The Commencement Speech

My dear People! My dear Bagginses* and Boffins, and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers, and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots. [*I have changed the students’ surnames back to those used in the novel.]

[Student shouts correct pronunciation]

Proudfoots. And all the rest that I welcome here today!

I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am.

I shall not keep you long. I have called you all together for a Purpose. First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that four years is too short a time to be among such excellent and admirable students.

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

[Pause for either laughter or deafening awkward silence]

[Laugh]

I’ve dreamed of having the chance to say that for over a decade, so thank you, class of 2016 for giving me the opportunity!

For those of you who don’t know me or what just happened, I am Amanda Johnston and I just borrowed from a speech in J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved work The Lord of the Rings. And it really was a dream come true.

I currently teach 11th grade English here at our school, but four years ago, when these excellent and admirable students were squirrely freshmen, I was their 9th grade English teacher. Then, two years later, I was teaching 11th grade English and they showed up in my classroom again, not quite as squirrely and even more excellent and admirable than ever. This group of students has, without question, solidified their place in my memory and my heart. I am honored to speak to you today.

I wanted to write a speech that would inspire you to greatness. That would embolden you to step out into this grand adventure we call life. But as I thought about all the words I could say to you, I kept returning to what brought me into this teaching life to begin with: stories.

So today, I want to tell you a story – a story that really matters, as our dear Samwise Gamgee would say.

At the end of your freshman year of high school, I read a story to you. Phil Vischer – the VeggieTales guy – wrote it. It’s a story about two pigs named Sidney and Norman.

Norman is a very good pig who follows the rules very well and makes his teachers and his boss and his parents and everyone pleased. He is a good pig, and everyone, most especially Norman, knows it.

And Sidney? Sidney isn’t such a good pig. He messes up a lot. He’s always running late. There’s always a stain on his tie, and his hair never looks quite right. He goes to the principal’s office more than once as a little pig, and he, truthfully, struggles to get out of bed most mornings, because he knows the day ahead of him is going to be just like the day before: one big disappointment.

Well, one day, these two pigs, who happen to be neighbors but who never speak to each other, both receive a letter from God. An invitation to come to God’s office on Elm Street. Norman, naturally, is thrilled. He’s a good pig. Of course he’s going to go see God! He’s probably going to get a reward for all the good stuff he’s done.

But Sidney? He’s terrified. After all, he’s the mess up.

They go, each of them in turn, to visit God. And God tells Norman, the good pig, these words:

“I’m glad you could come. I have a few things to tell you. First of all, I love you. Secondly, your goodness is not the reason I love you. Thirdly, you’re not as good as you have led yourself to believe. You’re prideful. You’re selfish. You look down on others simply because things don’t come easily for them. I love them just as much as I love you. Don’t look down on those I love. That is what I needed to tell you.”

Norman, of course, struggles to accept these words. Who wouldn’t? He realizes for the first time in his life that he has been a “very, very bad” pig.

Sidney goes to see God next, and he is terrified. After all, God knows everything, so He must know that Sidney is a mess up.

When Sidney enters God’s office, there He is: God. Smiling.

“I want to tell you something,” God begins. “First of all, I love you. Secondly, I love you. And thirdly…I love you. That is what I wanted to tell you.”

Well, Sidney’s heart just about explodes, but not because he thinks God loves him. No, Sidney thinks he somehow managed to fool God. That he looked good when it mattered most. That he had impressed God.

But when he catches his reflection in the window of a store on the way home, he realizes that his hair is a mess and his tie is sporting a toothpaste stain no one could overlook. He realizes that there is no way he fooled God. That when it mattered most, Sidney was just plain old Sidney, and God saw him just the way he was. And all God wanted to say was, “I love you.”

There’s a little Sidney and a little Norman in all of us. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. We all compare ourselves to other people, trying to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. We all want to matter to someone.

[Pause.]

Leaving high school is hard.

So much changes.

I remember when I went off to Waco, I was so scared, and I even had my big brother and my two best friends along with me. But I was terrified. Excited? Yes. Thrilled? Absolutely. But when I was completely honest, I was bone-shaking terrified.

There were a lot of mornings when, just like Sidney, it was hard for me to get out of bed. There are still a lot of mornings when it’s hard to get out of bed. Just because you become an adult doesn’t mean you suddenly know what you’re doing all the time. In fact, I think being an adult is very much the realization that you don’t know what you’re doing a lot of the time.

You see, we have this ailment. Author Ann Voskamp calls it chronic soul amnesia. We forget moment after moment what is true and right and good. We wake up in the morning disremembering what is most true about us, about life, about God.

And it isn’t just that we disremember what is most true. It’s that we persist in believing what is not true. This ailment we carry around in our mortal bodies, this old habit of ours that we think we can’t shake, it keeps us muddled and anxious and oftentimes downright scared.

We all hold onto these lies: I’m a mess up. I’m a loser. I’m weird. I’m a failure. I’m never going to be good enough. I’m never going to make it. So why should I even try?

Or perhaps the lies you hear are of a different sort: I’m the one who has to hold it all together. If I don’t, it’s all going to fall apart. I have to keep going. I have to keep digging in and showing up and giving more, because I have to be all the things to all the people in all the places all the time. There’s always room for improvement. I can always make it just that much better. Maybe not perfect, but almost.

If you’re like me, it’s this anxious, frenetic mixture of the two that you hear in your head, and sometimes you’re just plain “exhaustified” of living with yourself.

I’ve found that the older I get, the easier it is to make a life that creates the ideal environment for these lies to thrive. It’s a life replete with busyness. Always on the go. Always somewhere to be, something more to do, someone else to please. It’s a life that always says Yes and rarely says No. It’s a life that says there is never enough: that I can do more and have more and be more if I’ll just keep going.

We live in a culture that worships busy. And when we’re worshipping busy, we’re feeding the lies. And, if we’re not careful, we can end up feeding the lies so much that we begin actively choosing to refuse what is true instead of merely forgetting it.

But there is a cure to this chronic soul amnesia, and it’s so simple even a child can administer it. I know this, because my own two children often give me my daily or hourly or minute-ly dose. And I believe that if we would just train ourselves to do this one thing every morning, noontime, and at midnight, then we would create a culture that no longer worships busy and instead worships Yahweh.

You see, at the end of Sidney and Norman’s story, we read that our dear Sidney “still had his share of messes, though not as many as before. And there were still a few days when he wasn’t quite sure he could get up in the morning. But if you stood outside his window on one of those days, this is what you’d hear:

“‘First of all, he loves me.

“‘Secondly, he loves me.

“‘And thirdly—

He loves me.’

“And that was all it took.”

Sidney’s story is our story.

There are mornings when every single one of us wakes up and we aren’t quite sure if we can get up out of bed. We’ve disremembered what is true about us, about life, about God. Our chronic soul amnesia has left us all jumbled inside, worried and anxious and far too full of ourselves, and we head out into the day believing we must do it all and that we can’t possibly succeed.

But the cure, it’s really this simple.

You are one radically loved by God.

That is what is true about you.

You are called to bear witness to His love in word and in deed. He holds your future in His hands.

That is what is true about your life.

He is your portion and your cup of blessing. Your beautiful inheritance.

That is what is true about God.

And “if we would be the kind of people who live rooted in our identity as the beloved sons and daughters of the Father,” then we would be the kind of people who don’t have to rush about in this world in a frantic, psychotic attempt to do more and have more and be more.

“If we would be the kind of people who live rooted in our identity as the beloved sons and daughters of the Father,” then we would be the kind of people who rest in His Presence and live from the wealth of His provision and who dance as His Father love rejoices over us with singing.

You are going out into this great big world of His. You will meet all kinds of people. You will live out all kinds of adventures. Your feet will wander through hill and dale, across desert and mountain and back. You will see wonders and you will ache in sorrow. You will encounter beauty and darkness, death and life. There will be days when all of this happens between sunup and sundown.

And through it all, there is but one Story that really matters.

It is the Story of the Prince come down to us to rescue us and make us His very own.

It is the Story of the Father Who runs to meet His beloved sons and daughters on the long way Home.

It is the Story of Victorious Love clothing beloved children and welcoming us at the table where there is no shame and there is no fear.

And it is this Story that we must repeat to ourselves when we disremember. It is this Story that we must cling to no matter what occurs.

It is the Word made Flesh to tabernacle among us.

And it is the only Story that really matters. It is the only Story that can get us up out of bed on the darkest of days.

It is the only Story worth knowing and telling over and over, again and one more time.

First of all, He loves us.

Secondly, He loves us.

And thirdly—

He loves us.

And that, I promise you, is all it takes.

 

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