Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Commencement Address 2022

 Last week, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at the Christian Academy in Japan, at the Class of 2022's selection. It was the fourth commencement address that I've given in my lifetime: the first was at my own high school graduation in 2004, and the rest have all been at CAJ (2012, 2016, and 2022). With my family moving to the States next month after more than 13 years in Japan, I was grateful for the opportunity to send the graduates off, but also say "farewell" to them, and to this community that has been home to me for more than a third of my life so far.

Photo Credit to Linnea McGlothlin

Here is the video of my speech (starts from 37:40), and below is the text:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2022!

Before I launch into the heart of my speech, it occurred to me that we have some unfinished business to take care of.

You see, if you think back to last May, you were busy working on dares for your Junior Charity Event, then we had the CAJ Olympics, and then we had our final deb-scussions in Humanities, and do you know what we didn’t do in the hustle and bustle of the end of the year?  

One final SOAPStone!

So, I figure it’s only fair that we take care of that right here, right now.  Consider this your final assignment before you graduate.

It’s okay, though, I’ll help you out–you just need to follow along.

First up, we have the Speaker.

That’s me.  Pretty easy so far? 

Next, we have the Occasion.  Well, of course, the immediate occasion is CAJ graduation, but broadening it out a little bit, this is the first graduation ceremony with relatives other than parents in three years.  That’s noteworthy, I think.  And it also gets at the exigence, which is that I’m speaking to you in the context of you finishing a turbulent high school career, one in which it seems that all of history conspired to rhyme with itself, all at once.

The Audience?  That’s you guys.  The Class of 2022.  Known alias?  The Un-Shushables. Ranging alphabetically from Abe to Yamaguchi. Interesting fact: you were the very first class several of your teachers ever taught at CAJ–Ms. Johnson’s first 1st grade class, Mrs. Prevatt’s first 4th grade, and later 5th grade class, and Mrs. VanDruff’s first 6th grade class. Another fun fact–because your class had a reputation for blurting out whatever you were thinking, unfiltered, Mrs. VanDruff made you write what you were thinking in a classroom diary instead, so that you could express your ideas silently.  

Also, as a class, you volun-told Hikaru, who you chose to speak on your behalf just now, to have his head shaved as a dare last year–who can forget?  Hikaru took it all in stride, though I’m fairly certain he went through the five stages of grief in the span of about 40 seconds when he realized the rest of you weren’t kidding about the idea.  

And then I think he went through the five stages of grief again while getting his head shaved in front of everyone on the auditorium stage.  I mean, who’d have thought that a partially charged beard-trimmer wouldn’t get the job done?  Or classroom scissors, when that failed?  Who can forget the look of panic on Hikaru’s face when he realized the razor had broken?  Or the look of resignation when he thought he was going to have to finish the school day and go home with large chunks of his hair missing?  Or the look of longing as he wished that your class had just gone with “Dress-like-Kenshin day” as the dare instead?  Or the heroic image of Mr. Willson dashing into the auditorium with a proper working razor?  

I think it was Mark Twain who once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns a lesson he can learn in no other way.” But you live, and you learn.  And what I always loved about your class was how joyfully you lived and learned together, and how you would often look back on the living and learning you’d done, and then laugh together.  That was community.  That is redemption.

One last interesting fact, and I guess this ties back to the Speaker category, too.  We both started our time at CAJ in 2009–at least those of you who are OGs–you as Kindergarteners in August, and I as a short-term volunteer in the LRC, fresh out of college, several months earlier.  And we now end our time at CAJ together in 2022, you as you graduate, and I, as my family prepares to move to the U.S this summer to start a new chapter in our family’s story.  So, in many respects, I’ve had a full K-12 CAJ education along with the Class of ‘22.

Which leads me to my Purpose.  How can I possibly say all that needs to be said?  To give you a send-off befitting the last couple of years?  Ten years ago, I stood on this stage and challenged the class of 2012 to think about their legacy.  Six years ago, I told the class of 2016 that they were all living teacher’s drafts, constantly being revised by the Author of all things.  I still believe these were important parting words to those classes, but this afternoon, I am going to keep things far more simple and far more personal.  I’m going to remind you one final time of what I hope you took away from my Humanities class; what I hope you’ll remember not only in 60 minutes or 60 days, but in 60 years.  

No, I’m not talking about how big John Adams’ forehead was… or should I say fivehead, am-i-right? And no, I’m not talking about the lyrics to Hamilton, or the Toulmin Model, or the checks and balances of the U.S. government, or the proper way to eat a piece of pizza, or which basketball player really was the GOAT.  

I’m talking about my mission–my deep and abiding desire for all of you as you leave this place–which I include in my syllabus and post in my classroom, and hope from the bottom of my heart: that each of you will grow to be compassionate agents of change who glorify God by discerning wisdom from foolishness, noticing the needs of others in a broken world, and then pursuing justice, both in word and deed, engaging and navigating complexities and tensions between various perspectives. 

You have lived history these past few years.  That’s not unusual.  We’re all living history, constantly.  What was unusual is that you likely had some awareness that you were living history.  You knew you were living history on a global scale as you watched the headlines unfold each day, and you may have known that you were also living history locally–the first Senior class to enjoy the new cafeteria and field, the last Senior class to graduate from CAJ with Mrs. Foxwell as Head of School.  

History is all about things staying the same until they don’t, and big changes are on the horizon for all of you, for me and my family, and for this school from which we will soon venture away.  

Change can be exciting when it’s planned, expected, and wanted, as the new field and cafeteria have been.  Perhaps that’s how you’re feeling about graduation, too.  But when it’s unexpected, unwanted, or unpredictable, change can feel about as scary as being on a ship tossing at sea, or standing outside in a typhoon.  Or, holding on for dear life as the earth shudders beneath us.

So, I ask you, as you prepare to depart this gym not as students, but as graduates: on what do you stand?  On what foundation do you feel the most sure-footed? 

The past several years have been the story of so many beloved things–things we might normally take for granted–suddenly disappearing out from under us.  As freshmen, how many of you were looking forward to getting to travel to Korea or Okinawa for FarEast? Or going to a VEX world championship in person, not online in the middle of the night?  Or regularly performing for the community in band, orchestra, or choir?  Or maybe just hanging out in the plaza with friends after school?

How did it feel when these things went away?  

These are all good things, but none of them is a load-bearing thing; none can support the sum total of our search for identity or meaning. 

Then of course, there are bigger things that vie to serve as our foundation–politics, money, fashion, fame.  And again, none of these are inherently bad, but how stable a foundation do any of these provide?

Perhaps you may not fully know on what you stand.  In his book You Are What You Love, philosopher James KA Smith writes, “you might not love what you think.”  To illustrate this possibility, he cites a film by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, The StalkerThe Stalker is the name of the film, not a description of Tarkovsky, just to clarify.  In the movie, three men are on a journey to a room, which they are told will grant their hearts’ deepest desires when they enter.  The promise of such a room spurs them on in their journey, and yet, when they arrive at the threshold to the room at long last, they hesitate.  The room, after all, will grant what their heart actually desires, not just what they think it desires.

Perhaps today, what you think you are standing on is not what you are actually standing on.  

Given this uncertainty, let me suggest to you an important truth before we depart: you are beloved. Let that be your foundation.

You are beloved by your family, your teachers, your friends, yes–but more importantly, you are beloved by the King of all creation.  

In Psalm 62, David writes, 

5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;

    my hope comes from him.

6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;

    he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;

    he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

And the familiar words of John 3:16 tell us something crucial about God–that He loved each and every one of us so much that He sent His son to step into our human story and die for us that we might believe in Him and live eternally. 

This love is unconditional.  It is not subject to pandemic restrictions.  It is unswayed by the chaos of current events.  It abides when we mess up.  It stands firm, steady, and secure even as the earth itself gives way beneath our feet.  

My speech is drawing to a close, and so too, is your final SOAPstone.  I’ve used anecdotes, anaphora, triads, rhetorical questions, invocation, allusions, and probably other strategies, too.  It’s okay if you didn’t notice them.  In fact, no speaker wants the seams to show so much that they call attention to themselves in the moment.  At the end of the day, those strategies are more of a “60-minute thing” anyway.  

As you prepare to leave this familiar place that has been a constant over the past few years, as change looms large, and as the vain things that compete to be your foundation show themselves to be rickety things indeed, I hope this knowledge that you are beloved by God Himself will only grow more clear with each passing day, filling you with peace and joy.  That, I hope you will hold onto for 60 years and beyond. 

As all of you–and I, too–conclude our time at CAJ and go our separate ways, I’d like to leave you with a traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you,

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.


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