[The following is the text from the Denver Christian School graduation commencement address, given May 26, 2017]
I’m told there is a formula that I’m supposed to follow for graduation speeches. I know because I looked it up. I am supposed to tell you that now that you’ve completed this graduation milestone, all your dreams are out there and waiting for you. Then I’m supposed to tell you that you can accomplish anything in the world if you just put your mind to it and work hard enough. And then I’m supposed to tell you to never stop believing in yourself because you are all such wonderfully amazing people. In all the recent graduation speeches I glanced over, this pretty well sums up the message I’m supposed to give you here. (1) Follow your dreams because all your dreams are out there waiting for you. (2) With enough hard work you can accomplish anything. (3) You’re amazing, so never stop believing in yourself.
Except for one thing, I don’t believe any of that is true. Not all of your dreams are out there waiting for you because some dreams are just never going to happen. You cannot accomplish anything if you just work at it hard enough. And sometimes believing in yourself doesn’t get you very far.
I made one commitment to my daughter Bethany in preparing this speech. I told her that I would not tell any stories about her. And I am going to honor that commitment. So instead I am going to tell you a story about my son, Andrew.
Many years ago when my children were small—I think Andrew was in preschool, maybe four or five years old. There was an evening when all the children were put to bed and the house was quiet. My wife and I were sitting in the kitchen talking about our day. And then we hear the thumping of little feet down the hallway and into the bathroom—which is not uncommon. Then we hear the sink turn on. And the water runs, and runs, and runs. Now it’s time to go investigate. Knock on the door and gently open it. There stands Andrew by the sink washing his hands. He’s got blue marker all over his hands.
“Now Andrew, it’s after bedtime. You shouldn’t still be up drawing and coloring. You can make pictures tomorrow. Let’s go back to bed.”
“Okay,” says Andrew. “Just don’t go in my room.”
What? Now, of course, I have to go see the room. Upon entering his bedroom I look around and see on every single wall, etched in blue marker, what can only be described as the Sistine Chapel of preschool iconography. Robots, spaceships, race cars, aliens—you name it.
Then Andrew says, “Mom, don’t look behind my door.”
Of course, now we absolutely have to look behind the door. More robots and spaceships. And several letter “A”s – he was just learning his alphabet, and knew his name stated with A.
I say, “Andrew, did you do this?” As if I needed to ask. It’s his bedroom. He’s got marker on his hands. He initialed it. Of course he did it. He can’t hide that.
A few weeks ago I walked through this school when all the senior synthesis projects were out. I’ve seen the pictures and read the stories. You’ve opened your lives and let all the rest of us peek through a few doors and see some of the experiences that have influenced the person that you have become. In celebrating graduation we haul up the cute pictures and tell the fun stories and reminisce about the good times.
But let’s be honest. For every single one of us there are a few rooms in our lives where we don’t want anyone to go. There are a few doors in our lives that we don’t want anyone to see behind. Every single one of us has some marker on our hands, and we can’t hide it. So as much as I wish I could tell you that every single one of your dreams is waiting for you and they can all come true, that’s not the way life works. There are some rooms in your life that other people will see that sometimes you wish weren’t there. As much as I wish I could tell you that with enough hard work you can accomplish anything, there are some things in life you just cannot do. There are some doors we would rather have stay closed. Some other doors that we wish would open. And sometimes we don’t get to decide which ones are which. And I’m sorry to say that just believing in yourself is not always enough. As awesome as we all wish we could be sometimes, we’ve all got some kind of marker on our hands and we can’t hide it. That’s the world facing you. This is what you are walking into.
So if life is not all about your dreams, if it’s not about all the things that you can accomplish, if it’s not about believing in yourself, then what has all of this been about? What has Denver Christian school been preparing you for? The school summarizes its mission in three words: inspired, equipped, and engaged. Inspired for what? What have you been equipped for? What is it you are supposed to engage in this world? I can answer that for you in one word.
It’s a Hebrew word in the Bible that is translated as peace. Scholars such as Nicolas Wolterstorff and others have suggested that there is a much deeper meaning for shalom than simply peace. Wolterstorff suggests that perhaps a better English translation for shalom would be flourishing. Flourishing is what we use to describe when something has what it needs to exponentially develop and take off. After a good spring rain, the strawberry plants in my yard flourish. Meaning, they take off and grow and gain health in the way they were meant to do. They have just the right conditions with just the right nutrients in just the right environment to fully become everything they are supposed to be. They hit their highest potential because the environment and all their surroundings are just right for that to happen. That’s flourishing. That’s shalom.
God created the world for shalom. He created the world for flourishing. In fact, the very first instruction he gave to the very first human beings in the Bible was an instruction to fill the world and cultivate it, to develop it. God made this completely awesome universe and then placed humans here—men and women—and said to them, now this is yours to take care of. Figure it out, open up and unpack all the mysteries and all the potential that has been folded and packed into this wonderful universe by the wonderful creator.
Shalom. Flourish. That’s why you are here. That’s why God created you—for shalom, for flourishing; having just the right environment with just the right surroundings to take off and grow and become everything you were created to be. That’s what Denver Christian School has strived to provide for you, an environment in which to flourish—an environment for shalom to happen. Alright, I admit—because I know you’re thinking it—not every single class on every single day in every single subject has always felt like flourishing. But I bet you that if you think back upon all your years of schooling, there were moments of flourishing. There was a class, or a project, or a teacher, or a sports team, or an instrument, or a musical performance, or a coach, or an art creation, or a group of friends—there has been something, or in fact I bet there have been many instances in your time at Denver Christian School when you have flourished. The teachers and the staff and the parents have tried as best we can to make an environment here where you have been able to explore and unfold and unpack all the mystery and all the beauty that God has folded and packed into this creation.
A few weeks ago as I walked around in this building to see all the senior synthesis projects, I saw the way in which each one of you captured some kind of theme or idea or image that represents flourishing for you. For some of you it was expressed in music, some it was expressed in a sport, some it was expressed in color and art. For some it was expressed with an image like flying from an airport, or a bird venturing beyond a cage, or plants growing from lightbulbs. But each one of you took hold of an image or an idea that communicated the environment and surrounding for you to experience shalom—flourishing. Because that’s why God made you.
Tonight this chapter ends. And you move on to the next. But one thing does not change. You are still created by God for shalom—to flourish. Whether it’s science or math or art or accounting or construction—whether it’s college or a job or a gap year, God wants you to know shalom—flourishing. There is still more wonder and beauty in this creation to be unpacked and unfolded and discovered and developed.
So tonight, it doesn’t matter what’s hiding behind certain doors of your life. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got marker on your hands. Because shalom flourishing is not really about your dreams. It’s not about what you can accomplish. It’s not about believing in yourself. This isn’t about your world at all. Shalom flourishing is about God’s world. That is the reason why Denver Christian School pours so much into inspiring, equipping, and engaging. So that you will go from here to be a part of God’s shalom to this world. So get out there and flourish.