling due to lack of capital and caring, and their natural world is suffering almost to the point of no return from human excess.

Oh, and they will have to cope with it all while paying off massive college debts.

I'm afraid that looking out at them from the podium I would blurt out, "On behalf of all of us supposed grown-ups, I'm profoundly sorry and wish you good luck with the terrible mess we've left you."

But that isn't a long enough speech, so here's the rest of my advice:

Learn to cook and eat at home. Sounds off the wall? My speech will explain.

"Grads, you can't afford to eat good, healthy meals out. The fast and junk food you can afford helps destroy the planet and will ruin your health. Plus about one quarter of all purchased food in this country goes to waste.

To survive you are going to have to do better than your elders in many, many ways, including in your refrigerator and cupboards. Buy mostly plant-based staples. Then at mealtime ask yourself, what do I have that needs to be eaten next and how can I make it into something tasty and nutritious?

Teaming up with others in the same boat for this most basic of human endeavors will promote thrift, health, and community. You're going to need it.

And in closing let me repeat, "I'm sorry and good luck."

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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If I were giving the commencement speech, I would actually say very little (thereby making myself the most popular public speaker ever).

Instead I'd show a two-minute clip from the Robert Redford film, "Lions for Lambs." (Find it on YouTube by putting in "Malley on Adulthood.") It's the single greatest piece of wisdom I have ever heard, about how we take charge (or not) of our lives. It's about how adulthood starts before you ever realize it; and by the time you do, you've already made 20 decisions that you didn't know you were making, which you'll spend most of the rest of your life either living out, or trying to fix. And it's about how nondecisions (the plague of the age for current college grads) are some of the most binding decisions of all, and the hardest to undo.

I might just show that clip over and over, perhaps first arranging for the bright young graduates' eyelids to be held open, à la "A Clockwork Orange." But if compelled to say something original in addition, here's what it would be:

Happiness is an actual goal, all by itself. When you're a child, you think that if only the adult-imposed obstacles were removed, like having to eat your vegetables and go to bed early, you'd be completely happy. Young adults think that if you gradually put all the right pieces in place — school, career, relationships, home — they'll all, in the end, add up to happiness.

Not so. Happiness is its own line item; it takes place within and beneath all those other things. You have to work harder at finding and maintaining happiness than any college grad would ever believe. Put it first on the list; let all your other life-decisions be affected by the shape your happiness needs, and reassess at every turn: Am I happy?

In conclusion, I'd say: "And by the way: Eat all the onions and peppers you can, in the next 20 years; the day will surely come when you won't be able to eat them in polite company. Trust me on this."

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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If I were speaking to college graduates at their commencement this year, I would want to share many things I wish that someone had told me at that time many years ago. And I will list them below.

1. Treat everyone, including yourself, with dignity and respect;

2. Practice justice and compassion in everything you do;

3. Try to understand those with whom you disagree instead of dismissing or attacking their ideas;

4. Continue your search for spiritual growth throughout your life;

5. Be bold in exploring new ideas in a responsible search for truth and meaning;

6. Exercise your conscience in making decisions for yourself and for society at large;

7. Encourage the well-being of our world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all people;

8. Honor the Earth and all her creatures with responsible action and caring concern.

But, above all those things: Love extravagantly. With that directive, all of the actions above can be accomplished. My hope is that all people, not just recent college graduates, will find meaningful lives, full of hope and possibility, and will help to make the world a better place because they have been here.

Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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Young people graduating from universities today face a much more difficult world than my classmates and I did more than three decades ago. Their prospects for economic security, good health and spiritual peace all seem to be much less certain.

The multitudes drawn to Christ 2,000 years ago faced those very same challenges. His advice to them, found in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, was to make the latter, the spiritual, their highest priority. "Seek you first the kingdom of God," he said, "... And all these things will be added unto you."

In my own imperfect attempts to follow his admonition, I've found that what he said was true. The pattern for living that Jesus outlined, known as the Sermon on the Mount, is a blueprint that would benefit anyone, Christian or not. So, if I were speaking to students, I would want to convey in some way the things that Jesus said.

Reduced to its essence, the Sermon on the Mount urges us to resist the addictions of selfishness, vanity and hate. In our style-concious world, we would do well to remember his thoughts on fashion: "Why take ye thought for raiment?" he asked, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

He would see little value in a popular culture that celebrates snark and profanity. He knew that the damage done by cruel or thoughtless words is often the most difficult to repair. We must, he warned, be careful about what we say: "Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."

The world teaches that it is good to get even, that difference between right and wrong changes with our circumstances. Christ taught that in the long run, revenge, duplicity and compartmentalizing our behavior simply doesn't work.

"The light of the body is the eye," he said. "If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"

We might consider the Sermon on the Mount to be a commencement address of sorts. Parts of it pertain specifically to Christian doctrine, but more broadly, Christ taught his listeners how to live. He taught that joy is found by rising above the greed, rancor and pettiness that can so easily entangle us. It seems a worthy goal. At the very least, embracing his words, making them central to our outlook, can bring equanimity in a troubled world. At the very best, it opens the door to eternal life.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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