21 Life Lessons for Graduates

Commencement 2017

St. John’s UMC, Aiken, South Carolina – Dr. Tim McClendon

Are you, are we smarter than a fifth grader? Do we have wisdom? The difference between wisdom and knowledge is evident in this story. Knowledge is having the right information and wisdom is putting it to use. The scientist had knowledge but didn’t know how to use it. I know a lot of smart people today, successful people, affluent people, but they’re jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks filled with knowledge and stuff they don’t need instead of parachutes filled with wisdom. What is needed in our “Information Age” is not more knowledge, but more wisdom.

My task on this Commencement Day is to help you, all of us, commence, aka “begin” to live with more wisdom. James 1:5-6 says that if we want more wisdom we should ask God and it will be given to us. Proverbs 4:6-9 tells us that if we value wisdom it will protect us, watch over us, exalt us, honor us, and even give us grace. The best source of wisdom and everything else is found in what Jesus said about Himself in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2017. I share these 21 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. Group pictures are great but the world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, egotistical people who have a preoccupation with themselves, and appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall, but the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. They’re okay to start with, but you need to do better than that! If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue doing your homework for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will always play second-fiddle to whomever you’re trying to please.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things. Don’t panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, and a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!” Start with the hardest and the toughest thing first and everything else will be more of a pleasure!
  10. Yes, if you don’t already, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll walk into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Don’t ever, ever, ever, text and drive or your voice will be the first to get silenced! Use proper decorum and mute your cell phones around people you love and situations that demand respect.
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab. Love and physical intimacy are very often two different things, so avoid the complication. There’s nothing casual about casual you-know-what, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tough ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life. Don’t look down on your elders. You will be one someday.
  13. Another observation: You know the saying, “Dance with the one that brought you to the party.” Remember your friends and family who helped get you here. Be loyal. Most importantly, don’t forget your parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, and uncles, and other important adults. I know that your tendency is not to answer your phone, but if one of the people like Mom and Dad or Granddad and Grandma call you, answer the phone, and not with a text, if you can help it. There are some of us who can talk faster than we can type and we’d rather hear the sound of your voice because your voice matters and we can tell a lot more from its sound, inflection, and tone.
  14. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice – God’s!
  15. Sure, you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s very convenient, but please learn how to keep up with your money. Plastic is a great way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. There will be tables outside of buildings and along the sidewalks all around your dorm or college student union trying to get you to sign up for all kinds of things like credit cards. Nothing in life worth having is free, so beware! And when you use plastic for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague.
  16. The mantra in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this mind-over-matter philosophy say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You Only Live Once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Instead of “YOLO,” the truth is, “YODO,” You Only Die Once. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Make sure you have health insurance and buy a life insurance policy, too. The younger you get it, the cheaper. Do not separate your thinking from your doing. There are serious unintended consequences to everything. The only sure thing about instant gratification is that it only takes an instant to lose everything. Pretending you can believe one thing with your mind and do the opposite with your body is malarkey.
  17. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is mind-over-matter thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, and video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  18. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 20% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $4,000 on a $20,000 car. Don’t be afraid of shopping at Goodwill. You actually make a purchase that starts a new fashion trend. Read the book, Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell if you want proof. So, never make impulsive, quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change, they are going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down. Keep your cool. Avoid “fake news” and don’t be a Drama Queen or King. Have enough guts to stop being passive-aggressive, and, instead, speak the truth in love. Passive-Aggressive people say things that on the surface seem passive, even helpful, but their intent is to put you down. People want truth-tellers for friends, and will quickly get tired of those who always have too much drama in their lives.
  19. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you’re usually it. Everybody wants to say: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason, but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. Most of the bad and good things happen because of your choices, or the choices of others. The same with the bad things. God doesn’t cause bad things. God helps us get through them. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. Mom and Dad aren’t going to wake you up for your class or to get to work.
  20. You and your generation have a lot to live up to against difficult odds. A lot of folks think that you’re the most spoiled entitled group ever, and life has been easy for you. I think that most of you know better, but get a job and prove the naysayers wrong. Don’t just make good grades, make excellent ones. Sure, it’s okay to have fun. God wants your life to be joyful, but don’t be foolish, and don’t think you’re owed anything. You have got to earn your due. There’s a young immature dictator in North Korea that is Trouble with a capital “T” because he thinks the world revolves around him. Don’t be that person!
  21. It’s a scary world. How you handle it will say a lot about you and your faith. There will always be malware and ransom-ware that will seek to infect your mind and your computer and shut you down. You’re only worth $300 to hackers, but you’re worth everything to God. Please always remember that Jesus paid the full ransom for your life and it cost him a lot more than a few hundred bucks. So, don’t give into dark thoughts, fears, or worries. Remember that God loves you and will always be with you. Oh, and don’t forget to keep updating your anti-virus protection. It’s even better to make sure that you’re always up to date in your relationship with Jesus! Don’t be a stranger to church and campus ministries, and be sure to come back and see us! We’re your family!

In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement Sunday, I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one. If he didn’t then why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. So do you. Each of you already has what you need to reach your version of the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking! Commence!!!

Thank God for Educators and Schools!

Summer schedules are changing for a lot of people this coming week. It’s already begun for educators who are already back at school having team meetings, professional development days and school or district wide pep rallies of sorts. On top of that I am sure that many educators are sorting through the previous year’s supplies and spending more than a little extra money to get new materials so that their classrooms will be in tiptop shape.

Children, youth, young adults, and others are also feeling the change from summertime schedules. Cindy is in her 28th year of education, and comes from a family of educators. She has been easing back into getting up early and switching gears. This week she’s up at 5 a.m. and next week it will be 4 a.m. It takes a herculean effort for teachers, parents and students to make the adjustment. I especially think of those first-time college students whose parental alarm clocks will be replaced by digital ones, and I pray for those parents who are first-time empty-nesters as they send their children off to college. They’re probably the only parents who aren’t rejoicing that school is about to begin.

At church we have the Blessing of Backpacks this Sunday and will give out very nice identification tags that include a space for the owner’s name and also has the name and logo of the church. It’s an even better idea to let others know your identity as a Christian. Of course, that means that there are certain standards and expectations, but, best of all, I hope these tags remind students and teachers alike that there is a God who is always present and hears every prayer before a test.

In my mind, a new school year provides a literal clean slate, a fresh start: new teachers, new friends, new opportunities, and new challenges. Frankly, I am now convinced there is no such a thing as a clean slate. Every one of us brings knowledge and experiences forward from either our families of origin or previous classroom experiences. Our educational system is built upon those previous encounters, interactions, and building blocks of learning. We might have new surroundings, classmates or students, but we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our whole society rests on the bedrock of our civilization’s foundations when we promote education.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said that over the last 5,500 years there have been at least 30 different civilizations across the world, and 25 of them have collapsed. He said that the fallen civilizations weren’t destroyed by invading armies but by self-implosion. He put it this way, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” Toynbee summed up the stressors that cause such self-immolation in this way: “The number one cause of the fall of civilization is a loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people’s whims on the other, then leaders and institutions begin to embrace a fatal nihilism.”

If our educational system doesn’t promote purpose then our whole culture is fated for destruction. Of course, it takes compliant students and supportive parents and communities to get it done. Teachers aren’t doling out facts as much as they are instructing students about life and how to be good people who make wise decisions.

Toynbee’s words are so true and frighteningly accurate: “We are only one generation from barbarism.” If teachers, parents, clergy, and the rest of society’s leaders fail to adequately communicate and transmit decent values then our culture is doomed and nihilism’s depressing grip creates an insurmountable death throe: living without purpose. If we want better lives, then our daily choices matter. We can try to turn the ship of state around through legislation and mandated educational benchmarks, but none of this takes the place of good old fashioned responsibility. Parents can’t pawn their children off to educators and expect them to undo parental mistakes or make up for a lack of adequate preparation.

Each of us must begin with our own personal responsibility and investment in community. New school years and weekly worship are two of the most effective ways to get our lives in order. When we go to church and start a new school year we are building on society’s best role models, heroes, pioneers, and paragons of moral virtue. Our society is only as good as our institutions.

We live in an anti-institutional age and that may very well be our culture’s downfall, but the start of every school year gives me hope for the future. So, I want to say thank you to all educators for their personal sacrifices that preserve our culture, and I pledge to pray for you because the stakes are so high. If this country or any culture desires to survive we must value those who carry the most responsibility. Too many in helping professions are underpaid, and you certainly are. None of us would know a thing if it weren’t for a teacher! God bless you! Thank you!

 Book Bag Tag

Being in Sandwich Generation is Tough

Cindy’s mother, Dixie Godwin, has been in three different hospitals in as many days. She has osteoporosis and has broken her back again. The first time was 5 years ago when she was making up her bed. She was in a brace and rehab for months. This time it just happened, no warning, no reason. First she was in Williamsburg County Hospital; then tranferred to Roper Hospital in Charleston; then to East Cooper Hospital in Mt. Pleasant where her orthopedic doctors have privileges.

They still haven’t been able to do an MRI to ascertain the best course of action. The problem is multifaceted. Her heart is acting up. Her kidneys are functioning at about 15%. Her hemoglobin is extremely low, and her pain is terrible. Hopefully today or tomorrow they can do the MRI and do what needs to be done. They have told us to be ready for rehab decisions which means moving her away from her doctors to be with us or near us in Columbia.
 
It’s a tough situation. Ever since Mr. Godwin died suddenly with a heart attack it seems that her warranty on her body ran out. He was her Knight in Shining Armour. He had his first 5 bypasses done when he was 52, then 4 more at age 56. He made it to age 64, which for his family was a feat. His Dad died of a heart attack at age 43; mother of heart attack at age 52; brother of heart attack at age 39. Their heart history is terrible.
Mrs. Godwin or “Ganny” as the children have called her is a strong willed independent woman so this has literally altered her life. Please pray for her and us, especially Cindy, as we make decisions in her best interest. Life is a challenge and never easy, but thank God for mercies beyond our comprehension. Being a part of the “Sandwich Generation” isn’t easy when you are concerned about your children, even grandchildren, plus your parents. My Mother died in 1993 when I was 37. Daddy died in 2000, 2 months before Cindy’s Dad. Life is tough, but God is tougher.