Annual Commencement Address

Annual Commencement Address

For 20+ years I gave a graduation speech for the students at JMU. It was a fond tradition. Decked out in Cap and Gown (with impressive ribbons, emblems and a hood), I would wax eloquent, doling out a mixture of mirth and gravitas to remind young graduates of Jesus' promises for their future.

In that spirit, let me recreate my annual Commencement Address, borrowing from previous year's (especially 2011) quips and quotes. I pray it would move your heart to laughter and tears, perhaps recalling your own collegiate days.

Without further ado – to the graduating class of 2020, I offer this charge:

Tongue Slightly in Cheek

Emcee: Tonight's guest speaker is ... [entering slowly to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance ... the bustling crowd quiets to hear Dan speak].

"Thank you, President Rose and the Board of Visitors. Chancellor Carrier, Provost Brown, Members of the Board of Trustees, Officers of the University, Distinguished Deans and Department Chairmen, Faculty and Distinguished Staff, Parents and Grandparents of the graduate, Aunts and Uncles, Brothers and Sisters, Maternal Cousins, Friends of the Graduate, Friends of the University, Friends who have friends at a University, Undergraduate Students, D-Hall Staff, Janitorial Staff, Library Check-out Ladies, Starbucks baristas, Lake Newman Muskrats, Family Housepets, the Duke Dog...

The 5 B's

In the time I have left ... in these few remaining moments ... on such an august occasion ... I recall from my own undergraduate days the single greatest tenet of all commencement addresses – whose salient truths are encapsulated in a rhetorical paradigm that finds its alliterative expression in a haiku-like pentagraphic syllogism known as "The Five B's" of Public Speaking: Be Brief, Baby, Be Brief.

I'm reminded that three score and ten years ago, former Illinois Governor and Presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson addressed his audience with these words: "My job is to speak. Your job is to listen. And hopefully we will both end at the same time." (Like Stevenson, if I continue speaking after you stop listening, I must be boring. But if you continue listening after I stop speaking, you must be crazy.)

On this noted day, I give voice to the immortal poet – Anonymous – who elegantly uttered, "I love a finished speaker ... O yes I really do ... I don't mean one who's polished ... I just mean one who's through."

This evening, despite my distinguished robes, please understand I am an average, simple man. Some of you will graduate from this distinguished University: summa cum laude. Others will graduate, magna cum laude. Or perhaps simply, cum laude. Your speaker graduated from his institution, how cum laude? O, how cum laude? Yes, I am a simple man, whose life-verse is Ecclesiastes 12:12, which says: "The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to them is wearying to the body."

Twain, Churchill, and Prepositions

On this day, given to oratorical overachievement and the gleanings of grammatical grandiosity, it is appropriate that I would enrich your educational experience from these hallowed halls of academia with a lexical lesson (especially for English Grads) from the pen of Mark Twain, who said:

"A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence, with."

Not to be outdone, when chastened for ending his sentences with prepositions, the great Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill retorted:

"That is the kind of criticism, up with which I shall not put."

And my personal favorite:

"Why did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"

But I digress.

Tonight, you graduates will merrily matriculate from this illustrious Institution. You will go ...

  • from the known to the unknown
  • from the D-Hall to the Town Hall
  • from reading The Breeze (student newspaper) to shooting the breeze with colleagues
  • from a small, rural community to a large, urban city
  • from the academic to merely the "ick."
  • from ISAT building to I SIT in my little cubicle and work work work.

In a few days you'll hear another commencement address that you won't remember 48 hours later, littered with platitudes, slogans and cliches like:

  • Your future is bright
  • You have your whole life ahead of you
  • When adversity comes, turn lemons into lemonade
  • Be true to yourself. Follow Your dreams.
  • Make the world a better place.
  • Go out there and make a difference!
  • Carpe Diem
  • Give money to your alma mater.
  • Blah, blah, blah.

Not tonight!  In the time left, I'd like to suggest a simple outline, answering two questions. First, what has the past held? And second, what will the future hold?

The Past

First, what has the past held? What will the History Books record about this year?[note: it would be impossible to recount each of the past years' highlights, so for illustrative purposes, I'll use the events of 2010-11 as an example].  

They will speak of Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis; the Gulf Oil Spill; the 33 rescued miners in Chile, and the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Libya.
They will speak of $8/gallon gas, the iPad2, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party.  Lebron James and "The Decision," Justin-Bieber-Fever, Snooki, and the Old Spice Man.
They will speak of Barry Bonds' trial, the meltdown of Charlie Sheen, and the glorious victory of my Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45!
They will speak of the comebacks of Conan, Michael Vick and General Motors. Of the movies Inception and The King's Speech. And of the deaths of the famous: Elizabeth Taylor, Geraldine Ferraro, and Gary Coleman.

Perhaps nothing captures 2010-2011 as elegantly as these poignant words written and sung by Rebecca Black:

It's Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend, weekend
Friday, Friday
Gettin' down on Friday
Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend.
Partyin', partyin' (yeah)
Partyin', partyin' (yeah)
Fun, fun, fun, fun
Lookin' forward to the…

Lyrical genius.

But not only Rebecca Black, Paul Vasquez brought us these unforgettable words:

"It's a double rainbow, all the way. Whoa, that is so intense. WOOOOOO!  Yeehaa! It's full on ... double rainbow all the way across the sky (weeping) ... what does it mean?"

Heaven's History Book

After listing memorable events at JMU, I always asked:

"What will Heaven's History Book record most about this year? It will record that this was the year many of you began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

These words always prompted prolonged clapping, shouting, and celebration, as students around the room stood to their feet in declaration that Jesus had changed their lives that year! Each year this was a highlight and holy moment.

The Future

I then unpacked words of wisdom from the Scriptures for the graduates, painting a picture of living with our eyes on Jesus and eternity. As I drew to a close, each commencement address ended the exact same way:

"Ok graduates, in a few days the starting gun goes off. If you fall along the way, get back up. If you need help, call me and I'll help pick you up. But if you quit, I'm going to sic (____, the biggest guy in our ministry) on you, and he's going to "lay hands" on you, if you know what I mean. And I will add you to my prayer list, that the Lord will discipline you – whatever it takes – until you return to Him.
Ok, graduates ... let's all synchronize our watches ... I'm calling a reunion of all JMU Cru, 100 years from tonight. Set your watches now. Let's all meet at the 3rd Pearly Gate on the Right.
Let's Pray."


Of course, graduation foreshadows a future day, when each of us will come before the Throne of God, to hear His address. It will not be us, but Christ, who will be extolled and honored for His achievements and performance, credited to us – the undeserving undergrads. And beneath the glory of heaven's Pomp and Circumstance, we shall march in the parade that leads to His face, His embrace, and a diploma that says: "Well done, my good and faithful servant."

I can't wait for that graduation day!