The following is a transcript of the speech I gave at the Northern Dutchess Christian School commencement exercises:
For those of you that know me and know what kind of person I am, what I’m about to say may surprise you:
You are about to head into a life that is filled with struggle and challenge.
I say this for two reasons.
First, I would be doing you a great disservice by sending you out into the world expecting ponies and rainbows. No doubt you’ll come across some ponies and some rainbows, but make no mistake about it, you will face some obstacles in your lives that will seem insurmountable and you will be tempted to quit.
The second reason is so very important, and it’s this: I want you to understand that struggles and challenges are the raw materials of change.
Consider your diploma. Why are you being given that piece of paper? What does it represent? It’s not given to you because you arrived today and walked down the aisle; anyone can show up and walk around. It isn’t just teachers telling you how nice a person you are; you’ve earned it! It does not even represent 13 years of showing up at school. You are being given that diploma because you faced the struggles and challenges of 13 years of tests, quizzes, projects, activities and relationships, and you prevailed! Some tried harder than others and some were more successful than others, but if you had not tried at all, you would have failed and would not be receiving this award today. The struggle then is part of the celebration now!
Without those struggles, this paper wouldn’t mean very much. If you think about it, though, the real value of that diploma is that it stands as a testimony: we the faculty and staff of NDCS have seen these young adults face adversity and struggles, we’ve seen how they’ve changed and how they’ve grown, and this diploma is our sworn testimony that they have finished the course.
Think about what miserable wretches you’d be if you had not been challenged or dealt with no struggles for these past thirteen years! It was the very struggles you faced in the halls of this school that helped to bring about change in your life. To bring you face to face with the reality of who you are and what the world is like.
Remember the story of Frodo Baggins? We love him because he is a simple character who knew nothing but his home in the Shire, but when burdened with a nearly impossible task, he persevered. The story of a Frodo who spent his days relaxing in the Shire, the end, wouldn’t be a very interesting book. It was the unthinkable challenges he faced and overcame that we celebrate. Emerson observed: “The great majority of men are bundles of beginnings.”
When the athlete falls on the field, and then finally gets up, we applaud. When a group of persecuted people overthrow their oppressive government, the flags are flown and people shout with a loud celebration—that’s what the Fourth of July is about. History is full of stories about people who faced difficulty with courage and became something greater, something stronger.
But what drove them on? For Frodo it was the fate of middle earth. For the American patriots it was a vision of freedom. But why did you get your diploma? I’m sure there many answers to that question; but as of today, that question will be at center of your thoughts. When you come up against difficulty, what will keep you going forward? if you don’t have an answer to that question, how will you persevere?
Think for a moment about the Apostles, about men like Simon Peter. Timid, simple working men; men who fled when Christ was arrested, who denied him outright. Yet almost all of these men went on to become martyrs! These unassuming fishermen, when these faced with the reality of the resurrected Jesus, became men who turned the world upside down.
Peter, one of these very followers of Christ, explains struggles:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:
“7. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
In a world full of insecurity, it is the truth of Christ’s death on the cross, his sacrifice for our sins and his resurrection from the dead that brings us not only life eternal but also gives us the courage to face whatever difficulty comes our way. And as Lewis points out, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, at the point of highest reality.”
Courage is loving the unlovely. Courage is finding joy despite sorrow. Courage is finding peace in the storm. Courage is persevering through difficult times. It is at that point—the testing point—reality is made plain. Do you want to see yourself as you truly are? How do you respond when you are tested? The testing point reveals the highest reality, and seeing yourself in that exquisitely painful light is the first step towards a life well-lived.