What Graduation Speakers Don't Tell You

by Mike Bellah, Ph.D.

The following piece was written for the Bacculaureate Service for the Canyon High School Class of 2010, held at  Hillside Church in Amarillo on May 23, 2010.
I started thinking about what I would say to you this afternoon before I was asked to say anything to you this afternoon. Years before. I'll explain in just a moment.

But first, let me say I, too, am a Canyon High School graduate, a member of the class of 1967, where I played tuba in the band. Where are you band members? Raise your hand if you're part of The Soaring Pride of Canyon High. We were just the pride of Canyon high. Guess we hadn't learned to soar yet. Anyway, I had these people raise their hands because they have already begun to form an opinion of me. A tuba player? Really? For a baccalaureate service?

You see band members know you can tell a lot about a person by the instrument he or she plays? Am I right?

For instance, we tuba players are fun loving, rowdy, nonconformist types with huge egos (if you don't want to be noticed at halftime, pick a smaller instrument).
Just how rowdy are tuba players? It’s one of those important things I learned at CHS: rowdiness in the band hall increases geometrically with one, the size of one's instrument and, two, the distance one sits away from the director's podium. Thus, tuba players are a good deal rowdier than clarinet players, somewhat rowdier than trombones, but not nearly as out of control as those crazy drummers.

So in the ‘60s if the twirlers’ batons went missing, our band director would check the tuba section. If, on the other hand, the twirlers themselves were abducted--that’s right: those crazy drummers.

So, I said I started thinking about my talk before I was asked to give it. It came to me about the time of my 30th high school reunion when I decided if I ever got the chance to speak on this occasion, I would tell you what I wish someone had told me, and I would title my message "What Graduation Speakers Don't Tell You." 

What graduation speakers will tell you is that you are special people living at a special time in history, that before you lie vast opportunities. They will tell you to set your sights high, to dream big dreams, to refuse to settle for anything less. 

It's an important challenge. For while not all dreams come true, certainly nothing of significance comes true without first dreaming it. And since this is a religious service, I want to center my remarks today around the most famous dreamer in the Bible. His name was Joseph, and he lived in Palestine nearly 4,000 years ago. 

Joseph had a dream. He dreamed of one day being a great leader of his people. Joseph believed that his dream came from God. I think most dreams do. It's how God works. The God of Creation is still creating and He does this through creative people, in whom he places dreams--for a cure for an incurable disease, or for a new automobile that produces more power on less fuel, or dreams of great works of art. The list is endless. In fact, maybe dreams are like fingerprints. God designs one special for every person, which is one reason I am so excited to stand before you. I'm looking at 260-something dreams.

But all that you will hear from most graduation speakers. What I want to talk about today is what you will not hear. I want to share with you, briefly, and from the life of Joseph, what to expect on the way to your dreams. Let me warn you; these are not particularly optimistic words. That's why most graduation speakers avoid them. But they are important words, words that will help you achieve your dream.

Are you ready? Point one. On the way to your dreams expect . . .

Rejection: lots of it.

Joseph had barely graduated. 17 years old--still dressed in his graduation gown--coat of many colors--when he was kidnapped by his classmates. By the way, all of them were related to him and murderously jealous of him. Maybe being the teacher's pet isn't such a good thing. Well, you know the story; Joseph had been sent by his school principal (his father) to check on his brothers; they capture him and sell him to a nomadic caravan as a slave. Then, to hide their crime, Joseph's brothers dip his coat in goat's blood and tell his father that a wild animal killed him.

It gets worse.

Joseph ends up in Egypt, where he is bought by a man named Potiphar, who is the head bodyguard to the Pharaoh. Here, Joseph is quickly promoted to head slave, personal assistant to the head of the Egyptian Secret Service. Not a bad gig for a young slave. Until, Potiphar's flirtatious wife sets her sights on the young Hebrew and tries to seduce him. Joseph is in a no-win situation. 

So, he goes with his values--always a good idea when you're in a moral delimna--and refuses her advances. And of course when you do the right thing (being loyal), you're always rewarded. Right?

I wish. Potiphar's wife screams rape. Her husband believes her. Joseph is thrown into prison.

You may not get into the first college to which you apply. Or the second, or third. You probably won't be selected by the first company where you interview for a job. If you start your own business, you'll find much more initial failure than success. In the real world, you will receive many more "no's" than "yes's." Many more.

I wish the graduation speaker had told us this in 1967. Because, when you're rejected, you tend to do one of two things: give up on your dream, or give up on yourself. Joseph did neither. Rather--he persisted, which is what you'll need to do. Joseph kept on dreaming. Kept on acting like the leader he would become. 

Others noticed, first Potiphar, then the Chief Jailer of the prison, who also promoted Joseph to a place of leadership. Hey--when you persist, others will notice, too.

On the way to your dreams. #1 Expect rejection

#2 Expect delays. Lots of delays.

So Joseph was in prison for 10 years, and, finally, one day it seemed he was going to get a break. Finally! The Bible says two of Pharaoh's cabinet members--the chief baker and the cupbearer--were thrown into prison, too. While there, they had dreams, so they asked the dreamer (Joseph) to interpret. He examined the symbols; then gave his prediction. In three days, the baker would be taken from prison and executed. The cupbearer got better news. In three days, he would be taken from prison and restored to his position in the cabinet. 

And, Joseph adds in his talk with the cupbearer, "Keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison." Can you feel the anguish?

And then it happened. The baker was executed; the cupbearer was restored. The cupbearer--the official taster for Pharaoh, the one that Pharaoh trusts with his life. No one is closer. Let's go present tense. Can you feel Joseph's optimism build as he waits for the news.

I see him hanging around the prison post office waiting for the letter. One day passes, then, a week, a month, a whole year goes by. No letter. The cupbearer forgets Joseph. Soon, he has been a slave for 13 years. He's now 30. Don't let those numbers get by you. 13 years. From your kindergarten years until now. What a delay!

You, too, will face delays. The degree may take longer than you expect, maybe much longer. I see students in my office every semester. Life happens, and sometimes you aren't able to complete things as promptly as you planned. School, work, family . . . all include delays. And, even without delays, the process of fulfilling dreams can take a long time all by itself. A long time.

And, like rejection, delays can make us give up too soon. Or they can make us miss something important. I'm speaking to those of you who are completers now, not just completers, but early completers, the kind who will miss the football game or band concert to get the paper done early. So you can graduate early. So you can get to your dream early. And you are so focused on the end, you are in danger of missing the in-between. Let me illustrate.

I have fond memories of summer vacations as a child. Yet, they always begin when we arrived. The trip itself is another story. Because my dad thought that vacations begin when you get there. And, the faster the drive-time, the fewer the stops, the more enjoyable the vacation. Sadly, and for too long I shared my dad's approach. 

And then I learned that the in-betweens in life, the delays, make up the bulk of our days. If we trivialize them, as time only to be endured until the real living begins, we will trivialize most of life.

The Bible calls it being patient. We meet rejection with persistence. We meet delays with patience. Which means, among other things, embracing the delays--living life to the fullest--even when the dream is still unfulfilled. I wish I had known that at your age.

Hey, I've just given you biblical support for enjoying your college days, your single days, your young married and child-rearing and early working days. Don't be irresponsible (keep working on the dream), but remember to enjoy the process. If you don't, you may get your dream, but you'll wonder if it was worth it.

Well, one day Joseph's phone rang. OK, not a phone. But he did get a call from--are you ready--Pharaoh himself. Man had forgotten Joseph. God did not. He never does. And He won't forget you either. 

On the way to your dreams, #1 Expect rejection, #2 Expect delays, 
#3 Expect the unexpected.

Pharaoh had a dream, and he needed an interpreter. And the cupbearer remembered. Anyway, the dream involved seven fat cattle and seven skinny ones, and Joseph told Pharaoh the symbols meant the land was about to experience seven years of abundance followed by seven years of severe drought. Thus, they would need to store the surplus in the first years to survive in the latter ones.

The unexpected: Did you know that ten of the top jobs in demand today, didn't even exist six years ago? If the trend holds, you will be the first generation ever to prepare for jobs that don't yet have a name. 

How does one prepare for the unexpected? I'll tell you how Joseph did it. He learned from his experiences (we educators call it lifelong learning). He got good at handling change (he was adaptable), and so--when the Pharaoh needed a man to handle the greatest unexpected event in his lifetime, guess whom he chose?

"Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you" (Genesis 41:39-40).

Do you see what happened? The dream came true. Even better than Joseph planned. Not just leader of his people, but all of Egypt. 

So the negative message--of rejection, delays, and the unexpected--the things graduation speakers tend to steer clear of--turns out to be a positive one.

Someday, you may sit alone in a dorm room or a hotel room or, maybe, on a lonely stretch of sand in Afghanistan, and you're going to feel rejected. Sometimes, through no fault of your own, but others, because of things you have done. Makes no difference. God saves sinners, not perfect people. When that happens, I want you to remember Joseph. God has not forgotten you. Ask His help.

Pray: Will you bow with me in prayer. God of Creation and Creativity, God of Joseph, God of our dreams, bless these graduates today. Help them to meet rejection with persistence, delays with patience and a zest for living those in-betweens, and the unexpected with ongoing learning. May their dreams come true, for their happiness, for this world's good and for Your glory. In Your Strong and Loving Name we pray. Amen.

If you want to comment on this column, visit the Fortis Press Blog and find May 23, 2010. You will be asked to sign in before commenting. 

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